Bible Reading for the Biblically Illiterate - And We're All Illiterate! (Part 4)

4. The Big Picture

“The whole sweep of Scripture”                                                                                                                       N. T. Wright

Between God’s purpose inaugurated in Eden and fulfilled in the New Jerusalem the whole thing nearly falls apart. Would have fallen apart but for God’s intransigent unwillingness to accept that state of affairs. After Adam and Eve’s defection from God in the garden in Genesis 3 the plan God intended to pursue became infinitely complex and complicated. God’s passion to draw near to humankind and share his life with them forever on this globe now had to deal with this crisis. Jesus was always going to come in human flesh to be part of us as one of us – I mean, how much closer can God draw to us than that? Now his coming will need to include a resolution to the problem sin has infected both creature and creation alike with.

Thus we have Genesis 3 – Revelation 20 in our Bibles.

How can we read in a way that keeps us focused both on God’s work to resolve the sin problem and further the fulfillment of his “big picture” purposes? Fortunately scripture gives us a plot line to follow and three themes that carry both the resolution of the crisis and push God’s creational purposes further along.

The Bible’s Plot Line

            The journey from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20 begins with God laying out his agenda, which becomes the plotline of the rest of the story between the bookends. It’s found in Genesis 12:1-4. To begin what C. S. Lewis aptly called God’s “great campaign of sabotage” against the attitudes, actions, and edifices of humanity in revolt against him, he called a couple. This couple, Abraham and Sarah, and their family left the rest of the clan in Ur and journeyed to God only knew where. And he wasn’t telling them till they got there. God made a promise, an astonishing promise, to this couple.

-God would raise up a great new family from them.

-God would bless and protect this new family.

-God would bless everyone else through this people.  

          This is how God would deal with the problem of sin . . . and also the furthering of his ultimate purposes. Somehow this people, this new family God would raise up through Abraham and Sarah, would be how God deals with the problem of sin and at the same time demonstrates the kind of life he intends for humanity.

          Israel now bears both the presence of God in its world and the promise of that presence for the whole world henceforth. Whatever God is doing for the world’s well-being and salvation will be done through Israel.

          This is the plot line for the unfolding of the God’s great purpose in the world. Each of the gospels tells the climactic story of the God’s decisive fulfilment of this purpose in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Each of them also has a commission at the end where the risen Jesus calls his followers (us!) to participant in the implementation and spread of God’s victory throughout our world. Luke’s is the most fully expounded commission because he writes a second volume (Acts) making all this explicit.

There the Genesis 12 pattern is fully played out. Jesus comes to reconstitute faithful Israel, dies as the one faithful Israelite, God “raises” up a great people through his resurrection, and that people (Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus) now go throughout the world bearing God’s blessing (the reality of Jesus’ victory) with them.

The long complex and sometimes convoluted story of God’s dealings with Israel winds its way around this plot line. It behooves us then to keep it in the back of our minds as a foil against which we read and read for understanding.

Three Great Themes

            The presence of God is “the” theme of the Bible: God’s presence with his people on his good creation. From Genesis to Revelation this theme moves toward fulfilment along the plot line we just observed. Three great themes carry the story toward fulfilment:




          Each of these themes lead toward the grand theme of presence – temple most directly. Covenant and kingdom also move toward and find their fulfilment in divine presence.

          -Covenant is God’s presence as our “Father” around whom his family gathers.

-Kingdom is God’s presence as the rule of the Great King whose power creates and sustains the world and rules and serves its creatures with justice and mercy.

These themes vary in their prominence in the biblical story. Now one, now another rides chief in the saddle of the story line, but all three bear substantial witness to God’s work in moving this story to its saving and gracious end. We might think if the Pentateuch as focused largely on covenant, the development of the family of God. Or the story from Joshua to 2 Kings as focused on the kingdom of God and his rule over his people.

It’s the temple, though, that bears a special prominence. It is the site of God’s commitment to meet and be with his people. Here promise and presence embrace and the people are renewed in God’s glory (often, in biblical thought a symbol of God’s presence). Here what it means to be a family (covenant) or a nation (kingdom) under God is made clear. The history of the temple (or other places of worship) punctuates the biblical story at every key point.

-The temple in miniature begins the story in the garden of Eden.

-Abraham’s family erects ad hoc altars at points along their journey where God encounters them (think Jacob’s “ladder”-dream at Bethel in Genesis 28).

-the Tabernacle is a portable space for God’s presence for a people on the road.

-the Temple proper is built by Solomon in Jerusalem.

-the Temple is destroyed by the Babylonians 587 B. C.

-the Temple is rebuilt by the Jews in 516 B.C.

-Herod makes the Temple a splendorous edifice.

-Jesus pronounces judgment on the Jewish Temple and declares himself the ne Temple of God.

-the temple is destroyed again in 70 A. D. by the Romans.

-New Testament writers like Paul and Peter address the church as God’s new Temple.

-The New Jerusalem at the End is, as we have seen, a world-wide Holy of Holies.

In particular, that the bookends of the story present the world as God’s Temple grant this image a priority over the other two. The latter are present (at least implicitly) in both bookends. But their goals are reached as God is present as both “Father” and King. It’s his presence that finally matters. And that what the Temple image is all about!

Here’s a diagram of the “big picture” of the biblical story we have been developing:


Garden Temple

Ad Hoc Altars,Tabernacle, Temple (destroyed & rebuilt)
New Temple    
Church as Temple
New Jerusalem    
Covenant Implicit
Covenant Broken
Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, New Covenant
Covenant Fulfilled
People of New Covenant
Covenant Finalized
Kingdom Implicit
Kingdom Broken
Exodus,  United/Divided Monarchy
King Victorious
Kingdom of Christ the King
Throne in New Jerusalem

            This gives readers a multidimensional matrix to keep in mind as they read. The “whole sweep of scripture” is essential to proper reading of the Bible. Covenant, Temple, and Kingdom is a three-stranded cord that pulls the biblical story to its End. It’s important to remember all three even when the narrative focuses on one or the other.

          Now we have both the content of God’s “big picture” in general. This gives us focus. And we have a sort of “time line” with our tri-themed cord of Covenant/Temple/Kingdom to pull us toward that goal. We can turn now some other key elements in “Bible Reading for the Biblically Illiterate – And We’re All Illiterate.”


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