The Bible's Big Story: God's Relationship With His People, by Michael Morrison
When we look at any part of the Bible, it helps us to have an overview of where we are going. It’s like when we are traveling south on I-57, it is helpful not just to have a map of the freeway interchange in Champaign, but some idea of why we are going through there in the first place. Maybe we are driving to Memphis – it sure helps to know where we are going! This big picture can help us understand not just the Bible, but also theology and ministry – and life in general.
The Bible’s Big Story
The Bible is one of the instruments God uses to reveal himself to us – and God uses it to reveal something about ourselves, too. The Bible shows us how we fit into the purpose and plan of God. Today we will sketch the outlines of the story, so we have the bigger picture in mind as we read some of the details. We are going to start at the end, to see the final goal, and then we can better see how some of the earlier events are major steps toward that goal.
Here’s how the story ends, in Revelation chapter 21, verses 2 to 4:
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (NRSV throughout)
In the world right now, we have sin, death, mourning, and pain, but all that will eventually fade away as a distant memory. God wants to live with us in peace, harmony, and love. That’s the goal, and the Bible tells us how God is bringing us there.
Everything we do at Grace Communion Seminary, everything we do in the church, everything we do at home, and everything we read in our Bible study, should fit into God’s purpose for our lives.
The first three chapters of the Bible sketch the beginning of the story. One of the first things the Bible tells us is that God created us “in his image.” We read it in Genesis 1:
God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing.”
God made us to be a little bit like himself. We are supposed to work together to represent God in his creation. We were made to live and behave in such a way that we reflect who God is.
But, as Genesis 3 tells the story, it didn’t take long for the man and woman to mess things up. The first result of sin was a disruption in their relationship with God. They hid themselves — but God went looking for them. He wanted to have a relationship with them, even after they tried to avoid him. This then sets the stage for the rest of the story, that God tries to re-establish his relationship with humans.
Covenants with individuals
However, the early chapters of Genesis do not give us much hope. Thousands of years are summarized by one generation dying after another. The world was filled with violence, and God started the human story all over with one man and his family. “God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,’”
What is a “covenant”? The word “covenant” was not originally a theological word. Archaeologists have discovered numerous ancient covenant documents describing human relationships. When a man adopted a son, he would say, I am your father and you are my son. When he married a woman, he would say, I am your husband and you are my wife. The covenant stated the relationship.
The word “covenant” occurs throughout the Bible. It is a thread that can help us see continuity in the story. In this case, God made a promise to Noah and his descendants. But this covenant did not solve the problem. Humanity continued to go astray. Eventually, God again focused on one person. Genesis 12 says:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country …to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, …and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This is an astounding promise, that all peoples on earth will be blessed through one man in the Middle East. This is part of the story of how all things will be set right. Abram did as he was told, and God then worked through him to bless all peoples. As the story develops, the relationship is described in Genesis 17:
I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
God is stating his relationship: He will be Abraham’s God. After his descendants became slaves in Egypt, God helped them escape, and led them to Mt. Sinai. There, he proposed to make a covenant with them. Exodus 6, verse 7: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” He is using a classic covenant formula of relationship. They would be his special people, and he would be their special God. This covenant at Sinai was understood to be in the pattern of a marriage covenant.
A series of failures
The Israelites agreed to keep the covenant, but they failed. They acted like every other people on earth, continuing the pattern of disobedience. Nevertheless, God continued to pursue them. Deuteronomy 29 describes a renewal of the covenant with the next generation:
You stand assembled today…to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God… 13 in order that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God. (:10-15)
They agreed, but God knew that they would fail. Deuteronomy 31 says, “They will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them.”
The book of Judges describes how things soon went awry, as the people rejected God and were oppressed by other nations. God sent leaders to rescue them, and the cycle was repeated. This era was summarized: “There was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
The books of Samuel describe how Saul was appointed as king, and how he failed. Next was David, and he had his problems, too, but God made a covenant with him – a promise that the future rulers of Israel would be descendants of David: Psalm 89 says, “I have made a covenant with…David: 4 ‘I will establish [his] descendants forever, and build [his] throne for all generations.’”
The northern tribes worshipped pagan gods. Although they occasionally had times of military success and prosperity, for the most part their story is one of decline. They were eventually conquered by Assyria, and the people were deported into Mesopotamia.
The southern kingdom, ruled by descendants of David, did not do much better. There were occasionally good kings, but there were many who were not. A hereditary line of kings cannot solve the spiritual defects that occur throughout humanity. Eventually, the Jews were conquered by the Babylonians, and the Jews were deported into Mesopotamia. The descendants of Abraham had ended up in the same place Abraham had started.
It’s a sad story, and it’s supposed to be. The dismal cycle of failure must be seen. The problem is too deep-seated for humans to solve. The people failed to keep their promises, but God was faithful to the promises he had made to them. He sent the people into captivity, but he was not done with them yet. He still had a purpose for them, and for all humanity.
Predictions of restoration
The covenant God made with Israel specified what would happen if the people failed: the result would be disasters and exile. And that is what happened.
However, the covenant did not come to an end. Even when the people are exiled, God has a commitment to them. Back in Leviticus 26, God had promised: “When they are in the land of their enemies, I will not …destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them…45 but I will remember in their favor the covenant with their ancestors …to be their God.”
In Deuteronomy 30, he described the solution:
The Lord your God will…have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you…. The Lord …will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Heart surgery! That’s what we need. When the nation of Judah was defeated and deported, God also sent prophets to remind the people of his long-term promises, that there is hope beyond the exile. Ezekiel 36 predicts a change of heart:
I will give you…a new heart, and … 27 I will put my spirit within you.” The next chapter uses the word covenant: “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them…. 27 My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Ezekiel 16 says,
I will establish with you an everlasting covenant.… and you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezek. 16:60-62).
Jeremiah calls it a new covenant:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…. I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Jeremiah 32 connects the themes of covenant and heart:
They shall be my people, and I will be their God. 39 I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time…. 40 I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them.
Looking for a Messiah
Some people say that the Old Testament is “a story in search of an ending.” It promises a blessing for the entire world, for the nation of Israel, for the family of David — but it does not deliver. The people go into captivity. Yes, some of the people return to Jerusalem, but they are small and weak, ruled by Gentile powers. They may be in their own land, but they are still in captivity. They have promises, but not the fulfillment.
The Old Testament sets the scene for what we read in the New Testament – it tells us who these people are, and the relationship they are supposed to have with God. They are looking forward to a God-appointed leader to restore the people – a leader like Moses or David, who would lead the Jewish nation into independence, wealth and peace.
But their own Scriptures could have told them: They needed something more significant than new leadership. They needed new hearts; they needed to become new people. God had something bigger in mind – he was providing a leader who would restore not just the nation, but the entire human race, back into the purpose for which God had made them.
Jesus brings a new covenant
The Gospel of John tells us that the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and this divine Word became flesh. He became a perfect human. He was perfectly responsive to the Holy Spirit, and he showed us what God is like.
It’s not that God looks like a Jewish carpenter – he is not concerned about shape or color – he is concerned about the way a person lives. If we have seen the way that Jesus lives, in his attitudes and in his actions, then we have seen what we need to know about God. When we see the love and compassion of Jesus, then we have seen that God is love and compassion.
When Jesus gave his life in order to save us, even when we were his enemies, that shows us what God is like, and that we are also supposed to love our enemies, and to be willing to make sacrifices in order to help others.
However, humanity didn’t like the way that God is. The best religion of the day, and the best judicial system of the day, conspired together to kill a perfectly innocent man. The Jews were looking for a leader sent from God to lead the Jewish nation, but they forgot that God is interested not just in the Jewish people, but in all peoples, and he wants to make them all great. He did not defeat the Romans, but he defeated the enemy of all peoples: sin and death.
In the Last Supper, Jesus connects his own death with a covenant: Matthew 26 says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” His death brings forgiveness, enabling a new start in the relationship we with have with God. When Jesus used the word “covenant,” he tapped into a word with a long and meaningful history. The book of Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah 31 and proclaims that Christ has fulfilled it. Jesus is the means by which God can live with us, and we live with him. The covenant is a statement of relationship.
Jesus joined himself to humanity in such a way that just as he took our sins upon himself, so also we are given his righteousness. But this is not just a change in terminology, that we are called righteous even though we are not. No, God is a Creator, and he is creating in us what we are supposed to be. We are made in his image; we should be acting the way that he does.
We are being transformed to be more like Jesus – we are being changed – and this is not from yourselves, Paul might say, it is the gift of God. We can’t just do this on our own. It has to be him living in us, changing our hearts, changing us from the inside out, to be more like who he is. Just as God breathed life into the old Adam and Eve, so also the Holy Spirit breathes new life into his people today.
A new picture: life with God
Jesus promises us eternal life. The book of Revelation promises us eternal life – God will be with us, and we will be with God. So there’s a lot more to eternal life than just living forever – it is living forever with God. A never-ending life of misery would be no good, and that is not what God wants us to have. Rather, he wants us to have a never-ending life of joy, of good relationships, of life not just with God, but life and relationships with billions of other people who love one another.
The Greek word for “eternal” is aionios; it is related to the word for “age.” Eternal life means life that is characteristic of “the age to come.” That kind of life will last forever, but the stress is about quality, not quantity. It’s about how good it is, not how long it is. John 6:47 says that people who believe in Jesus already have eternal life. We already have life that is like the age to come. We don’t have it completely, but it does start now. We live the way of the future, even now.
God is not just giving us a life that lasts forever – he is giving us a life of a certain quality, life that is based on love rather than selfishness and competition. If we like selfishness and independence, then we are not going to enjoy eternity very much, because God’s way of life is based on sharing in his life, in giving to other people. God is offering us life in his kingdom, offering us life that will be like his life, life that is based on love and generosity. That’s the way that produces no more sorrow and no more pain.
If we really want that kind of life for all eternity, then we will want it now. That is why the New Testament tells us not only about the grace of God, but also gives us instructions about how we should live. We read these in the context of knowing what the big story is all about: God wants to live with us, and he wants us to want to live with him, to share in the live of love. It is good news, and that’s the Bible’s big story.