According to Guinness World Records, “There is little doubt that the Bible is the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book.”
And yet, for a book acclaimed for the teachings of Jesus, its readers—and teachers—have vastly different ideas of what it looks like to follow these teachings.
Our tendency is to approach the Bible as a massive collection of sayings, stories, and songs. We know they all belong together, but making sense of how it all fits together is overwhelming. So overwhelming in fact that when we teach the Bible—whether from a pulpit or propped up against pillows with our kids—we segment it. And then, when a conundrum arises, we pick and choose which parts we amplify.
Even Christians have a tendency to approach each story or passage of Scripture as though it stands on its own. We look for loose threads that lead us back to Jesus.
Yet the Bible presents itself as an integrated story that contextualizes Jesus’ life and teachings. And like modern stories, this story starts with a setting and characters, and moves on to a plot conflict. The action rises and the plot thickens until Jesus succeeds in addressing the conflict and begins moving the story to its resolution—the realization of a thwarted mission.
Approaching the Bible as a story hasn’t only changed how I read it; it’s also changing how I teach my own children to explore the Bible and practice the way of Jesus.
Thus, we start with “In the beginning.”
Setting and Characters
The opening scene is one of darkness. And under the darkness, wild waters cover a wild wasteland. Elohim (El-oh-HEEM = God) quickly emerges as the hero—a wise king who begins the process of transforming this nothingness into a cosmic palace. He gives a job to everything he calls forth. Adám (ah-DAHM = humanity) is collectively given the job of reflecting Elohim’s wise rule over the land and all its inhabitants.
Since a singular Adám cannot do this job alone, Elohim takes one of the ribs from Adám’s side and forms the Adám into a complementary pair—man and woman.
The setting moves into a garden in the land of Eden (Delight). Elohim, also known as Yahweh (YAH-way), shares a home with the man and woman in this garden. It is a place of rest where all of humanity’s needs are met. Elohim, the man, and the woman walk together there and are present to one another. Compared to Eden, the land around it is a wild place. However, as humanity reflects Elohim’s wise rule as they cultivate the land, the rest of creation will become like the garden.
While the man and woman are mortal, Elohim provides them with a tree whose medicinal fruit extends their life.
Another character soon emerges: a shrewd seraph (snake) who lives in the wilderness surrounding the garden. (Much later in the story, we discover that seraphs are present in God’s heavenly throne room. Since Eden is later revealed as a place where heaven intersects with earth—and this particular creature talks—there is more to this snake than meets the eye.)
Elohim gives his appointed rulers a test. They can continue in their allegiance to him, seeking and reflecting his wisdom, or they can give into their desires to define good and bad on their own terms. They can choose to rule without him.
The seraph decides to thwart the garden expansion project—and humanity’s reflection of Elohim’s rule—by tempting the woman to give into her desires. Her husband follows suit.
This sends the plot into a tailspin. The only way humanity can expand the garden is by reflecting Elohim’s wise rule; however, for their own protection, Elohim exiles them from the garden and the tree that will extend their lives. Even more significantly, Elohim and humanity are no longer fully present to one another.
Yet Elohim doesn’t abandon his plan for humanity to dwell endlessly with him in his expansive garden and reflect his wise rule into the entirety of creation.
It begs us to ask questions.
Will a human arise who can reflect God’s wise rule? Will God invite humanity into his garden again? Will we regain access to the Tree of Life? Will he make it possible for us to partner with him to subdue the wild places? Will creation ever be full of God’s glory?
At this point, you may be questioning the plot conflict. After all, this isn’t usually how we frame the story. From this point onward, we tend to make the story about us and our individual shortcomings rather than God’s plan for creation.
Yet a story’s ending will be consistent with its plot conflict.
How does the story of the Bible end?
With a divine-human king reflecting God’s wise rule in a heavenly garden city whose dimensions fill creation (Revelation 21:9-22).
With water of life flowing from his throne and nurturing healing (Revelation 22:1-3).
With God dwelling among the people (Revelation 21:1-4).
There’s another twist as well. The opening scene began with wild water and darkness. In the closing scene, God has tamed the waters and eradicated the primordial darkness. God’s transformation of the watery wasteland of nothingness into a cosmic palace is finally complete.
This peek into the future begs us to discover what happens to bring the conflict to its resolution.
As if to reinforce the plot conflict, the Bible tells variations of the same story over and over again. It always starts with a form of wildness (tohu). As I described in Mending the Church by Expanding the Story of Jesus, “This story sets a pattern that continually repeats itself. Tohu -> water -> covenant -> garden -> rebellion -> exile (tohú). Each cycle of re-creation moves our story forward.”
In each variation, God offers His wisdom … and humanity’s desire to define good and bad on our own terms only escalates.
At times the Hebrew Scriptures point to the promised resolution of this story: a king who will end humanity’s exile from God, his garden, and his life, and inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth.
But most of the time it is retelling it through the accounts of Noah, Abraham, the Israelites, Moses, Naomi, the Southern Kingdoms.
Jesus joins in the tradition and famously retells it in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He also re-enacts it himself. And it is ultimately Jesus who breaks the cycle of exile.
The plot conflict reaches its apex during the time of Jesus. The Babylonian exile followed by Roman occupation has ignited a renewed interest in God’s wisdom and a desperate desire for the king who will usher God’s presence back to earth.
And with his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus becomes the turning point of the entire story. God puts on human flesh and becomes God-With-Us, doing for humanity what we could not do for ourselves.
He becomes the new Adám—the human who reflects God’s wise rule.
His body becomes the garden-temple that he invites us to abide in (John 15:4).
He gives us access to his life (see the entire book of John).
And the resurrection life that God’s people expected at the end of the story came rushing forward into the middle.
This is the part of the narrative we find ourselves in. With all of the action and intensity in our lives, it seems strange that the fiercest part of the story is over. In books and movies, this is the part where the characters begin to breathe, relax, and enjoy the victory.
But perhaps understanding where we are in God’s story will help us to breathe and find rest as well.
God has reestablished his Kingdom on earth and he is bringing all things together through Jesus (Ephesians 1:10). Jesus is the garden, the tree of life, God’s presence, and the human who reflects God’s wise rule, all in one.
We need to picture ourselves entering Jesus as exiles reentering the Edenic garden. And once we are in him, he enlivens us to join him in cultivating creation to expand that garden until earth points to God’s glory.
Jesus is in the process of renewing all creation. This is his mission, but we get to join him in it. His first step is to begin renewing us so that we, too, can reflect God’s rule. We call this sanctification.
In Surprised By Hope, N.T. Wright describes our role as “building for the kingdom.” God alone is the architect of this garden expansion project. Yet through the mystery of the work of his Spirit within and through us:
“God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which begins with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there” (p. 209).
We move forward knowing that if we are in Christ, then he will resurrect our bodies as well.
Living in the Story
Jesus himself taught through embedding stories within this larger story. He knew that narratives activate our hearts, our minds, and our imaginations.
When we immerse ourselves in this story, we can teach from our place in its falling action. We’ll begin to remember the smaller stories, sayings, and songs. We’ll recognize how they fit together and help us live out our roles in partnering with Jesus.
And perhaps as Jesus’ followers become more accustomed to rooting our lives in this unified story, we’ll begin to live into the unity he calls us to.