What is the Bible about?
Matt Doig was brought up in a Christian home where he was taught the good news about Jesus from a very young age. Aged 6 he became a Christian and has had his faith tested and stretched since then. As a student he studied Physics at Nottingham University, and he now works with a local church in Beeston, Nottingham.
Open a Bible at random and you may find commands to be obeyed, but the Bible isn't about what you must do to please God. Look again and you may find songs to be sung, but the Bible isn't about how to perform religious services. Keep looking and you'll find kings and battles, proverbs and love songs, miracles and parables, promises and predictions, and much more beside. But what is the Bible all about?
The Bible is worth reading and understanding, not because it is such an influential book or the best selling book of all time, but because it is a book that could change your life. It's a book that contains news that is better than anything you could dream of, and a book that answers the biggest questions of life.
The Bible reveals to us where we come from and who we truly are. It explains for us how this world has gone wrong and tells the story of God's solution, of what he has done to put things right. Finally, it offers certain hope of life in all its fullness – life where our deepest longings will be satisfied and our tears wiped away. As we briefly trace out this story of the Bible I hope you will begin to see just what awesome news this is.
How did it all begin?
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...
God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them...
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis 1:1, 27, 31)
Right from the start, the implications are enormous. There is a God who is there, and he is the creator of all things. Everything we are and have ultimately comes from him. As our creator he deserves our thanks, even our very lives.
We have been made in his image. We have enormous dignity and worth. We are not a fluke of nature or simply a highly evolved animal. We are made by God, and in his likeness. It is he who has made us relational, moral and creative beings. He is the one who has made us able to reason and understand, to love and be loved, to study and enjoy his creation.
God declared his whole creation, including us, very good. This was life as it was intended, enjoying relationships with each other and with God, and enjoying all that he had freely given. In the beginning this world was free from pain and sorrow. 'Sorry' was not a word Adam or Eve needed. Which rather raises the question...
What went wrong?
At the deepest level we know that life is not as it should be. From the mildest of irritations to our greatest aches we know something has gone wrong. But what?
The Bible is unequivocal: we are the ones who went wrong and the blame is laid at our feet.
After God created Adam and Eve, he placed them in a garden and commanded them “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17). God gave the first man and woman great freedom with just one restriction, one tree they must not eat from. He warned them of the consequences, but when tempted by the snake they ate from the tree.
In that moment everything changed. They rejected God's good command, they failed to trust him and decided that they wanted to play the role of ruler rather than ruled. Ever since that decision we have all followed their footsteps, choosing to rule our own lives rather than letting God rule.
After they ate from the tree God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden he had made for them. Their relationship with God was turned from friendship into enmity. Their relationship with each other and with creation would never be the same again. As their children, we follow their pattern of rebellion, living alienated from God in a world that is not as it should be.
The Bible's diagnosis is serious: evil isn't just out there, it's inside each of us and its consequences are enormous. It’s not nice to hear but it's only as we appreciate the depth of the problem that we see what kind of solution is needed.
Can we fix it?
A huge chunk of the Bible is taken up with the story of Israel (you can read the Bible's own summary of the story in Nehemiah 9). It's the story of how God called one man, Abram (later re-named, Abraham), and from him made a nation that belonged to God. God's promise to Abraham was that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). The book of Genesis focuses in on Abraham and his family.
Early in Israel's history the people went to Egypt to escape famine. There God blessed them and caused them to grow into a great nation. But while they were there the Egyptians enslaved them. God saw the plight of his people and came to rescue them from slavery. He brought plagues upon Egypt for their failure to release his people, until they let them go (see the book of Exodus).
In the desert God gave them his law instructing them how they were to live in the promised land (see Exodus – Deuteronomy). The law impacted every area of life and showed them how to live distinctively as God's chosen people. The law showed them just how holy and pure God is and the way he expects his people to mirror his character.
God had given his people sacrifices to offer for the times they failed him (e.g. Leviticus 1-7). The sacrifices showed the need for a substitute. God could not and would not just forget the wrong his people did and pretend it did not matter. The penalty for rebellion had to be paid through sacrifice. But how could the death of an animal pay for the rebellion of a person, let alone a whole nation?
God led his people through the desert to take them to the land he had promised, a place of blessing and rest (see the book of Joshua).
But against the standard of God’s law, Israel failed miserably. Not only did they fail to keep God's laws but they abandoned God altogether and worshipped idols instead (see, for example Judges 2:6-3:6). Instead of producing a distinctive and godly people, the law exposed their sin and rebellion as they failed to obey God's commands. Time and again God disciplined his people and called them to follow him again. For a period they would return to him, but soon enough they'd be back to their old ways.
In time God gave the people a good king to rule them, king David (see 1 & 2 Samuel). God promised David that he would have a dynasty that would last forever (2 Samuel 7). Here again was hope for the people. But then David committed adultery with a woman called Bathsheba and had her husband murdered to cover up what he had done. David wasn't the solution. In fact none of the kings ruled God's people as they should have done and the pattern of rebellion against God continued (see 1 & 2 Kings).
In the end God brought judgement on his people. When he first gave Israel his law, he had told them that if they were unfaithful to him he would punish them and eventually expel them from the promised land. God sent prophets to warn his people and call them back to him (see Isaiah, Hosea-Zephaniah), but the people's hearts were unchanged. God gave victory to Israel's enemies and the people were sent away from the promised land and into exile (see Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel).
It was clear that a much bigger solution was needed. The people could not change themselves or live up to God's standards and nor can we. The problem of our sin and rebellion is too big for us to fix. No amount of trying hard will change our hearts or undo all the wrong we've done. Sin and rebellion deserves exile – separation from God and all the good things he has given us.
But God is gracious, showing kindness to those who don't deserve it. God could have rejected his people forever but he didn't. Instead after 70 years he started to bring them back from exile to the promised land (see Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi). Even then they still returned to their old ways and failed to be the people God had called them to be. The solution really isn't found with us.
So what is the solution?
They needed a leader who would not fail them. A sacrifice was needed that would really pay the penalty for all their wrong. They needed someone who could change their hearts and enable them to be faithful to God.
Through his prophets God promised that he would be the one to provide just such a solution. He promised that he himself would come and lead his people. He said he would send a servant to suffer and die for the sin of his people. He promised that he would give his people a new heart that would enable them to be faithful to God.
The heart of the good news is that God's promises have been fulfilled, but in a way more incredible than anyone could have imagined. In the end, God himself came into the world by sending his Son, Jesus Christ. What's more, Jesus came not just to rescue Israel but the whole world (see the four Gospels).
Jesus was the true and better King and leader of his people. He demonstrated his power to change this world and put things right as he healed the sick, made the blind see and even raised the dead. He welcomed those on the edge of society, and he practised the radical lifestyle he preached. Unlike all who had gone before him, he never failed, never let God down, never failed to love others, even his enemies. He lived the perfect life that no-one else has ever lived or could ever live.
Finally, here was one who didn't disappoint, one who had the power truly to put things right. His followers recognised that he was God's King, sent to rescue his people. But it was then that Jesus began to teach that he had to suffer and die and after three days rise again (see Mark 8:27-33).
You see the thing they needed rescue from wasn't actually sickness or social injustice. They didn't need just a good friend, a great teacher or an example to follow. They needed a saviour. The biggest problem facing God's people then and all people now is God's right anger at us for the way we've treated him. God takes our rebellion very seriously and he will not let any wrong go unpunished.
But here's the amazing thing Jesus did: he provided the sacrifice needed to pay the penalty for all our wrong, and that sacrifice was himself. He died, crucified by those he came to save, taking God's anger upon himself. He was exiled from God so that we don't have to be. Here was the sacrifice that really could pay for the sin of God's people – the perfect, spotless life of God's own Son.
To his followers and the people at the time it looked like a huge failure. It looked like Jesus wasn't really the Son of God after all. But it happened in order to fulfil all that had been promised. It happened just as Jesus said it had to. And after three days, God raised Jesus back to life, publicly vindicating his Son. Over a period of 40 days Jesus appeared, at different times and in different places, to his followers, in fact to over 500 people in all, giving them and us all the evidence we need to know he is alive.
At the end of that time Jesus said to his followers “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). This was news that had to be shared with the whole world. This wasn't just good news for the Jews but for people from every nation, of every race, colour or creed.
At that time God then took Jesus back up to heaven where he is crowned King of all the earth. Just as he promised he sent the Holy Spirit on his disciples who equipped them to spread this good news. As this news spread many rejected it but others believed. They started to follow Jesus and share that good news with others themselves (see the Acts of the Apostles).
God's people were now gathered together in communities no longer defined by race but by faith in Jesus Christ. But how should God's people live after the coming of Jesus? How should they understand properly all that Jesus had done for them? These questions and many more were answered as apostles, those especially commissioned by Jesus, wrote letters to churches instructing them how to live as God's people (see Romans – Jude).
Where's it all heading?
The Bible holds out a great and certain hope of the time when God will finally and completely fix this world. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, finishes by looking forward to that new creation: “God's dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-5).
This is the world as it will one day be, free from pain and misery and everything that makes life rubbish now. But best of all, God himself will be with his people and they will see him face to face. The one who loved his people enough to send his Son to die in their place will be known by them and they will spend forever delighting in him.
It's a great hope but why the wait? Why doesn't Jesus return and bring this new creation in now? This is the Bible's answer: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus could have returned yesterday, but if he did you wouldn't have read these words and heard about God's kindness toward you.
Whilst Jesus' return will be a fantastic day for those who love him and are waiting for him, for others it will be a horrific day. For those who have rejected Jesus and his offer of forgiveness and new life, Jesus will in turn reject them. Those who live a life without God will be given an eternity away from God and all his goodness. Instead they will face an eternity in a place the Bible calls hell.
Hell is real and it is a place to be avoided. God, in his great love for the world, has given his Son so that we might not go there, but instead be forgiven and have eternal life. Today he delays the day of Jesus' return so that more might hear this good news and put their trust in Jesus. All who turn away from their rebellion to follow Jesus are given the promise of forgiveness and eternal life. Today Jesus holds that offer out to you.
The Bible – all of it is God's Word but if you want a few key chapters to get the feel of the big picture, you could start by reading these chapters: Genesis 1-3, Nehemiah 9, Mark 8, 15-16, Acts 2, Revelation 21
Two Ways To Live
Vaughan Roberts, God's Big Picture, IVP