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The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2011 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.
Chapter One What Is the Bible?
Welcome to the wonderful world of the Bible! Some first enter it as children hearing Bible stories told by teachers or parents, while others first experience it as verses to memorize from flash cards. Some first hear of it as young adults taught by youth pastors or campus ministers, but some first discover it as adults adopting the common practice of daily Bible readings. And some have spent only a little time inside its world, while others who have heard about it have not yet ventured there. Whatever your relation to the Bible — whatever your favorite story, Bible character, or biblical book — this Companion aims to help you understand and enjoy the Bible's wonderful world.
Why Study the Bible?
Why should we study the Bible at all? What is it about the Bible that demands our attention, just as it did hundreds of generations before us? The answer is surprisingly simple: we should study the Bible because it introduces us to God. Indeed, God is its leading character. Most of the Bible consists of narratives starring God. Thus the Bible is not simply another version of humankind's age-old search for God but the account of God's own story — the report of God's persistent search for us. Put differently, the Bible's narrative "history" is essentially "his story" — the "Great Story" that underlies all of human history, the story that ultimately gives history a purpose. The Bible tells this great story in four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. In this grand, cosmic drama, God plays the divine protagonist, Satan the antagonist, God's people the deuteragonists or foils — and sometimes also the antagonists! It is an amazing drama whose narrative tension redemption and reconciliation resolve, and whose denouement the consummation achieves. This large "forest" comprises the context for all the Bible's "trees" — its verses, paragraphs, chapters, books, and testaments. Thus, to help Bible readers find how their stories intersect with God's own story, the Great Story bears telling again.
The Biblical Story
Creation The creation marks both the first chapter in God's story and God's debut as protagonist. Surprisingly, he debuts not as a hidden God whom people must seek — in the end led to God by Jesus — but as a compelling, majestic figure standing alone at center stage. The narrator's introduction, "in the beginning God," signals that God alone existed before all things, that God alone is the cause of all things, that therefore God alone rules above all things, and that God alone is the goal of all things. His opening scene, with its seven-day structure, presents God as the sole Creator of both the whole, vast, intricate universe and of history itself (Genesis 1). All creation and all history have the eternal God, through Christ, as their final purpose and consummation.
God's own words, "Let us make humankind in our image" (Gen. 1:26), stamp humanity as the crowning glory of the Creator's work. We are beings made in God's likeness, with whom he could commune, and in whom he could delight; beings who would know the sheer pleasure of God's presence, love, and favor. Created in God's image, humankind thus uniquely enjoyed a clear vision of God and lived in intimate fellowship with God. But our being created in that image implies that God intended humans to be dependent on the Creator for life in his world. Genesis 1-2 first voices the Story's dependence theme, but in scores of ways other voices throughout the whole narrative echo and reprise it.
The Fall The fall comprises the second chapter in the biblical story, a long and tragic one. It begins in Genesis 3 and weaves a dark, ugly thread through the whole Story almost to the very end (Rev. 22:11, 15). It narrates how man and woman, suspicious of God's goodness, coveted God's divine status, and how in one awful moment in our planet's history they acted to become gods themselves, thus rebelling against their creatureliness, with its dependent status. They chose independence from the Creator, but that choice violated God's intention, so a fall resulted — a colossal, catastrophic, and tragic fall. (Granted, this is not a popular part of the Story today; but its rejection is symptomatic of the fall itself and the root of all false theologies.)
The truly tragic result was that we humans — created to enjoy fellowship with God, to thrive in dependence on him, and to find our ultimate meaning in being his creatures — fell under God's wrath and came to experience the terrible consequences of our rebellion. Three specific calamities afflicted our fallenness:
First, we lost our vision of God. Our perception of his nature and character blurred. Guilty and hostile ourselves, we projected responsibility for that guilt and hostility on God. God is to blame for this mess: "Why have you made me thus?" "Why are you so cruel?" Such plaintive but foolish cries echo throughout the history of our race. We thus became idolaters, reconstructing every grotesque expression of our fallenness into a god. As Paul writes, "They exchanged the truth about God for a lie" (Rom. 1:22-25).
In swapping the truth about God for a lie, we viewed God as full of caprice, contradictions, hostility, lust, and revenge — all projections of our fallen selves. But God is not like our grotesque idolatries. Indeed, as Paul says, if God seems hidden it is because we have become slaves to the god of this world, who has blinded our minds, so that we are constantly seeking God but are never able to find him (2 Cor. 4:4). In essence, we persist in living out one grand self-deceptive delusion.
Second, the fall caused us to distort — to blur, really — the divine image in ourselves, preferring to roll it in the dust rather than revel in it. We were made to be like God — loving, generous, self-giving, thoughtful, merciful — but we became spiteful, miserly, selfish, thoughtless, unforgiving. We were created to image God in our personhood and conduct, but instead with pleasure learned to image God's implacable enemy, the Evil One. Brief glimpses of our original divine image appear occasionally, but sadly, the Evil One's image dominates.
Third, in the fall we lost God's presence; we forfeited the relationship that bound us in joyful fellowship to God. Rather than commune with the loving Creator and serve our wonderful purpose in his creation, we became rebels, lost and cast adrift in an unfriendly world. We became creatures who broke God's laws and abused his creation; and we paid a terrible price for our fallenness — brokenness, alienation, loneliness, and pain. Worse, we are enslaved under the cruel, tyrannical grip of our sin and our guilt. That slavery renders us both unwilling and unable on our own to return to the living God for life and restoration. As Genesis 4-11 attests, our fallenness also ruins our relationships with others, a brokenness we pass on to our children.
The Bible tells us that an awful distance lies between us and God — and that it is our fault. It compares us to sheep going astray (Isa. 53:6; 1 Pet. 2:25) or to a rebellious, know-it-all son who chose to live in a far country, among hogs, reduced to eating their food (Luke 15:11-32). In our better moments, we squarely face that this is true about ourselves, not just about the murderer, rapist, or child abuser. We candidly admit that we are the selfish, the greedy, the proud, and the manipulative. It is no surprise to us that people think God is hostile to us; in our occasional honesty we know we deserve his wrath for being the kind of slimy stinkers we really are.
Redemption But the Bible tells us that the holy and just God — the God whose moral perfection burns against sin and creaturely rebellion — is in fact also a God full of mercy and love — and faithfulness. The reality is that God pitied — indeed, loved — these cranky creatures of his whose rebellious rejection of their dependent status dragged them down into the terrible degradation of sin, with its consequent pain, guilt, and alienation.
The Bible's third chapter narrates how God sought to get through to us to rescue us from ourselves, our wrongheaded views about God, and the tragic despair of our fallenness; how God sought to show us that he is for us, not against us (Rom. 8:31); how God sought to get us rebels not just to run up the white flag of surrender but willingly to change sides and, thereby, to rediscover the joy and meaning God intended for us in the first place. This chapter tells how God sought to redeem and restore these fallen creatures of his so he might renew our lost vision of him and remake the divine image in us. But two thematic threads drive this chapter's plot — the narrative tension between God's steps of intervention and our continuing resistance.
The first thread narrates how God came to a man, Abraham, and made a covenant with him to bless him and, through him, the nations (Genesis 12-50). He later came to Abraham's off spring, Israel, who had become an enslaved people (Exodus), and through the first of his prophets, Moses, freed them from slavery and made a covenant with them at Mount Sinai. God, whose name is Yahweh, promised that he their Rescuer would from that point on be their Savior and Protector forever. But God also stipulated that they would have to keep covenant with him by letting him reshape them back into his likeness. He gave them a gift — his law — both to reveal what he is like and to protect them from each other while the reshaping proceeded (Leviticus-Deuteronomy).
But the contrary, dark thread narrates that Israel rebelled over and over again and misread God's gift of law as a way of taking away their freedom. As shepherds being brought into a fertile land (Joshua), they weren't sure their God was up to helping the crops grow, so they turned to the gods of the peoples around them (Baal and Astarte). As a result, they experienced a round of oppression and rescue (Judges), even while some of them were truly taking on God's character (Ruth). Finally, God sent them another great prophet (Samuel), who anointed for them their ideal king (David), with whom God made another covenant: one of David's off spring would rule over his people forever (1-2 Samuel). But alas, those off spring rebelled (1-2 Kings; 1-2 Chronicles), so in love God sent them prophets (Isaiah-Malachi), singers (Psalms), and sages (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) to keep the reshaping process alive. In the end, their unfaithfulness proved constant, so God at last imposed judgment — the curses promised in Deuteronomy 28. But for all that, God left the door open for his people to return (Deuteronomy 30) and even promised great things for their future (Isaiah 40-55; Jeremiah 30-32; Ezekiel 36-37) — a new "son of David" and an outpouring of God's Spirit into people's hearts to transform their lives back into God's likeness. This final "blessing" would also fall on people from all nations (the "Gentiles").
But God reserves his greatest surprise for the Story's next-to-the-last scene, the one preceding the final curtain and Epilogue. This scene narrates the greatest event of all: the great, final "son of David" is none other than God himself! The Creator of all the cosmic vastness and grandeur around us presents himself on earth, amid the human scene, and in our own likeness. He was born to a carpenter's wife and was a member of an oppressed people, among whom he lived and taught. Finally, he suffered a horrible death, followed by a death-defeating resurrection. Through those events, he grappled with and finally defeated the "gods" — all the powers that opposed God and enslaved us — and himself bore the full weight of the guilt and punishment for his creatures' rebellion.
Here is the heart of the Story: a loving, redeeming God, whose incarnation restored our lost vision of God, banishing the sinful blur so we could see clearly what God is truly like; whose crucifixion and resurrection made possible our restoration to the image of God (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18); and whose gift of his Spirit restored his long-lost presence with us in ongoing fellowship. The Story is a marvelous, well-nigh incredible, revelation of God's redemption.
But the true genius of the biblical Story is what it tells us about God himself. It is about a God who willingly took on our earthly human form and sacrificed himself in death, all out of love for us, his enemies. It is about a God who preferred to experience our own death himself rather than be apart from the people he created for his pleasure. It is about a God who carried our sins to his cross, that he might provide us with pardon and forgiveness. It is about a God who would not let us go but pursued even the worst of us in order to restore us to joyful fellowship with himself. It is about a God who in Jesus Christ has so forever identified with his beloved creatures that the redeemed later came to praise him as the "God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 1:3; Eph. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3). It is about a God who lovingly gathers his followers together, wherever they may be on the planet, into "the church" and meets with them in worship.
This is, indeed, God's story, the story of his unfathomable love and grace, mercy and forgiveness. And that is also how it becomes our story. According to the Story, we are spiritually bankrupt, void of any claims on God, and our hands empty of anything with which to impress God. But surprise! In the end, we get everything: we deserve hell but get heaven; we deserve annihilation but get God's tender embrace; we deserve rejection and judgment but get acceptance as God's own children — get to bear his likeness and call him Father. Through faith in Jesus, we become part of God's story, and it also becomes our story, too. Indeed, God even gave some of us human creatures a part in writing it up!
Consummation God's story has not yet ended, because the final chapter is still to play out. Of course, we know how it turns out because of what the Bible teaches: the ultimate outcome, set in motion by what God did through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the gift of the Spirit, will finally be fully realized. This is what distinguishes the Story from other similar stories: it is full of hope. The present story has an End — a final, glorious climax. Standing at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Jesus explained this hope: "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live" (John 11:25). Because Jesus is both the resurrection and the life, Jesus himself was Lazarus's hope for life now and for life forever. And his raising of Lazarus from the grave dramatically validated his claim to be the source of hope.
The final verification of his words came in Jesus' own resurrection from the dead. The wicked and the religious killed him because they could not tolerate having him around. His life and teaching utterly contradicted all of their own petty forms of religion and authority, forms based on their own fallenness. Worse, Jesus had the gall to tell them that he was the only way to the Father. But since he himself was Life — indeed, the very author of the life enjoyed by all others — the grave could not keep him in its grip. Jesus' resurrection not only validated his own claims about himself and vindicated his own life on our planet, it also spelled the beginning of the end for death itself. Jesus' resurrection forever provided the guarantee of life everlasting for all who are his.
This is what the final episode (the Revelation) is all about: God finally wraps up the Story, his justice bringing an end to the Great Antagonist and all who continue to bear his image (Revelation 20), his love restoring the creation (Eden) as a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21-22).
This is the Great Story of which the Bible's various "books" are part. We have shown briefly how each "book" fits in, and as you read the various books, you will want to ponder yourself how they fit into the larger Story — and how you yourself fit into it.
Robert L. Hubbard Jr. Gordon D. Fee
Excerpted from The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible Copyright © 2011 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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