Listening to God’s Story
by David Langford
The Bible is an amazing book, actually a collection of 66 books written over about 1500 years by over 40 different authors on three different continents (Asia, Africa, Europe) in three different languages originally (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). Complex? Yes, but these books have been compiled together because they tell a single story, God’s story of love for the world. These books include philosophy, moral instruction, history, poetry, letters, prophecy, visions, and much more, but most important, underlining all of this, is a story.
Like every story, it addresses questions of character (Who am I? Where am I? Why am I here?), of conflict (What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with everyone else?), of climax (What will solve my problem and the problems of the world?), and finally every story has its conclusion (What is my destiny? How does the (my) story end?). These are our most basic questions. How we answer these questions depends on our story.
Everyone has a story whether or not they know it well. Our story is important because it informs us – that is, it forms what is in us, our values, our beliefs, our character, our purpose. It informs us of the kind of world we live in; it gives us a “world-view.”
When our behavior strays from those beliefs and values, our story reforms us, brings us back to the truth. Our story ultimately determines how we live and act in this world.
Of course, not everyone has the same story. Not everyone answers the questions above in the same way. As Christians we are informed by the Story of God revealed in the stories of the Bible. The Bible gives us our world-view. For example, the story of Creation informs us about what kind of world we live in, what kind of creatures we are, what kind of God we have, and why we are in this world (character and setting). The story of the Garden of Eden informs us what our basic problem is, why things go wrong (conflict and plot). The story of the Cross and the Resurrection informs us of what the solution to man’s problem is (climax). The story of the Kingdom and Church informs us of how we should live in this world. All of this culminates in the story of the new heaven and the new earth which informs us of our destiny, the future that awaits us (conclusion).
These stories have not just informed us individually, they also have informed the culture in which we have grown up. Other cultures have been informed by different stories.
A few hundred years ago, new storytellers emerged in our culture telling different stories. For many, those modern stories replaced the sacred stories giving them different world-views. Some have taken the science of Charles Darwin and fashioned the story of Atheistic Evolution, which informs us about man and the world differently than does our sacred story. The work of Sigmund Freud and later psychologists inspired new stories that give us a very different account of man’s problems and how they can be solved. The revolutionary Karl Marx’s story of utopian society paints a different picture of mankind’s ultimate destiny and purpose.
More recently, storytellers have appeared saying that no one true story exists, that no one should exalt his or her story over another’s, and that all stories are equally true (and equally false). They say that pluralism, diversity and tolerance should be promoted for all stories, except of course any story that claims to be exclusively true. (There is little tolerance for that.) Such modern story-tellers have gradually reshaped and re-formed (some might say mis-shaped and mis-informed) the world-view of many.
It is more important than ever for Christians to know our story. Once upon a time perhaps Christians could personally neglect the sacred stories and still be informed by the general culture that was itself formed and reformed by sacred story. If that was ever true, it is no longer so. Today, you must consciously choose the story you want to inform and reform you.
God’s Creative Love
The opening chapter of God’s story, the Creation, answers important world-view questions. It informs us about the principle characters, God and mankind, and the setting of the story, this cosmos, and particularly our earth. It informs us not only that God exists, but that he created all things (contrary to the materialistic story that says there is no God and we and this world are cosmic accidents). The creation story informs us of the artistry of God’s creative love, and that the world is good and was created for us, for our pleasure and delight. We are told we have the responsibility to take care of it (as opposed to some eastern stories which tell us the world is an illusion from which we must escape).
Mankind is created, as is all creation, to reflect God’s glory. But mankind is also different from all creation, uniquely bearing the image of God. Woman’s creation suggests that community and relationship are essential to being human. In the story we discover man and woman are given a commandment and a choice of whether or not to obey. This tells us mankind is a moral creation created to do good but with freedom to do evil.
Thus the story of creation reveals basic truths. Just as we must know musical scales to write great music, know the ABCs to write great literature, we must know these basic truths of the Bible’s first stories to live lives of meaning and fulfillment. These truths are more than sufficient to inform us of what kind of people we should be, what kind of choices we should make, how we should relate to others, what our purpose is in this life, and how we should live in this world.
The Story’s Ugly Turn
God’s story takes an ugly turn. In the Fall, man chooses to disobey God, replacing God’s will with his own. The Old Testament records terrible consequences from Adam’s sin: persistent wickedness, rejection of God, hatred for one another, the rise of wars and warring nations. The sinful fallen condition of man and the destructive consequences of sin are chronicled in the opening stories of Genesis: the Fall, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the tower of Babel. Then, with the story of Abraham, we see our faithful and loving God initiating a plan to restore the broken relationship between God and creation. God promises that from the seed of Abraham a great nation will arise to bless the world. From this point on, God’s story, as revealed in the Bible, focuses on the family of Abraham.
The Vicious Cycle of Sin
Multiple stories in the Old Testament demonstrate a recurring pattern: God blesses, his people rebel; God disciplines, his people repent, and are restored. Israel’s unfaithfulness finally compels God to banish her into captivity. Psalm 78 illustrates this cycle and the importance of not forgetting to tell God’s story to each generation:
“O my people, hear my teaching,
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter hidden things, things from of old,
what we have heard and known,
what our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done. . . .
So the next generation would know them
even the children yet to be born.
And they in turn would tell their children
then they would put their trust in God,
and would not forget his deeds
but would keep his commandments”
Israel’s troubles arise because “they forgot what he had done” and “they did not remember his power.” The psalm shows the cycle of blessing, rebellion, discipline, repentance, and restoration. In other passages also Israel is reminded of her story when Joshua prepares to lead Israel into Canaan (Joshua 24); when Nehemiah leads Israel out of captivity and back to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 9); other psalms recall the story (Psalm 104, 106, 136); the life of the prophet Hosea reenacts the story poignantly as the prophet Hosea marries the prostitute Gomer and through her unfaithfulness to Hosea, Israel’s unfaithfulness is demonstrated, as is God’s faithful love.
Shades of Glory
In addition to the recurring cycle of man’s sin and restoration, the Old Testament also shows how God is eventually going to save man and keep his promise to Abraham to bless the world through his seed. Prophecies speaking of a coming deliverer begin in the Garden story in Genesis 3:15. God uses people in a physical way that show what Christ will do in a spiritual way (“types”). Moses delivers Israel from Egyptian captivity as Jesus will deliver us from sin’s captivity. Joshua leads Israel to the land of promise as Christ will lead us to the promise of new life. David is the anointed king of Israel ad Christ, the Son of David, will be the “Christ” (the anointed) King of all kings.
Events, objects, and ceremonies are described in Hebrews as “shadows of the reality to come” (10:1). The lambs slain for Passover foreshadow Christ, the Lamb slain for the world (Revelation 13:8). Crossing the Red Sea foreshadows baptism into Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). The tabernacle and the temple foreshadow the spiritual house of God, the Church (Ephesians 2:19-22). The holy of holies in the temple foreshadows the indwelling presence of God in his people (2 Corinthians 3:7-18). The priesthood of Israel foreshadows the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 1:9-10). The manna and water in the wilderness foreshadow the living bread and the living water of Jesus (John 6:25-59; 1 Corinthians 10:3-5). The promised land of Canaan and the kingdom of Israel foreshadow the Kingdom of God and the reign of Christ in his Church (Matthew 4:23; Colossians 1:13).
The Story and Perspective
To put her life in divine perspective, Israel was repeatedly reminded of her story. Christians also need to be reminded that life finds meaning only in the context of God’s Story. Luke 24:13-49 tells of two sad disciples being joined by Jesus, unrecognized, on their journey. When he asks them why they are sad, they answer, “We had hoped he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” They are sad and without hope because their story is wrong. Jesus gently scolds them: “How foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” Jesus then explains to them the Scriptures concerning himself (he tells them God’s story).
The Old Testament is difficult to understand. It was written thousands of years ago by different people, from different cultures, speaking different languages not easily translated into our own. Not simple! But one way to get a handle on this great book is to see that, for all its complexity, it tells one story, the same story Christ told to those disciples walking to Emmaus.
The Climax of God’s Story
The end of the Old Testament marks the beginning of a challenging period of 400 years. Though Israel was captive to Persia, the Persian king allows her to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the temple. But even after they have returned home, they are still in sad exile, captive to a pagan nation. The temple is rebuilt, but it falls far short of the glory of Solomon’s temple. The prophet Haggai consoles the people, prophesying a greater glory to come:
“Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? . . . This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. . . . ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Haggai 2:3-9).
But as the years pass, Israel remains captive to the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans. She enjoys a brief hope of glory under a leader named Judas Maccabees who revolts against the Greeks, but Israel then falls under Roman dominance. Israel believes God will be faithful to his promise to Abraham, but different groups (the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes) each have different ideas of how. And add to the mix Zealots who seek to use violence to overthrown Rome and restore God’s Kingdom.
In the midst of all these voices, one voice cries “in the wilderness,” John the Baptist. People gather by the hundreds, even thousands, hoping to see God’s promise fulfilled. Then one day on the shores of the Jordan, John looks up and says, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The climactic chapter of God’s story begins.
Each Gospel-writer pens this chapter from his own perspective, but all agree that Jesus is the climax of God’s story, God’s answer to man’s problem. Jesus is the hero of God’s story, but he is a unique hero. He is not a philosopher like Socrates or Plato. Nor is he a religious leader like the Buddha or Confucius; Jesus is more like Odysseus or Jason or Hercules. He comes not just to beach, but to save his people. To do so he must defeat a great enemy. Satan tempts him to change God’s story and allow Satan, not God, to be the author if the story, to re-write the holy script.
The temptations begin in the wilderness where Jesus resists, and then Satan temporarily leaves him “for a more opportune time.” Satan returns often, entering the hearts of people around Jesus, tempting Jesus to reject God’s script which directs him to go to Jerusalem, die on a cross, demand his disciples take up their own crosses, and live their lives sacrificially loving everyone, even their enemies.
It is not a popular story. Jesus’ family is convinced he is crazy. His hometown “church” tries to kill him. The crowds seek to co-opt his miracle power to conquer Rome. Many, if not most, of his disciples follow for personal gain. Even his closest disciples, the Twelve, tell him he’s wrong. Peter tries to change the script, and Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan!” The most agonizing temptation comes in Gethsemane when Jesus himself hesitates and asks his Father, “Are you sure this is the script? Isn’t some other story possible?”
But Jesus overcomes all temptations and does his Father’s will. God is the Author. His is the true story. Jesus must go to Calvary and die for the sins of the world. He is the second Adam come to repair the breech created by the first and widened by each of Adam’s sons and Eve’s daughters. The one who had no sin was made to be sin so that all who have no righteousness can be made to be righteous. He became cursed that we might be set free. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
On that original Good Friday, the disciples gazed dumbstruck at the cross, none understanding that all was going according to script. This was the scene Jesus was supposed to play. And after three days the genius of the Divine Director is revealed in the stunning Sunday morning climax: the Resurrection. In that moment the Eden breech is healed; Abraham’s promise is secured, every shadowy prophecy and type is fulfilled, and mankind is on the way back to Paradise.
The climax is over but not God’s story. The ending is eternal. After resurrection comes the beginning of the end of the story. All of us are invited into the story to become storytellers, telling the story of the gospel. As the Apostle John writes, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Each Gospel records Christ’s desire that his followers tell this story to the world. Matthew records Jesus’ words, “Go and make disciples of all nations (23:18). Mark recalls the Lord saying, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (16:15). In Acts, Luke remembers Jesus saying, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). John simply records Jesus saying, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (20:21).
Living Out the Last Chapter
We have seen how God’s story is a great adventure like the Iliad or the Odyssey. The Bible also describes God’s story as a mystery kept hidden for ages but revealed in the last days. (You see this in many verses such as Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:6; Ephesians 1:9; 3:3-9; Colossians 1:26, 27; 4:3; 1 Timothy 3:16). The mystery is that in Christ man is redeemed from his past sins and renewed, completely restored to glorify God as was intended at creation.
The final chapter in God’s story begins with Pentecost, the return of the Spirit of glory to man, the fulfillment of prophecy.
The prophet Jeremiah writes, “’The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.’” And God promises: ”’I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbors, or say to one another, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
This New Covenant with man is based on God’s Spirit indwelling believers, transforming them into the image of God. In other words, the glory lost in Eden returns in Christ, fills us at Pentecost, and begins transforming us into God’s image. The Apostle Paul describes it this way: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
This Spirit-filled and transformed people of God is Christ’s Church, Christ’s Body, Christ in flesh and blood again, Christ in our flesh and blood. The Church is the “second incarnation,” living in this world as Christ lived in it. This final chapter is about God’s consuming love as we see his Spirit delightfully “consuming” people filled with, surrendered to, and led by the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit.
The Book of Acts tells the story of the Church, God’s people filled with God’s Spirit, taking God’s story to God’s world. It begins with the idyllic picture in Acts 2 of love and fellowship, but soon opposition comes from without and controversy from within. The first half of Acts focuses on Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem. Then the focus turns to the Apostle Paul. He is called to tell God’s story to the Gentile world and invite them into God’s family. As the Kingdom of God spreads throughout the known world, the promise that from Abraham’s seed a great nation will rise to bless the world is fulfilled. That seed was Christ. The nation was the Kingdom of God.
But as every tribe and nation come in to the Church they bring with them problems. Just as Christ had to resist temptations to follow a different script, the early church had to resist similar temptations. The New Testament letters are like a director shouting, “Cut! Stop the action!” Each letter addresses mistaken and false script changes and seeks to get the characters back on story.
Some people were tempted to believe that to be a Christian you must first be a Jew. They insisted on circumcision and following the law of Moses. They did not see Christianity as a universal religion but as an updated Judaism. But God’s story is about how the promise to Abraham is filled not by all becoming Jews but by how all who live by faith in Christ become children of Abraham. The gospel came by way of Israel, but now belongs to all nations, all tribes, all people. This is the emphasis in the letters to the Romans, the Galatians, the Ephesians, and in the Book of Hebrews.
Some believers were tempted to add to the story of God the philosophy and wisdom of the world; the simple gospel did not seem profound or sophisticated enough. But a worldly gospel did not produce the character of Christ. It led to wickedness, heresy, and division. The true gospel produces unity, humility, love, and spirituality. This is the emphasis of the letters to the Colossians and Corinthians, and of the letters of John.
Some believers were tempted to be discouraged because of opposition and suffering. They considered returning to the stories they had previously believed. Jewish Christians who were turned out of the synagogue were tempted to return to their Jewish faith. Persecution tempted many to doubt if following Christ was worth it and to live timid lives shrinking back from telling the story of Christ to all. Many letters in the New Testament are written to encourage Christians to remain faithful even to death and to understand that persecution and even death are not indications of failure or loss but are the paths to maturity and victory. The letters of Peter, the letter to the Hebrews, and Thessalonians and Revelation especially focus on this.
One book different from all others in the New Testament is the Book of Revelation. Though its interpretation is often controversial, believers agree that it was Jesus’ last word to the Church, a word of encouragement to believers under great stress. Even though evil may seem to be winning, if we could pull the veil aside (which is what “revelation” means), we would understand that Christ has already won, is already reigning, and whatever we may have to go through here is well worth it.
We continue to live out the story of God. While the world and its issues have changed, we are still directed by God’s Spirit to live faithful to God’s script. Like playwrights who have discovered an unfinished play by Shakespeare with all the chapters written except the last, the challenge is to finish the story consistent with what has already been written. While our individual chapters may be written differently, some things in the story should not change.
However we write our own chapter, if we are faithful to the original story, our motivation must be consistent with characters created by God for his glory, re-created by Christ through his work on the cross, and transformed by the Spirit. We must resist false directors who would tempt us to be different kinds of characters in a different kind of story, living with purposes other than glorifying God. We must be characters who celebrate the creative love of God, who are repeatedly restored by the steadfast love of God, who trust completely in the redeeming love of God, and whose lives are increasingly transformed by the consuming love of God.
Copyright in The Christian Appeal, February 2012. Used by permission.