Having a big picture of what the Bible is all about is crucial to understanding Scripture. In this article, the author shares three crucial aspects of understanding the Bible: understanding the narrative of Scripture (the story of redemption in Christ Jesus), understanding the covenant of grace, and reading Scripture in context.

Source: Faith in Focus, 2013. 3 pages.

By Every Word of God

Introduction🔗

The Bible is replete with encouragements and challenges to value it, read it and to make it a vital part of our lives. In Deuteronomy 6:4-8, God told his people to have his commandments on their hearts, to speak of them to and with their children, to tie them as symbols on their hands and on their foreheads. This latter image was not meant to be taken literally. To have the commands of God tied as symbols on the hands meant that the commands were to be lived out in daily life. Everything God’s people did with their hands was to be shaped and affected by God’s commands. To have the commands on the forehead was to think in accordance with God’s commands. Thus, for God’s people, both thought and action was to be conditioned by the Word of God.

When Joshua took God’s people into the promised land, he was commanded not to let the Book of the Law depart from his mouth (Joshua 1:9). He was called to meditate upon it day and night, and to speak it to God’s people. Only then would he and God’s people be pros­perous and successful in what they did.

Moving to the New Testament, Jesus quoted Scripture when tempted by the devil in the wilderness. “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). And in 2 Peter 1:19-21, the apostle says that it must be a matter of high priority for Christians to pay attention to the word of the prophets as to a light shining in a dark place. The world is characterised as a dark, dingy and dangerous place, where people stumble around and do themselves and others immense per­sonal harm. We need a light to guide us, and God has given this to us in his Word. And, make no mistake: this is God’s Word, rather than the words of men. The men who wrote Scripture were God’s instruments. They were carried along by the Holy Spirit, so that what they wrote was not “the prophet’s own interpretation”. The Bible is the Word of God, not the word of man.

The big picture🔗

After the creation of the world and of man in Genesis 1 and 2, we read of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Genesis 3. Then in verse 15 of Genesis 3, we have the first message of hope. Perhaps surprisingly, this promise includes the ideas of enmity and conflict. Eve and the serpent have become friends, partners in crime, as it were. They have teamed up against God. However, the Lord announces to the serpent that it will be cursed and defeated. It will crawl on its belly and eat dust all the days of its life. Moreover, God will separate Eve and the serpent. He will place enmity between them so that they are no longer comrades. This is significant. There can be no restoration of Eve to God, no undoing the effect of the fall, unless Eve and the serpent become enemies. Notice that I have not spoken of Adam here. Of course, he is involved in this as well, but the text does not speak of him at this point. This is because the focus is on the woman, and a child that she will bear. Her offspring, or her “seed”, will also be at enmity with the serpent. This is a very unusual expression. The ancient Hebrews knew full well that it was the man, not the woman, who carried the “seed”. However, Genesis 3:15 specifically says that the “seed of the woman” will eventually crush the serpent’s head. He will defeat him and destroy him, although not without the serpent striking his heel in the process.

Here then, is the first gospel message. It is good news because it speaks of the devil being conquered by a person called “the seed of the woman”. This person would ultimately restore things to the way that they were before the fall, before the curse had come upon creation.

This person, of course, is the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who was born of a virgin. In laying down his life on the cross, he would crush the serpent’s head. Then he would rise from the grave, showing that sin, death, and the devil had no power over him. His task is nothing short of the removal of the curse and the restoration of creation to its rightful purpose (Romans 8:18-21).

This story of redemption in and through Christ and his work is one that runs right throughout the entire Bible. It is therefore called the meta-narrative of Scripture, i.e. the narrative or story that runs across (meta) the Bible as a whole. This story is one of redemption and deliverance, and it focuses again and again on the person and work of the Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ. Law and prophets both point to him and to what he achieves. Thus, on the road to Emmaus, after his resurrection, Jesus explained to two men how all of the Scriptures concerned himself, be­ginning with Moses and the prophets.

We need to learn how to read and interpret the Bible in a Christ-centered way. The Old Testament is much more than ancient history. It is history, yes, but it is the history of redemption. God is working out his plan to defeat the serpent and undo the effects of the fall, and this redemptive work has Christ the redeemer at its heart.

The Covenant🔗

Closely related to the meta-narrative of Scripture is the covenant of grace. As God’s redemptive plan unfolds, he establishes a covenant, a berith, with Abraham and with his descendants (Genesis 17). With the coming of Christ, aspects of this covenant are significantly changed, so much so that what replac­es it is called a new covenant (cf. Jer­emiah 31:31, 32). Nonetheless, the new covenant in Christ’s blood (cf. Matthew 22:20) is still part of the overall covenant of redemption. Thus, in Galatians 3:29, Paul explains to the Gentile Christians in Galatia that if they belong to Christ, they are, in fact, “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” In other words, although not physically descend­ed from Abraham, they are in fact his spiritual descendants. God promised that Abraham would be an instrument of blessing for all peoples on earth (Genesis 12:3) and that he would become the father of many nations (Genesis 17:4), and the Gentile Galatian Christians are part of the fulfillment of these promises. They can therefore regard Abraham as their spiritual father, and, from this per­spective, Abraham’s history is their own.

This covenantal reality makes the Old Testament very relevant and important for us. Old Testament theologian A. A. van Ruler allegedly said that the New Testament is nothing but a commentary on the Old, and a pretty short one at that. I suspect he had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he said that. Nonetheless van Ruler alerts us to an important point. We need to be avid students of the entire Bible. The New Testament constantly draws on, explains and completes the Old Testament. Strip the New Testament from the Old, and its foundation is gone. And if we try to interpret the New Testament without its foundation, we will likely go seriously astray in our thinking. We need to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, not just the words that were written in the first century A.D.

Context, context, context🔗

You can see that I’m emphasising this. Context is extremely important for correct interpretation. Take a text out its context, and try to understand and apply it, and we can get into serious trouble. For example, on the surface, it might appear as if James and Paul were at odds over the way in which a person is justified in the sight of God. Paul teaches repeated­ly that we are justified by grace through faith, and not by works (Eph. 2:8, 9 et al.). James teaches that a man is justified by what he does, and not by faith alone (James 2:24). But if we look at the sur­rounding verses, we can see that James is dealing with a larger issue. Verse 14 says: “What good is it my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” In other words, here is a person who says he believes in Jesus, but you would never know it by his life. As James explains, faith without works is useless (vs. 20). Even the demons believe that there is only one God (vs. 19). But they do not love and serve him. On the con­trary, they shudder when they acknowl­edge that. True faith, genuine faith, will result in deeds of love and service to God. So if the faith is real, the works will be there to show that. If there are no works, a person’s professed “faith” is empty and worthless.

When understood in context, the teaching of James is not at all in con­flict with that of Paul. He also taught that we need to live in a manner that is worthy of the calling we have re­ceived (Eph. 4:1). Our old selves have been crucified with Christ in order that sin might be done away with (Romans 6:6, 7). We should no longer be slaves to sin because a person who has died (to sin) has been freed from sin. Faith, when it is genuine, will result in a right­eous life. James and Paul are on the same page after all.

Conclusion🔗

In conclusion, we can return to the be­ginning of the article. As Christians, we are given a light from God to help us live in this dark, dangerous world. We neglect it at our peril. The Scriptures are there for us to read and use. What we do with our hands, and what we think with our minds, must be shaped and conditioned by Scripture.

As we read, study and apply God’s Word in our lives, we need to keep in mind the overall redemptive theme, which focuses on the person and work of Christ. This meta-narrative of Scripture, together with the establishment and un­folding of the covenant of grace, make all parts of the Bible relevant and important for us. We need to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.