A brief summary of the section. One paragraph should do it.
The Bible begins at the beginning – with the record of creation. God creates a wonderful environment on planet earth, and He creates animals and human beings to enjoy it. Every element of the creation is ‘good’, and the whole thing when put together as a system is ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31) – a delicious understatement! Man and woman are the final and climactic element of God’s creative work. They have capacities beyond any of the other creatures, and they are given the responsibility of taking charge and ‘ruling’ over the creation.
Road to Ruin
Unfortunately they do not make a very good job of this. Choosing their own path instead of listening to God’s guidance for them, they break His commandments and sin. Death and suffering are thus introduced into the world (God’s vision was hardly for a world full of immortal rebels, so the introduction of death is inevitable if man is to have free will). Man is now estranged from his Maker.
The situation goes from bad to worse. The following chapters of Genesis show that Adam’s sin quickly morphs into sins more and more grotesque. Violence and murder are soon rife in the earth, as men escalate their cruelty and exploitation. Things get so bad, in fact, that God is forced to send a Flood on the earth and begin again. By doing this he illustrates both the principle of judgment and accountability, but also the possibility of a new beginning.
Up until Genesis chapter 11 the plot is international in scope, and God’s interactions are with man at large. In Genesis 12 we enter a new phase when God calls a specific individual, Abraham, challenging him to leave his familiar environment and set forth on a journey to a new land that God will show him, trusting wholeheartedly in God as he goes. In return for Abraham’s faith and trust God makes amazing promises to him: his descendents will one day become significant nations (both Jews and Arabs are descended from him); God will give his descendents the land of Palestine; God will be with him and his descendents and be their God; and one day, through a special son (later identified as the Lord Jesus), all nations would ultimately find blessing through Abraham.
In a very real sense, the rest of the Bible is the history of the development and ongoing fulfillment of those promises. The Bible also says that some of them will finally be fulfilled when Christ returns to the earth to set up God’s kingdom. Abraham’s significance to the Bible story can scarcely be overemphasized, and you can read more about the promises here.
The promises were reiterated to Abraham’s descendents, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. There were many obstacles and challenges to their faith in God, but the bottom line is that they kept their trust in Him despite the odds and despite the fact that many of the promises were not fulfilled in their own lifetime.
By the time we reach the book of Exodus, Abraham’s descendents have already grown into a mighty nation. The problem, however, is that they are not their own nation – they are a nation in slavery to Pharaoh. God therefore raises up Moses – one of the greatest Old Testament figures – to deliver them and bring them across the Red Sea and to lead them towards the Promised Land. This incredible deliverance from Egypt through Moses was both a literal event but also a parable about the work of a prophet greater than Moses (Jesus), who would ultimately deliver his people from the power of sin and death.
So Israel leave Egypt, but before they can come into their land they must become God’s people, which they do by hearing His special laws given through Moses at Mount Sinai, and by ‘signing up’ to obey them. In this way, God cements His special relationship with the Jewish people (for more on this see here). God tells them (and they accept) that if they keep His commands He will bless them and they will be an example and a witness to the other nations so that they in turn might come to God. And He also tells them that if they disobey Him (just like Adam and Eve) they will be punished and by their punishment they will also be a witness to the other nations that obedience to God does indeed matter. In either case, then, the Jews will be a witness and a teaching-mechanism for God as He brings about His plans in the world.
Israel in the Land
Israel finally go into the Promised Land in the book of Joshua, six books into the Old Testament. Just as Adam and Eve were placed in the paradise of the Garden of Eden, given God’s commands and told the implications of keeping or not keeping them, so Israel as a nation go into the paradise of the Promised Land, again with clear instructions and their implications.
Unfortunately the Israelites quickly choose the wrong path, as humans often do. Through the period of the Judges they frequently turn away from God and copy the idol-worship and moral decadence of the nations around. By the conclusion of the book of Judges the book’s refrain has become that ‘every man did what was right in his own eyes’. The consequence? Gross moral decline in society, constant invasion from without, and ultimately civil war from within. God really does know what He is talking about when He tells us how to behave!
Having implicitly rejected God’s leadership, Israel now seek a king (again, to copy the other nations around them) – and so God gives them one. The first king, Saul, begins well, but quickly begins to make grave mistakes. As his replacement, God chooses David, a former shepherd-boy, who with God’s help takes on the mighty Goliath and ultimately ascends to the throne. David is a highly spiritual ruler, the author of most of the book of Psalms, and a man ‘after God’s own heart’. God makes amazing promises to him just as He had to Abraham, and on this occasion these promises center upon a future king who will reign with justice and power on David’s throne for ever. This king, none other than the Lord Jesus, will be both David’s descendent and the Son of God (the evidence is clearly there in the text, hundreds of years before Jesus was born and the gospels written!). These promises to David are an essential part of the evidence that the gospel message of the New Testament is also right there in the Old also.
The Decline of the Monarchy
David of course wasn’t perfect (or else Jesus may not have been necessary), but the combination of spirituality offset by incredible spiritual blindness is nowhere more powerfully felt than in his successor Solomon. A king of unparalleled wisdom in one sense who presided over a period of great success and prosperity, he later foolishly rejected some of God’s important commands regarding kingship and was led astray from God by his many foreign wives.
From there things quickly went down hill. The kingdom was divided into two (Israel to the north, with its capital of Samaria, was made up of ten of the twelve tribes which descended from the twelve sons of Abraham’s grandson Jacob; Judah is to the south, with its capital of Jerusalem, and consisting of two of the twelve tribes). The books of Kings and Chronicles record the history of this 400 year period.
In the northern kingdom of Israel there was scarcely a single king who tried to follow God’s ways, and so – after warnings by prophets like Amos and Hosea – God orchestrated the Assyrian invasion of 721BC which removed the kingdom of Israel from the map. The southerners did a bit better – there were some outstanding kings like Josiah and Hezekiah, but the majority of the rulers were a disappointment (to put it mildly). God continually sent His prophets to warn the people that they must turn back to God or face the same consequences their brothers in the north had experienced – but by and large such repentance (when it came at all) was shortlived. In 586 BC Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon claimed Jerusalem as his own and exiled the Jews to Babylon. The kingdom of Israel (which was meant to have been the kingdom of God on earth) was brought to ruin.
The Prophets and the Return
It was a crucial part of the job of the Old Testament prophets (whose writings make up around a quarter of the Old Testament) to warn the people of these impending judgments and to encourage reformation. But they had another vital work as well. Though they foretold judgment, they also predicted restoration beyond it, and of the coming of a Messiah figure who would one day bring God’s people (both Jews and non-Jews) back to God. They foretold of a time of peace and justice in the earth when God’s king would reign from Jerusalem. But this would not happen for many years. Isaiah, for instance, predicted the sufferings of this Messiah figure, and the prophet Ezekiel foretold that no king would sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem again (after the Exile of 586) until the one ‘whose right it is’ should come. He was speaking of the work of Jesus.
There is one more part of the Old Testament storyline to mention. After 400 years or so of the monarchy, God took His people to Babylon as we’ve discussed – but He didn’t leave them there. Around 70 years later He brought them back again (as the prophets said He would) in another of those little cameos about hope, resurrection, and the promise of a new beginning. In a political sense it might be said that the return from Exile in Babylon in the early 5th century BC didn’t amount to much – but it was a powerful illustration of the possibility of new beginning. In this it pointed forward to a much greater new beginning that would soon be made possible by the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Coming of Christ
The New Testament opens by crucially linking Jesus to both Abraham and David – the two Old Testament characters who had received such amazing promises from God. Now, in the birth of Jesus, the way in which God would fulfill those promises was about to be made clear.
The gospels make it plain that the birth of Jesus was absolutely unique. He was the son of Mary, but her conception came about miraculously by the power of God, and not by the intervention of man (this cast light on a promise in Genesis 3:15 that specifically concerned the offspring of a woman as opposed to a man). So Jesus was both human (as the son of Mary), but also the son of God. His ministry was remarkable – devoted to teaching people about God’s ways, leading them to aspire for new heights of spiritual potential – and meanwhile he healed the sick and taught about the kingdom of God. There has never been and nor will there be another like him. And that is before mentioning his most unique attribute – that, while fully exposed to all the temptations human beings face – he committed no sin.
All this was too much for the religious leaders of the day, and, as is well known, he was put to death despite the fact that he had done nothing wrong. He predicted his sacrifice beforehand, and explained that this was actually the route not only to destroy the power of sin, but also to receive the hope and gift of resurrection and new life. The teaching of the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus is not an optional part of New Testament teaching – it is pivotal to its message.
The Early Church and the End of an Era
Upon Jesus’ resurrection and ascension it fell to the apostles, his closest followers, to spread the news. Now the gospel message of resurrection and of future hope was to be preached, not just in Israel, but throughout the world. To help with this task, the book of Acts tells how God’s power, the Holy Spirit, was poured out both to carry out miracles (as Jesus had done), to help with the preaching work, and to help the apostles call to mind the words of Jesus even though he was not with them on the earth any more. Once the New Testament had been written and the early church was established there was less need for these miraculous gifts.
The gospel message rapidly spread throughout the Roman Empire, and, at the end of the book of Acts, the apostle Paul waits to testify to his faith before Caesar himself. Churches were established in many cities, and the persecution of the Christians in Palestine and then more widely in other cities inhabited by Jews only served to spread the message more rapidly, as people were forced to leave their neighborhoods. Of course there were difficulties and challenges, and the letters (a good half of the New Testament) are letters that were written by the apostles to some of these new churches (and some to individuals) to help them grow in their new faith.
A significant milestone occurred in AD70. Just as God had sent His people to captivity in Babylon in 586BC, so, following the rejection of Jesus by the Jews at large, and following the Jewish persecution of the early Christians (many of them Jews themselves), God saw fit (as Jesus had prophesied) to again remove His people from their land. The Roman armies razed Jerusalem in AD70, and it was not until 1947 that they eventually returned to the land again. The Bible portrays this return as a significant milestone, and a sign that Jesus’ return to the earth to fulfill the remaining Bible promises is near.
Hope for the Future
Finally, in the last book of the Bible, the Lord Jesus himself gave a message about the intervening years between the first century and his return. By means of visions and symbols he explained that there would be much opposition and many challenges to the true faith. Much sacrifice would have to be made but ultimately he (the Lord Jesus) would return to establish God’s kingdom on earth as he had promised. The apostle John closes out the storyline of the whole Bible by praying that this will happen soon: ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus! Amen.’