The Importance of Reading the Bible as One Big Story

The Bible is not primarily a book about morals. Though Scripture has a lot to say about how we live and act, it’s not primarily a manual for moral living.

The Bible is not about us. It’s about God.

Edmund Clowney, who was a professor and theologian, said that if we read a particular story without putting it into the bigger story about Christ, we actually change the meaning of the particular event for us. It becomes a moralistic exhortation to try harder rather than a call to live by faith in the work of Christ.

In the end, there are only two ways to read the Bible: as if it’s all about us or all about Jesus. In other words, is it basically about me and what I must do, or about Christ and what he has done?

Who Is the Book About?

If we read David and Goliath as a story that’s giving me an example to follow, then I’m reading the story as if it’s ultimately about me. And I have to muster the strength or courage to face my giants and win my battles. But if I read about David and Goliath as basically showing me about salvation through Jesus, then the story is about him. Then I can see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin and death) for me, which is the only thing that will give me the courage and strength to face my giants.

The Bible is not a collection of fables; it is not a book of virtues. It’s a story about how God saves us. That story works out in the four movements of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.

When we read stories disconnected from the whole, we lose their grounding in the redemptive arc of the Bible and place the significance solely in the events or details of that one story.

For an example of how this works out, let’s look at John 3:14-15 where Jesus says,

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus is referencing the story of the bronze serpent found in Numbers 21:4-9:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

In this passage, Jesus puts the serpent story into the bigger story with himself at the center. The serpent story sheds light on how Jesus saves us (it only takes a look to be healed or saved, and that he is made to be like the sin that’s killing us) — but it also means that we can’t understand the serpent story without realizing it’s pointing us to Jesus.

Jesus is the truer and better version of all the characters and stories we read about in the Bible.

A Word of Caution

Now, we do have to be careful of allegorizing when we read the Bible as one big story. Allegorizing results in strange interpretations that require a stretch in a text’s meaning.

Allegorizing has two bad effects:

  1. It results in arbitrary interpretations. It’s a way of getting a text to say almost anything we want, instead of living under the authority of God’s Word.
  2. It fails to honor the author’s original intended meaning.

We guard against poor interpretation and allegorizing by doing a proper inductive study of a passage before looking for Christ in the text and trying to connect it to the larger story of the Bible. When we keep both things in mind, we’re able to see how a passage is part of the larger story and points to Jesus. And when you understand that God has been pointing to Jesus from the very beginning, your study of the Bible becomes a whole new adventure.

Reading the Bible with the “big picture” in mind is much more than a good skill or approach to reading the Bible. The ultimate goal of reading Scripture with the one big story in mind is to grow into the image of Christ as we realize that we are a part of the Bible’s one big story.

How New Testament Authors Read the Bible

My last post explored how Jesus told us to read the Bible: as one big story with himself at the center. The New Testament writers handled the scriptures the same way.

Seeing Christ in the Psalms

For example, Hebrews 1:14 quotes Psalm 91:11-12: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”

But when we look at Psalm 91, we don’t find anything to indicate that this text is about Jesus:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place —
the Most High, who is my refuge —
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”

Now, did it take supernatural knowledge to know that Psalm 91 was about Jesus? Perhaps. But it’s just as likely, especially given what Jesus taught, that the early church knew that everything in the Bible was about Jesus.

Seeing Christ in the Prophets

Other New Testament writers also quote passages from the psalms and prophets that clearly show they read the words of Scripture as being all about Jesus. In his first letter, Peter writes,

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10-12)

Peter shows that the Spirit of Christ in the prophets was pointing to the person and work of Christ in their writings.

These are just two of many examples of how the New Testament writers view the Bible as one big story with Jesus at the center.

What we see in the New Testament usages of the Old Testament shows us how the early church read the scriptures. That means both the Apostles and everyone else in the church were able to interpret the Bible Christocentrically, or with Christ at the center.

And it gives us permission and direction to read the Bible in the same way.

The Story Within the Stories

To summarize, every part of the Bible is about the historical unfolding revelation and accomplishment of the gospel salvation through Jesus.

There is a story within all Bible stories of God’s redeeming a people for himself by grace in the midst of their sin. When Jesus says the Bible is all about him, that means all the major themes, figures, genres, and storylines are reflective of and fulfilled in him.

How Jesus Told Us to Read the Bible

The Bible tells one big story from beginning to end. There are 66 books and two testaments, and while each of those tells discrete, individual stories, they also tell one grand narrative.

If we’re not careful, we’ll miss that one big story and read the Bible piecemeal, jumbling the various stories and missing the larger narrative. When we absorb the Bible in a piecemeal way we risk taking passages that belong to the overarching story of Scripture and unintentionally reshaping them into the narrative of our lives.

Rather than being confronted by the overarching story of God’s redemption, we bend the text into the shape of our own lives and make the Bible a story more about us — our fulfillment, our sanctification, our hopes and dreams. In other words, if we miss reading the Bible as one big story, we make it a story about us. But we aren’t the ones at the center of the story. 

How We Read Scripture Without Making It About Us

So how do we read Scripture without distorting its overarching shape, without making the Bible a story about me instead of about God? We read it the way Jesus did.

In the last chapter of Luke, we see two disciples walking down the road to Emmaus. They were dejected because their hopes and dreams of Jesus being the Messiah had been crushed on the cross. Suddenly a man appears and joins them on the road. He wants to know what they’re discussing, and one of them answers, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:18).

The man appeared not to know what they were referring to, so they explained everything — that they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, that he had performed signs and wonders, but that he had been crucified and buried. And now it had been three days, and some were even saying his body was missing. 

The mysterious man surely took them by surprise when he said, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). Then, beginning with Moses and the Prophets, he interpreted to them how Christ was at the center of all the scriptures.

Burning Hearts

They approached a village and asked the man to join them. As they sat down to a meal, the man took the bread and blessed it and broke it. That’s when they realized who he was. It was Jesus. Then he vanished right before their eyes. Their first words were:

Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures? (Luke 24:32)

Jesus taught that they had to read Scripture as the unfolding story of God’s redemptive purposes. The Bible tells one big story, and at the center of that story is Jesus and his salvation.

(For more on this, see Tim Keller’s teaching on the Bible as one big story, particularly the first 9:18):

Opening Minds

The Emmaus-road encounter wasn’t the only time Jesus made this point. Later in Luke, he tells his disciples: 

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:44-47)

Here Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to understand that all of Scripture, which at that time consisted of the Law, Moses, and the Prophets, is all about him and his salvation.

Jesus makes the same assertion in John’s gospel:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:39-47)

Here again, Jesus says that the scriptures bear witness about him and that Moses words were really about him. He confronts his hearers with how they don’t understand the Scriptures’ testimony because they don’t understand how all of it, including what Moses wrote, was about him.

The Bottom Line

If we want to read the Bible the way Jesus told us to, we have to read it as one big story with him and his salvation at the center.

I’ll talk more about what the Bible has to say about being one big story, why this is important, and how we read it this way in my next posts.

Bible Study Doesn’t Have to Be a Chore

Before I wrap up this mini-series on Appreciating the Bible, let me say a final word about Bible study (in case you missed a post, read part 1: Does Your Bible Look Like Brussels Sprouts or Dessert? | Part 2: What is the Bible? | Part 3: Who Wrote the Bible? | Part 4: Why Study the Bible?).

The temptation when reading or thinking about Bible study is to think of it as a chore or just another list of things you should be doing.

But Bible study doesn’t have to be a chore.

Rick Warren has said,

“Reading the Bible generates life, it produces change, it heals hurts, it builds character, it transforms circumstances, it imparts joy, it overcomes adversity, it defeats temptation, it infuses hope, it releases power, it cleanses the mind.”

When you’re Bible-reading is like that, it’s no longer a chore.

Once you have the tools to really read the Bible for yourself and you start to read it regularly, you’ll find this to be a reality in your life. You’ll find that you’re delighting in the Bible more and more, and it’s starting to taste sweeter than honey in your mouth.

That’s my prayer for you. That reading the Bible wouldn’t be a chore but a life-giving practice, so that you would be able to say for yourself, like the great reformer Martin Luther,

“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me, it has feet, it runs after me, it has hands, it lays hold [of] me.”

This is part 5 in the Appreciating the Bible series. Read part 1: Does Your Bible Look Like Brussels Sprouts or Dessert? | Part 2: What is the Bible? | Part 3: Who Wrote the Bible? | Part 4: Why Study the Bible?

Why Study the Bible?

OK, so God wrote the Bible. That makes it important. But why do we need to study it?

Often we come out of study groups saying, “That was a good Bible study.” But what do we actually mean by that?

Does it mean that we learned something or felt convicted at points? Or do we say this because our lives actually changed?

The Point of Bible Study

Good Bible study leads to transformation. It may not happen all at once, but we should be noticeably different because of our time with Scripture.

We’ve already looked briefly at Hebrews 4:12: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

The Bible isn’t merely an inanimate object that we study and pull information from. It has a life of its own. It acts. It reads us; it pierces to the deepest parts of our being and discerns our motivations.

Since our God is a living God, his Word is alive, and he works through his Word to actively transform every part of our being.

Study the Word to Do the Word

James used striking imagery to highlight our need to be transformed by the Bible:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.  

– James 1:22–25

James compared the process of studying the Bible to a man looking into a mirror. That’s because, just like a mirror, the Bible has the ability to reveal to you the truth about your condition.

First, he described a man who looks into the mirror, clearly sees the reflection, and then walks away without doing anything. This person is clearly foolish, but he also perfectly represents the way most Christians study the Bible. They read their Bibles, see the truth that demands transformation, then walk away as if nothing ever happened.

James contrasted this fool with the person who looks into the mirror and does something about what he sees. This person reads the Word of God, takes what he sees at face value, and then acts on it. James is clear that this person is the one who will be blessed in what he does.

Here’s why this matters: There is no reward for merely hearing the truth. That means Bible study is incomplete and illegitimate until it turns into obedience and transforms us.

The Key to Spiritual Growth

I remember the first time I was devastated by that reality. It was when I read James 1:18-19: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder.”

By the grace of God, the Bible has that power, which is why reading the Bible is key to spiritual transformation.

Every study I’ve ever read on spiritual growth has the same takeaway: reading the Bible is the number one catalyst for spiritual growth. Trying to grow in the Christian life without reading the Bible is like trying to drive a car without gas. You won’t get very far, and at some point, you just won’t go any farther.

Now, understanding why the Bible is crucial to spiritual growth may actually increase your hunger for it. I found this to be helpful for me.

Why the Bible is Key to Spiritual Growth

Let me explain by looking at the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of bones in Ezekiel 37. Ezekiel writes,

1 The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.”

– Ezekiel 37:1-4

Ezekiel knows he’s helpless to bring this bunch of skeletons to life. He says, “God, I don’t know, but you do.” Good answer!

God tells Ezekiel what it takes to bring the bones to life — his words.

Ezekiel then speaks the Word of God over those dry bones and the unthinkable happens:

And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them … So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

– Ezekiel 37:8,10

God spoke and enfleshed those piles of bones, then breathed into them the breath of life — all through the power of his Word.

Hope for Spiritual Sacks of Bones

The Word of God is the only thing powerful enough to transform your heart.

That might not mean much to you right now, but one day you’re going to come to a place where you realize you’re not enough to change your life, your heart, your emotions, your children.

If you want to change, if you want to grow, if you want to become more like Christ, you have to read the Bible.

If you want to be transformed from a spiritual sack of bones into a tree that is planted by a stream and prospers in all that you do, you have to read the Bible.

This is part 4 in the Appreciating the Bible series.  Read part 1: Does Your Bible Look Like Brussels Sprouts or Dessert? | Part 2: What is the Bible? | Part 3: Who Wrote the Bible? | Part 4: Why Study the Bible? | Part 5: Bible Study Doesn’t Have to Be a Chore