The Story Above All Stories

Four years ago, on August 11, 2008, I preached my first message as Associate Dean of Men at The Master’s College. With 14 pages of single-spaced notes on a music stand and 45 staffers and student leaders packed into the corner of a dorm lounge, I told “The Story Above All Stories” — my first attempt to preach the whole story of the Bible in one sitting.

“The Story Above All Stories” didn’t have four main points, like creation-fall-redemption-consummation. I didn’t cover the seven covenants of classical dispensationalism. I simply told the story chronologically — book-by-book, event-by-event, character-by-character — trying my best to flip over the great tapestry of the Bible and show the underlying multicolored threads running from Eden to the New Jerusalem.

What I Didn’t Know

I grew up in a sound, authentic Christian home where we read our Bibles right alongside our morning chores, heard Bible stories and memorized verses in Sunday School classes, and digested 45-minute expository sermons every Sunday morning and evening. I then did a bachelor’s in Bible and master’s degrees in pastoral ministry and systematic theology — somewhere around 250 credit hours of mostly Bible and ministry courses.

But in all my years, I never heard the full story of the Bible told in one sitting. I never heard the miraculous stories and colorful characters and diversified genres and evasive dates and geographical shifts — all 66 books — rolled into a single unified narration.

Why I Didn’t Know

I don’t think anyone failed me. I’m not an angst-ridden ex-fundamentalist warring against the outmatched flannelgraph of his strawmanned past. That attitude, unless your past was full of biblically-defined Pharisees and hypocrites, is near-sighted, reactionary, and immature. I am eminently blessed by and eternally grateful for the parents, churches, programs, courses, chapels, professors, and degrees that have influenced my life. When I did sit down in the late summer of 2008 to construct “The Story Above All Stories,” I found that all those years of Bible saturation were all relevant — I was drawing from a rich reservoir of valuable and accurate information that had been invested in me over three decades.

Still, throughout most of my college and seminary years, I had a vague, disjointed, and atomistic understanding of the Bible’s many texts (and its overall story). Numerous factors, both internal and external, contributed to this weakness. Two external factors were my education (college and beyond) in highly dispensational and expositional circles. The dispensationalism emphasized discontinuity between Old and New Testaments, often focusing on the argument that many Old Testament promises must be fulfilled in a future millennium and not with the Messiah’s arrival or the early church or the present age. The expository emphasis put rigorous, detailed exegesis at the fore (which I love) but had a tendency to atomize the text and miss the forest for the trees.

Naïve about the Narrative

For their own variety of internal and external reasons, many Christians are in the same boat I was. The main stories, major characters, key texts, and central truths of the Bible are clear. But the progression, the interweaving, the interconnectedness, the tapestry — these are vague at best.

Much of the reason is simply time. It takes a lot of reading and re-reading, a lot of meditation and reflection, and a lot of study and sermons and conversations to get both the forest and the trees. But another significant reason is our approach. I recently spoke to a pastor who’s been taking his young church plant through the story of Scripture. Most of his congregation are young believers without much Bible knowledge. But as they finished the series, he said the connections they were seeing and the observations they were making and the questions they were asking showed a clear-minded grasp of the Bible’s interrelated themes along with the major twists and turns in the scriptural narrative.

So the lesson is not that Christians must spend thirty adult years studying the Bible before they can comprehend its dominant currents and threaded themes and promised fulfillments and overarching story. It’s that we must study, teach, and talk about both the parts and the whole, and should see such a multi-angled approach as the task of parents, pastors, teachers, and mentors. I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m not saying my children and students and churchgoers will walk away from my ministry with a comprehensive grasp on everything Bible. There will be gaps, because my life and ministry are both finite and fraught with failure. But I want to close those gaps as much as I can.

The Narrative Now

Now I’m studying at Southern Seminary with a Ph.D. concentration in biblical theology. I came here because four years ago I got really excited about The Story Above All Stories. And I started seeing how the scriptural narrative is like a participatory drama. The current stage, props, lighting, cast, and script only make sense if you know the whole story. Many Christians live with hazy vision and diluted passion because they read the script they’re handed, scan over their set of lines, and can’t make out why they’re performing their role or what exactly the dialogue means or how their act will be resolved in the finale. They don’t know — with precision — where the drama has been or where it’s ultimately going.

Ignorance about the story produces hesitation over the script. You can’t walk on stage and play your character and sell your lines if you don’t know who was up before you and who’s on after you. The drama is determinative.

This is why my next two messages in that three-part series four years ago were entitled “The Bride and the Bridesmaid” (the role of the church and the parachurch in our present act of the drama) and “Your Chapter of the Story” (the role of an individual student leader in this multi-level story of redemption).

The final introductory line of this third sermon reads (cut and pasted from my four-year-old manuscript):

The million-dollar question at the end of this week is: “How should you minister as a Resident Assistant on your wing of 25 students in order to help accomplish the mission of The Master’s College which is to prepare students to be effective members of the local church which is God’s light to the world in this age?”

I believe every Christian (and every human being) should press himself hard to answer this type of question — to funnel the great ultimate purpose of your worldview into the passions and priorities and practices of your daily life.

Four years ago, I didn’t want to ground our shared ministry on the common assumption that we all know the Bible, we all know who we are, and we all know what we’re supposed to be doing and why. I wanted us to share in the great drama of redemption — to survey its shapes and contours, to tour its peaks and valleys, to track its promises and fulfillments, and to marvel at its mysteries and revelations.¹ I wanted us to know the Bible, to know who we are, and to know what we’re supposed to be doing and why.

Four years later, I know the story better than I ever have (naturally), but I feel like I know less than I ever have. There is so much to learn, but I am delighted for the education ahead because I know the learning will transform. I will become more aware of the backstory, more eager for the finale, more sincere and savvy in performing my role, more enthusiastic in exhorting my fellow actors to play their parts, and more passionate about inviting outsiders into the bright side of the drama.

Biblical Theology Briefings

As I continue this educational journey, I can’t write regular extended posts on scriptural themes. I just don’t have the time or the skill to clear wide swaths of biblical insight. Yet I do want to share what I’m learning (without turning Raw Christianity into an academic exercise).

My solution is a regular “Biblical Theology Briefing.” In these briefings I plan to share observations, arguments, outlines, books, articles, reviews, sermons, videos, diagrams — anything I’ve found that could foster a clearer understanding of the Bible’s parts as they relate to its whole.

“Biblical Theology” is a specific discipline within biblical studies. It doesn’t mean “theology that’s biblical in content.” It means the science and art of tracing the progressive scriptural storyline as promises and themes are unfolded across the texts that make up the Text.²

The passion God ignited in me four years ago has not abated. I still want to survey the story, examine its interconnectedness, study how the New Testament authors interpreted Old Testament texts, and discern how promises and themes developed as the story of Scripture was progressively unfurled through the ages. And I want to share what I learn. I hope you’ll join me in this Emmaus Road journey (Luke 24:13-35). It continues to leave me with my heart burning and my eyes seeing Jesus more clearly.

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¹ The two binary categories “promise and fulfillment” and “mystery and revelation” are used in D. A. Carson, “Mystery and Fulfillment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and New,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: Volume 2–The Paradoxes of Paul, ed. D. A. Carson, P. T. O’Brien, M. A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 393–436. HT: Patrick Schreiner.

² This informal definition of “biblical theology” is my own, but Stephen Dempster employs the “text” and “Text” terminology in Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003).

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