Going back to the analogy of the jigsaw puzzle, there are two primary ways we can begin to assemble the “pieces” of the Bible. The first is to take a topical approach, and the second is to view it from a historical perspective. Below is a brief review of the topical approach of the Gospel story, and the historical approach depicting God’s unfolding plan to save mankind and restore all things to proper alignment under Himself. Remember, there is only one story, one plan, and one purpose that God is moving toward, but it can be viewed from different angles.
A Topical Approach: The Simple Gospel
The word “gospel” means “good news,” and one of the most important things the Bible tells is the overall story of the Good News of what God has done to restore His relationship with mankind. We should always keep the Good News in mind when reading the Bible, because it’s the overall theme of God’s Word.
The Gospel perspective can be broken down into five very basic parts: God, Man, Jesus, Cross, Resurrection.
The Bible begins with the phrase, “In the beginning, God…” Although simply stated, this is really quite profound. Included in that statement is the understanding that God, the Creator, is the only rightful ruler over all creation. God is Supreme. He is the Sovereign, the King who has the ultimate authority and power over everything.
After creating the physical world, God made man and delegated to him the oversight of the earth. Unfortunately, when man disobeyed God’s instructions he committed treason and transferred his dominion over the earth to God’s enemy, the Devil. His act of rejecting God’s command and then rebelling against Him opened the door for the tremendous physical and spiritual calamity that we see today throughout the entire creation. Disconnected from God, his true source of life, man then fell into a state of slavery to the power of sin and death.
God set in motion a plan to save mankind by promising a redeemer who would pay the price required to free mankind from sin and death. The Old Testament is the story of how God raised up a people through whom He would one day bring the promised Savior. Descriptions of the Messiah were given to prophets in the Old Testament, and Jesus conclusively demonstrated he is the “one” by fulfilling more than 300 of these prophecies.
The cost of man’s disobedience to God was death, and his release from sin and death could only happen if this debt of death was properly satisfied. Jesus lived in complete submission and obedience to God, which is in part what qualified him to pay the debt for all mankind by the sacrifice of his life. Jesus willingly allowed himself to die on the cross so that all who accept and follow him can be rescued from the penalty of death that has rested on mankind since the time of Adam.
God promised that all who declare Jesus as their Lord and believe in his resurrection will, like Jesus, also be saved from everlasting death. Resurrection awaits all of mankind—some to destruction and some to everlasting life. Resurrection to everlasting life is the ultimate Good News, and it’s God’s final objective for all who love Him.
The Historical Perspective
Taking a historical view helps us to understand the various players in the Old Testament and how God worked with them and through various events to progress His plans. History shows us the larger picture, which in turn helps us to make sense of the various parts. Looking solely at the parts while not keeping in mind the larger picture will only cause confusion.
Here is a brief synopsis of the major historical events portrayed in the Bible:
- The Fall of Man
The story of Adam and Eve, their disobedience toward God and the introduction of sin, death and decay into the world. God makes a promise that one day He will send a Savior who will redeem man from the curse he has been placed under.
- Call of Abraham
God chooses Abraham, a man who completely trusts and believes in God, and He promises to make a nation from Abraham through which “all the nations of the earth would be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3). This is a very important passage in the Bible concerning salvation because it reveals God’s heart to restore all of mankind to a state of blessing. Throughout the Bible, we see God working to bring this promise to pass.
- Birth of Isaac
Although Abraham’s wife Sarah is barren and too old to naturally have a child, she miraculously conceives and gives birth to their son, Isaac. This is God’s way of confirming to Abraham the ultimate fulfillment of His promise that Abraham’s offspring will become a great nation—even though it will come to pass a long time after Abraham is gone.
- Twelve Sons
Isaac’s son Jacob, whose name is eventually changed to Israel, has twelve sons who in time become the twelve tribes of Israel. One son, Joseph, is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. Through a series of events orchestrated by God from behind the scenes, Joseph eventually becomes vice-regent to Pharaoh. During a famine, Israel’s family comes to Egypt where Joseph cares for them. When the famine is over, they decide to stay in Egypt, where they multiply greatly and are eventually enslaved by the Egyptians.
- The Exodus
The Israelites cry out to God and He raises up Moses, a prophet, who delivers them from Egypt. Pharaoh does not want to let Israel go, but relents after several devastating plagues upon Egypt. Through a series of supernatural events done by God’s hand, the power of Egypt is completely broken as Pharaoh and his army perish in the sea while pursuing the Israelites in an attempt to recapture them. The news of these events and the miraculous movements of God with Israel spreads throughout the surrounding nations.
- The Law
During their wilderness wanderings, God fashions the descendants of Israel into a nation by giving them a system of ordinances and instructions called the Law in order to govern them as a select people by regulating their sacrifices, moral behavior, and social customs. The Law is central to the identity of Israel and separates them from all the other people on the earth. The Law provides special blessings to the people when they obey, as well as curses when they don’t.
- Conquering the Land
Part of the promise God made to Abraham involved his offspring inheriting a particular area of land that is known today as Israel. It is also called the “Promised Land,” because God promised it to Abraham and his descendants. After wandering in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites finally enter this land and conquer it under the initial leadership of Joshua, Moses’ successor as the leader of Israel. Then begins a period of more than 350 years where the people go through seven cycles of rebellion and disobedience resulting in a downward spiral into moral and spiritual chaos. The pattern is:
- Sin—the people disobey, commit idolatry, and forget the Lord God.
- Oppression—an oppressor comes and conquers Israel.
- Prayer—the people cry out to God for help.
- Deliverance—God hears their cry and sends a deliverer to rescue them.
- Rest—the people and the land enjoy rest and prosperity until the cycle begins again.
- The United Kingdom and Three Kings: Saul, David & Solomon
Tiring of the cycle of oppressions and deliverance, the people want to be led by a king who will physically sit on a throne, just like in the other nations of the world—rather than having God as their king. Saul is chosen, a man who fits all the physical characteristics of what the people expect a king to be. Unfortunately, Saul’s deep character flaws of fearfulness and people-pleasing become his downfall.
Next, David is selected by God to succeed Saul as king, not because David is perfect but because he has incredible devotion and passion for God—he is a “man after God’s own heart.” Ultimately, God makes a promise to David that his kingdom will never end, an indication that the Messiah will be one of David’s descendants.
Following David’s death, his son Solomon ascends to the throne and, although he is considered to be the wisest man on the earth, his idolatry and disobedience to God sets the stage for great calamity which results in the splitting of the kingdom.
- The Kingdom Splits (Israel and Judah)
Following the sin of Solomon, the united kingdom of Israel splits into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom, consisting of ten tribes, retains the name “Israel.” The southern kingdom is called “Judah,” and it consists of two tribes—Judah and Benjamin. This begins a time of great rivalry between the two kingdoms.
- The Assyrian Dispersion
After 200 years and 19 kings, in 722 BC the northern kingdom falls to an invading army of the Assyrians, a pagan nation in the north. The people of Israel are dispersed by the Assyrians throughout their empire and foreigners are brought in to occupy their lands. These foreigners become known as the Samaritans and are despised by the true Israelites. The ten northern tribes remain dispersed and have never returned to the land. Part of the prophecy of the future is that God will eventually bring Israel back home.
- The Babylonian Captivity
The southern kingdom of Judah survives for approximately 350 years, from the time of the split of the united kingdom in 922 BC until the temple is burned and their kings replaced in 586 BC. There are a total of 20 southern kings, and while some are righteous, most aren’t. Judah eventually declines to the point where God’s patience with them runs out. The Judeans are taken into captivity in Babylon in waves, beginning in 605 BC when Nebuchadnezzar invades Judah and takes captives back with him (Jeremiah 15:1., Daniel 1:1). The Babylonian captivity of Judah lasts 70 years, and then the Persians, who conquer Babylon, let them return to the Promised Land.
- Returning to the Land
God’s promises for His people are tied to their presence in the Promised Land of Canaan, and likewise God’s displeasure, discipline, and judgment against them result in their expulsion from it for 70 years. At the end of 70 years, after they repent, God allows the Judeans to return to the land of Israel. However, the Judeans’ repeated failure to honor the Law results in God declaring that the time will come when he will abolish the covenant of the Law and will make a new covenant—a time when the Law will be written on the hearts of mankind. This is a promise pointing to the coming of Christ and his rulership in the Millennial Kingdom (Jeremiah 31:35-37).
- The Messiah Comes
The Israelites continue to live with the expectation that God will one day deliver them by sending a king, a political rescuer who will save them from the tyranny they endure under the Romans. Like David, he will be a military hero known as the Son of David, and he will free them from political oppression, ushering in a time of restoration and freedom.
What they fail to understand is that the king will come two times. First, he will come as the “suffering servant” who will be afflicted with the penalty of mankind’s sins; then he will come a second time as the conquering King. Because of this mistake in their understanding, many Jews fail to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah when he comes for the first time.
The four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—tell of the story of Jesus’ first coming—his birth, life, death, and resurrection. They conclude with his instructions for mankind and the promise of his return, when he will reign as the King of Kings over his Millennial Kingdom.
- The Coming of Holy Spirit
Upon his departure, Jesus instructs his followers to wait in Jerusalem, where he will send them “power from on high,” the promised holy spirit. From the day on which the gift of holy spirit is poured out, all who accept Jesus as their Lord and believe that God has raised him from the dead freely receive the same holy spirit, a token and guarantee of everlasting life. Those who accept Jesus are called “Christians” and “the Sons of God,” and we await the return of Jesus when we will reign with him in his kingdom on earth.
- Christ Returns
As Jesus predicted, the day is coming when he will return to earth. Although there are a lot of different events involved, in summary, Jesus will return to earth, conquer it, and rid it of evildoers; he will then set up his kingdom on earth as a paradise, fulfilling the prophecy that “the meek will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)
- The Final End
Even though the earth under Jesus’ rule will be a paradise, amazingly, some people will become discontented and rebel against him. There will be a final war followed by a judgment, and then the New Jerusalem, with streets of gold, will come down from heaven to earth. In the end, Jesus will deliver everything over to God, the Creator and Righteous Ruler of the Universe.
The historical view helps us to keep track of God’s actions over time with the major players and events. As we read the Bible, we must remember that its purpose isn’t for people to take individual parts and remove them from their context in the overall story. The individual pieces of the Bible aren’t nearly as important as the whole. Just like with language, it’s the sentence that gives meaning to the words, and the paragraph that helps us understand the meaning of the individual sentences. The picture of God’s rulership, His love, and the battle between good and evil is what brings meaning to the individual stories in the Bible.
(This article was taken from Dan Gallagher’s book “Learning to Enjoy the Bible“)