The film director Stephen Spielberg is alleged to have said that to make a really good movie a director needs a plot he can hold in the palm of his hand. One of his most famous films, E.T. – short for “Extra Terrestrial” – is a classic example of just that: a boy meets and befriends an alien and helps him find his way home. It’s a simple idea but one that has proved to be very appealing to the film-going public.
The Bible’s Plot-Line
When we think about the plot of the Bible we are not thinking about a film or a work of fiction, but about reality. The Bible claims to be the Word of God, His unique revelation and message to mankind. Yet much of the Bible consists of narrative – an account of both past and future with quite a definite ‘story-line’ running through it. It’s not a fictional story, however, but the history of some people who were involved in His purpose given from God’s perspective. And in the process of explaining what happened to them, and what they were told, we come to understand God’s plans for the shaping of the future.
Because the Bible is such a big book and contains many parts, written in quite diverse styles, it can be easy for both beginners and experts to miss the shape of the whole. Readers of the Bible, both new and old, can easily miss the fact that the plot of the Bible and the message it contains is essentially a very simple one.
So what happens in the Bible, and what is still to happen, according to its predictions? What is the Bible about? And can its plot be held in the palm of one’s hand?
What’s it all about?
The Bible is about God and mankind, and about their relationship. God made man and woman and has always been in charge of everything that happens. Yet he gave Adam and Eve free will to choose what they would do -whether to live in harmony and obedience to God, or to choose their own direction in life. Unfortunately, they chose to go their own way, thinking they knew better than did their Maker. Because of this mankind gradually descended into a spiral of moral decadence and selfishness that the Bible calls ‘sin’.
The consequence of such choices is still very much in evidence in the world today. Sin lies at the root of all the problems of society at large and individual men and women face in the world today – including pain and ultimately death. This is the problem, the ‘bottom-line’ which humanity must face. We are left under no illusions about our nature or condition; the reality is stark.
What’s God’s Solution?
There is the possibility of a solution – a way back to God. Throughout history, God has been calling people back to him, holding his hand out, as it were, and inviting them to return. He did this to Abraham and his descendants the Jews, and much of the Bible uses their relationship to teach a wider audience what God’s invitation and expectations involves. God’s requirements are not easy in one sense – it’s hard trying to please someone else rather than oneself – yet the rewards are vast. God makes tremendous promises about the future to Abraham and his successors – promises which are available to all who hear and respond to the gospel message.
Unfortunately, by the end of the Old Testament (two thirds of the way through the Bible), God’s people Israel have by and large rejected God’s offer, just as man and woman had originally done (human nature doesn’t easily change). So in the New Testament there is a dramatic development. God sent his Son to show how much He cared and how much He wants men and women to come back to him.
Unlike everyone who had lived beforehand, the Lord Jesus lived a perfect life – a life which he ultimately gave in the greatest and most perfect sacrifice ever made. Jesus died to show what men and women are capable of as sinners (inflicting such suffering on an innocent man), and what sin deserves (death).
That very same act also showed that God’s love and capacity to forgive are even greater and more far-reaching. God is wonderfully able to overcome the evil of sin. God loves us so much that He has given us the most precious gift possible – His only Son – so that we can be forgiven and can have a hope of life. As the Bible says:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16,17).
Because Jesus had done no sin, God raised him up to new life, never to die again. He had conquered sin and temptation. In his death and resurrection lies the hope for everyone who receives the call of the gospel to die (as it were) to their old way of selfishness, and to live to God. This is the challenge God invites us to take up. But this is not the end of the story.
In the future God will send Jesus back to the earth again to renew the world, now wracked by problems, and to establish His kingdom upon earth. Then all the wrongs of this world will be put right, and Jesus will reign for God as King.
From Bad to Good
Conceptually, most of the above is not difficult. As a plot-line (and even more so, as reality), it is brilliant because it involves the transformation of the worst story man has ever known (his own demise) into the best (his salvation). It would be easy to open out each part of the plot and to add in many others – exploring for several hours each aspect in turn. But just summed up in a few short paragraphs this glance at the Bible’s overall message has shape and meaning. The apostle Paul put the message even more succinctly when he said:
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Note the way in which the apostle involves himself in his own summary of the gospel message. The story of the Bible is even more poignant because, as human beings, we are each actors in the unfolding drama of history. You and I are personally caught up in the wonder and the challenge of the Bible’s tale. This is what Paul meant when he said that he was the chief of sinners. The Bible’s message is not a story at arm’s length. Each of us is involved and caught up in God’s plan for the world.
Can we grasp it?
Let’s return finally to the question of whether one can hold the plot of the Bible in the palm of one’s hand. We have seen that in an important way the answer to this is ‘yes’. The Bible’s message is not complicated; a child can understand its basic story, its themes, and its plans for the future. Yet the answer is also ‘no’. To know – and to really grasp – the message of the Bible is to know something of the mind of God himself. And how can a mere human hope to do that? As the apostle Paul once again expressed it:
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Romans 11:34).
Expanding and attempting to understand God’s purpose is a lifetime’s study and more.
Yet Paul’s final conclusion is not one of frustration – that he can never truly understand his God. Paradoxically Paul goes on to explain that God has made known His mind and His plan to us – though He is infinite – by His Spirit. He has done this in His Word the Bible. This is why the plot of the Bible – simple and yet utterly profound – is so important to everyone of us.