Glimpsing the Gospel in Every Book of the Bible
A Part of the Whole
Biblical literacy is ever-important for Christians as we seek to understand how the Scriptures come together to tell the story of the gospel.
In the Knowing the Bible series preface, J. I. Packer and Lane T. Dennis say:
Knowing the Bible, as the series title indicates, was created to help readers know and understand the meaning, the message, and the God of the Bible.
Browse these short summaries of each book to help place their content into the larger story of the Bible as a whole.
- 1–2 Samuel
- 1–2 Kings
- 1–2 Chronicles
- Ezra and Nehemiah
- Song of Solomon
- Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah
- Joel, Amos, and Obadiah
- Jonah, Micah, and Nahum
- Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Colossians and Philemon
- 1 Thessalonians
- 2 Thessalonians
- 1–2 Timothy and Titus
- 1–2 Peter and Jude
- 1–3 John
Many readers miss the forest of God’s larger purposes when immersed in the trees of each individual story. In creation, God creates humanity in his own image as his representatives to fill and rule the earth on his behalf (Gen. 1:26–28). Even after Adam and Eve sin and are punished, the promise is given that the offspring of the woman will defeat the serpent and restore the earth (Gen. 3:15). This promise is traced throughout the book in its genealogies,3 which provide the backbone of the entire book. Key divisions are traced by “These are the generations of,” tracing out the stories of key figures, starting with “the heavens and the earth” (2:4–4:26), and going on to Adam (5:1–6:8), Noah (6:9–9:29), the sons of Noah (10:1–11:19), Shem (11:10–26), Terah (11:27–25:11), Ishmael (25:12–18), Isaac (25:19–35:29), Esau (36:1–37:1), and Jacob (37:2–50:26). The line of God’s blessing is emphasized (e.g., Adam, Noah, Terah, Isaac, Jacob), while the stories of other lines receive less attention (e.g., Ishmael, Esau). The individual stories of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph are illustrations of how the promise of Genesis 3:15 begins to be fulfilled.
God desires to bless the nations through a future king. Adam is portrayed in the image of God, a phrase probably signifying a royal representative of God. Abraham would become a “great nation” (Gen. 12:2), and “kings shall come from you” (Gen. 17:6). God’s original command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28) is fulfilled in microcosm4 as “Israel settled in the land of Egypt . . . and were fruitful and multiplied greatly” (Gen. 47:27; cf. 1:28).
Israel fails, however, in its calling to be a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6). This priesthood is ultimately fulfilled through the church in Jesus Christ as a “royal priesthood” of all nations (1 Pet. 2:9). Through this priesthood, God’s purposes for creation as detailed in Genesis 1–2 are finally accomplished, as is seen in Revelation 21–22.
Whereas Genesis records God’s promise that Abraham would become a great nation (Gen. 12:2), Exodus describes the fulfillment of that promise (Ex. 1:6– 7). Moreover, God’s covenant with the patriarchs,3 in which he promised to give their descendants the land of Canaan (Gen. 15:18; 26:3; 35:12), is the reason God delivers Israel from Egypt (Ex. 2:24).
Although God gives Israel the law and comes to dwell in their midst, ultimately Israel will not be faithful to their covenant with him. Only in Jesus do we find a faithful Israelite who keeps God’s law while simultaneously embodying God’s presence with his people (John 1:14).
Leviticus is the third of the five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Exodus brought the people out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, where the tabernacle was constructed. Numbers will take the people from Mount Sinai to the border of the Promised Land. Nestled in between those two books, Leviticus takes place during the course of one month at the foot of Mount Sinai (Ex. 40:17; Num. 1:1). It was the first month of the tabernacle’s operation, when the people learned lessons on communion with God, who dwelt in their midst. The book’s rich descriptions of sacrifices, moral holiness, and ritual purity provided ancient Israel with a gripping vision for living at one (“at-one-ment”) with God.
The New Testament teaches that Jesus came to fulfill the atonement taught in the Old Testament law (Matt. 5:17). That means the rituals of the law should no longer be practiced (Heb. 8:13; 10:1), but it also means that we can gain insight into Christ’s work by studying those rituals (Luke 24:27). The Old Testament law (including Leviticus) is like the blueprints of a building: once the building is finished, its blueprints are no longer needed, but they are still useful for understanding the finished product. When we study these “blueprints” of atonement, we explore the riches of what Christ came to fulfill.
Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch and occupies an important place in the Pentateuch’s overarching narrative. Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch, describes the beginnings of all the nations of the world with a special focus on God’s covenant with one house among those nations: the house of Abraham. Exodus continues that narrative with the transformation of Abraham’s household through much suffering into a nation redeemed by God and ordered around his law. The book of Leviticus comes next, teaching the gift of atonement at the center of God’s kingdom-forming law.
Next, the book of Numbers takes the stage, tracing this newly organized kingdom on its march from Sinai to the border of its promised new land. Numbers assures us of God’s faithfulness to his kingdom-building project, even when his people rebel. Deuteronomy concludes the Pentateuch with Moses’ final instructions for Israel’s settlement in the land, including a vision for taking God’s blessings to the rest of the world. The rest of the Bible follows the promises and lessons outlined in the Pentateuch.
To begin to read Deuteronomy is to enter an epic story midstream. Deuteronomy is a major milestone in a narrative that began all the way back in Genesis and that continues to the end of Revelation.
Back in Genesis, God made several promises to Abraham: Abraham would have abundant offspring, this offspring would have a covenant relationship with God, and this offspring would enjoy that covenant relationship with God in the land of Canaan (Gen. 17:6–8). These promises encompass all that the garden of Eden held out to Adam before his fall into sin: a holy2 God dwelling among a holy people in a holy place. What Adam forfeited, God promises he will still provide one day.
By the time we reach Deuteronomy, Abraham’s offspring have become a large nation (Ex. 1:7; Deut. 1:10), and God has established his covenant with them at Sinai (Ex. 24:1–8). What remains is for them to enter the Promised Land, which they are about to do (see the book of Joshua). Deuteronomy calls Israel to the obedience that leads to genuine life with the Lord, in contrast to Adam’s choice of death.
But Israel ultimately chooses death, just as Adam did, and they must be removed from the land (Judges–Kings). Thus Deuteronomy points forward to the true Adam and the true Israel, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ obeyed God on our behalf and won for us the ultimate fulfillment of the promises to Abraham: eternal life. He thus brings about the holy kingdom foreshadowed in Deuteronomy.
Central to the book of Joshua is God’s promise of land. The very structure of the story makes this clear, as seen in the outline provided below. Though often in a more subtle fashion, this theme stretches from the first page of the Bible to the last. The promise of the land of Canaan has its origin in God’s promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3). God called Abraham from among the nations and gave him several promises, including land, a nation, and blessing to the rest of the nations through him. The story of Joshua develops each of these promises, but its focus and emphasis is clearly on God’s promise of land.
Frequently in Joshua we’ll see references to the promises given to Abraham and his offspring. And yet God’s promise of land has a certain broader context. The land theme goes further back than Abraham. God made Adam in his image and placed him in Eden. Adam and his race were to multiply and fill the earth, exercising dominion over it. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Adam turned from trusting God. As promised, God cursed Adam with death and sent the first human pair outside the garden. This is where the story of land begins. The entire salvation story of the Bible is a response to what happened in Eden. When God promised Abraham a place of blessing, he essentially promised him what was lost in the fall—a place for the enjoyment of God’s presence, a return to Eden. This is why the land of promise is regularly referred to as “like the garden of Eden” (Gen. 13:10; Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 36:35; Joel 2:3).
Orbiting around the theme of land in Joshua are numerous other themes crucial to the Bible’s salvation story:
- In the land, God’s people will experience rest.
- The land is a gift from God promised to his people.
- God’s covenants with Abraham and Moses provide the context for the story of Israel inheriting the land.
- Obedience is required for entrance into the blessing of the land, even as disobedience will lead to cursing and failure to take the land.
- The Lord judges the Canaanite inhabitants in the land by means of his people.
- The Lord fights for his people as the Divine Warrior to judge and drive out the inhabitants of the land.
- The land is never fully obtained, evidencing a tension in the storyline leading us to Christ by showing our need for a new covenant with a fully obedient covenant mediator.
The book of Joshua is a story of salvation within the Bible’s larger story of salvation through Christ, and each of these themes has a part to play in pulling the story along. Indeed, Jesus will come as a new Joshua to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Through the story of Joshua, God is advancing his promise to bless his people with rest in the land. He will do this through his man Joshua, as Joshua and the people entrust themselves to the Lord with full obedience to his Word.
The book of Judges describes a period in the life of the nation of Israel between the prophetic leadership of Moses and Joshua and the establishment of the monarchy. The nature of this time period is described on four different occasions in the book: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; compare 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). This brief summary statement teaches us two important facts about the period of the judges in Israel: (1) there was a crisis of leadership; and (2) there was, consequently, a crisis in Israel’s faithfulness to their covenant with the Lord.
The wilderness generation of Moses and the generation of conquest under Joshua had been eyewitnesses of God’s great signs and wonders to save and deliver. But then “there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judg. 2:10). In the generations between Joshua and the kings, Israel did “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (v. 11). The evil described in the book of Judges should be understood as Israel’s progressive decline into idolatry. The nation of Israel was originally called by God to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), but by the end of the book of Judges, Israel has become like all the other nations around them and, even worse, like Sodom and Gomorrah (see Judges 19; compare Genesis 19).
By the end of the book, like the author himself we find ourselves looking for the king who will be able finally to deliver God’s people from sin and corruption, who will give rest to God’s people, and who will establish their inheritance in the land forever. The judges in the book of Judges, like the kings after them, cause us to look forward to the coming of the King of kings. Together, we look for that king who does not do what is “right in his own eyes” but who delights to do the will of his Father in heaven (John 6:38–40).
Major themes we will encounter in the book of Judges include:
- The important connection between Israel’s obedience to the covenant and her possession (or forfeiture) of the land of inheritance.
- The importance of biblical leadership to promote faithfulness to God’s law and to establish the land’s rest from foreign oppression.
- The unending grace and mercy of God, demonstrated by the raising up of faithful judges through whom he rescues and saves his people.
- The trap of idolatry that promises freedom but results in oppression and subjugation.
- The corruption of idolatry that twists us into what we falsely worship.
- The power of God to rescue his people from the worst types of sin, idolatry, and oppression.
God’s covenant promises to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–7) are beautifully displayed in Ruth. Although the period in which she lived was one of disobedience and disarray, God had indeed made Abraham’s seed into a great people and settled them in the Land of Promise. In Ruth’s life, the blessing promised to those who bless God’s people proves true. As she, the foreigner, is enfolded among them, we catch a glimpse of all the families of the earth being blessed by Abraham’s seed.
The crowning evidence of God’s covenant faithfulness emerges at the book’s end, with the repeated mention of Ruth’s descendant David (Ruth 4:17–22), the great king to whom God promised an eternal throne (2 Sam. 7:12–17). But this blessing peeks through from the moment we open Ruth and begin to read about Bethlehem in Judah—Judah being the land named after the tribe from which David came. The Scriptures ultimately show the fulfillment of all God’s promises in the coming of Jesus Christ, the heavenly king born in Bethlehem, in the line of David. Matthew 1:1–6 gives us the genealogy that Ruth helps unfold in living color.
The book of Ruth is one episode in the story of Jesus. It’s an episode that shows the utterly magnificent and intensely personal kindness of this God who is redeeming a people for himself from all the families of the earth. As God fulfills all Ruth’s and Naomi’s needs for food, home, and family, through their redeemer Boaz, we glimpse the heavenly Redeemer in whom all these needs are finally and fully met.
The books of Samuel concern themselves with God’s coming king, a theme with a long history in the Bible. Adam, as God’s son and image-bearer, was called to have dominion over creation (Gen. 1:28). He and his offspring were to function as God’s vice-regents. When Adam and Eve rebelled, God mercifully promised that through the seed of the woman would come a serpent-crushing offspring (Gen. 3:15). Later, God promised to Abraham not merely the prospect of offspring but also the fact that kings would come from him (Gen. 17:6). His grandson Jacob repeated and specified the kingly promise to his own son Judah: from his line would come a lion-like ruler who would receive the tribute and obedience of the peoples (Gen. 49:8–10). Still later, Moses gave specific directions for the kind of king Israel was to have (Deut. 17:14–20). In short, Israel’s king was to be quite different from the kings of the nations around them; he was to be humble and righteous, one “whom the Lord your God will choose” (Deut. 17:15). A king for Israel was always in God’s plan; the question was whether Israel would wait on God’s timing and seek God’s kind of king.
While 1 Samuel begins at a time in which there is no king in Israel, we soon hear a godly new mother, Hannah, giving thanks to God for far more than simply answering her prayer for a son (1 Sam. 2:1–10). She speaks of the Lord’s rescuing the needy and judging the wicked (vv. 3–9), doing so through a future king, God’s anointed (v. 10). Israel’s first king, Saul, is not that king. But soon God will prove faithful to his kingly promises through another, David. God later enlarges his royal promises for an eternal throne occupied by David’s descendants (2 Sam. 7:4–17). Remarkably, David interprets these eternal promises as (literally in Hebrew) a “charter for mankind” (2 Sam. 7:19). Though David is far from perfect, he serves as a true foreshadow of the final and eternal King, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God and the perfect Son of David (Matt. 1:1; Luke 1:32).
As the era of 1–2 Kings begins, God has delivered his people from Egypt, given them his law, and led them into the land he had promised to them. They have seen their need for a leader, and God has raised up David (over Saul) as their king. The books of 1–2 Kings narrate the history of God’s people during the period of the monarchy, picking up after 1–2 Samuel, which ended at the conclusion of David’s reign. With its emphasis on the sin and idolatry of God’s people and its concluding reference to the continuation of the Davidic line (2 Kings 25:27–30), the story of 1–2 Kings shows the need for Jesus Christ, the promised Davidic ruler who would usher in God’s kingdom and lead God’s people in righteousness.
First and Second Chronicles are the final books in the original order of the Hebrew Bible and were two of the last books of the Old Testament to be written. In a sense, 1–2 Chronicles embrace and unify the whole Old Testament into one coherent story. The books were first written to people looking back on the history of Israel from the other side of the exile.1 First and Second Chronicles pointed them back to the past for examples of how to live as a people, looking especially to the ideal models of David and Solomon. The books also provide examples of the danger of sin and its consequences. Most of all, they point God’s people to the importance of repentance and reform: turning away from our sin and toward God in order to receive his forgiveness and blessing. The people of Israel were stubborn in their sin. They did not listen to God or his prophets, despite repeated calls to turn back to their God. Although God disciplined them with affliction for their sin, they still did not repent. The Chronicler thus warns his hearers to be quick to repent.
The Chronicler also points his readers toward the future, toward the hope of God’s promise. The two cornerstone institutions of the people of Israel, the Davidic monarchy and the temple, are both founded upon God’s unbreakable promise. Despite the obstacles in their way, the people can have confidence that God will keep his word to Israel, and this knowledge should give them confidence to engage joyfully in the work of God’s kingdom.
Ezra and Nehemiah
Ezra and Nehemiah give the last glimpse of Old Testament history. It is a desolate glimpse in many ways. This people is the “offspring” (literally “seed”) of Abraham, blessed as God promised, growing into a great nation (Gen. 12:1–7), but then punished for their rebellion through enemies who defeated them and took them into exile. These books show God’s unfailing promises to bless this people, restored to their land and the privilege of worshiping God in his temple. But they are a weak remnant, serving the Persian king, with no sign of the promised eternal king on the throne of David (see 2 Sam. 7:12–17). These books cause us to peer forward to the coming of that King, that Deliverer who would bring blessing through this people to all the nations of the world.
Just like Ruth, Esther lights up the context of God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3—not only that from him would come a great nation, but also that God would bless those who bless him and curse those who dishonor him (and, by implication, the nation to come from him). By Esther’s time we have also the historical context of God’s covenant with David (2 Sam. 7:12– 17), which included the promise of an eternal kingdom in his line. All these promises seem threatened in the book of Esther. God’s people had rebelled against him under their earthly kings, their kingdom had split and fallen, and its people had been taken into exile. Even though in Esther’s time that exile had officially ended, only a remnant of Jews had returned, as subjects of the Persian empire, to a broken-down Jerusalem. This story brings what seems the final blow: on a certain day, by the Persian king’s edict, all Jews throughout the empire (which included Jerusalem) are to be annihilated. Where is God? Where is the king he promised? What about God’s promises?
The book of Esther tells of the overturning of this cruel threat through Esther’s courage and ultimately through a myriad of providential occurrences unfolded by the plot. In a masterfully patterned narrative that pivots right in the center, we see God’s people in the depths but then exalted, and their enemies high and proud but then brought down. This is the very gospel pattern of reversal sung about by women like Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1–10) and Mary (Luke 1:46–55). God’s promises are true, and they are true ultimately in the promised King who came down to earth, down to the lowest point of death on a cross, and then rose from the dead and ascended to the heights of heaven—the great reversal, which makes possible our own reversal from death to eternal life.
The Old Testament has much to say about suffering and interprets it in various ways. In Deuteronomy, God warns that his destructive curse will fall on Israel if they break covenant with him and trust in other gods (Deuteronomy 28). Proverbs often states that sin brings about suffering as its natural consequence (e.g., Prov. 10:14). In the book of Job, on the other hand, the title character suffers precisely because he is so devout—and he suffers in a way that is unbearable and impossible for him to explain. The book of Job thus nuances and deepens how we are to think about suffering and about why God sometimes allows pain that seems to serve no purpose and have no explanation. The book shows us how to speak to extreme suffering and demonstrates the promises God makes to us in our suffering.
As we will see, Job prefigures Jesus in that both men suffer greatly because of their obedience to God in order to further God’s purposes, to defeat the accusations of the Accuser, and to glorify the Lord.
Throughout history, God has been fashioning a people for himself who will love and obey him, and who will express and nourish their corporate life in gathered worship. The Psalms (or Psalter) served as a vehicle for the prayers and praise of God’s people in Israel, and Christians of all races today, who have been grafted into the olive tree of God’s ancient people (Rom. 11:17, 24), can join their voices together with Israel in their worship. Put simply, the Psalter is our songbook for worship as well (see Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). There are indeed adjustments to be made, now that Jesus has died and risen—e.g., we do not offer bulls as “burnt offerings” (Ps. 51:19)—and yet Gentile believers in Jesus may rejoice with the people of God of all ages.
Proverbs advances the overarching theme of the Bible, which is God’s calling, preserving, and shaping a people for himself. Proverbs advances this theme uniquely through the offer of God-centered wisdom. In the four poems of chapters 1–9, wisdom is personified as a noble lady whom one should pursue. The personification anticipates the words of the apostle Paul: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22–24).
Like the other Wisdom Literature in the Bible, Ecclesiastes is concerned with imparting wisdom and teaching people to fear the Lord. However, Ecclesiastes serves as a balance for the practical wisdom of Proverbs. Although Ecclesiastes finds practical wisdom beneficial, it comes to it along a more reflective path. Where Job asks for personal vindication, Ecclesiastes shares in Job’s intensity but its search is for happiness and something that will endure. Ecclesiastes is consistent with the rest of Scripture in its explanation that true wisdom is to fear God even when we cannot see all that God is doing. We can leave it to him to make sense of it all.
Ecclesiastes describes the meaninglessness of living without God. We see that God created the world and called it “good.” But despite this original goodness, humanity fell into sin, and all creation was subjected to the curse of God. This brought into the world meaninglessness, violence, and frustration. Graciously, God did not leave his creation to an endless round of meaninglessness. God’s response to sin is to redeem, renew, restore, and recreate. The Bible traces this history of salvation from beginning to end. While this process starts immediately after the fall, God’s rescue mission culminates in Jesus Christ, who has rescued us from the meaninglessness of the curse that plagues us. Christ rescues us from the vanity of the world by subjecting himself to the same vanity of the world. He who is God chose to subject himself to the conditions of the world under covenant curse in order to rescue the world from the effects of that curse.
Song of Solomon
The Bible begins with the creation of the heavens and the earth. Adam and Eve are the capstone of creation. To this first couple God gives the mandate to subdue the earth to his glory. He also instructs them to be fruitful and multiply. The first indication of the significance of marriage is seen in how it is the God-ordained institution to fill the earth with his glory. Sexual intimacy is an integral part of this institution, providing powerful pleasure for procreation and as a means of strengthening and nurturing the marriage bond. As the biblical narrative unfolds, however, we see an even greater purpose for marriage. The love a man has for a woman is patterned after the greater love that Christ has for the church—a love that led him to give himself for her. In the Song of Solomon, we see a righteous expression of human love and sexuality. The Song thus functions at two levels: as a guide to the purposes of marriage instituted at Eden, and as a poetic metaphor for Christ’s love for the church. As a metaphor, however, its details are not to be pressed for doctrinal precision.
The fall of the human race is also a part of the biblical story. The first couple sinned and came under the judgment of God. As a result, the sexual dimension of the human race is fallen, as seen in the many sinful expressions of sexuality prevalent today. As a reaction to the pervasive presence of sexual sin, some in the history of the church have drifted to the unbiblical position that all human sexual desire is sinful. The Song of Solomon reminds us, however, that it is by God’s good design that the love between a man and a woman finds elaborate verbal and sexual expression. Indeed, the Song celebrates the physical dimension of human love. This portion of God’s Word should be studied and read today because it brings clarity and balance to a church living in a sexually confused world. Avoiding this book creates a void of teaching about human sexuality, a void that will be easily filled by the culture.
Additionally, the Song of Solomon can teach us about our relationship with Christ. Jesus declares in John’s Gospel, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15). Insofar as the Song of Solomon presents an ideal love of the shepherd for his bride, we can rightly draw inferences about the Good Shepherd’s love for his bride. Likewise, we can draw insight from the shepherdess’s love of the shepherd for our love of our Shepherd. Reading the Song of Solomon in this manner requires us to give full attention first to the Song as a divinely inspired love poem, which will allow us then to seek insight rightly into what analogy may exist for the church’s relationship to Christ or the dependence of individual believers upon and love for Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep This way of reading the Song of Solomon models for us the way that married couples should think about their own relationship. Every dimension of marriage, including the sexual dimension, provides an opportunity to glorify God. When spouses make the glory of God in Christ the ultimate aim of their marriage, they often discover that the other benefits of marriage are found along the way. On the other hand, when the benefits of marriage—companionship, sexual intimacy, children, family stability—are sought apart from the glory of God in Christ, the painful frustration of living in a fallen world can quickly overwhelm the benefits of marriage.
Isaiah stands at a turning point in the history of God’s people when, after centuries of breaking their covenant relationship, God’s judgment will fall upon them and, indeed, the whole world. Yet Isaiah proclaims the “good news” that God will bring his kingdom, renew all creation, and restore his people to himself. This redemption will be accomplished through a servant, who will
suffer in the place of sinners that they might be forgiven and restored to God. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has begun to fulfill in a decisive way the promises of Isaiah. We await the day when Jesus returns to gather the redeemed to worship God in a new creation forever.
Jeremiah served during a significant transition in salvation history. Although his ministry began during the reign of the last faithful king (Josiah), he eventually saw God fulfill his long-standing promise of judgment on Judah for its covenant unfaithfulness. But it was during these dark days that God promised not only to bring a remnant back to the land but also to institute a new covenant through a faithful Davidic king. These promises find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the Son of David who established a new covenant through his death and resurrection.
Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah
The title of Lamentations in the Hebrew Bible is a Hebrew word translated “How,” which is the first word of Lamentations and begins chapters 2 and 4 as well. This term is an exclamation of how much Jerusalem has suffered. Although this suffering is overwhelming, the author pours out his heart beautifully. The book of Lamentations is structured in five poems, which align with the five chapters in our English Bible. The first four poems are acrostics; that is, each new line begins with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The author of the book is not specifically identified, yet some believe him to be the prophet Jeremiah, who “uttered a lament for Josiah” (2 Chron. 35:25). Regardless of who put the lament to the scroll, the voice is corporate and expresses the suffering of the people. Lamentations is a eulogy for the death of the kingdom of Judah, which has been taken away into exile. The situation is stark and bleak, yet there is hope in God, whose mercies are new every morning. He is the faithful and compassionate one who forgets not his people—even as they suffer justly for what they have done.
Habakkuk shares a struggle that many Christians throughout the ages have experienced: If God is loving and in control, why are the wicked so successful? While Habakkuk demonstrates an understanding of God’s attributes, he still struggles to understand how God can use the wicked to accomplish his divine purpose. God’s ways are mysterious, and the realization of Habakkuk’s prophecy will mean suffering for the people of God, yet “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4). God’s people must look not to themselves but to another—to Jesus Christ. Their confidence does not rest in their own strength, nor in their ability to comprehend everything. It rests instead in the Lord, who is at work on behalf of his covenant people even before they cry out to him.
Zephaniah experiences the same suffering as Habakkuk. However, Zephaniah offers a theological perspective distinct from his contemporary. The prophet speaks of the “day of the Lord,” in which the Lord will put an end to corruption and wickedness. This has been the longing of God’s people throughout the ages. The faithful have always cried out to the Lord for help in the face of evil and injustice. But Zephaniah raises a deeper issue as he turns his attention inward. What happens when God’s people are the wicked ones? Judgment must begin in the house of the Lord (1 Pet. 4:17). All manner of injustice has spread throughout the nation of Judah, and before God’s people can enter their everlasting rest, they too must be sanctified. Zephaniah demonstrates how God’s wrath pertains to his relationship with the world generally and with his people specifically. The Lord visits his people in judgment many times in history, but the great and final “day of the Lord” will come when Christ returns on the last day. God calls his people to seek him (Zeph. 2:3) so that they might escape the wrath to come.
Like the other major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel), Ezekiel stands at a climactic moment in Israel’s history as the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28:15–68 are finally brought to bear. For centuries, God has patiently borne his people’s treachery, idolatry, and sin, but his patience has finally come to an end. While Isaiah stood at the beginning of this period, and Daniel at the end, Ezekiel and Jeremiah prophesy at the white-hot center of Jerusalem’s fall. Jeremiah is in Jerusalem, amid the crashing tumult, with all the confusion and passion we would expect. Already in exile in Babylon, Ezekiel hears and observes events from afar, like distant thunder. As a result, his prophecy is marked by waiting and reflection, long pauses followed by dramatic moments as events occurring months and even years earlier finally burst upon the consciousness of the exilic community.
In this context, Ezekiel serves not only as the prosecutor of God’s covenant lawsuit, vindicating God’s judgment against his own people; he serves also as pastor to the despairing exiled flock, providing them hope that judgment is not God’s final word to them. If they will repent, God will again be their God and dwell with them, and they with him. Central to this hope is the pouring out of God’s Spirit in a new covenant with a new temple and a renewed worship. This hope will wait centuries more for its fulfillment, but with the coming of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, it has begun. He is the true temple, and in his death and resurrection he has established a new covenant of peace. He is the source of living water, which is the Holy Spirit.2 Even now he dwells with his people. While we still await the final fulfillment of Ezekiel’s visions, because of the resurrection we can be confident that the day will arrive when the proclamation that “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3) will come to full fruition.
The book of Daniel, named after and written by Daniel in the sixth century BC, records the events of Daniel’s life and the visions he saw from the time of his exile in 605 (1:5) until the third year of King Cyrus in 536 (10:1). Sweeping in scope, the book deals with the rise and fall of various world empires. But these historical events are seen through the lens of God’s sovereign control of things, and thus serve a pastoral purpose to encourage the Jewish people during a critical time in their history. The Jews were in exile, suffering at the hand of pagan rulers who cared little for God or his people. They had every reason, then, to wonder whether God was in control, and whether he would deal with the situation—for his own glory and the good of his covenant people.
Hosea prophesied during a dark time in Israel’s history. Worship of the Lord had been abandoned in favor of idol worship, which led to exile from the Promised Land. But in God’s plan, exile became the means to eventual restoration. The book of Hosea shows the wickedness and folly of idol worship and points by contrast to the one true God, who not only can provide all that his people need but is willing to do so despite their rejection of him. Both Hosea’s personal story and the overall historical context to which it points demonstrate God’s way of salvation in Christ. God stands ready to forgive and restore those who turn to him, and he has provided the ransom2 from slavery through Jesus Christ. The marriage theme in Hosea finds its fullest expression in Christ’s love for the church (Eph. 5:25–27).
Joel, Amos, and Obadiah
God chose the Israelites out of all the nations of the world to be his witnesses in that world. Their mission was to represent and reveal God by the way they worshiped and lived. Instead, however, throughout her history Israel was no different than the rest of the nations: her wealthy preyed upon the poor, the strong took advantage of the weak, and worship of the Lord devolved into empty rituals. Accordingly, despite the evil in the world around them, judgment would begin with the household of God (1 Pet. 4:17), and God’s people would face the fearful day of the Lord. Moreover, if the judgment of God falls first on the people of God, how much more does it fall on his enemies and the enemies of his people! The day of the Lord, then, is a day of judgment for both God’s people and the nations of the world. Even so, in the midst of judgment lies salvation, as God promises to establish his rule over the nations, a rule that includes not only Israel but all of God’s people gathered from all the nations on earth. This promised salvation anticipates the saving work of Jesus Christ, who would be crowned King of kings and Lord of lords.
Jonah, Micah, and Nahum
These three short books together highlight the patience of God. Eager to forgive sins, God often allows the evil deeds of the wicked to pile up before he executes judgment, and this eagerness to forgive extends to all people everywhere, not just to Israel. In fact, Israel is supposed to be the herald of this great patient forgiveness, but, because of her own evil, God will bring judgment upon his people, too. These books, then, expose our sin, shame, and need for forgiveness and also point to the Great Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, making such forgiveness possible. Indeed, for those who put their trust in Jesus Christ, God will tread their iniquities underfoot and cast their sins into the depths of the sea.
Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi
In 586 BC, the ultimate covenant curse came upon God’s people in the form of national exile. Because Israel persisted in unbelief and violated the terms of the covenant in the most grievous ways imaginable, the Lord brought the Babylonian army in judgment upon his own people (2 Kings 21:10–16). The temple was destroyed, the Davidic king removed from his throne, the royal city razed to the ground, and God’s chosen people were exiled from the Promised Land. All hope would have been lost except for God’s promise that his grace would triumph over judgment (Deut. 30:1–10; Jer. 29:10–11; 33:14–22), and that through a remnant of his people he would fulfill his covenant promises to bless the nations through the seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:3; Isa. 10:20–23).
Almost 50 years later, in 538 BC, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, released the Jews from captivity. He commissioned them to rebuild the temple to their God and reinstitute worship according to their laws (Ezra 1). Although the initial building project began with great energy and optimism, external pressures as well as internal struggle caused the building project to grind to a halt. Eighteen years later, in 520 BC, the temple remained in ruins as the people of God had become preoccupied with securing their own worldly comforts. Into this situation the postexilic prophets come with a powerful word of both warning and promise. They warn Israel of the dangers of forsaking their God and remind Israel of God’s unwavering commitment to his people’s welfare. These three themes come to dominate the message of the postexilic prophets: God’s sovereignty over the nations, his presence with his people, and his commitment to the future glory of both Israel and the nations. With these truths pressed firmly on their hearts, Israel will have to wait with patience for the final and ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises, when their deliverance will be complete and the God of Israel will be recognized as sovereign over the whole world.
The story of the Bible is the story of the world. Beginning with the goodness of creation (Genesis 1–2), it soon progresses to humanity’s rejection of God and the subsequent curse of this world (Genesis 3). The Old Testament is largely focused on the development of God’s promise to reconcile sinners to himself and restore all that is broken. The Old Testament ends in the middle of this story, longing for a resolution and the fulfillment of this promise.
In their own unique way, each of the four Gospels demonstrates that Jesus fulfills these profound, ancient longings. Matthew’s Gospel is the one most explicitly focused on how Jesus is the long-awaited King who came to restore the goodness of creation by bringing in God’s kingdom. This long-awaited restoration is . . .
- announced in Jesus’ words as he declared, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).
- pictured in Jesus’ works as he healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, calmed storms, cast out demons, and restored people to God through the forgiveness of their sins.
- accomplished through Jesus’ death and resurrection, for he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). • promised to arrive in its fullness in the coming “new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne” (Matt. 19:28).
Looking backward, Matthew picks up the storyline of the Old Testament and shows how Jesus brings it to fulfillment in himself. Looking forward, Matthew ends his Gospel by propelling the church out into the world to take the gospel to all nations so that the reign of King Jesus is further expanded over all creation.
While Matthew focuses on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, Luke describes Jesus as the one who welcomes the outsider, and John emphasizes Jesus as the eternal Son of God, Mark focuses on Jesus as the one who ushers in the kingdom of God. Through his life and teaching, but especially through his death and resurrection, Jesus fulfills all the Old Testament hopes and promises, bringing in the long expected new age.
Luke’s Gospel begins, and Acts ends, with a pointed reminder that the coming of Jesus fulfills God’s promises, expressed in the Old Testament, to redeem2 the world through Israel. As Luke’s genealogy of Jesus makes clear, everyone who is descended from Adam—all humanity—has departed from God. Only “repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47) can restore us to the fullness of life that God intends for his human creatures. God’s purpose is to raise up a king in Israel who can remove sin, defeat death, and pour out the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit on all who embrace his rule. Jesus is this messianic King, the greater “son of David” who brings God’s promises to completion, and through whom “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6, citing Isa. 52:10).
While Matthew focuses on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, Mark focuses on Jesus as the one who ushers in the kingdom of God, and Luke emphasizes Jesus as the one who welcomes the outsider, John emphasizes Jesus as the eternal Son of God. Through his signs and teaching, through his death and resurrection, and through the mission he entrusts to his disciples, Jesus fulfills all the Old Testament hopes and promises. He inaugurates the long-awaited new age.
Acts shows that the new Christian movement is not a fringe sect, but the culmination of God’s plan of redemption. What was seen only as shadows in the Old Testament, God reveals finally and fully through Jesus Christ. The book of Acts does not primarily provide human patterns to emulate or avoid. Instead, it repeatedly calls us to reflect upon the work of God, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, establishing the church by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The gospel’s expansion is the culmination of what God has been doing since the beginning. Acts consistently grounds salvation in the ancient purpose of God, which comes to fruition at God’s own initiative. This reveals God to be the great benefactor who pours out blessings on all people. Even the opportunity to repent is God’s gift.
While Romans is not the earliest of Paul’s epistles (letters) to appear in the canon of Scripture (1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians were probably written earlier) it serves as a foundation of sorts for all his other letters. This is one reason, in addition to its length, why it appears first in the canon’s epistles. The major ideas of all of Paul’s other letters—sin, Christ, and the gospel—find their fullest expression in Romans, even though there are some major ideas explored in the shorter letters which are not explored in Romans (doctrines of the church, the nature of Christ, the end times, etc.).
The letter of Romans serves as a grand theological blueprint for the gospel doctrine undergirding the rest of the New Testament. This includes the letters of Peter and the letter of James, who at first glance may appear to diverge from Paul’s teaching on justification. Appearing in the New Testament immediately after the four Gospels and Acts, Paul’s letter to the Romans unpacks the significance of who Jesus is and what he did. Paul takes the Gospel narratives of Jesus and his apostles—as well as the Old Testament revelation they fulfilled—and reveals their doctrinal implications. In other words, Paul explains the theological meaning of the overarching story stretching from Genesis to Jesus and beyond, into the future.
First Corinthians is one of Paul’s letters to a first-century church in ancient Corinth. Jesus had completed his earthly ministry, had died on a cross for the sins of the world, had been raised from the dead in fulfillment and victory, and had returned to his Father in heaven. The Spirit had been given in full at Pentecost, and the church had begun to grow throughout Asia Minor, with both Jews and Gentiles being brought in. This letter is one of many epistles written to local churches that were growing and wrestling with what it means to be faithful communities of Christ’s followers. Each church had unique questions and struggles, and the church at Corinth was no exception. This letter addresses a fundamental and ongoing issue for any local church: how does the gospel unite God’s people in humility and love?
Jesus Christ has come in the flesh at the climax of human history. Paul the apostle has been chosen by the Lord to be a key player in proclaiming Christ and his gospel to the world. After planting churches around the Mediterranean world, Paul writes letters back to these churches to strengthen them in their discipleship. The church at Corinth was particularly troubled, being tempted by false apostles to believe that Paul’s weakness and sufferings proved he was a fake. Paul reminds the Corinthians of what has been true throughout redemptive history: it is regularly the weak, the outsider, the crucified, through whom God powerfully works in the world.
Though Galatians is (rightly) understood as an epistle that proclaims the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, a careful study of this letter must recognize the redemptive-historical context in which it was written. During the centuries years leading up to the coming of Christ, God’s people believed that the only way to experience God’s saving blessings was by becoming a part of ethnic Israel and placing oneself under the law of Moses. This understanding was upended when Peter was sent by God to proclaim the gospel to Cornelius, a Roman centurion (Acts 10). Ten years later, when Paul writes this letter, there remains a significant amount of confusion regarding how a person enters the family of God. What is required to become an heir to the promises of blessing that God made to Abraham? What place do Gentiles have in God’s redemptive plan for humanity? These questions lie near the center of the controversy addressed in Galatians.
The Lord revealed the inclusion of Gentiles in his plan of salvation when he called Abram and made promises to bless all nations through him (Gen. 12:1– 3). From the beginnings of the Lord’s dealings with Israel, Gentiles came to the God of Israel—as when Rahab and Ruth left their gods to follow him.
Even though Israel as a whole rejected their Messiah, Jesus told his initial Jewish followers that he would build the church and that they would have a significant role in its growth (Matt. 16:18). In doing so, he indicated that something new had dawned in the messianic age—an assembly, “my church,” distinguished from greater Israel. The book of Acts shows that soon after the church’s formation, Gentiles joined the assembly without converting to Judaism or following the Mosaic law. The inclusion of the Gentiles into the largely Jewish church raised strong feelings among both believing and unbelieving Jews (Acts 11:1–3; 21:20–25).
Ephesians explains the theology of the inclusion of those formerly outside the covenant with Israel. Believing Jews and Gentiles in Ephesus are part of a larger design. The church will transform the marriages, work, parenting, and morality of her members. She will become the true temple of God.
By the time Paul writes Philippians, the events recorded in the book of Acts have all come to pass. Of course, that means that the Messiah1 has come—living righteously, dying sacrificially, and rising victoriously. In so doing he has ushered in a new covenant for his people (Jer. 31:31–34). He has sent his followers into the world to proclaim the gospel, to make disciples of the nations, and to plant local churches. The book of Acts records just that—30 or so years of the gospel spreading and churches forming. Thus, it is clear that the kingdom has come—it is now. But it is also still coming. It is both now and not yet. Christians are redeemed but must keep pressing on: standing firm in their confession, working out their salvation in Christian growth, resisting false teachers, embracing suffering and persecution, holding out the gospel of hope to the world, and committing to live out Christ’s love and humility with each other in the church.
Paul wrote several biblical letters to churches and individuals (Romans– Philemon). From one angle, they all share a general purpose—to encourage and equip Christians for the advance of the gospel (1:12) and progress in the faith (1:25). But, from another angle, each letter has its own unique purpose, context, background, and emphases. One distinctive of Philippians is its emphasis on partnership or sharing. The Philippian Christians share the gospel and the gospel mission with Paul, as they do among themselves as a church. This has important and far-reaching implications (See 1:5, 7, 14–19, 27; 2:1–8, 17–18, 22, 25, 30; 3:16–17; 4:1–3, 10–16).
Colossians and Philemon
In the beginning, the Creator-King appointed humanity to be his imagebearers, to establish the earth as the realm of the kingdom of God. Heaven and earth would intersect, and God would dwell among a flourishing human community. The will of God would be done on earth as it was in heaven. But humanity rebelled against their King and plunged the world into sin and death. Yet God’s original intention for humanity was not to be thwarted. He called Abraham and promised that from this family all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). From Abraham descended the nation Israel, which was to carry this blessing to the nations. But the Old Testament story is largely of Israel’s failure to accomplish this vocation. In the fullness of time, however, God sent Jesus, Israel’s ultimate king (“Messiah”), who, having dealt with humanity’s sin forever at his cross and resurrection, took up Israel’s stalled mission. In him, the redeemed people of God—comprised now of Jew and Gentile—take up this vocation of Old Testament Israel, bringing the good news of God’s reign in Christ to the nations. (Paul’s letters to the Colossians and to Philemon fit here.) At the end of history, Jesus will return as the world’s King to consummate God’s original intention for creation and to establish the kingdom of God fully upon the earth in the new creation. Then God will finally and fully dwell among his people forever.
In fulfillment of God’s millennia-spanning promises, Jesus the Messiah came to earth, lived, died, rose, and ascended in order to reconcile rebels to their Maker. After a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–19), Paul was chosen and commissioned as an apostle2 to broadcast that gospel and to plant churches. God blessed Paul’s witness in Thessalonica so much that a church was established before the apostle’s abrupt exit (Acts 17:1–11). It is to this young church that he now writes from Corinth, some 360 miles (by land) to the south, addressing the Thessalonians in light of a report from Timothy’s recent visit (1 Thess. 3:6). The letter’s scope stretches from eternity past (1:4) to its particular focus on eternity future (1:10; 2:19–20; 3:13; 4:13–5:11, 23–24).
Only two decades have passed since Jesus of Nazareth—Messiah of Israel, Savior of the world, eternal Son of God—completed his earthly mission by means of his atoning death, victorious resurrection, and royal ascension. In the meantime, a man named Paul has been dramatically converted on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–19) and commissioned as an apostle to proclaim Christ and plant churches. In Acts 17:1–11 we read of his ministry in—and banishment from—the city of Thessalonica. It is this congregation in Macedonia (northern Greece) that he now addresses for the second time from Corinth (southern Greece), having received a new report about them (2 Thess. 3:11).
1–2 Timothy and Titus
God created his world, and it was very good. Then sin brought disorder, devastation, and death for God’s world and humanity. The Old Testament portrays God’s patience with his rebellious covenant people and his promises to rescue sinners and restore his broken world. The New Testament announces that God has fulfilled his ancient promises and demonstrated his goodness and loving kindness by sending Jesus Christ, our Savior. The Gospels narrate the life, death, and resurrection of the Savior and King Jesus Christ. Acts records how Jesus’ followers continued his mission by proclaiming the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit among all nations. The Epistles provide apostolic instruction for believers living between Jesus’ first and second comings.
Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus beautifully summarize the gospel message: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15); he “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). This glorious good news is the standard for sound doctrine and the motivation for godliness. These three letters promote sound teaching and godly leadership in the church while warning against false teaching and ungodly leadership.
Hebrews contains 35 direct quotations from the Old Testament, along with many allusions and references. With the Old Testament background in mind, the author argues that God’s glory and redemptive plan are finally and most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ. The superiority of Jesus is demonstrated in that he is greater than any angel, priest, or old covenant institution. Christ is the complete atoning sacrifice and final priest. In him we see the fulfillment of all the Old Testament hopes and promises, ushering in the long-awaited new covenant age.
James is an intensely practical book, filled with exhortations to Christians about the way they should live their lives now that they have been given new life in Jesus. It is filled with allusions to and quotations of the teaching of Jesus, and it includes more imperatives (commands) per word than any other New Testament book. For these reasons, James has been called “the Proverbs of the New Testament.”
James is therefore highly relevant to the Christian life. Unlike many of the other books of the New Testament, James’s aim is not to give a theological presentation of the gospel. Rather, he writes his book to those who already believe the gospel, and his goal is to help them live faithfully as followers of Jesus. There are many different and seemingly disconnected themes in James—perseverance under trial, riches and poverty, wisdom, the danger of the tongue, prayer, and faith and works. But what ties them all together is James’s desire to take the teaching of Jesus and apply it to the Christian’s personal life.
1–2 Peter and Jude
With Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension the church has been launched into the world. Starting in Jerusalem and spreading around the world, the church encounters opposition, misunderstanding, and persecution. Writing to Christians scattered throughout modern-day Turkey, Peter calls the early Christians “exiles.” This term probably has a double meaning, one theological and one cultural. With the remnant of Israel exiled in Babylon in the background, Peter envisions the church as God’s true Israel, exiled in the world. However, as a community of those who are spiritually foreign and socially marginalized, the church is also a community of exiles within their own culture. Jude also picks up on this theme, reminding the church that their identity is in “Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt” (Jude 5). He exhorts the church to live as saints delivered from sin by Jesus and urges them not to fall into unbelief. The whole church can thus be viewed as a community of exiles—God’s chosen and redeemed people called to live for Jesus in this world.
Initially, the Scriptures used by the church were those of the Old Testament. Since Jesus came to fulfill all that was promised in the Law and the Prophets (Luke 24:44–45), the church grew in Christian faith through instruction in the Old Testament Scriptures as the apostles testified to their fulfillment in Jesus (Acts 2:14–36; 4:23–31; 7:1–53; 8:26–35; 13:16–41). However, Jewish leaders outside the church (Acts 4:18) as well as some teachers inside the church (Acts 15:5; 1 John 2:18–19) promoted false teachings about the meaning of the Scriptures and the ministry of Jesus. It was urgent to document the apostles’ testimony for the wider church and for future generations. Paul (Acts 20:31), Peter (2 Peter 1:15), John, and others of the apostles (1 John 1:3–4) participated in this crucial project of documenting the apostolic testimony concerning Jesus, resulting in the New Testament, which accompanies the Old Testament to form the complete canon of Christian Scripture.
John, who calls himself “the elder” (2 John 1; 3 John 1), was likely the longest surviving apostle. His epistles are among the final of the apostolic writings provided to secure the church in the “message we have heard from him” (1 John 1:5) in the face of false teachers (1 John 2:18–26).
Through its pervasive allusions to the Old Testament, Revelation demonstrates that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment and climax of history. Believers live after Jesus’ first coming, suffering as he suffered, but full of hope because of his atoning death and their assurance of his future, victorious return. The entire book strains forward to the new heaven and new earth described in chapters 21–22.
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