Read the Bible as a single story with a single theme by J I Packer
All the following passages are from J. I. Packer’s book, “God’s Plans for you,” published in 2001.
God made life, and God alone can tell us its meaning. If we are to make sense of life in this world, then, we must know about God. And if we want to know about God, we must turn to the Bible.
READ THE BIBLE
So let us read the Bible—if we can. But can we? Many of us have lost the ability. When we open our Bibles, we do so in a frame of mind that forms an insurmountable barrier to reading it at all. This may sound startling, but it is true. Let me explain.
When you read a book, you treat it as a unit. You look for the plot or the main thread of the argument and follow it through to the end. You let the author’s mind lead yours. Whether or not you allow yourself to “dip” before settling down to absorb the book, you know that you will not have understood it till you have read it from start to finish. If it is a book that you want to master, you set aside time for a careful, unhurried journey through it.
But when we come to Holy Scripture, our behavior is different. To start with, we are not in the habit of treating it as a book—a unit—at all; we approach it simply as a collection of separate stories and sayings. We take it for granted that these items represent either moral advice or comfort for those in trouble. So we read the Bible in small doses, a few verses at a time. We do not go through individual books, let alone the two Testaments, as a single whole. We browse through the rich old Jacobean periods of the King James Version or the infor malities of the New Living Translation, waiting for something to strike us. When the words bring a soothing thought or a pleasant picture, we believe the Bible has done its job. We have come to view the Bible not as a book, but as a collection of beautiful and suggestive snippets, and it is as such that we use it. The result is that, in the ordinary sense of “read,” we never read the Bible at all. We take it for granted that we are handling Holy Writ in the truly religious way, but this use of it is in fact merely superstitious. It is, I grant, the way of natural religiosity. But it is not the way of true religion.
God does not intend Bible reading to function simply as a drug for fretful minds. The reading of Scripture is intended to awaken our minds, not to send them to sleep. God asks us to approach Scripture as his Word—a message addressed to rational creatures, people with minds, a message we cannot expect to understand without thinking about it. “Come now, and let us reason together,” said God to Judah through Isaiah (Isaiah 1:18 KJV), and he says the same to us every time we take up his book. He has taught us to pray for divine enlightenment as we read. “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Psalms 119:18 KJV). This is a prayer for God to give us insight as we think about his Word. But we effectively prevent God from answering this prayer if after praying we blank out and stop thinking as we read.
God wants us to read the Bible as a book—a single story with a single theme. I am not forgetting that the Bible consists of many separate units (sixty-six to be exact) and that some of those units are themselves composites (such as the Psalter, which consists of 150 separate prayers and hymns). For all that, however, the Bible comes to us as the product of a single mind, the mind of God. It proves its unity over and over again by the amazing way it links together, one part throwing light on another part. So we should read it as a whole. And as we read, we are to ask: What is the plot of this book? What is its subject? What is it about? Unless we ask these questions, we will never see what it is saying to us about our lives.
When we reach this point, we shall find that God’s message to us is more drastic and at the same time more heartening than any that human religiosity could conceive.
THE MAIN THEME
What do we find when we read the Bible as a single, unified whole, with our minds alert to observe its real focus?
We find just this: The Bible is not primarily about man at all. Its subject is God. He (if the phrase may be allowed) is the chief actor in the drama, the hero of the story. The Bible is a factual survey of his work in this world—past, present, and future, with explanatory comments from prophets, psalmists, wise men, and apostles. Its main theme is not human salvation, but the work of God vindicating his purposes and glorifying himself in a sinful and disordered cosmos. He does this by establishing his kingdom and exalting his Son, by creating a people to worship and serve him, and ultimately by dismantling and reassembling this order of things, thereby rooting sin out of his world.
It is into this larger perspective that the Bible fits God’s work of saving men and women. It depicts God as more than a distant cosmic architect, or a ubiquitous heavenly uncle, or an impersonal life-force. God is more than any of the petty substitute deities that inhabit our twentieth-century minds. He is the living God, present and active everywhere, “glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders” (Exodus 15:11 KJV). He gives himself a name—Yahweh (Jehovah: see Exodus 3:14-15; 6:2-3), which, whether it be translated “I am that I am” or “I will be that I will be” (the Hebrew means both), is a proclamation of his self-existence and self-sufficiency, his omnipotence and his unbounded freedom.
This world is his, he made it, and he controls it. He works “all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11 KJV). His knowledge and dominion extend to the smallest things: “The very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:30 NIV). “The Lord reigns”—the psalmists make this unchangeable truth the starting point for their praises again and again (see Psalms 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1). Though hostile forces rage and chaos threatens, God is King. Therefore his people are safe.
Such is the God of the Bible. And the Bible’s dominant conviction about him, a conviction proclaimed from Genesis to Revelation, is that behind and beneath all the apparent confusion of this world lies his plan. That plan concerns the perfecting of a people and the restoring of a world through the mediating action of Jesus Christ. God governs human affairs with this end in view. Human history is a record of the outworking of his purposes. History is in truth his story.
The Bible details the stages in God’s plan. God visited Abraham, led him into Canaan, and entered into a covenant relationship with him and his descendants—”an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.. . . I will be their God” (Genesis 17:7ff.). He gave Abraham a son. He turned Abraham’s family into a nation and led them out of Egypt into a land of their own. Over the centuries he prepared them and the Gentile world for the coming of the Savior-King, “who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you, who by him do believe in God” (1 Peter 1:2Off KJV).
At last, “when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4ff KJV). The covenant promise to Abraham’s seed is now fulfilled to all who put faith in Christ: “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29 NKJV).
The plan for this age is that this Gospel should be known throughout the world, and “a great multitude … of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” (Revelations 7:9 KJV) be brought to faith in Christ; after which, at Christ’s return, heaven and earth will in some unimaginable way be remade. Then, where “the throne of God and of the Lamb” is, there “his servants will serve him. They will see his face. . .and they will reign for ever and ever” (Revelations 22:3-5 NIV).
This is the plan of God, says the Bible. It cannot be thwarted by human sin, because God made a way for human sin itself to be a part of the plan, and defiance of God’s revealed will is used by God for the furtherance of his will. Joseph’s brothers, for instance, sold him into Egypt. “You thought evil against me,” observed Joseph afterwards, “but God meant it for good… to save much people alive” (Genesis 50:20 KJV); “So it was not you that sent me hither, but God” (Genesis 45:8 KJV). The cross of Christ itself is the supreme illustration of this principle. “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God,” said Peter in his Pentecost sermon, “ye … by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23 KJV). At Calvary God overruled Israel’s sin, which he foresaw, as a means to the salvation of the world. Thus it appears that man’s lawlessness does not thwart God’s plan for his people’s redemption; rather, through the wisdom of omnipotence, it has become the means of fulfilling that plan.
ACCEPTING THE PLAN
This, then, is the God of the Bible—a God who reigns, who is master of events, and who works out through the stumbling service of his people and the impudence of his foes his eternal purpose for his world. Now we begin to see what the Bible has to say to our generation that feels so utterly lost and bedeviled in an inscrutably hostile order of events. There is a plan, says the Bible. There is sense in circumstances, but you have missed it.
Turn to Christ. Seek God. Give yourself to the fulfillment of his plan, and you will have found the elusive key to living. “Whoever follows me,” Christ promises, “will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12 NIV). You will have a motive: God’s glory. You will have a rule: God’s law. You will have a friend in life and death: God’s Son. You will have found the answer to the doubting and despair triggered by the apparent meaninglessness, even malice, of circumstances: You will know that “the Lord reigns,” and that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV). And you will have peace.
The alternative? We may defy and reject God’s plan, but we cannot escape it. For one element in his plan is the judgment of sin. Those who reject the gospel offer of life through Christ bring upon themselves a dark eternity. Those who choose to be without God shall have what they choose: God respects our choice. This also is part of the plan. God’s will is done no less in the condemnation of unbelievers than in the salvation of those who put faith in the Lord Jesus.
Such are the outlines of God’s plan, the central message about God that the Bible brings us. Its exhortation to us is that of Eliphaz to Job: “Now acquaint yourself with Him, and be at peace; thereby good will come to you” (Job 22:21 NKJV). Since we know that “the Lord reigns,” working out his plan for his world without hindrance, we can begin to appreciate both the wisdom of this advice and the glory that lies hidden in this promise.
“ALL THINGS FOR GOOD”?
“The Lord reigns.” This, we now see, is the first fundamental truth we must face. The Creator is King in his universe. God “works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11 KJV). The decisive factor in world history, the purpose that controls it and the key that interprets it, is God’s eternal plan. The sovereign lordship of God is the basis of the biblical message and the foundation fact of Christian faith, and we have noted that on it is built the great assurance that “all things work together for good to them that love God.” If this is so, it is marvelously good news.
But can this assurance stand? The claim it makes raises problems for sensitive and thoughtful souls at many points. It does not admit of rational demonstration, and circumstances on occasion prompt painful doubts. Some of the things that happen to Christians in particular hurt and bewilder us. How can these misfortunes, these frustrations, these apparent setbacks to God’s cause, be any part of his will? In response to these things, we find ourselves inclined to deny either the reality of God’s government or the perfect goodness of the God who governs. To draw either conclusion would be easy—but it would also be false. When we are tempted to do this, we should stop and ask ourselves certain questions.
THE SECRET THINGS
Ought we to be surprised when we find ourselves baffled by what God is doing? No! We must not forget who we are. We are not gods; we are creatures, and no more than creatures. As creatures, we have no right or reason to expect that at every point we shall be able to comprehend the wisdom of our Creator. He himself has reminded us: “My thoughts are not your thoughts. . . . As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NKJV). Furthermore, the King has made it clear to us that it is not his pleasure to disclose all the details of his policy to his human subjects. As Moses declared when he had finished expounding to Israel what God had revealed of his will for them: “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us… that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29 KJV).
The principle illustrated here is that God has disclosed his mind and will, so far as we need to know them for practical purposes, and we are to take what he has disclosed as a complete and adequate rule for our faith and life. But there still remain “secret things” that he has not made known and that, in this life at least, he does not intend us to discover. And the reasons behind God’s providential dealings sometimes fall into this category.
Job’s case illustrates this. Job was never told about the challenge God met by allowing Satan to plague his servant. All Job knew was that the omnipotent God was morally perfect and that it would be blasphemously false to deny his goodness under any circumstances. He refused to “curse God” even when his livelihood, his children, and his health had been taken from him (Job 2:9-10 NIV). Fundamentally he maintained this refusal to the end, though the well-meant platitudes that his smug friends churned out at him drove him almost crazy and at times forced out of him wild words about God (for which he later repented). Though not without struggle, Job held fast his integrity throughout the time of testing and maintained his confidence in God’s goodness.
Job’s confidence was vindicated. For when the time of testing ended, after God had come to Job in mercy to renew his humility (40:1-5; 42:1-6) and Job had obediently prayed for his three maddening friends, “the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before” (42:10 KJV). “You have heard of the perseverance of Job,” writes James, “and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11 NKJV). Did the bewildering series of catastrophes that overtook Job mean that God had abdicated his throne or abandoned his servant? Not at all, as Job proved by experience. But the reason God had plunged him into darkness was never revealed to him. Now may not God, for wise purposes of his own, treat others of his followers as he treated Job?
But there is more to be said than that. There is a second question to ask.
Has God left us entirely in the dark as to what he is doing in his providential government of the world? No! He has given us full information as to the central purpose that he is executing and a positive rationale for the trying experiences of Christians.
What is God doing? He is “bringing many sons unto glory” (Hebrews 2:10 KJV). He is saving a great company of sinners. He has been engaged in this task since history began. He spent many centuries preparing a people and a setting of world history for the coming of his Son. Then he sent his Son into the world in order that there might be a Gospel, and now he sends his Gospel through the world in order that there may be a church. He has exalted his Son to the throne of the universe, and Christ from his throne now invites sinners to himself, keeps them, leads them, and finally brings them to be with him in his glory.
God is saving men and women through his Son. First he justifies and adopts them into his family for Christ’s sake as soon as they believe, and thus restores the relationship between them and himself that sin had broken. Then, within that restored relationship, God continually works in and upon them to renew them in the image of Christ, so that the family likeness (if the phrase may be allowed) shall appear in them more and more. It is this renewal of ourselves, progressive here and to be perfected hereafter, that Paul identifies with the “good” for which “all things work together … to them that love God. . . the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 KJV). God’s purpose, as Paul explains, is that those whom God has chosen and in love has called to himself should “be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he [the Son] might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28-29 NIV). All God’s ordering of circumstances, Paul tells us, is designed for the fulfillment of this purpose. The “good” for which all things work is not the immediate ease and comfort of God’s children (as is, one fears, too often supposed), but their ultimate holiness and conformity to the likeness of Christ.
Does this help us to understand how adverse circumstances may find a place in God’s plan for his people? Certainly! It throws a flood of light upon the problem, as the writer to the Hebrews demonstrates. To Christians who had grown disheartened and apathetic under the pressure of constant hardship and victimization, we find him writing: “Have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?—‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished [better, reproved, RV] by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?. . . We have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? . . . .He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:5-11 RSV, quoting Proverbs 3:11-12, emphasis added).
It is striking to see how this writer, like Paul, equates the Christian’s “good,” not with ease and quiet, but with sanctification. The passage is so plain that it needs no comment, only frequent rereading whenever we find it hard to believe that the rough handling that circumstances (or our fellow Christians) are giving us can possibly be God’s will. (18-26)