Sitting on death row in a Roman jail, Paul penned one last letter to his spiritual son and fellow missionary, Timothy. He told him about what God purposed before the ages began and revealed through Jesus Christ, who brought life and immortality1 to light through the gospel message that had been Paul’s focus since the Damascus road (2 Timothy 1:9-11). For Paul, this message was worth living for, and worth dying for. It was the promise of a resurrection to a permanent life. It was hope beyond the grave. The real reason for this temporary life is the chance it gives us to attain to that permanent one.
Reading the Bible with this in mind helps us understand its purpose as well. If you just read the Bible as a group of stories and sayings in which people and nations happen to bump up against God, you are missing this central point – the one Jesus brought to light. It is the message within the message, and it can be summarized thus: God has zeroed in on a few temporary mortal beings all over this planet (and throughout time) and has promised by his grace to change them into immortal beings.2
If you have ever been reading a newspaper or magazine and run across the name of someone you know, you probably got more interested in the article rather quickly. That explains why Christians can read the Bible many times during their lifetimes, and still be enthralled by it. It is not just a bunch of old stories and laws. It is the story of how our God reached down into the fabric of time and space and granted us a precious inheritance – the gift of eternal life.
I. From A Great Beginning to A Disastrous End (Genesis 1-7) 4175-2519 B.C..3
God starts out his story with two perfect places: a heaven filled with glorious spirit beings, and an earth filled with good creatures of all kinds, under the dominion of two human beings, who rule the planet as God’s representatives. Soon disaster strikes. Some of those glorious spirit beings rebel against God, siding with Satan, and refusing to honor God as their creator. Satan takes an unauthorized trip to earth to spread his rebellion there, convincing Adam and Eve to trust their own judgment rather than God’s commandment. God had warned his creatures not to sin, because it would change their nature (making them mortal), and destiny (causing them to eventually die).4 The next few centuries tell the consequences of sin in the world, eventually making it a world so corrupt and violent that God had to destroy it with a flood. The symbol of the believer’s inheritance that stands out in this period is the tree of life. Although humanity lost access to it through sin, Christ gained it back for us on another tree – the cross of calvary.
II. From A Family Saved to A Civilization Cursed (Genesis 8-11). 2519-2086 B.C.
One symbol of eternal life in this era is the Ark, through which God chooses by his grace to preserve the lives of the animals and Noah’s family. He could have destroyed everyone and recreated, but he wants to redeem, not destroy. When the following civilization at Babel seeks to build a monument to its own power in unity, God scatters them by confusing their language. This resulted in the linguistic and ethnic nations that cover our globe today. God wanted this scattering to occur because the civilization he plans to resurrect will be multinational and multicultural.
III. From God’s Man to God’s Plan (Genesis 12-46) 2086-1871 B.C.
In the previous era, God had cursed all humanity in order to spread his promise to all the earth. In this era God blesses and calls one man, to be the channel through which that promise would come. The lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph reveal that God wants to protect them and provide for them because from their lineage an even greater man of promise would come. One symbol of eternal life in this era is the ordeal of Abraham on Mount Moriah. Here God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but out of compassion provides a substitute instead.
IV. From a Suffering Nation to a Suffering Deliverer (Genesis 47- Exodus 14) 1871-1441 B.C.
The concept of the substitute sines through in this era as well, not only in the passover lamb, whose blood had to be prominently placed outside the homes of the Israelites5, but also in Moses himself. He had to choose to suffer as an Israelite rather than deny his people and destiny. This prince of Egypt became a suffering servant, and a type of the Messiah as a Suffering Servant who is to come. And, like that Messiah to come, much of Moses’ suffering was at the hands of the Israelites themselves.
V. From Egypt to Canaan (Exodus 15- Joshua 3) 1441 – 1401 B.C.
This era is marked by two similar miracles – the crossing of the Red Sea as the Israelites leave Egypt, and the crossing of the Jordon River into Canaan 40 years later.
Perhaps one of the clearest “hints” God gives during this era of his future plans of an inheritance of eternal life is the water he supplied for the nation from a rock. Moses was told to do this once, and God provided the water that his people needed to live. But later, when God told Moses to speak to a rock, he struck it again. God was not pleased, and Moses lost the chance to enter into Canaan himself. By striking the rock twice, Moses disrupted the hidden message that God had provided. That rock was a symbol of Christ, who would be struck (crucified) to provide life for his people.
Most of the time in between the two crossings was spent by the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, trying to survive their freedom. God gave them all they could ask for: his presence, his provision, his priests to intercede for them, and his prophet to tell them what he wanted. But for most of them, God’s grace was not enough. The road to Canaan was littered with the bleached bones of those who had been delivered without being changed. But the next generation – the one that grew up in this environment – was prepared for the next stage of God’s plan for his people: the conquest.
VI. From Conquest to Kingdom (Joshua 4 – 2 Chronicles 10, Job, Psalms – Song of Solomon) 1401 – 926 B.C.
The next 475 years see the emergence and development of Israel as a nation – even as a superpower. In spite of the fact that God is clearly for his nation, they constantly fail him. They struggle internally, failing to keep their covenant with God that had been mediated by Moses, as is evidenced by internal violence, corruption, and idolatry. They also struggle against the surrounding nations, who seek to oppress and control them. One symbol of the believer’s inheritance of eternal life which appears in this era is David himself. David is not the sinless Messiah promised, but he is a symbol pointing to his greater son, who will be. David expressed belief in his own resurrection and predicted the resurrection of the Messiah when he said “because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (Psalm 16:10, Acts 2:29-32). One of the catalysts that moved this nation into political and social greatness is their belief in a God who would not allow their death to be permanent. He would remember, and resurrect.
VII.From Division to Disaster (1 Kings 12-22; 2 Kings 1-17; 2 Chronicles 11-32; Obadiah; Jonah; Amos; Hosea; Joel; Isaiah; Micah) 926-722 B.C.
God could no longer tolerate the idolatry and violence in Israel, so he caused the nation to divide into two: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. He appealed to both nations through prophets, but neither nation would listen. God eventually sent the Assyrians to conquer the northern kingdom (Israel), but continued to protect Judah, appealing to them to repent, or suffer the same fate as their brothers. This is a very important era, because it reveals that God has plans that go beyond the establishment of a single nation among mortals. He wants to bring eternal life, through a resurrection, to all nations. We see this in the messages of warning, and the appeals for repentance to Israel, Judah, Assyria, Edom, Babylon, etc. that come from God’s prophets. The prophet Jonah, whom God sent to the Ninevites, symbolizes God’s resurrection to come when he is swallowed by a whale, the regurgitated three days later (1:17; 2:10). The prophet Joel predicted a day when Jews will lead people to call on the name of the LORD and be saved (2:29-32). This was fulfilled 8 ½ centuries later, at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21).
VIII. From Disaster to Disintegration (2 Kings 18-25; 2 Chronicles 32-36; Isaiah (cont.); Zephaniah; Nahum; Habakkuk; Jeremiah) 722-586 B.C.
As previously mentioned, God continued to protect Judah, appealing to them to repent, or suffer the same fate as their brothers. This era is a monument to God’s patience, because most of the time Judah proved no more faithful than Israel had. Many in Judah were convinced that – in spite of what happened to their brothers up north – God would never allow them to be overrun, taken captive, or driven into exile by their enemies. The prophets, however, took the coming disintegration of Judah as a given, and began to predict not only the fall of Jerusalem, but a time of restoration and return to the land afterward (Zephaniah 3:11-20). By emphasizing the fall of Judah, and then its restoration, the prophets were hinting at God’s plan for a resurrection unto eternal life for believers. The period ends with Babylonian armies swarming in from the north, destroying Jerusalem, and taking the survivors captive.
IX. From Death to Resurrection (Jeremiah (cont.); Lamentations; Daniel; Ezekiel) 586–538 B.C.
The prophets during the Babylonian captivity witnessed the death of their nation at the hands of the Babylonian empire, and had to admit that it was God’s will. Yet they also believed that that was not the end of the story. The miracles in the lives of Daniel and the other Jews in captivity, and the fulfilled predictions showed that God was still in control, not only of his people, but also of the other nations and their destiny. The prophets appealed to God to remember his people, and to bring them back to the land that he had promised eternally to their ancestor Abraham. God intended to do just that – and even more. The prophets would foretell the restoration in language that clearly portrayed the belief in a physical resurrection (Jeremiah 50:17-20; Daniel 12:1-3; Ezekiel 37:1-14).
X. From Cyrus to Christ (Ezra – Esther; Haggai – Malachi) 538- 4 B.C.
A decree by the Persian king Cyrus allowed the Jews scattered throughout his empire to return to their homeland, and rebuild their cultures and communities. The Jews who returned vowed never again to offend God by practicing the idolatry that characterized the nations around them. They were characterized by a commitment to their God and their land, and an expectation of a coming Messiah who would forever rid them from foreign domination. While God was restoring Israel as a nation, he was also protecting them from their enemies. Behind the stories in Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther where God intervenes to protect his people from extermination is the fact that Israel must survive because Christ must come from that nation. More is at stake here than simply the survival of a nation. God is protecting the one through whom he will bring life and immortality to light.
XI. From Christ to the Church (Matthew -John; Acts 1) 4 B.C. – 30 AD.
At first Jesus’ ministry appears to be no more than a taking over the Jewish revival began by John the Baptist. His disciples are Jews, the people he targets are Jews, and he is proven to fulfill the prophecies pertaining to the Jewish Messiah. But before long, it becomes quite evident that the salvation Jesus is offering is deliverance from sin for the whole world (John 3:16). Jesus died on a Roman cross, after being condemned to death by Jewish leaders. But that death was not the end of Jesus of Nazareth. After three days in the tomb, he was raised to life. But his was more than a resurrection. It was a resurrection unto eternal life. After showing himself to believers, he ascended with a promise to empower them to take his promise of eternal life to the nation.
XII. From Promise to Fulfillment (Acts 2- Revelation) 30 A.D. – ?
The Holy Spirit, in which the Church was immersed at Pentecost, was that empowerment. He leads the Church in following God’s call, like Abraham did – by faith (Romans 4:12-13). He helps believers accept Jesus as their deliverer (Galatians 3:9). He leads them to apply the death of Christ as their atoning sacrifice (Hebrews 9:14). Once the have crossed over, he is God’s presence, provision, and priesthood enabling them to get through the wilderness of this life (Galatians 3:2; Ephesians 1:13; Romans 8:27). He teaches believers how to live victorious Christian lives (Revelation 2:7).
After death, believers will remain asleep until Jesus Christ resurrects them at his second coming. Jesus will literally reign with resurrected believers as his agents, restoring this earth to its intended glory, removing the evidence of Satan’s rebellion, and destroying all Christ’s enemies (1 Corinthians 15:24-26; Revelation 20:6).6 The New Testament urges everyone to accept God’s offer of eternal life through Christ: “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17 NIV).
1“Life and Immortality” is most probably an example of hendiadys, meaning “immortal life.”
2Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, in How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth. (Manila: OMF, 1997), 79-81 talk about the three levels of Old Testament narratives. The bottom level is the individual stories, the middle level is the story of Israel as a nation, and the top level is redemptive history. It is that top level to which I refer.
3The ten Old Testament eras reflected here are adapted from Constance M. Reynolds, A Journey of Promise. (Makati City, Philippines: Church Strengthening Ministry, 2003). The titles for them are my own. All dates are estimates based on the genealogical and historical references in the Bible.
4Both warnings are implied by the phrase twmt twm, usually translated “you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
5No one knows for sure what word was implied by the blood being placed on the top and sides of each doorframe (Exodus 12:7). But the placement would produce a very visible sample of the Hebrew letter j (Chet). My guesses are that the letter stood for either chesed, the word for mercy, or chayim, the word for life.
6Thus the entire story of Israel in the Old Testament – from Abraham’s call to the restoration under Cyrus – is a similitude for the salvation God offers the believer in Christ. I am not arguing for an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament. These Old Testament stories reflect true events, which must be accepted as historical facts. However, those events are so orchestrated by God that they match realities in the life of every believer. That helps to explain passages like 1 Corinthians 10 and Hebrews 11.