A Sacred Saga

The Six-Act Drama of the Bible

Jump Ahead:

Act 1 | Act 2 | Act 3 | Act 4 | Act 5 | Act 6

The goal of Bible reading is to understand these sacred writings in depth so we can then live them well. There are several steps on this journey to understanding and new life.

The first is to recognize that the Bible is a collection of many different kinds of writings—stories, songs, letters, prophecies, works of wisdom, apocalyptic visions, and more. These diverse writings are best read as whole books, each with its own distinctive message and spiritual truths.

It’s also important to remember that the Bible was first addressed to God’s people in the ancient world and in particular situations. This means we should always strive to understand each book in its original historical and cultural setting.

Overall, however, the Bible has two overarching goals: to tell the story of God’s plan for his world and then invite us into it. More than anything else, the Bible is a saga—the long, dramatic history of how God works with humanity to achieve the thriving life he’s always wanted for his creatures.

Overall, the Bible has two overarching goals: to tell the story of God’s plan for his world and then invite us into it.Click To Tweet

So a major factor in reading the Bible well is reading it as God’s big story. All the books in the Bible come together to narrate that story—past, present, and future. In concert, they take us through numerous ups and downs—big moves forward for God’s purposes, then devastating setbacks and losses. But God’s saving goal remains the same through it all: the redemption and flourishing of his entire creation.

Reading the Bible as this story requires that we recognize that it’s progressive in its revelation. As the story advances, its light grows. Greater redemption and deeper fulfillment are revealed act by act. The full revelation of God’s purposes for humanity can’t simply be lifted from any one page in the Bible. The essence of stories is that they move on.

To be specific, the Bible’s big story is heading toward Jesus. It’s in the appearance and work of the Messiah that we find the clearest and most definitive revelation of who God is and what he’s doing in the world. As the powerful opening to the book of Hebrews says: “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. . . . The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.”

God is summoning us all to embrace his sacred words, learn his story, and then enter into it. The Bible’s saga can be helpfully summarized as a six-act drama. These major movements of the story are outlined for you below.

Act 1

World’s Genesis

The Bible’s drama opens with God creating the heavens and the earth, but at first they are unformed and unfilled. The first creation story reveals a God who pushes back the power of anarchy and disorder with his Word. God speaks and brings order by forming the world into a well-arranged structure. Then he fills those spaces with all the beauty and wonder of the universe. At each step God declares that his world is “good,” and then at the end he pronounces all of it “very good.”

God creates one set of creatures in his own image: humans. This means that we were made to represent God’s good, life-giving rule to the rest of the world. God built collaboration with us into the story from the very beginning. He is the Creator, the most powerful actor in the Bible’s drama, but he has decided to do things together with humans as the story moves forward. We are made to reign—over the world but under God. The human race will determine the shape and direction of things more than any other creature. What happens to the creation depends on the role we play in the saga.

The human race will determine the shape and direction of things more than any other creature. What happens to the creation depends on the role we play in the saga.

Then we learn another crucial element in the drama: “On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work.” In the writings of the ancient world, when deities rested, it meant that they took up residence in their temple (see Psalm 132). This key moment at the world’s genesis tells us that God considered the creation to be his home, the place where he would live.

The entire biblical story will happen in the place God wants for his temple, working with his image-bearers. Heaven and earth were always meant to be united, a home for God and his people together. The Bible’s vision is based on the foundation of God’s good creation, which includes full, flourishing life in God’s world, with all its members properly related to the Creator and to each other.

Act 2

Humanity’s Rebellion

The image of a well-watered, creature-filled paradise is quickly shattered. God is there, walking through the garden in the cool part of the day, looking for the humans. But they are hiding from him, fearful of the consequences of their act of distrust and rebellion. They have been misled and deceived by God’s enemy—the serpent and Accuser—turning away from God to become a law unto themselves. Rather than following the wisdom of the One who made the world, the people have decided to go their own way.

So Adam and Eve are thrust from God’s garden and blocked from returning. They will now face a land and a life apart from God’s blessing. This is the first of many exiles in the Bible’s big story—people forced from their homes and away from God’s presence. In a very real sense, the Bible’s entire story is about God’s work to bring humanity back to his garden, his dwelling place, his temple home.

From this point on, humanity’s wrongdoing is presented as a radical departure from God’s founding vision. The story goes quickly downhill with all the well-known failures of human history on full display. Jealousy, hatred, vengeance, loneliness, shame, and acts of violence all come to play their destructive parts in the drama. God’s heart is broken. In a major divine reset, he even decides to wipe humanity from the earth in a great flood, saving only Noah’s family and a single pair of each of the earth’s animals.

Humanity has fallen into disrepair; they still rule the world, but very badly. Creation is wounded. Where abundant life in and with God was intended, sin and death now invade and infect everything. The major conflict of the biblical drama is centered on God’s efforts to overcome this rebellion. Restoration and reconciliation are what God will be striving for, and always with humanity as his intended partner.

But we’re early in the saga, and at this point it’s more about questions than answers. Will God in fact be able to quell the revolt? Can humanity be healed and restored, drawn back into faithful relationship with the Creator? How could this possibly happen? What will God’s plan be? What about everything else God made? Does the rest of creation have a future beyond this calamity?

Act 3

Israel’s Quest

What happens in the Bible is a series of ongoing steps by the Creator to re-establish what he intended from the world’s outset. God’s story is big, encompassing all things, but it’s also always personal.

God calls a man, Abram (later called Abraham) from Ur of the Chaldeans, and brings him to a new land, a new future, a new hope. God starts by making promises: You are small now Abram, but I will make you great—your name, your family, and your blessing, which will be for everyone. The seed for humanity’s renewal and the creation’s restoration is planted with this one man and the family and nation that will come from him—the twelve tribes of Israel.

These promises from God fit a regular pattern in the story. Big moves forward happen when God makes covenants or agreements at key moments in the story. These covenants start with God making pledges but also include the expectation of a faithful response by his people. We see this next when Abraham’s descendants are in deep distress in Egypt. They’re outside of the land God promised them and have become a nation of slaves. So God comes down to act with power to save his people, working with a new leader, Moses. God then makes a covenant with the entire nation at Mount Sinai.

This decisive action for Israel also creates another pattern that will show up in the story: Exodus. The word means “departure,” but in the Bible it comes to represent all the elements of God’s salvation for Israel:

  • freedom from slavery and oppression;
  • a covenant relationship between God the Father and his children;
  • the revelation of God’s instructions for living;
  • God coming down to live among his people in the Tabernacle or Temple;
  • the provision of manna (bread) in the wilderness;
  • offerings and sacrifices to atone for sins and reconcile God and his people;
  • the gift of a promised new land filled with God’s blessings.

Israel is now to be a “display” people—a nation of priests and a light to all nations, showing the world who God is and what it means to follow him. The land of Israel is meant to be a re-creation of God’s garden at the beginning of the Bible. Working with one nation, God is trying to recover his original intentions for all creation.

Most of the First Testament is a commentary on Israel’s faithfulness (or not) to this vocation. Sadly, Israel regularly fails, breaking God’s covenant by ignoring his instructions for justice and right living and by worshiping other gods. The people of Israel, like Adam and Eve at the beginning, often choose to do whatever they think is right in their own eyes.

But God is patient and keeps reaching out to his people. Through his servants the prophets, he both invites and warns his people to stay faithful to their covenant relationship with him. He makes another covenant with Israel’s great King David, promising that his offspring will have a great kingdom and will rule forever. Israel’s hope is tied to this royal line. The prophets envision a future king who will honor God, teach God’s ways, and defeat Israel’s enemies.

Abraham’s family has been raised up to undo the downfall of Adam and Eve. But Israel persists in idolatry and injustice, refusing to repent and become the nation God called them to be. In anger and dismay God is compelled to force Israel into exile in Babylon, away from his presence in the Temple. The nation is invaded, Jerusalem is smashed and burned, and the people are once again enslaved. This is devastating for the Bible’s story. Israel was meant to be God’s answer, the means by which blessing comes back to all peoples. But now God’s plan seems in shambles.

Once again, the story is filled with questions: Can Israel be saved? Can this entire drama be saved? Has God’s plan for redemption failed? Can he find a way to bring his favor, healing, restoration, and life back to his broken world?

Act 4

King’s Advent

In the years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Empire of Rome was already proclaiming its own version of the good news. The gods, it said, have ordained that the powerful and virtuous leader Caesar Augustus should rule the world. He is “a Savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere; the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning for the world of the gospel that has come to men through him” (from the Priene Calendar inscription in Asia Minor, ca. 9 bc). The world is a place of competing stories, and Rome’s story is the dominant one when Jesus enters our saga.

By this time Israel has been suffering under foreign domination for several centuries. The people are wondering when God will finally fulfill all his ancient promises to them. Different groups are offering various visions of Israel’s future. The Pharisees and teachers of the law urge people to get more serious about following Israel’s distinctive way of life under God’s law. Zealots advocate for violent rebellion. The leaders running the rebuilt Jerusalem Temple protect their power by making compromises with their Roman overlords.

Into this tumultuous world comes a new rabbi, a wandering teacher who makes a single astonishing claim: the reign of God is returning to this world. This means Israel’s long exile is ending. God is offering the nation forgiveness and renewal. Jesus demonstrates the truth of his message with mighty signs, showing that God’s Spirit is with him. Jesus heals, forgives, raises the dead, and overpowers the dark forces that have been harming God’s people. In both word and deed Jesus announces God’s Kingdom.

Jesus heals, forgives, raises the dead, and overpowers the dark forces that have been harming God’s people. In both word and deed Jesus announces God’s Kingdom.Click To Tweet

The leaders with other agendas reject the invitation and work to undermine Jesus, so his words of welcome turn to words of warning. A great catastrophe will come upon the nation if this last and greatest messenger from God is rejected. The opposition persists, and the conflict with Israel’s leaders comes to a head while Jesus is in the capital of Jerusalem.

In his final week Jesus is revealed openly, not just as a rabbi or prophet but as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. Jesus claims to be the Son of David. He had been baptized in the Jordan River, symbolizing a new beginning for the nation. He chose twelve disciples as a sign that the twelve tribes of Israel are being remade. Now he claims authority over the Temple and cleanses it by driving the merchants out. This happens during Israel’s annual celebration of the Exodus, and Jesus shares a final Passover meal with his disciples. He means for this to show he is about to bring a great act of rescue and salvation—a New Exodus. Jesus tells his followers that his death will launch the new covenant with Israel promised by the prophets. This is the decisive moment for God’s Kingdom to come with power.

Finally Israel’s leaders arrest Jesus and hand him over to the Romans for execution. He is nailed to a cross, with a sign that mocks him as “The King of the Jews.” It certainly looks as though Jesus has lost and that he is no king after all. But three days later he is vindicated, rising from the dead and appearing to his disciples.

It turns out that Jesus willingly went to his death as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. Through this sacrifice, he wins a surprising victory over the spiritual powers of darkness. Rome was never the real enemy. Jesus has taken on sin and death directly—ironically, through his own death—emptying them of their power over humanity. His resurrection confirms his triumph. This unexpected story of Israel’s Messiah reveals God’s long-term plan. All the earlier covenants were leading to this one. The life and ministry of Jesus brings all the narrative threads in the Scriptures together into a single, coherent Story. Through Jesus, God has launched his new creation.

Act 5

Community’s Calling

Israel was chosen in order to bring blessing to all peoples. Israel’s Messiah is the One through whom this ancient promise comes true. The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, now with authority over all things—this is the centerpiece of the whole long and winding tale of the Scriptures. The work of Jesus—sent by the Father and empowered by the Spirit—is where the Bible’s story finds the redemption and restoration it’s been looking for all along.

But how will the world hear this good news of the victory of Jesus? When the risen Jesus first appeared to his disciples, he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” His followers are given a mission. To a world enslaved by the evil powers, caught in wrongdoing and idolatry, now freedom and forgiveness are to be announced. To a world confused by misplaced allegiances, Jesus is to be proclaimed as Lord and King. To a world divided by social, ethnic, or tribal differences, a single new humanity in God’s family is disclosed. Abraham’s family—renewed through the Messiah—is commissioned to bring this message to all creation.

The mission of God expands through the birth and growth of new communities of Jesus-followers. Faith and loyalty to Jesus are now the key marks of the renewed people of God. These believers are God’s new temple, the place where he dwells. God is worshiped in Spirit and in truth. God’s justice is embraced; his love is lived out. By not only believing in Jesus but also following his teachings and walking in his way, God’s people are re-made in his image. They are called back to the original human vocation of reflecting God’s gracious rule to the creation.

This is the act in the Bible’s drama that we live in today. If we are true to our calling and restoration in this second Adam—that is, in Jesus—we will follow his pattern of suffering servanthood for the sake of the lives of others. We are called to appropriately improvise our own roles in God’s saving story based on what we’ve learned from reading the Scriptures in depth. In community we work out together what the way of Jesus looks like in the new places and situations God has placed us. And we continue to pray and long for the return of our King.

Act 6

God’s Homecoming

The Bible’s story begins with God pushing back the powers of chaos and disorder to create a place of beauty and goodness. But the powers returned, bringing wrongdoing and rebellion into God’s creation-temple. God’s image-bearers failed him. The entire narrative since then has been about God working, striving, even fighting to cleanse and reestablish his intended home. The decisive turn comes when the Creator actually becomes a creature himself, completely joining with his people to aid their battle against evil.

The finale of this great drama still lies ahead of us. The Servant-King will return to join his people once again. Jesus will appear as the world’s rightful Judge and Ruler, setting all things right. Evil will be destroyed and creation renewed. The world’s bondage to sorrow and pain and its slavery to violence, death, and decay will be broken once and for all. All things will be made new. The glory of God will fill the entire cosmos of his temple. The victory of the God of life will be complete.

God’s people will be raised from the dead in fully human, fully restored physical bodies. They will re-engage their first calling—to be Spirit-filled, God-worshiping, culture-making citizens of God’s new heavens and new earth. Peoples from every tribe, language, and nation will walk by God’s light and bring their splendor and glory into God’s city—the New Jerusalem. God will come down and make his home with us here in his reawakened creation.

Arise, O Lord, and enter your resting place, . . .
may your loyal servants sing for joy.
-from Psalm 132