What is the Bible about?: The main ideas of God's word

To understand a sermon, you must know what it's about.  In the same way, it is vital to know what a book is about—to know its message, its organization, and its purpose.  When you're familiar with the author's theme and know how the parts of the book fit together, you can read with much greater insight.

So lets ask some important questions about the Bible: Who is its central figure? What is its central theme? What are its books about?  How do they relate to each other?  We often overlook these questions in Bible study, to our loss.  We tend to study individual parts of the Bible without relating them to the whole, thus missing their larger meaning and purpose.  The answer to the vital question, "What is the Bible about?" comes in four parts.

Who is the central figure of the Bible?

One of the most dramatic events in Scripture occurs late on Easter Sunday, on the road to the village Emmaus.  Two of Jesus' disciples are walking the seven miles home from Jerusalem.  Their hearts are broken with sorrow, their steps heavy with grief.

Jesus, the one they were certain was God's Son and Savior, is dead.  Now they've heard that even his body has disappeared.  All trace of him is gone, and their world has crashed in on them in despair and defeat.  Suddenly, Jesus joins them on the way.

"What are you discussing together as you walk along?" he asks.  They tell him of their grief at the death of their Lord, and their confusion about his empty tomb.  And then, in one of the focal passages of the entire Bible, Jesus replies to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?"  And then, "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Lk 24:25-27).

Here Jesus unveils the central focus of the Bible: himself.  He is the fulfillment of Moses, the Prophets, and the Old Testament.  He is the hero of the New Testament.  The central figure of the Bible is Jesus Christ.  This fact makes the Bible "Christocentric"--Christ is its center.  This principle cannot be overemphasized, for it alone makes the books of the Bible into the Book.

A. J. Conyers notes:

No one before had dared to propose that Scripture had a central figure. Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David and Elijah were figures of impressive stature in the history of Israel, but none of them could be said to be the central figure.  Christians, however, were impressed that all of the loose strands of prophecy, all of the straying tendencies of history, and all of the vast hopes of Israel, were summed up in God's self-disclosure in Jesus Christ.  If the book of the Jews was only a collection before this time, now it became welded into a unity.  The New Testament witness to the Incarnation of the Son of God makes it one book.

Without Christ as its center, the Bible can be a very confusing book.  Written over twelve hundred years by at least 43 authors, its basic ideas can be difficult to grasp.  But when you understand that the Scriptures are focused and fulfilled in Jesus, this fact brings the parts of the Bible into a whole.  Let's see how Christ is the central figure of God's word.

Jesus fulfills the Old Testament

We'll begin with the Old Testament.  For many Christians, its purpose is confusing at best.  Why do we need these ancient laws, histories, and rituals?  What significance can they possibly have for us?

The answer can be stated simply.  Jesus gave us both the purpose and the relevance of the Old Testament in one sentence: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17).  In saying this, Jesus tells us that the Old Testament is still the word of God.  It is neither abolished nor irrelevant.  And he also shows us that the message and meaning of the Old Testament is fulfilled in himself.  When we read these books as preparations for Christ, we find in them relevant principles for following him today.

First, consider the Laws of the Old Testament.  Here you find everything from rules about diet to ways to handle skin infections.  Why this multitude of detailed laws which no one could ever keep perfectly?  This question was in the heart of every Jew.  Here's the answer:

Before this faith came [in Christ], we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith could be revealed.  So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith (Gal 3:23-24).

God gave the Jews the law to show them their need for grace in Jesus.  By giving them his law for perfect living, he showed them how imperfect and fallen they were.  He proved that they needed to be saved from their sins.  And now Christ the Savior fulfills the law.

Second, the Old Testament sacrificial system includes regulations for sacrifices for every kind of sin.  What possible relevance could this have for us today?  The answer is that the system of animal sacrifice prepared the people to understand Jesus' sacrifice at Calvary.  The concept behind blood sacrifice was this:  by grace God would "transfer" the sins of his people to an innocent animal, and then "punish" that animal by death.  In this way, God's people could be forgiven and restored to himself.

However, no animal could truly take away our sin.  The animal sacrifices were but a preparation for the death of Christ, the only effective answer to the sin of mankind.  And so at Calvary, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21).  Jesus' death now fulfills all sacrifice for us (Heb 10:11-14).

Third, consider the history of Israel.  Why all these stories of ancient battles and conquests, kings and nations? Many relevant principles can be found in these narratives.  However, God's chief reason for creating Israel was to bring through it his Son.  This is the best way to understand the significance of the nation and its history.

For this reason, Matthew's Gospel, written for the Jews, begins with the genealogy of Jesus to show that he is the fulfillment of the Jewish nation.  Beginning with Abraham, the father of the Jews, Matthew traces his people to Jesus, their Savior and Lord.  The history of Israel is "his story." 

The wisdom books (Job to the Song of Solomon) taught the Hebrews how to approach everyday living by faith and obedience.  They are best interpreted through faith in him who is "the way and the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6).  The prophets pointed the way ultimately to Jesus, God's Son: "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe (Heb 1:1-2).

So we can conclude that the Old Testament is best read through the lends of faith in Jesus Christ.  When we approach it in this way, its principles and preparations lead us to a deepened faith and disciplined obedience.  Jesus fulfills the Old Testament as the central figure of the word of God.

Jesus is the focus of the New Testament

The earliest preaching of the Christian church dwelt on the fact that Christ fulfilled the Old Testament as the Son of God.  Consider Peter's message at Pentecost, the first sermon of the church (Ac 2:14-40).  The outline of his message is simple, and centers in Christ:

Salvation in Jesus fulfills the promise of the Old Testament (vv. 17-21; see Joel 2:28-32).

Jesus is real (v. 22).

He died on the cross (v. 23).

He rose from the grave (v. 24).

His death and resurrection fulfill the Old Testament promise of the coming Holy One (vv. 25-32; see Ps 16:8-11).

Jesus is now Lord (vv. 33-36).

You must receive him as your personal savior (vv. 38-40).

Paul's preaching follows the same approach.  In his message to the Greek intellectuals in Athens (Ac 17:22-31), he makes five basic points:

God is Creator, and Lord of heavens and earth (v. 24a).

He cannot be contained in our shrines or idols (24b-25). 

All men and women are responsible to him (vv. 26-30). 

He will judge the world (v. 31a).

He will do this by the resurrected Christ (v. 31b).

Paul focuses God's creative power and rule in Christ as he is the Judge of all mankind.

You will find this "Christocentric" focus throughout the New Testament.  The Gospels tell the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.  Acts describes how his people share his story with the world.  The epistles show Christ's people how to worship and live.  Revelation describes Jesus' return and eternal reign.  The New Testament has only one central idea: Jesus is Lord (Ac 2:36).

To understand the focus of the Bible in Christ, think of the Scriptures as an hourglass, with movement from top to bottom.  Christ is the center through whom all movement flows.  God's activities lead to and flow from salvation in his Son.

At the broad top of the hourglass we find God's creative activity in making his perfect world: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (Gen 1:31).  But mankind chooses to rebel in pride, wanting to be "like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:5).  God now begins to provide for our redemption from our sin, and the hourglass begins to narrow.  God chooses Abraham as the father of the nation through which redemption will come (Gen 12:1-3).  Only a remnant of this nation is faithful to him (Is 10:20-21), and the glass narrows further.  Finally, the glass focuses in Christ (Gal 4:4-5).

Following Jesus' death and resurrection, the hourglass begins to broaden from Jesus to his apostles and early disciples.  It then broadens further at Pentecost and the conversion of three thousand (Ac 2:41).  Following the model of Acts 1:8--"you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth"--the church begins to grow.  Samaritans are won to Christ (Acts 8), followed by Gentiles (Acts 10), and finally the gospel is carried to the world (Acts 13).  When Acts ends, Paul is preaching freely in Rome, the capital of the Empire.

As the Bible predicts, the gospel will be preached to all the world and Christ will return, for "our Lord God Almighty reigns" (Rev 19:6).  Redemption in Christ will come, for Jesus is Lord.  And so God's word centers in God's Son.  He fulfills the Old Testament and is the focus of the New.  This means that the question the Greeks asked Philip is appropriate for our study of the Bible today: "Sir, we would like to see Jesus" (Jn 12:21).

What is the central theme of the Bible?

The Gospel of Mark introduces the ministry of Jesus Christ with the words, "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news!" (Mk 1:15).  Matthew records Jesus' first preaching in the same way: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Mt 4:17).  Here we come face to face with the central theme of the Bible, expressed fully and finally in the teaching of Jesus: the Kingdom of God.

James Stewart has beautifully described the importance of this theme in God's word and the Christian faith:

Every new idea that has ever burst upon the world has had a watchword.  Always there has been some word or phase in which the very genius of the thing has been concentrated and focused, some word or phase to blazon on its banners when it went marching out into the world.  Islam had a watchword: "God is God, and Mohammed is his prophet."  The French Revolution had a watchword: "Liberty, equality, fraternity."  The democratic idea had a watchword: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people." . . . Every new idea that has stirred the hearts of men has created its own watchword, something to wave like a flag, to rally the ranks and win recruits.  Now the greatest idea that has ever been born upon the earth is the Christian idea.  And Christianity came with a watchword, magnificent and mighty and imperial; and the watchword was "The Kingdom of God."

Jesus defines the kingdom of God very simply in the model prayer: "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Mt 6:10).  God's kingdom comes whenever and wherever his will is done.  As he is served and his will obeyed, he reigns as King.

As we will soon see, God's kingdom is central to the faith and message of the Old Testament and is the heart of Jesus' ministry and message as well.   And yet most Christians seem to be unfamiliar with the "kingdom of God" and its meaning.  And so we need to know, what did the "kingdom" mean for the Jews?  Why was it so important to Jesus? And how does it help us understand the Bible?

The Old Testament exalts the King

Throughout the Old Testament God is constantly viewed as King.  All Semitic peoples thought of their gods as kings, but none more so than the Hebrews.  Listen to this song of their faith:

The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed in majesty and is armed with strength.  The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.  Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity (Ps 93:1-2).    

Moses and his people sang, "The Lord will reign for ever and ever" (Ex 15:18).  The prophet Balaam said of the Jews, "The Lord their God is with them; the shout of the King is among them" (Num 23:21).  At the end of his life, Moses again proclaimed God King over Israel (Deut 33:5).  The Lord claimed his rule over his people: "I am the Lord your Holy One, Israel's Creator, your King" (Is 43:15).  The Jewish belief in God as King was the foundation of their faith.

This rule is not confined to Israel, for the Lord's claim to kingship extends to all the earth.  Hezekiah prayed to God: "O Lord, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth" (2 K 19:15).

David declared the same: "The Lord sits enthroned over the floods, the Lord is enthroned as King forever" (Ps 29:10).  The other psalmists joined him in similar praise: "How awesome is the Lord Most High, the great King over all the earth!" (Ps 47:2); "Say among the nations, 'The Lord reigns'" (Ps 96:10); "The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice" (Ps 97:1).  The Jewish hope was founded on the belief that their God is King of all the earth.

But here a great problem arose: while the Hebrews could affirm that God is King by faith, they seldom could by sight.  Their question was, if God rules the world now, why are his people so oppressed?

Generations of persecution by foreign powers had created this crisis of faith.  These struggles caused the Hebrew prophets to look to the future, predicting a time when their God would come to rule the earth in complete victory and power.

This was Isaiah's vision: "The moon will be abashed, the sun ashamed; for the Lord Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before its elders, gloriously" (Is 24:23; see 3:22, 52:7; Zeph 3:15; and Obad 21).  

Zechariah saw this clearly: "The Lord will be king over the whole earth.  On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name (Zech 14:9).  One day, their King promises, "I will create new heavens and a new earth. . . . I will create Jerusalem to be a delight, and its people a joy.  I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people, the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more" (Is 65:17-19).

And so the Old Testament vision of the present, reigning King begins to focus on the future, coming Lord.  This coming One the Jews called "Messiah," a Hebrew word meaning "anointed one."  The Hebrew people saw the Messiah as the Chosen One, the representative of God, the one in whom the Lord is present and through whom he acts as King.  When God rules the world, he will do so through his Messiah.  For this reason "Immanuel," meaning "God with us," is an appropriate title for the coming Messiah of God (Is 7:14).

When the Messiah comes, in him God will reign over the earth as King.  Isaiah said of this coming one, "Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.  He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever" (Is 9:7).  Isaiah 42:1 promises, "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations."

Zechariah heard the Lord promise:

Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion.  For I am coming, and I will live among you. . . . Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people.  I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.  The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem (Zech 2:10-12).

And so by the end of the Old Testament era, many of the Jews were looking for a coming One to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth.  This expectation prepared the way for the life, ministry, death and resurrection of God's Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Jesus the Messiah fulfills the Kingdom

"Christ" is the Greek word for "Messiah." The New Testament writers referred to Jesus by this title approximately 350 times.  It is abundantly clear in their writings that they and their people considered Jesus to be God's promised Messiah, the One who would usher in the kingdom.  There were at least two reasons for this.

First, Jesus announced himself to be the Messiah.  One of the prophecies in Isaiah described the Messiah in this way:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (Is 61:1-2).

Immediately after his wilderness temptations, Jesus went to his home synagogue in Nazareth to worship.  He was handed the scroll and said, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4:21). Jesus began his public ministry by claiming clearly to be God's Messiah, the One to bring his kingdom to earth.

Accordingly, he announced at the beginning of his preaching, "the kingdom of heaven is near" (Mt 4:17).  Jesus said of himself, "If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Mt 12:28).  He stated, "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John.  Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached" (Lk 16:16).  When the Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar said, "I know that Messiah is coming," Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he" (Jn 4:25-26).  Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, come to bring the kingdom to earth.

Second, Jesus fulfilled predictions about the Messiah.  The Messiah would be of the seed of Abraham (Gen 22:18), Isaac (Gen 21:12), and Jacob (Numb 24:17), of the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10), the family of Jesse (Is 11:1), and the house of David (Jer 23:5).  All this Matthew claimed for Jesus as part of his effort to convince the Jews of Jesus' messiahship (Mt 1:1-6, 16).

Note these other predictions and fulfillments: the Messiah would be born at Bethlehem (Mic 5:2; Matt. 2:1).  He would be virgin-born and would be called Immanuel (Is 7:14; Mt 1:23).  He would be preceded by a messenger (Is 40:3 and Mal 3:1; fulfilled in Jn the Baptist, Mt. 3:1-2).  His ministry would begin in Galilee (Is 9:1); Mt 4:12).  These and the many other Old Testament predictions which Jesus fulfilled convinced his followers that he was indeed the Messiah.

When Jesus the Messiah came to earth, he inaugurated the kingdom of God here.  It was only natural that he would make this kingdom the central teaching and theme of his life and ministry.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the kingdom: "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Mt 6:10).  He taught them about the kingdom in parables and in dialogue (see Mt 13).  He received them into the kingdom: "And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Lk 22:29-30).

The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost empowered the church to do the work of the kingdom.  When the disciples asked Jesus, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"  He replied, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Ac 1:6-8).  As the church did the will of God by the power of God, they expanded the kingdom of God across the world.

Jesus promised that one day he would return to consummate the kingdom: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory" (Mt 25:31).  Revelation promises this glorious rule: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever" (Rev 11:15).  

Because Jesus has come, the kingdom has already begun on earth.  One day it will be completed by him in glory.  In short, the "kingdom of God" was the central theme of the Bible.  The Hebrews proclaimed their God King of the earth.  They looked for his coming rule in the Messiah.  Jesus fulfilled this expectation and inaugurated God's rule on earth.  The church now does the work of the kingdom in the world.  One day Jesus will return to consummate God's kingdom, and he will reign forever.

The Bible finds unity in the kingdom

Since the kingdom is central to the Bible, we might expect this theme to unify and organize the different parts of the Bible.  When you think of the "kingdom of God" as the "hub" of Scripture and the different biblical sections as the "spokes," you can see how each relates to the others and to their central theme.

As a very general overview, let's apply this approach to the different sections of the Bible.  The creation stories testify that God is the creating King.  The history of the nation of Israel shows him to be the ruling King.  The law and wisdom sections teach the Jews how to live in his kingdom.  The prophets call the people to serve God as king and predict the coming of his rule in the Messiah.  The Gospels witness to Christ as the Messiah, the present King.  Acts tells the story of the spread of his kingdom.  The epistles call the church to faithful life in the kingdom.  And Revelation portrays the coming, eternal kingdom of God.

When we study the Bible in terms of the kingdom of God, we focus the different parts of Scripture on the theme of Scripture.  The books become the Book.  And this Book draws us to life in the kingdom of God.  The theme of the Bible then fulfills the purpose of the Bible: "these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ ["Messiah], the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (Jn 20:31).  

Our discussion leads us to a very practical conclusion: we should always relate our Bible study to the kingdom.  As you study the Scriptures, ask these questions at every turn:  What does this text say about the King? How does this passage help me to live faithfully in his kingdom?

When you read the Bible in this way, you are applying God's word to his will for your life.  This is the most fruitful way you can study the word of God.

What are the books of the Bible about?

Harry Emerson Fosdick was a famous American Baptist minister and professor in the first part of the 1900s.  He once said that as a young boy he wanted to read the Bible through, using the old method of reading three chapters a day and five on Sunday.  However, he never succeeded because he always stalled about halfway through Jeremiah.

Many people have had similar problems with similar methods.  Actually, reading the Bible straight through is probably the least effective way to study it because, unlike most books, it was not organized in a simple beginning-to-end manner.  The Bible is not a single book, but a collection of many books.

In fact, the title "Bible" was not applied to God's word until the fourth century when it was first used by Chrysostom, a church leader who died in A.D. 407.  Early church leaders often called Scripture the "Divine Library."  In 1516 the English officially designated it "Bibliotheca," meaning sacred library."  Only in recent centuries have the Scriptures commonly come to be called the "Bible."

How are these volumes organized?  The Scriptures are not structured by chronological history.  Rather, the Bible sets out its basic theme of God as King, each section building on the last.  Within this general approach there are eight main sections, four within each Testament.  Let's look briefly at these sections and their individual books in a condensed approach, so that we'll have a sense of the overall direction of the Bible.

The Old Testament

The Law:  The Bible opens with the "Pentateuch" (meaning "five books").  This section is commonly called the Law by the Jews, because these books deal with legal requirements for holy living.  Here we learn the requirements to be servants of the King.  

Genesis, meaning "origin," describes the origin of the universe, the human race, and the nation of Israel.  Throughout this book is the story of God the King, creating by his power and authority.

Chapters 1-11 tell the story of God's perfect creation and its fall into sin.  Here we read of God's judgment in banishing Adam and Eve from Eden, destroying the world in the flood, and scattering humankind at the tower of Babel.  Our need for redemption from sin is made painfully clear.

In chapter 12, God's answer to our need begins to be revealed.  God calls Abram (later renamed "Abraham"), and through him founds the nation of Israel.  The remainder of Genesis tells the story of Abraham's immediate descendants, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, known as the "patriarchs" of the nation.  Here Israel is created and multiplied, so that through the nation one day God can bring the Messiah to atone for all sin.

Exodus takes its name from the Hebrews' emancipation from Egyptian slavery and departure from that nation.  Here the Jewish people become a unified nation under Moses.  Through him God the King leads his people across the Red Sea, gives them his laws and commandments, and directs them in his worship.

Leviticus is named for the "Levites," the Jewish tribe responsible for priestly ministry and religious life in the nation.  This book describes methods by which the Hebrews are to worship their King and serve him.

Numbers is so named because it describes two censuses, numbering the nation of Israel (Chapters 1, 26).  The book further details rules for worship and life.  It tells of the people's unbelief and refusal to enter the Promised Land.  It then describes their life and travels to the east of the Jordan River at the edge of the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy means "the second law." Here Moses repeats God's laws to the people shortly before they enter the Promised Land.

History: The next twelve books of the Bible are historical in nature.  They span the centuries from the conquest of the Promised Land to the Jews' captivity in Babylon and the reestablishment of their nation at Jerusalem.  This section takes us to the chronological end of the Old Testament period.  God is the King of the nation throughout, leading his people.

Joshua takes its name from its central figure, the warrior who led the people to conquer Canaan and who later divided the land among the twelve Hebrew tribes.

Judges describes six period of Jewish servitude to various peoples in Canaan, and the nation's deliverance through the leadership of fifteen "judges" of the people.

Ruth was a foreign woman who was eventually married to a Hebrew and who became an ancestor of Jesus (Mt 1:5).  The events of this book occur during the period of the Judges, according to the book's place in the biblical organization.

1 and 2 Samuel are named after Samuel, the last judge of Israel and a priest and prophet of the land.  Originally there was only one book of Samuel, but the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) divided it into two.  While all of the events of 1 Samuel 25-31 and 2 Samuel occur after Samuel's death, he is the outstanding figure of the early sections of the book.  In these books we meet Saul and David, and read of the Kingdom united under David.

1 and 2 Kings, like 1 and 2 Samuel, were originally one book which was also divided in the Septuagint.  These books are named for their subject: four centuries of Hebrew kings, from David (died 930 B.C.) to Jehoiachin (in Babylon, after 561).  Here we read of the Kingdom united under David and Solomon and divided into Israel (called the Northern Kingdom for the ten northern tribes) and Judah (called the Southern Kingdom for the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin) after Solomon's death.  The book describes the fall of Israel to the nation Assyria in 722 B.C., and closes with the fall of Judah to Babylon which climaxed in 586 B.C.

1 and 2 Chronicles are a "miniature Old Testament."  Originally one book, their narrative begins with chronologies from Adam through the twelve tribes of Israel.  They then describe the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon, followed by a history of the Southern Kingdom to its release from Babylon.

Ezra was a priest and scribe who was instrumental in leading the Jews back to Judah.  Originally combined with the books of Nehemiah and Chronicles, this book tells of the release of the Jews from Babylon after Cyrus and the Persians defeated the Babylonian Empire.  It describes the return of about fifty thousand Hebrews to the land of Judah, the laying of the temple foundation, and spiritual revival in the land.

Nehemiah was the governor of the rebuilding nation.  He led the people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and helped reestablish sacred ordinances and worship in the nation.

Esther records events which occurred in the nation of Persia, chronologically between the sixth and seventh chapters of Ezra.  The book is named for Queen Esther, who delivered the Jews from destruction.  Noteworthy as the only book in the Bible which does not mention the name of God, Esther nonetheless testifies to the Lord's sovereignty over the foreign Persian nation.

Wisdom Literature: The next five books of the Bible are usually called "wisdom literature," as they offer precepts for religious and practical life.  They show subjects of the King how to trust and please him.

Job is named for its central, suffering figure.  Job may have lived around the time of Abraham.  His book, if written shortly after the events it describes, may therefore be the first biblical book to be written.  Its story concerns the age-old problem of suffering and the goodness of God, and it describes Job's final deliverance by his Lord.

Psalms takes its name from the Greek word for songs sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments.  It is a collection of 150 spiritual songs, poems, and prayers, and was the hymnal of the Hebrew people.

Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings dealing with every-day matters in the life of faith.  Written primarily by Solomon, these principles for relationships and righteousness served the Jews as a practical guide for daily life.

Ecclesiastes is named for the Greek word which means "preacher" or "assembly."  The author (traditionally thought to be Solomon) describes the vanity of life without God and our need to serve him obediently.

Song of Solomon is so named for its author, although some call it the "Song of Songs," from its first verse.  This poem is written about Solomon's love for a Shulammite girl, but it has often been interpreted in a larger sense as describing God's love for his people and/or Christ's love for his church.

The Prophets: The last section of the Old Testament contains the writings of and about the prophets.  The first five of these books are often called the "major" prophets, to be distinguished from the twelve "minor" prophets which later follow.  The only reason for this designation is that four of these first five books are much longer than the twelve which follow.  In significance, the shorter books are no less "major" than those which precede them.

A "prophet" in the Old Testament was involved both in "foretelling" and in "forth-telling."  While the prophets did predict the future, they also preached to the needs of the present.  The central thought of the prophetic books is that the Hebrew people must return to worshipping and serving God the King.

Isaiah prophesied in Judah, warning the people of the pending Babylonian captivity and calling them to return to God.  The second half of this book describes life in Babylon, and exhorts the suffering people to faithfulness.  The book is rich in prophecies about the coming Messiah.

Jeremiah lived from the time of King Josiah in Judah to the Babylonian captivity and sought to lead his people from their sins back to faithfulness to God.

Lamentations takes its name from the Greek verb meaning "to cry aloud," and consists of five sorrowful poems about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.  It is usually attributed to Jeremiah.

Ezekiel was a priest and prophet whose name means "God strengthens." Ezekiel spent his early years in Jerusalem, and then was exiled to Babylon.  Chapters 1-24 warned the Jews of the coming captivity; chapters 25-32 prophesied against foreign nations; and chapters 33-48 offered the exiled Jews hope of a promised return to the land.

Daniel means "God is my judge." Daniel was exiled as a youth to Babylon, where he spent his life as a government official and prophet of God.  He called his people to faith in the Lord and described predictive visions about the future hope of the people

Hosea was a contemporary with Isaiah and Micah.  He described the sins of the Northern Kingdom and predicted their coming judgment.  The book calls the people to return to their loving God.

Joel was a prophet in Judah.  His name means "Yahweh is God," and his book describes the desolation of the land due to sin and promises future deliverance.

Amos was a herdsman prophet from Judah who preached in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  He denounced the people's sins and called them back to God.  His book contains predictions of future catastrophe, sermons against sin, and visions of judgment and restoration.

Obadiah means "servant of the Lord." This prophet preached of God's judgment against the nation of Edom, the descendents of Esau, Jacob's twin brother.  Obadiah promised the future, final deliverance of Israel.

Jonah was a prophet from the area of Nazareth whom God called to preach against Nineveh, the wicked capital city of Assyria.  His well-known story shows God's love for the entire world and the Lord's willingness to use rebellious people to accomplish his purposes.

Micah means "who is like God?"  This prophet predicted future judgment for Judah, to be followed by her restoration.  Micah 5:2 predicts Bethlehem as the Messiah's birthplace, and the prophet calls the people to messianic hope and faith.

Nahum means "consolation." He predicted the fall of Nineveh, an event which occurred in 612 B.C., and promised Judah's deliverance from Assyrian power.

Habakkuk means "embracer."  He preached in the period just before the Babylonians began their invasions of Judah.  Habakkuk showed his people that the Lord would use Babylon to punish their sins, but also promised that the Babylonians would later be destroyed as well, thus vindicating the righteousness of God.

Zephaniah called Judah to repentance and revival, promising judgment for sin and blessing for righteousness.

Haggai was a contemporary of Zechariah (and of Confucius) and the first prophet to preach after the people returned from exile in Babylon.  He called the nation to finish rebuilding the temple, a task whose completion had been delayed some fifteen years.  He promised a return of God's glory when this project was done. 

Zechariah means "God remembers."  The prophet returned to Jerusalem from Babylon with Haggai and also called the people to complete the temple.  Zechariah made more predictions about the future Messiah than any other prophet except Isaiah.

Malachi means "my messenger."  Preaching about a century after the Jews returned to Jerusalem, Malachi called his nation back to righteousness and faithfulness, thus preparing them for the Messiah to come.

The Old Testament sets the stage for the coming of God's Kingdom in his Messiah.  The people are given his Law, which they continually break.  This failure shows their need for salvation in Christ.  They are given a nation, through which the Messiah will come.  The wisdom literature calls this nation to faith and to worship of the King.  The prophets predict judgment and offer hope in the coming One.  God gave the people his spoken and written word to prepare them to receive his Living Word.

The New Testament

The Gospels:  "Gospel" means "good news."  The "gospels" are so named because they offer the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.  They are not biographies as we think of them today.  Instead, they record what we need to know to trust in Christ as Savior and Lord (John 20:30-31) and to live in his kingdom.

Matthew was a tax-collector who became one of Jesus' disciples.  He wrote to persuade the Jews that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah.  His Gospel thus makes more use of Old Testament fulfillment than any other and records five teaching sections where Christ explains the Kingdom he brings.

Mark was a close friend of Peter, and according to early tradition wrote his Gospel to record Peter's sermons and experiences.  Mark wanted to persuade Gentile, especially Roman, readers that Jesus is the divine Son of God and thus emphasized Jesus' actions and miracles.  This book is usually considered the first gospel to be written.

Luke was probably the only Gentile writer of the New Testament.  He was Paul's physician; according to tradition, he wrote his Gospel from Paul's experiences and preaching.  He researched his book carefully, seeking to convince his Gentile readers that Jesus was their compassionate Savior.

John was Jesus' closest disciple and friend.  His Gospel interprets the life of Christ, intending to persuade its reader to trust him as Savior and Lord.  John included no parables and only seven miracles of Jesus.  The last half of his book focuses on Jesus' final week, explaining his death and resurrection as our only hope for eternal life.

The Gospels present Christ as Messiah, Son of God, servant and Lord.  They invite their reader to enter his Kingdom by faith and to serve him obediently.

Acts:  This book is Luke's companion to his Gospel.  He described the growth of Christ's church from Jerusalem to Rome, "the ends of the earth."  His Gospel focused on Jesus' works--Acts centers on those of the Holy Spirit.  Together these books tell of the coming and growth of the kingdom of God.

The Epistles: an "epistle" is a formal written correspondence.  The New Testament contains 21 such letters.  They are the work of six writers:  Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude, and the author of Hebrews.  Paul wrote 13 epistles; Peter wrote two letters; James, one; John, three; and Jude, one.  

The letters were written to individual churches, to groups of churches, and to individual persons.  Paul wrote the first 13 New Testament letters.  Three of these, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, are called the "pastorals" since they deal with pastoral issues and counsel.  Paul's letters are generally arranged from longest (Romans) to shortest (Philemon).  The authorship of Hebrews is still uncertain, so it is placed after Paul's letters.  The last seven letters are called General Epistles, since they are addressed to the church at large.

Romans has been called the greatest book of theology ever composed.  Paul's theme is justification by God's grace through faith in his Son Jesus Christ.  The letter lays out our need to be justified with God because of our sin.  It then presents Christ's death as the answer to our need, calls us to holy living, explains Israel's role in God's plan, and closes with practical guidance for Christian living.

1 and 2 Corinthians were written to the church at Corinth, a notoriously sinful city.  Here Paul dealt with church problems such as disunity, immorality, questions about marriage and divorce, problems with the Lord's Supper and worship.

Galatians was probably Paul's first letter.  It was written to a group of churches in the region called Galatia (central Turkey today), and deals with the Judaizing controversy about which the Jerusalem council met in Acts 15.  Briefly put, the questions concerned whether to require Jewish legalism for Gentile Christian converts.  Paul's pointed rejection of legalism freed the church to accept God's grace in Christ.

Ephesians was written from prison and circulated among several churches in the general area of Ephesus (this is called a "circular" letter).  The first three chapters describe the unity and spiritual blessings of the church; the last three call her members to holy living.

Philippians was also written from prison and is the most personal letter Paul wrote to any church.  This church family appears to have been his favorite, and he writes to express thanks for their support.  In addition he calls them to stand against Jewish legalism and to live together in unity.

Colossians is another prison letter.  Paul wrote it to exalt Christ as head of the church and thus defeat the heretics in Colossae who were attempting to mislead God's people.

1 and 2 Thessalonians were written early in Paul's ministry, probably just after Galatians.  They called the church at Thessalonica to continue in faithfulness to Christ in view of his future return.

1 and 2 Timothy were written toward the end of Paul's life and are addressed to Timothy, Paul's disciple and "son in the faith" in Ephesus.  The letters offer advice to this young minister on practical matters of personal and pastoral ministry. 

Titus is very similar in content to the letters to Timothy.  It was written to another young minister regarding the organization and leadership of churches, this time in Crete.

Philemon is Paul's shortest and most personal letter.  Written from prison, it is addressed to Philemon, a Christian slave owner.  Paul encourages him to offer mercy to Onesimus, his runaway slave who has since become a Christian.  In a larger sense, the letter calls all Christians to charity and grace.

Hebrews was written to exalt Jesus as our great High Priest.  The letter emphasizes Christ's superiority and shows how he fulfills Old Testament Judaism as the Son of God.  On this basis the writer encouraged his readers to steadfast faithfulness in spite of growing persecution.

James was probably written by Jesus' half-brother, the recognized leader of the church in Jerusalem.  The letter calls its readers to a practical, daily lifestyle of dedicated discipleship.

1 and 2 Peter were probably written by the apostle shortly before his death at the hands of Nero in Rome in A.D. 64.  Here he called his people to faithfulness in the face of suffering and persecution, and to orthodox belief in spite of growing heresy.

1, 2 and 3 John were probably written toward the end of the first century A.D. by John the apostle.  He wrote as a pastor to encourage his people to faith, joy, and assurance in Christ.  John called upon the church to love one another as their witness to the world.

Jude was probably written by another of Jesus' half brothers.  It warns the church about false teachers, predicts their judgment, and calls the people "to contend for the faith" (v. 3).

Revelation: the last book of the Bible takes its title from the Greek word which means "unveiling."  Here Jesus is unveiled before the apostle John and his readers in all his heavenly glory and power.  Christ promises his suffering people that he is with them and will one day return in judgment and victory.  

Before you begin to study any part of the Bible, it helps to have clearly in mind that book's general idea and purpose.  Such an overview can help you prepare for more effective study of God's word.

How do the books of the Bible relate to each other?

We tend to read books in a “linear” fashion, treating them as one continuous story from beginning to end.  As we have seen, the Bible is not organized in this way.  It may be helpful, therefore, to close this chapter with a brief chronological and thematic arrangement of the Scriptures.  While the question of biblical chronology remains a much-debated subject among scholars, we can at least trace broad historical lines.  The following charts will help you see the biblical books in historical perspective.

The Old Testament    

The chronology given below depends on the commonly accepted dates for events and books.  This overview is intended as a general survey, since discussing debates about dates and arrangements would be beyond the scope of our study.

Events

Biblical Books

Beginnings (undated)

Creation of the world

Adam and Eve

Cain and Abel

Cain’s line     Seth’s line

Noah and the flood

Ham, Shem and Japheth (humankind divided by nations)

The Tower of Babel (humankind divided by languages

Genesis 1-11

The Patriarchs (approx. 1900-1300 B.C.

Abram (Abraham) and Sarai (Sarah)

Isaac

Jacob 

Genesis 12-50

Job?

Exodus and the wilderness (1300-1250 B.C.)

Moses and the exodus from Egypt

The giving of the Law at Sinai

The nation’s refusal to enter the Promised Land

Forty years of wilderness wanderings

Joshua’s leadership, conquest of the land

Exodus

Numbers 

Deuteronomy

Joshua

The tribal confederacy (1250-1020 B.C.)

Judges

Ruth

The united kingdom (1050-1020 B.C.)

Saul (1020-1000 B.C.

David (1000-961 B.C.)

Solomon (961-922 B.C.)

1 and 2 Samuel

1 and 2 Kings

Psalms

Proverbs

Song of Solomon

Ecclesiastes

1 and 2 Chronicles

The divided kingdom: Israel and Judah

Israel—the northern kingdom (922-722 B.C.)

Nine royal lines, nineteen kings

Judah—the southern kingdom (922-586 B.C.)

David’s royal line, twenty kings

Joel (ca. 830)

Amos (ca 750)

Hosea (ca. 710)

Jonah (ca. 760)

Isaiah (ca. 740)

Micah (ca. 700)

Zephaniah (ca. 625)

Nahum (ca. 610)

Obadiah (586?)

Jeremiah/Lam. (585)

The exile to Babylon (586-538 B.C.

Ezekiel (ca. 570)

Daniel (ca. 540)

The return to Jerusalem (538 B.C.)

Cyrus, king of Persia, conquers Babylon (539-538)

First exiles return with Zerubbabel (537)

The Temple is rebuilt and dedicated (516)

The return under the leadership of Nehemiah (464-423)

The return led by Ezra (404)

Esther

Haggai (ca. 520)

Zechariah (ca. 520)

Nehemiah (ca. 520)

Malachi (ca. 420)

Ezra

    The close of the Old Testament period (ca.400)

The New Testament

As with the Old Testament, the question of the chronological arrangement of the New Testament is a subject that scholars debate today.  We’ll suggest a simple linear arrangement without getting involved in this larger discussion.

The Gospels

Mark (45-50s, assuming his is the first to be written)

Luke (60-61?)

Matthew (60s; some believe that his was the first written)

John (90s)

Acts (ca. 61)

Epistles--by grouping, in approximate order of completion

Paul’s early letters (ca. 49-58)

Galatians

1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians

Romans

Prison epistles (probably written from prison in Rome, ca. 61)

Philemon

Colossians

Ephesians

Philippians

Pastoral letters (ca. 63-66)

1 Timothy

Titus

2 Timothy

Hebrews (ca 64-68)

General epistles 

James (ca. 45-50)

1, 2 Peter (ca. 63-66)

Jude (ca. 70-80)

1, 2, 3 John (ca. 90)

Revelation (ca. 90s)

Conclusion

In this chapter we have discussed some important aspects of the Bible which are often overlooked in biblical interpretation.  Christ is the central figure of the Bible.  When we study God’s word to learn more about him, we fulfill Scripture’s purpose (Jn 20:31).  The kingdom of God is the central theme of the Bible.  Therefore, we read the Scriptures to learn how to live in the kingdom as God’s child and servant.

In addition, it is helpful to study and passage of God’s word with the themes of the individual book and the entire Bible in mind.  In this way, we can relate the parts to the whole.  The entire counsel of the Scriptures will come into focus.  And we will get more from God’s word.

 Conyers, 61; emphasis his.

 See Yandall Woodfin, With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 32-34.

 The idea of the Bible as an hourglass is taken from McKnight, 43-44; the applications are mine.

 James S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ (Nashville: Abingdon, n.d.), 47.

 George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974), 45.

 G.R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), 17, quoting Eissfeldt favorably.

 Beasley-Murray, 22-4.

 For an excellent survey of themes relating to Jesus and the Kingdom, consult Ladd, 149-339.  For in-depth study of Jesus' own teachings on the subject of the kingdom, see Beasley-Murray, 71-337.

 George Eldon Ladd's excellent definition of the kingdom summarizes well our discussion: "The Kingdom of God is the redemptive reign of God dynamically active to establish his rule among men, and . . . this Kingdom, which will appear as an apocalyptic act at the end of the age, has already come into human history in the person and mission of Jesus to overcome evil, to deliver men from its power, and to bring them into the blessings of God's reign" (Ladd, 218).

 Conyers, 61.

 For a slightly different but helpful historical overview, see Conyers, 68-69.