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In The Beginning

If we want to follow the story of the Bible, we need to take a moment and become familiar with the characters we’ll be following.   In the first 3 chapters of Genesis, we are introduced to the protagonists and antagonists as well as the fundamental conflict that will persist throughout the whole Bible.

Each of these chapters introduces one new character in an evolving drama. By the end of these three chapters, everything is messed up, and we’re left wondering what God will do to restore the situation.

The Protagonist

The protagonist is the person that the story is about.  We tend to think of them as the “good guy or gal” that we want to cheer for.

In the Bible, the protagonist is identified by the fourth word:

  • In the beginning, God

God is the protagonist.  He’s the author of the story, as we’ve already discussed, but He’s also one of the main characters.  It’s pretty easy to say that God is a good guy.

The entire first chapter of the Bible (Genesis 1) is all about God in action.  Through the revelation to Moses, who wrote the book of Genesis, we begin to meet God and understand what He’s like.

The first thing we see is God’s power.  Genesis 1:1 summarizes that idea when it says “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  This simple sentence points us back to God as the creator of everything. 

We are all familiar with creation.  We talk about creating a painting, or a kitchen table, or a blanket or even a tasty meal.  We call this activity “creation”, because it seems like at one point the object didn’t exist, then it did!

The truth is that whatever we created did exist before we got involved.  It was just in a different form.  The paint was still in the tube, the table was a stack of lumber the blanket was just a fold of fabric and the meal was uncooked and unseasoned.  What we call creation is probably more like transformation.

God’s take on creation is quite a bit different than that.  When God started His creation, nothing existed.  He didn’t transform matter from one form to another.  He actually created.  Scholars call this ex nihilo creation:  Creation from nothing.

When we read Genesis 1, if we are paying attention, we recognize right away that God’s kind of creation is way above what we have ever seen or done.  The amount of power it would take to call matter into existence and then give it a specific form is pretty spectacular.

Another thing we see about God is that He was pleased with what He created.                 By the end of Genesis 1 we see that God has moved through six periods of creation.  At the end of each one, God reviewed it and passed judgment:  “It is good.”

We all have varying standards of what constitutes “good”.  Some of us have high standards, others have relatively low standards.  But God’s standard is fixed.  To be good, something has to be completely good.  It can’t have any aspect that isn’t good.

When God called His creation good, he was saying that it was exactly what He intended to create.  No part of it fell short of His creative intention.  He didn’t have to guess in a few spots and figured it would work.  He envisioned all of creation, and what He made perfectly aligned to that vision.

We also see the trinity in action in this first chapter.  In verse 26, God says “Let Us make man in Our image.”  This is not the royal we, used by monarchs on earth.  This is God having conversation amongst the perfect community of the trinity.  We don’t get a lot of details about how this worked.  We only see that it does work and did happen.

The Flawed Protagonist

At the end of chapter one, we see the second main character introduced: men and women.  We know them today as Adam and Eve. In this part of the story, they are the only human beings in existence.  As time passes, they will have children and the human race will grow to the billions that we see on Earth today.

God is very particular about creating human beings.  He holds a council with Himself and declares two intentions:

  1. To make human beings in His own image
  2. To give them dominion over all of the things that He has created.

The first decision is interesting because it implies that everything else that God created was not in His image.  This sets the man and the woman apart from all of the rest of creation.  They were not like other created things (fish, birds, animals, light, dark, sun, moon, starts, water, etc.).  God invested some aspects of Himself in people that He held back from the rest of creation.

The second decision helps us understand what it meant to be created in God’s image.  God goes on to say that the function of human beings would be to have dominion, or rule over, the other stuff He had created.

Genesis 2 drills into the story of Adam and Eve with even more detail.  It zooms in and just focuses on what happened with Adam and Eve in a way to give us better insight the part of the story that we will most identify with.

God put Adam in the Garden of Eden and told him to take care of it.  Adam was like God’s on-site manager for all of the creation.  His job was to tend the garden on behalf of God.  It’s hard to imagine what kinds of gardening God needed Adam to perform for him.  But the Bible is clear that caring for the garden was Adam’s responsibility.

God also gave Adam permission to eat of any tree in the Garden.  Beyond just being the caretaker, Adam was allowed to use the garden for his own benefits.  He needed to eat, and God told him that the entire garden was available to him. 

Of course, this freedom did come with some boundaries.  One specific tree was off limits.  This tree had dire consequences attached.  Adam was clearly warned about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

 God also told him to name all the animals.  So Adam went around and started giving names to everything he saw.  Aardvark, Alligator, Armadillo…  In doing this, Adam exercised his dominion over all the created animals.  It was his right to give them names and have those names stick.

At this point Adam figured out that he was alone and didn’t have a companion like the animals he had just finished naming.  So God provided Eve as his perfect compliment.  Adam was overjoyed over this.  God blessed them both and commanded them to be fruitful and populate the world He had given them to administer for Him.

The Antagonist

So far we have a pretty happy story.  God created a great world and put Adam in Eve in it to take care of it for Him.  If you thought that sounded too good to be true, you’d be right.

In Genesis 3 we are introduced to the third major character:  The Serpent. 

While we would think of a serpent as a snake, it’s clear that this snake is not anything like snakes that we know today.  So we’ll assume that this serpent is much more than just a snake.  Later on we’ll give him different names like Lucifer or Satan.  But in Genesis, he’s just called “the serpent”.

Based on the words that come out of the serpent’s mouth, it’s clear that he is not a part of God’s good creation.   His first recorded conversation is trying to undermine God’s authority and subvert the management structure that God put in place.  Pretty quickly, we can deduce that he has positioned himself as the enemy of God.

What’s totally amazing is that God had to know the serpent was there.  And God chose not to destroy him. Certainly for a God who can create the entire universe out of nothing, getting rid of a troublesome snake wouldn’t be difficult.  But God chose not to take such extreme measures.

We don’t get to see a lot of the serpent in Genesis 3.  We watch him deceive Eve with some tricky words about God’s real intentions and motivations.  Eve agreed with what he said, and broke the Great Restriction to eat of the forbidden tree.

Apparently Adam was there because Eve was able to simply hand him the forbidden fruit.  Adam knew she had broken God’s rule and would suffer the consequences.  He was still so smitten with her that he chose to follow her and eat as well, rather than living forever and watching her suffer alone for her transgression.

At this point, the serpent stepped  back and the story shifted focus to Adam and Eve as the consequences of their actions set in. 

  • They suddenly gained knowledge of their nakedness – and that seemed to matter a lot to them.
  • They found that they were afraid of God and wanted to hide.
  • They instantly learned to make excuses for their actions.

The Conflict

Every story needs a conflict.  And now we have a conflict of Biblical proportions.  Literally.

This is the fundamental conflict that runs throughout the rest of the book.  It’s the primary conflict that dominates our lives, even to this day.

  • God created everything from nothing and declared it good.
  • God created humans in His image and tasked them with managing this creation.
  • The serpent introduced an alternate theory about what was going on “You could be like God.”
  • Adam decided to follow the serpent’s logic and reject God’s, effectively changing sides, and transferred his “dominion” to his new master (if this sounds crazy, look at what Satan offers Jesus in Matthew 4:8-9)

So what happens next?  How will God restore His creation?  How will He get His image bearer back?

The conflict is tremendously sad.  God literally created paradise and put Adam and Eve in the middle of it.  Adam rebelled against this goodness and became God’s enemy, aligned with Satan and opposed to God.

This raises the big question:  How will peace be restored?  How will what was lost be redeemed?

The Great Promise

Genesis 3 ends with a flaming sword stationed at the entrance to the garden of Eden, denying Adam access to the Tree of Life.  But before that, God lays out a prophecy of how He planned to resolve this situation.

It didn’t take very long for God to show up and unveil hints of His plan for how to address this terrible conflict.  It boils down to a Child which will be born to woman who will oppose the serpent.  Satan would bruise His heel (painful, but not deadly), but the Promised One would crush Satan’s head.  This would then introduce a new set of affairs which would change the course of the story.

While Genesis 3 ends with affairs in a sad situation, hope is on the horizon.  Adam and Eve are going to die at war with God.  The serpent has effectively hijacked God’s good creation.  But God has not given up, and has plans to address everything which just went off the rails.

The Bible is the story of this plan playing out.  It begins with this sad situation and rolls forward into all the actions and steps that God takes to redeem what was His.

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Let’s Dig into the Bible

We cannot separate the Bible from God.

In some kind of objective sense that I don’t know I can really put effectively into words, God is separate from the Bible.  He existed before the Bible was written.  Through the Holy Spirit, He is the author of the Bible.  The Bible is somehow less than He is.

But for us, the Bible is the way that God has chosen to reveal Himself to us.  Through it we discover who He is, what He is like and what He has done.    In the pages of our Bible, we learn what He loves and what He hates. When we talk about God, we are really talking about what we’ve learned through the Bible.

Yes, we can learn some things about Him through our own direct observation of the world around us.  The Apostle Paul makes a big deal about this in the first chapter of Romans.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (19-20)

Paul’s point is that through observation people can figure out enough about God that they cannot plead ignorance.  The condemnation for their sin should not come as a surprise to anyone.

But thinking that natural observation is a sufficient way to know God is just plain silly.  We wouldn’t drive at high speed in the dark with only a few stars shining down on us.  That’s a recipe for disaster.  The light is inadequate to really understand the reality of our circumstance.  We would turn on the headlights to illuminate the way.

This is what the Bible does for us.  It shines a bright light on things that we can’t really see under our own power or vision.  Through it, we can see details and facts that were undetectable to us without it.

Through the Bible, God’s revelation is communicated to us.  When I say revelation, I mean it in a very specific way.  In the Bible, the word “mystery” is sometimes used.  This is a term that is drawn out of secret societies in first century Greek culture.  When a person was initiated into one of these societies, they were given a set of secret knowledge.   The thing about this knowledge was that apart from being told by someone who already knew, there was no way to empirically discover it.

Back to the Bible.  When I say it is God’s revelation to us, I mean it contains information that we can only know if someone who already knew it told us.  The only person who knows is God.  So our only path to understanding this knowledge is if God directly tells us.  Which He did, in the Bible.

This puts the Bible in a very special category.  It actually stands alone in that category.  It is the only communication we have from God, telling us things about Himself and about ourselves that only He knows. 

In my book Study the Bible Six Easy Steps I devoted the entire first chapter to why we ought to study the Bible.  It’s such a critical foundation to our faith that it’s impossible to ignore this.

So let’s look at our Bible.  It is composed of 66 individual “books,” or independent writings.  From the time of the first book to the “The End” of the last one, one thousand five hundred years elapsed.  During that time, at least thirty nine different people held the pen/quill to write the words.

Any group project of 39 people who were not allowed to talk to each other or plan their activity would invariably result in chaos.  But not the Bible.  It actually hangs together as a coherent work, telling a singular story. 

No, it’s not uniform.  Individual pieces are told in various ways.  Leviticus reads like a law book.  The psalms are poetry and songs.  Judges is a history book.  Isaiah is a series of relayed messages from God.  Matthew is a biography.  The epistle to the Romans is a letter.  Revelation is an apocalyptic vision.

But it all hangs together and tells us the story of God and humanity.  The Apostle Peter, himself under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit puts it this way:

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)

The Holy Spirit was the mastermind behind the organization and message of the Bible.  God didn’t leave it up to individual people to communicate His message.  He orchestrated the entire thing.  From start to finish, His fingerprint is on every page.

Of course, individual authors brought their own style to it.  We see Solomon’s wise words in Proverbs.  Paul’s impeccable logic drives his epistles.  Samuel’s storytelling makes 1 and 2 Samuel flow like a novel.  James’s practicality moves naturally through his letter.

The Holy Spirit wasn’t a dictator in His inspiration.  We see a celebration of diversity in the styles of writing throughout the Bible.  But despite the differences, the message was directly from God.  It is His way of revealing Himself to us.

Given all of the different books of the Bible, they have to be placed in a sequence or order.  That’s why most Bibles have Genesis first and Revelation last.  It’s the order of the individual works.    To a certain extent, the Bible flows chronologically.  Genesis begins with “in the beginning” and Revelation ends with eternity future.  In between, things sort of flow in a time sequence.

But there is more than that.  The books of your Bible are also organized thematically.  It’s nice that this also mostly aligns to the chronological view.

  • Genesis through Deuteronomy are the Books of Moses or “The Law”
  • Joshua through Esther are considered History books.
  • Job through Song of Solomon are considered Wisdom books
  • Isaiah through Malachi are “The Prophets”
  • Matthew through John are the Gospels
  • Acts is another History book (more recent than the others and with a different focus)
  • Romans through III John are Epistles, or letters
  • Revelation is another prophetic book

The chronology is generally forward through time.  However, History and The Prophets have a lot of overlap; the same chronology told from different perspectives. Some of the authors of the Wisdom literature were also contemporaries of the History books.

From Moses (who wrote the first five books) through Malachi was about a thousand year period.  Throughout that time, holy writing was coming out on a fairly regular basis.  The Old Testament features thirty nine individual books, and some of the longest ones at that.  The Holy Spirit didn’t exactly have an editorial calendar, but except for the four hundred year period that Judges describes, there was a pretty regular cadence of communication from God.

Then came the great silent period.  After six hundred years of pretty solid communication (even if much of it was condemnation), God seemed to go silent.  Between Malachi and Matthew everything seemed to stop.  This was unnerving for the people of Jesus time.  It was like God had forgotten about them.

Then after Jesus’ ascension into Heaven, there was a burst of activity.  Twenty seven books came out in approximately sixty years.  And then they stopped again.  It’s been almost two thousand years since the ink dried on John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ.  

We now consider the revelation closed.  That doesn’t mean that God is done.  Just that His communication has reached a point of completeness.   He’s told us everything we need to know.  We certainly have enough to understand the gospel and follow lives of spiritual growth.

For the purposes of this study, I’m going to take my lead from the way most Bibles are organized today.  We’ll start with Genesis and end with the Revelation of Jesus Christ.  Between these two bookends I’ve divided the narrative up into ten different segments.

  1. In The Beginning:  Genesis 1-3
  2. God Chooses His People:  Genesis 4-50
  3. God Chooses Leaders:  Exodus – Judges
  4. Long Live the King:  1 Samuel  – 2 Chronicles
  5. The Wisdom in the Middle: Job – Song of Solomon
  6. God’s Spokesmen:  Isaiah – Malachi
  7. The Life and Times of Jesus the Christ:  Matthew – John
  8. Apostles and the Early Church:  Acts
  9. Error and Instruction:  Romans – III John
  10. Then Comes the End:  Revelation

When we look at the Bible through this framework, a unifying thread of revelation becomes very clear.  Not only that, we’ll see how the Bible is geared to ultimately and finally tell the story of salvation.

I’m looking forward to taking this journey with you.  In the mean time, I have a challenge for you.

Since the Bible is the avenue of God’s revelation, what are you doing to embrace it?  I have two actions for you.  Pick the one that seems to be most appropriate to you.

Challenge One:  Learn the books of the Bible in order.  This sounds arbitrary, but let me tell you that it’s an important source of power.  It will help you use your Bible if you know where to turn when you hear a reference called out.  It will also help you know where a given book generally falls into the framework I’ve described above.  Just knowing the name will help you understand how it fits into the Grand Story. 

Here’s a pro tip:  use a song to help you get around some of the admittedly odd-sounding names.  That’s how I learned when I was younger.  “Let us sing the books of Moses, of Moses, of Moses.  Let us sing the books of Moses for he wrote the Law.  First Genesis, second Exodus, third Leviticus, fourth Numbers.  And the fifth is Deuteronomy, the last of them all.” Even to this day, I fall back on the little tune to remember the correct sequence of books (like in the Minor Prophets).

Challenge Two:  Start a Bible reading plan.  There are lots of options out there.  All you need to do is search on the internet for “Bible Reading Plans” and you’ll get a host of options.  From chronological to books in order, to Old Testament and New Testament…. And even more than that.

Since the Bible is so important, it’s critical that we engage with it.  We can’t apply what we don’t know.  So it’s time to start learning.  Reading is one of the simplest and easiest methods to start to learn something.  Don’t worry that it’s not super deep or technical.  Start easy and become familiar with the flow and the characters and the lessons that pop off the page.

So what did you choose?  I’d love to hear from you if you’ve decided to take up one of the challenges. 

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Do you read your Bible with Spiritual Imagination?

Isn’t it easy to read the Bible and find tales of cardboard people in a distant land.

Most of us have never lived in Israel.  Certainly none of us have lived in the first century AD.  There is a lot that we don’t understand. Stuff we’ve never seen. 

I love  to research people and places in the Bible and gain insights that I can relate to others so that the stories “come alive.”

This was the primary goal when I was writing Faith & Miracles.  I really wanted you to see these people in the same way you think of your neighbors, coworkers or family.  I wanted you to connect with their challenges and understand how they felt, and why.

When I got to the last chapter,  Running & Jumping and Praising God, it was about a crippled man who begged at the temple in the first century.  I had to ask myself “what was that like?”

What was it like to sit outside of the temple and beg?

I don’t know what kind of mental image you have for the Jewish temple in 33ish AD.  I’m going to guess that it’s not a big enough picture.

I only say that because that’s how it turned out for me.

I used to think of a temple as a single building.  A classical structure built of marble and loaded with columns, wide steps and a portico that went all the way around.

Nope.

That’s not even close. 

In 1996 I got a chance to travel to Israel.  I went up on Temple Mount. I visited both of the mosques that are built on top (yes, there are 2!)  I walked around the highest point in the city for quite a while.

Temple mount is HUGE!  It’s so big it could hold 11 football fields.  It’s not a single building, but an entire complex.   

I started wondering about what it might have looked like back in Acts 3.  So I did what any self-respecting person in the 21st century would do. I googled it.

Of course, one obvious hit was the model city in Jerusalem.  It’s a model of what Jerusalem would have looked like in the early first century – I saw it on that same trip to Israel.  

But honestly, between you and me, that picture feels a bit sterile.  It’s all stone and monochromatic. It engages my analytical brain, but not really my heart or my imagination.  So I kept searching.

I’m so glad I did!

Not much later I found images from a guy in the UK who has built a model of the temple.  It’s a bigger scale, and it involves color and model people…  

It sent my imagination into overdrive!

Check that out!  Look at how beautiful and dramatic that structure is.  You can see the outer wall, the inner colonnaded wall, another wall like a fence, then the structure around the temple complex proper!

And what a structure!  The slide show has another shot I love that looks up into the temple proper.  It is so inspiring. In my mind’s eye I can feel what it might have been like to walk into “The House of God.”

Check out the article on the Telegraph website here.  There are 19 total images that I can’t squeeze into this email.  They will amaze you on two fronts:

  1. That someone would spend so much time and care building such a lovely model (30 years!)
  2. How impressive the temple must have been.

Now stop and read the story in Acts 3:1-8.  If the beggar was at the gate called “Beautiful” how stunning must it have been?!?  How jarring would it have been for a crippled man to be there day after day begging for alms?

Now shift gears.  Think about that compound loaded with money changers and merchants selling lambs and doves.  That’s what Jesus cleared out with a whip of cords and His righteous zeal.  

It wasn’t a space the size of a basketball court like the fellowship center at your church.  It wasn’t the foyer to the building where some folks had set up folding tables like when you sell tickets to your Easter pageant.

Jesus must have been MAD!  “A little bit pissed off” would have gotten lost in all that space.

I’ll bet He made a terrible ruckus and a major scene.  What a sight! Sometimes I wish I had been there to witness first hand.

Sometimes a picture is worth 1,000 words.  Sometimes it’s priceless.  

If I can change the way you see the temple, it will change the way you read your Bible.

If I can take a few people whose names you might recognize in the Bible and turn them into real people across the thousands of years that separate us, then God’s Word can come alive with Power in a way that will change your life.

So here’s to reading.  Here’s to researching. Here’s to learning and growing.

Never stop.  God is more than worth it.

Dennis

PS.  If you find this kind of thing stimulating, Faith and Miracles will really light your rocket.  I looked at 10 different miracles in the Bible and tried to get inside the person who received the miracle.  I think you’ll find it a really enlightening picture of people and places that might just have been empty names before.

If your spiritual imagination needs a jump start, this is a great booster!

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Relaunching Devotion – Men in the Bible

I’m excited to share that I’ve just relaunched Bible/Man Devotion as Devotion – Men in the Bible.  It’s a new title and a new cover, but the same great book inside.  At  the moment, it’s only available at Amazon, but I plan to launch it more widely in a little while.

Devotion: Men in the Bible is a tool for men to deepen their walk with God and develop a kind of intimacy they never imagined.   Complete with 30 guided devotions, this book will be a perfect compliment to your Bible for a month of impactful daily devotions.

Check it out!  You won’t be disappointed!