The Sermon on the Mount

Jesus came as a teacher. He was known as a teacher. He devoted himself to teaching the truth of the word of God. It was of central importance to him. His teaching amazed the people of his day and had a profound impact on their lives. It has had the same impact on people down through the centuries. While the teaching of Jesus is a big focus in all four Gospels, it is especially so in Matthew. In the book of Matthew we find five teaching units. The first teaching unit is almost universally known as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters5-7). It is famously known, but infamously unknown. We might say that this teaching is Jesus’ kingdom manifesto. Jesus came teaching that the kingdom of God had arrived in his person and work. The sermon explains Jesus’ kingdom vision and mission. Parts of the sermon are well known by many people even if they don’t know where they come from. Most people know of the iconic passages like the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer and the Golden Rule, but perhaps many do not realize that they are all part of the SOM. The sermon is filled with passages that inspire, inform and convict.

Interpretations of the Sermon are legion. Several things are important to keep in mind. First, Jesus was speaking to the people living at that time and place. He was calling the people of Israel to himself as Messiah, inaugurating the promised and long awaited kingdom of God. It is important to remember that Scripture was not written to us but for us. In every passage there is the descriptive and the prescriptive. Each passage describes what God was doing in a certain time and place in the flow of redemptive history. Each passage also prescribes what we should do in light of what God has done. Understanding these two polarities is key to understanding any text.

Second, Jesus was speaking to his disciples. He was speaking to all his disciples, but especially to the twelve. He had not yet chosen and appointed the twelve as apostles, nonetheless, he was speaking to them as those in training for the leadership for which they would soon be responsible. After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus the apostles will carry the mission of the kingdom forward. The SOM is important for that mission.

Finally, Jesus was casting a vision for a kingdom lifestyle. What does it mean to be in the kingdom? What are the values of the kingdom? Jesus called people to follow him. What did that look like? Life in a broken, fallen and sinful world is complex. How does one navigate the complexities of the world in a Christ honoring way?

A key theme in the Sermon on the Mount is righteousness. Be righteous and live righteously. The way of righteousness that Jesus calls for is very different from what most people assume. It is a humble hunger for God. It is the recognition that one is not righteous apart from God’s grace. It is following the narrow way of Jesus. The sermon is necessary for the growth of any follower of Jesus. One can learn profound truths for living from these words of Jesus.

After a brief introduction of the setting of the SOM (5:1-2), the sermon begins with the Beatitudes (5:3-12). These are eight short statements of the blessedness of those in the kingdom of heaven. Each beatitude has the same form. They begin with a pronouncement of blessing (“Blessed”) followed by those to whom the blessing is given (for example, “poor in spirit”) and ending with the results of this state of blessedness (for example, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”). The eight beatitudes express the dependence and devotion of Jesus’ disciples to him. The first four (poor in spirit, mourners, meek and hunger & thirst for righteousness) show the disciples’ dependence on Jesus, while the last four (merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and persecuted) show the disciples’ devotion to Jesus. The beatitudes end with an expansion of the last beatitude to the persecuted (5:11-12). This reveals what it means to be persecuted and the joy a follower of Jesus should experience in persecution.

Jesus then teaches his disciples the ramifications of their life in the kingdom as followers of Jesus (5:13-16). They are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Their lives have impact in the world as they live out the practical implication of following Jesus.

Jesus now gets into the body of his message by explaining why he has come and calling for a greater righteousness (5:17-20). Jesus wants no confusion as to why he has come into the world. He has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets (the Old Testament), but to fulfill it. There is close continuity between the mission of Jesus and the message of the Old Testament. The Old Testament promises the Messiah and the Kingdom of God he brings, while Jesus fulfills these promises. In fact, those who say and teach otherwise are the least in the kingdom of heaven. This leads to Jesus’ call for greater righteousness. One’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees to even enter the kingdom of heaven. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was and external self-righteousness. The greater righteousness Jesus calls for is an internal, transformational, God-centered, humble righteousness.

The call for greater righteousness leads to the next section of the SOM (5:21-48). This is often called the six antitheses. They contrast six popular, but false, understandings of Old Testament teachings promoted by the Pharisees, with Jesus’ kingdom teaching. The six are: anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation and love. Jesus’ demands are high, but love for him leads to obedience. The way of God is the way of holiness and happiness. These must not be misconstrued as the way to earn salvation, but the way of life that flows out of the grace of salvation.

Next we see Jesus’ warning on practicing righteousness from an improper motive (6:1-18). Jesus demonstrates how the three main forms of piety in his day can be done in hypocritical ways to be noticed by others. A fundamental human desire is to seek praise from others. He talks about giving alms for the needy, prayer and fasting. One must be careful to do these things out of love for God and neighbor and not for personal praise. These are important practices, but must be done for the right reasons. In the section on prayer (6:5-15) we find Jesus’ model prayer (The Lord’s Prayer, 5:9-13). This is a profound prayer and must be meditated on and practiced.

This is followed by Jesus’ teaching on work and worry (6:19-34). A key question in life is, “Where is your treasure? What is most important to you?” Jesus says, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” A person cannot serve things and money and God at the same time. They both demand to be master. An inordinate focus on things and money can lead to anxious worry. We are distracted from the really important things of life. Jesus says the antidote to this is to seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness as the first and highest priority.

Jesus rounds out his message on greater righteousness with a call not to be judgmental but discerning (7:1-6), an intense God-centered prayer life (7:7-11) and the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have then do unto you.”

Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount with the teaching on the two ways (7:13-27). This is a warning to hear and heed the teaching of Jesus. Nothing could be more important than following Jesus. One’s eternal destiny hangs in the balance. One way leads to destruction, the other way leads to life. Living by the SOM is not a works salvation, but the outflow of a life following Jesus. No one lives the demands of Jesus perfectly, but those who claim to follow Jesus but disregard his teaching show that they are not true disciples of Jesus.

The Sermon on the Mount is a very important teaching of Jesus. It must not be overlooked or treated lightly. It puts am emphasis on both grace and truth. We are saved by grace and truth and we live the Christian life by grace and truth. It provides for the believer in Jesus Christ a way of life that can have impact on others and bring glory to God.

The Sweet Gift of Prayer

There is a difference between having a prayer life and living a praying life. Many of the biblical saints and many of the saints throughout the history of the church have lived such a praying life. Those who find praying a necessity for living are the ones who live a praying life. They’re not always the most spiritual, but they do recognize their own weakness and needs. And in reaching out to God in desperation they discover his strength and, often much to their surprise, they discover a sweet fellowship that keeps them coming back.This is the place where prayer becomes a conversation with the Almighty.

There are many kinds of prayer, but the basic mode of prayer is that of asking God for needs. The classic text for this fundamental prayer impulse is Hebrews 4:16. “Let us then draw near with confidence to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” To explore the deep riches of prayer we will consider five dimensions of this divine promise.

Context

The context of this call to prayer is that of a discussion the writer of the book of Hebrews is having on the high priesthood of Jesus Christ. It begins here but carries on for several chapters. Jesus is the high priest of the new covenant. He intercedes with God for us with his own blood rather than the blood of animals. His blood is the only efficient payment for our sins.

In the previous verse we are told that we have a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses because he has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. Because Jesus understands our struggles and loves us enough to give his life for us, he is ready and willing to hear our prayers. It is a function of his high priesthood to compassionately hear and answer our honest prayers in the face of our burdens.

Draw Near

Because Jesus is our high priest who is eager to hears our prayers, we are encouraged to draw near to him. If we had a small glimpse, as Isaiah did, of God’s awesome glory and holiness, we would be fearful to approach him in any way. But the wonderful and beautiful thing is that we are urged by him to come near. Nearness to God is the place of blessing for those whom he calls to himself.

But not only are we called to draw near, we are to come near with confidence. Who would dare to approach God with confidence? Only those who are redeemed and justified by the blood of Christ can rightly have such confidence. They know they are forgiven and adopted into the family of God. They come not in their own names, but in the name of Jesus.

The Throne of Grace

We are summonsed into the presence of God and present our prayers at the throne of Grace. The throne of God is the place of his power and authority. God is sovereign over all the universe, yet he gives us his ear. In Isaiah’s vision of Isaiah chapter six he saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Isaiah received a vision of God’s awesome majesty. The Lord had something significant to communicate to Isaiah, but first he impressed on him the glory of the one in whose presence Isaiah stood. In prayer we stand in the presence of God.

But we needn’t fear to enter the presence of God because his throne is a throne of grace. God extends his gracious love to us in Christ so that we may enter his presence with our prayers. Grace is the undeserved favor of God to us through Christ. His grace heals our broken lives and makes us fit for his presence. His grace is an expression of his amazing love.

Mercy and Grace

When we enter the presence of God at his throne of grace with our prayers we experience his mercy and grace. The Bible says here that we receive his mercy. We receive the gift of God’s mercy. Mercy is a gift. Mercy is not something we earn. In fact, the need of mercy reveals our weakness and sin. In mercy God holds back what we rightly deserve. When we come to God with our prayers he looks on us with mercy. He is moved by our brokenness.

As we receive the gift of mercy we discover grace. God’s hand of judgment is held back and mercy is given. In the gift of mercy we discover the blessing of grace. Grace gives above and beyond what we might expect. Grace is extravagant. It flows in abundance.

Help in Need

We human beings are a bundle of needs. We are needy. Many people don’t like to hear that, but its true. We have all kinds of needs in which we must have help or the need will only grow. God comes to give help as we pray. When we humbly seek his help to meet our need, he will respond according his good plan.

We can take our prayer to God for our own needs and for the needs of others. He hears them all. We find we have five kinds of need in which we seek God’s blessing. We might use the acronym, BLESS to direct our prayer toward these five needs we all have. I discovered this acronym several decades ago in a small pamphlet on prayer. The “B” stand for body or health needs. Health needs are a big struggle for so many. The “L” stands for labor, which are needs we have in our jobs or finances. The “E” stands for emotional needs. Anyone can struggle with four main negative emotions: anger, depression, anxiety and shame. The first “S” stands for social or relational needs. We all struggle in relationships. The second “S” stands for spiritual needs. This is the greatest area of need we have, but is often the least prayed for. We may not know the needs others have, but we know they have needs. We can pray for these five kinds of need knowing we have touched on some need they have even though we may not know the exact need.

Intercessory prayer is a great ministry. You can be confident that God hears and answers your prayers. We have the promise of Hebrews 4:16. It takes commitment to stick with this prayer ministry and faith to trust that God will answer our prayer though we may never see the answer. Prayer is indeed a sweet gift from God. He has given it to us to use. If you use this great gift you will be blessed in you prayers and those you pray for will be blessed in the help they receive from God.

Seven Keys to Unlock the Treasure of the Bible: Key Seven – Meditating on Scripture

The seventh, and final key to unlock the treasure of the Bible brings together all the other keys to fulfill their purpose, namely, reading the Bible. The keys only unlock the treasure of the Bible as we actually read the Bible with each key in mind. The Bible is a book; books are meant to be read. It is an amazing thing that God has given us a book. He meant for us to read his book. God speaks to his people in his written word, the holy Scriptures. But reading the Bible is not easy for most people. Many who have tried it were not successful. Some parts of the Bible seem fairly easy to navigate, but other parts seem almost incomprehensible to many people. Reading the Bible profitably requires help from God and takes effort and discipline on our part. The purpose of the seventh key is to help us in that endeavor.

Receiving a blessing from reading the Bible requires a plan. Just reading randomly will not prove fruitful. There are many ways one can approach reading the Bible. I always encourage people to read the Bible in two basic ways, deep and wide. I believe it is imperative to read the Bible widely by reading large amounts of text. Reading through a book of the Bible in one sitting, or large portions of bigger books is great. Some people read through the entire Bible every year, or at least one or more times in their lifetime. Some read through the Bible in a longer or shorter time. The important thing is to read and be exposed to all the Bible. Since the Bible is a story, we want to read the whole story to understand it better. But we must do more. It is not enough to simply read the Bible, it must be studied. We must take small texts and dig deep into them by meditating on them. Biblical meditation is the seventh key to unlock the treasure of the Bible.

The Bible commands us to meditate on Scripture (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 63:6; 77:6, 12; 119:15, 23, 27, 48, 78; 143:5; 145:5). We see this so clearly and in such a powerful way in Psalm 1:1-2. Here we find the stark contrast between the wicked and the righteous by the focus of their hearts. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The person who is blessed by God is not one who follows after the wicked, but makes the focus of life meditating on the word of God. The righteous meditate on the word of God so that they can obey it.

There are many ways to meditate on and study the Bible that are profitable. I believe the best way to study the Bible is by a method called inductive Bible study. Inductive Bible study has as its goal to engage the text with as few presuppositions as possible and discover what the Bible says for itself. Inductive Bible study is usually composed of three stages: observation, interpretation and application. Observation of a biblical text asks the question, “What does the text say?” Interpretation involves asking the question, “What does the text mean?” And finally, application asks, “How does this text apply to my life?”

Biblical meditation differs greatly from eastern meditation in that eastern meditation seeks to empty the mind, while biblical meditation seeks to fill the mind with the word of God and the person of God. Biblical meditation is a slow, patient process. We may spend a great deal of time meditating on a few verses. Biblical meditation requires thinking about every word in every sentence of a text to understand fully what God is saying in his word. Paul exhorts Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:7, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” What Paul says is the word of God in the letter he is writing Timothy. Timothy’s responsibility is to think over (meditate) what Paul writes (Scripture). The Lord’s promise is that he will give understanding.

The activity of meditating on Scripture involves a number of steps or stages. In this sense it is a process, but it is not a technique one uses to extract meaning or the message of a text from the Bible. It is an ongoing deep and dynamic relationship with God. It happens prayerfully by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The first thing that should, but may not happen in the meditation of Scripture is prayer. Since meditation is a spiritual activity and it is God who gives the understanding, it is unwise and unprofitable to begin without prayer. This is what we see in the Bible. Psalm 119 is a meditation and a prayer about the beauty, the power and the necessity of the word of God. We find the psalmist there praying seven times for the Lord to teach him his word (Psalm 119:12, 26, 33, 64, 66, 68, 124). And five times he prays for understanding (Psalm 119: 27, 34, 73, 125, 169). He also prays in verse 18, “Open. My eyes, that I may behold wondrous things in you law.” And then in verse 36 the psalmist prays, “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain.” It is absolute necessary, therefore, to seek God in prayer for profitable meditation on his word.

The second thing we can do as we meditate on Scripture is to read over the text several times asking six important questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. These questions will help us begin to get a sense of what’s happening in the text and what God is saying in the text. Then we go back over the text several more times reading very slowly thinking about every word and phrase considering the meaning they convey in the passage. At this point we can realize some great insights into what God is saying in his word. It is probably a good thing to write down some of our findings so we can go back over them later. As we’re slowly thinking over a passage word by word it is profitable to ask ourselves what the text is telling us about God and what it is telling us about people. We need and desire the truth of God.

The next thing we can do in biblical meditation is think about how the text applies to our lives. If we stop before this point, we will probably not have much that is beneficial to life. The word of God has transformational power. It can deeply change us. It will do so only as we apply it to our lives. We can think of attitudes and actions that the principles of the text call for in everyday life. There is usually some negative and positive application from any text. What things is my text calling me to do, and what things is my text calling me to not do? Making application from the text requires that we make it personal. As we apply God’s word to our lives, God will encourage us and give us great peace, but he will also reprove and correct us. In this way real change can happen in our hearts.

The last thing we can do is the first thing we did. We can pray. As we gain some understanding about what the Bible is saying, and what it means, we can ask God to empower us to be obedient to the truths we’ve discovered. We can also praise him and thank him for all the rich blessings he daily pours on us.

As we meditate on Scripture it opens to us the heart of God. We gain a renewed sense of his love and grace that reveals to us his plan of salvation. The Bible is necessary and a blessing for every season of life, but especially so for the dark and painful times. When we cherish God’s word enough to spend quality and quantity time meditating on it, we realize a deeper appreciation of who God is and all he’s done for us, as well as the blessing of experiencing his presence with us. Therefore we bring God glory and blessing for ourselves by utilizing each of the seven keys to unlock the treasure of the Bible.

Seven Keys to Unlock the Treasure of the Bible: Key Six – The Plan of God

We humans have the capacity to make plans. Sometimes our plans work out just as we planned, but at other times they fall through. We may have to adjust our plans or just give up on them altogether. The problem is exacerbated in that our plans frequently collide with the plans of other people. Life can get messy. But it is a comfort to know that though life often seems random, unordered and unplanned, God does have a plan. His plan was from the foundation of the world. God always acts according to his plan. His plan will come to reality. The plan of God is spoken about explicitly in many places in the Bible, but is also implicitly part of the fabric of the entire story. It is the assumption of the message of every biblical writer. Everything happens by the plan of God. So, when we are reading any passage in the Bible it is important to consider how it relates to the plan of God. If we bring together all the biblical teaching about the plan of God we will see that God’s plan consists of three phases and five great truths.

Three Phases

The three phases of the plan of God stretch out over the entire Bible and over all its history. The three phases relate to God’s plan and work to save a people for himself. The three phases of God’s plan are: (1) Salvation Promised (Genesis – Malachi), (2) Salvation Provided (Matthew – John), (3) Salvation Proclaimed (Acts – Revelation).

The Old Testament (OT) deals with the promises of God to provide salvation for his people. The promises of God for salvation come through the covenants. God first promises Abraham a land, seed and blessing. The land is the environment in which God works out his promises for the salvation for his people. The Lord also promised Abraham seed, descendants that would be vast in number. He would be the father of a multitude of nations. The primary people, though, would be the covenant nation Israel. From the covenant people Israel would come the single seed Christ (Galatians 3:16). Finally, the Lord promised Abraham blessing. He promised that in him, Abraham, all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:3). This promise of blessing finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ (Acts 3:25; Galatians 3:8). The rest of the OT works out the partial fulfillment of these promises with a great expectation of a future complete fulfillment in the promised Messiah.

The second phase of God’s plan is salvation provided. All the promises of God in the OT are finally focused in the NT gospels on one person, Jesus Christ. The promise of God is that he would provide salvation for his people. He kept all his promises in the provision of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Christ who will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21-23). The tension in the story of the Bible was growing throughout the OT. The promises of God concerning Messiah were increasing. When will the promises be realized in the Promised One? This pent-up expectation was finally released in the coming of Jesus as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One can feel the dam-burst of emotion as the people rush out to John the Baptist and then to Jesus in vast numbers. The Messiah is here! Salvation is provided! But the provision of salvation is not just in the Messiah coming, but in his perfect life, his death on the cross for the atonement of sin and his resurrection from the dead. Salvation is provided! 

Once the promised salvation is provided through the person and work of Jesus Christ, the third phase of God’s plan comes into play. This is salvation proclaimed. The mission of the Church to proclaim the gospel is center stage throughout the rest of the NT. God has provided salvation, so it is imperative that the message of the gospel of salvation be proclaimed. The resurrected Jesus commissioned his disciples to go make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). They are to take the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Jesus promised that when the gospel of the kingdom was proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, then the end will come (Matthew 24:14). The plan of God will be complete.

Five Great Truths

The plan of God in its three phases is worked out in five great truths. The Bible is filled with many wonderful truths about God, people and the salvation God provides. If we gather all those truths together to understand the central message of the Bible we will find five great truths that reveal God’s amazing love for broken, fallen sinners.

(1) God’s eternal plan is the redemption of his people through the person and work of Jesus Christ. This plan, as we’ve seen, is worked out through the three phases of the plan. The focus of the plan of God is on the person and work of Jesus Christ. The eternal Word of God, the second member of the holy Trinity, became a human person. God was born into a poor Jewish family. He lived a perfectly righteous life. He loved God and people with a profound and unprecedented love. He loved people so much that he told them the uncompromising truth. He loved the Father with a total commitment to his plan of salvation. For these things he was crucified by the Jewish and Roman authorities. But this was the way God provided salvation for the world. Three days later Jesus rose from the dead.  

(2) God is working out all things according to his eternal plan and for his glory. Before Jesus was born God was working all of human history toward the fulfillment of his plan in the coming of the Messiah-Savior (Acts 2:23-24; 4: 27-28). After the life of Jesus in which salvation was provided, God is working all human history toward the consummation of his plan in the second coming of Jesus (Ephesians 1:7-12). Everything that happens is ultimately working together for the good of God’s people (Romans 8:28). 

(3) There is a spiritual conflict that rages between the devil and his angels and the people of God throughout human history. The devil seeks to destroy or distort the plan of God. Though it often looks as though he were winning, his defeat was rendered sure through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Though the victory is sure, believers in Jesus Christ must engage in the battle every day. Daily victory is secured by the truth of the word of God, a growing prayer relationship with God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

(4) God calls all believers to be on mission with him in the work of redemption. God’s plan of salvation includes the message of salvation coming to people through other people who have already embraced the message. The message is the gospel. The gospel is the love of God expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The message must be widely disseminated.

(5) Believers are on mission with God by following Jesus and growing in grace. The way God’s people are faithful in their mission is by following their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus was faithful in the mission the Father gave him. Followers of Jesus must be faithful in the mission Jesus has given them. Spiritual growth leads to faithfulness. Spiritual growth is more like oak trees than weeds. The growth takes longer, but the plant is stronger. Every believer has a vital part to play in God’s eternal plan.

Together, the two parts of the plan of God, its three phases and its five great truths, form another vital key in unlocking the treasures of the Bible. One cannot understand the meaning of life without seeing it through the lens of the plan of God. It pays to think long and hard about this important biblical key. The effort will be richly rewarded with insight and intimacy with God.

Seven Keys to Unlock the Treasure of the Bible: Key Five – The Layout of the Bible

The Bible is one book with one main message and one basic storyline, and at the same time a library of 66 books written by about 40 authors over approximately 1500 years. The Bible is a beautiful book. But it is not a random collection of books. It is an orderly and purposeful collection. Most people who read their Bibles are familiar with the general layout of the Bible but give very little thought as to how and why it was put together the way it was. The layout of the Bible is more than a curiosity. It is a key to unlock the treasure inside.

The most basic layout of the Bible is in two unequal parts, the Old Testament (OT) with 39 book and the New Testament (NT) with 27 books. The two testaments can be further divided to reveal their message. The really interesting thing is that the OT has two different and meaningful ways in which the books are ordered.

The Dual Layout of the Old Testament

When most people open their Bibles they find the first book is Genesis and the last book in the OT is Malachi. This is the traditional order of the OT books. In this layout there are four divisions of the books.  

(1) The Torah or the Pentateuch, which are the first five books (Genesis – Deuteronomy)

(2) The Historical books that tell the history of God’s people Israel (Joshua – Esther)  

(3) The Wisdom & Poetic books (Job – Song of Songs) 

(4) The Prophets, the Major Prophets (Isaiah – Daniel) and the Minor Prophets (Hosea – Malachi)

The traditional order of the OT comes from the Greek translation of the OT in about the third century before Christ. This translation is called the Septuagint and is abbreviated LXX. Greek was the lingua franca (common language) of the Greco-Roman world just as English is the common language today. Jews were spread out all over the Roman Empire and needed a Scripture translation that all the people could read. Later, Jerome, the fourth century AD Church Father, translated the Bible into Latin and used the order of the LXX for the OT.

The second way the OT is ordered is that of the Hebrew Bible.The modern Jewish Bible and the Hebrew Scriptures in the time of Jesus and the Apostles was different from the traditional OT most of us are familiar with. Though the Apostles primarily used the LXX after the resurrection of Jesus, they also had the Hebrew Scriptures. The Scriptures at the time of Jesus (our OT) was comprised of three sections which Jesus called, the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44-45). In Luke 11:51 Jesus referred to the blood of Abel from the first part of the first book in his Bible, Genesis, and the blood of Zechariah from the last part of the last book in his Bible, Chronicles. Today the Hebrew Bible is referred to as the TaNaK, using the first letter of each of the three sections. The three sections of the Hebrew OT are:

(1) The Torah (Law), Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy 

(2) The Neviim (Prophets) which is comprised of two sub-sections

   1) Former Prophets = Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings

   2) Latter Prophets = Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve (Hosea –    

       Malachi) 

(3) The Ketuvim (Writings) which have three sub-sections 

   1) The Book of Truth = Psalms, Proverbs and Job 

   2) The Megilloth (Five Scrolls) = Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and 

       Esther 

  3) Other Sacred Writings = Daniel, Ezra – Nehemiah (which is one book) and Chronicles.

God allowed these two ways of ordering the OT for a reason. Both emphasize the general chronology of the OT, they both prioritize the Law of God, and they both reveal that the OT is incomplete. The traditional layout ends with Malachi 4:5-6 where the Lord promises to send Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord. This refers to John the Baptist before Jesus comes on the scene. The Hebrew OT ends with Chronicles 36:22-23 and the proclamation of Cyrus the Persian authorizing the Jews to return to the land. This ended the OT with the Jews in the land but none of the promises of the Messiah fulfilled. After 400 years of prophetic silence Jesus appears to fulfill all the promises of God.

The Layout of the New Testament

While the OT is the promise of redemption, the NT is the fulfillment of that promise. The NT tells that story in three sections.

(1) First we see the birth, ministry and passion of Jesus the Messiah (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). 

(2) Then we have the Church (Acts, the Letters of Paul (Romans – Philemon) and the General Letters (Hebrews – Jude)). 

(3) The final section is the future consummation of all things in the book of Revelation.

The layout of the NT is just as significant as the OT. It begins with the coming of Jesus after the long wait for the Messiah. A new and fresh work in the plan of God bursts on the scene in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He overturns all the old ways of looking at the things of God and brings salvation to the world. After the resurrected Jesus Christ returns to heaven the Church comes into being and grows and spreads as Jesus promised. Now the NT brings completion to the Bible in the book of Revelation. When the work of the gospel is done on earth Jesus returns to establish the Kingdom of God. The new heaven and the new earth come and with them the eternal state. Sin, death and Satan are defeated. The plan of God is finally consummated in Jesus Christ when all things are made new.

The layout of the Bible may seem like an unimportant issue, but getting a good handle on the layout of the Bible is important in understanding what God is saying to us as well as navigating the many stories and books we find in the Bible. It becomes, therefore, a crucial key we must not overlook in unlocking the treasures of the Bible.

Seven Keys to Unlock the Treasure of the Bible: Key Four – The Kingdom of God

The Bible is a big complex book. There is no doubt about it. People struggle to understand it. They find it hard to put all the pieces together. The Bible can seem like a thousand piece puzzle spread on the table before us. Struggle as we may we just can’t seem to make all the pieces fit. We need some help. All puzzle lovers know that there is help in putting together large and complex puzzles. There is the box top. The seven keys to unlock the treasure of the Bible is like the box top in putting together all the pieces of the Bible. Without them we can get some of the pieces to fit, but not nearly all. We can never put all the pieces of the Bible together perfectly, but we can come a lot closer with these seven keys. This article explores the fourth key.

In the unfolding story of redemption in the Bible we find many important themes that thread their way through the whole Bible forming the great tapestry of God’s plan of salvation. These themes put the meat on the bones of the story of the Bible. They also give us the application of the biblical story to our own story. Each book of the Bible has numerous themes, but just a few major themes. Some of these major themes are: sin, sacrifice, love, judgment, temple, grace, hope, and many others. But the central theme of the Bible is the Kingdom of God.

All the Bible’s many themes relate in some way to this central theme of the kingdom of God. This was the main focus of everything Jesus taught (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:43; 8:1; John 3:3). As Jesus expressed the meaning of the Old Testament and the fulfillment of all its promises in him, he did so in terms of the kingdom of God. It helps to understand the biblical teaching of the kingdom of God in two ways. First, we see the universal kingdom of God. God is sovereign over all things. As the late theologian, R. C. Sproul said, “There are no rogue molecules in the universe.” We see this in Psalm103:19, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” The second way we see the kingdom of God in the Bible is God’s rule in the hearts and lives of people. This is where the struggle of the kingdom of God is seen. While all the universe obeys the will of God, people do not submit to the rule of God in their lives. We are all cosmic rebels. So God is working in the world and throughput history to establish his kingdom among people. The ups and downs of the kingdom of God is the plot line of the story of the whole Bible. God set up his kingdom on earth in creation with humanity as its stewards. God blessed them and gave them dominion over all the earth (Genesis 1:28). The kingdom fell into ruin when the man and the woman rebelled against God’s one command (Genesis 3). The struggle throughout the Old Testament is to re-establish the kingdom of God, which is his sovereign reign in the hearts of his people. But the people of the earth continue to rebel against the rule of God. God called his chosen people, Israel, to be the instrument through which he would establish his kingdom. The Messiah, the Savior of the world would come through Israel. But even his chosen people would rebel against him time and time again.

Finally, in accordance with God’s eternal plan and the prophecy of the Old Testament, Jesus comes to re-establish the kingdom of God and set all things right. According to God’s eternal plan the kingdom of God after Jesus has two phases. The first phase is the kingdom already here through Jesus’ first coming, but not yet fully complete. Believers in Jesus Christ living today and since the time of Jesus are in the kingdom of God and look forward to its full completion. The second phase of the kingdom of God begins at Jesus’ return, which brings in the fully consummated kingdom of God. We see how this works out through the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament.

The kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching exhibit several tensions. First, there is the “when” tension. Is the kingdom of God in the present with the coming of Jesus, or is it in the future? This tension in the teaching of Jesus about the kingdom of God is resolved by saying that the kingdom is already here in the coming and ministry (and specially the passion) of the king, but it is not yet fully consummated. It will be consummated in his second coming. This can be seen in the teaching of Jesus and in his parables.

The second tension in the teaching of Jesus concerning the kingdom of God is a “where” tension. Where is the kingdom of God? Is there some physical place the kingdom resides, or is it just in the hearts of Jesus’ followers? This is a reign vs realm question. Again, the tension is resolved by understanding Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world and is now among us, but will one day in its consummation be gloriously global.

The third, and final, tension is a “who” tension. By who, I mean who is in the kingdom of God? Is the kingdom personal and individual, or is it communal and social? Jesus said that one must enter the kingdom. The kingdom is entered by personal faith, so in that sense the kingdom is individual. But when a person enters the kingdom they enter the community of the redeemed, the people of God. They have a relationship with the king, but also with all others in the kingdom. The kingdom ethic is to love God supremely and love our neighbor as our self. The kingdom has a wonderful communal aspect that cannot be neglected. So the kingdom of God is the central theme upon which all the Bible turns. In the Old Testament the kingdom of God was promised through the king Messiah, In the New testament we find Jesus coming as the long awaited Messiah who brings in the glorious kingdom of God.

We’ve noted that all the themes the Bible explores are related to the central theme of the kingdom of God. But there are three other important themes that are more closely related to the kingdom of God. They are the themes of atonement, mission and spiritual conflict. Atonement is the work of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to bring fallen and sinful humanity into a right relationship with himself. Our sin is the problem that keeps us out of the kingdom of God. We are fallen, so we cannot, and we are sinful, so we will not submit to the rule of God. God provides a sacrifice to pay for our sins, thus reconciling us to himself. The old covenant sacrificial system was a foreshadowing of the true and ultimate sacrifice, the cross of Jesus Christ. We can now enter and live in the kingdom by repentance and faith in Jesus. 

The message of atonement, the gospel of Jesus Christ must now be communicated to the world. This is the mission of the Church. The kingdom of God is re-established by the mission of God. God is on mission to fulfill his plan and he uses his people to accomplish that mission by calling them to be on mission with him. God’s plan is to redeem people so that they may enter his kingdom. Throughout the Old Testament God called his people to be on mission with him leading to the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus comes as the Messiah, Christ, he is totally committed and dedicated to the mission of God to save sinners that is centered in himself.  In the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20), the resurrected Jesus gives his disciples their mission orders. They are to go make disciples of all nations. The book of Acts and the letters of the New Testament show how that mission happens.

Since the first man and woman surrendered the kingdom to the Tempter (Satan) in the garden, there is a battle, a spiritual conflict in the mission of bringing the kingdom of God into the world. The spiritual battle rages throughout human history and is always a factor, even if in the background. We see it in the Old Testament as Israel is continually being drawn into idolatry. In the life of Jesus the spiritual conflict is focused on Jesus and his disciples. After the ascension of Jesus to heaven we see the spiritual battle being waged against the Church. We see the spiritual conflict most clearly and movingly in the book of Revelation. Satan does all he can to defeat or frustrate the plan of God. But God is victorious. The devil is defeated and the new heavens and the new earth come into reality. God’s kingdom is completely realized through Jesus Christ!

Therefore, the central theme of the kingdom of God gives shape to the story of the Bible and meaning to it message. We must keep our focus on the central theme of the kingdom of God as we read and apply the Bible to our lives.  If we overlook this key to unlock the Bible’s treasures we will fail to grasp the full picture of God’s plan for the world or for our own lives. God is doing something fantastic and miraculous in the world. He is bringing to reality his eternal kingdom, in which all believers are called to enter and live.

Seven Keys to Unlock the Treasure of the Bible: Key Three – The Covenants

This is the third installment in a series of seven articles called, “Seven Keys to Unlock the Treasure of the Bible.” There can hardly be a greater endeavor in all of life than to do the work of unlocking the amazing treasures found in the Bible, God’s word. These keys are critical to help us do just that. They bring the real and deep understanding of the Bible into the grasp of every believer in Jesus Christ.

We saw in the second key that the Bible is a story. Since the Bible is a story, it probably has a structure. Most good stories have some kind of discernible structure that moves the story along. The Bible is such a story. For the Bible that structure is the covenants. The message of the Bible, that God brings salvation through Jesus, is told through the story of the Bible, which unfolds in four parts: creation, fall, redemption and restoration, and that story is developed through its structure in the covenants. The Bible’s storyline is built on four main redemptive covenants that God makes with his people. There are other covenants mentioned in the Bible, but these four are the redemptive covenants that drive the plan of God. This plan of God is to rescue the world from its plight of alienation from him through their sin. Because of the disobedience and rebellion of the first people, God’s good creation was corrupted. God’s creation that he declared good is no longer good. It is fallen. God’s redemptive plan is to restore his creation and reconcile his people to himself.  

These covenants form the framework or skeletal structure of the Bible’s story. Each covenant takes center stage in its part of the story and each new covenant builds on the previous ones. The covenants provide the tension that drives the story forward to its resolution. Biblical redemptive history is seen through the lens of the covenants. One cannot fully appreciate the story until they understand the covenants. 

A covenant is a special relationship of grace between God and his people that involve promises and responsibilities. People enter into all kinds of relationships with other people that involve promises. One of these is the marriage relationship. There are promises made to one another and responsibilities ensue. The covenants that God makes with people are like these human covenants. God initiates each covenant with individuals and groups. He calls people to come into a relationship with him. In the relationship God makes promises he will fulfill and he gives his covenant partners responsibilities to fulfill to maintain the relationship. God reveals his plan of redemption and brings it to fruition through the covenants. The four main redemptive covenants are: the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic covenant and the New covenant. These covenants also form a timeline throughout the history of the Bible.

     The Abrahamic Covenant

The redemptive covenants begin with the Abrahamic Covenant. God entered a relationship with one man, Abram, later to be renamed by God as Abraham. That special relationship with God was passed on to his son and grandson. In this relationship with Abraham the Lord made promises of seed, land and blessing that would be not only for Abraham’s descendants, but ultimately for the whole world. The promises of the covenant with Abraham are enumerated in Genesis 12:1-9; 15:1-21 and 17:1-14. The Abrahamic covenant lays the groundwork for all future covenants. They are built upon the foundation of its promises. The children of Abraham will be the people of God through whom he brings his plan of salvation to fulfillment. The story of the Abrahamic covenant is told in Genesis 12-50. The ultimate fulfillment of the promises in the Abrahamic covenant is realized in Jesus Christ. He is the seed that is the blessing for all the world.

     The Mosaic Covenant

The Mosaic Covenant is a covenant with Israel, Abraham’s descendants, made through Moses. The Mosaic covenant is a continuation and partial fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. This covenant is called the Torah, or law and are instructions for holy covenant living. God is holy and his people must be holy. The word holy means to be separate or set apart for God. The law God gave through Moses explains how that happens and is maintained. God redeemed his people from bondage to Egypt and called them to live for him as a testimony to the world. The Mosaic law contained many moral, legal and ritual stipulations for the people of God to fulfill their part of the plan of God. The Mosaic covenant is found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and Ruth. The Mosaic covenant was in force throughout the Old Testament until the coming of Jesus Christ who fulfilled all its commands, stipulation and rituals in order to provide salvation to the world.

   The Davidic Covenant

The third redemptive covenant is the Davidic Covenant. The Davidic covenant narrows the focus of the covenants given to Abraham and Moses. In this covenant, God enters a relationship with David and makes promises to him. The Davidic covenant is a covenant about a kingdom. David was promised an eternal kingdom. This kingdom would someday be the everlasting, universal kingdom of God with a descendant of David on the throne. The prophets spoke eloquently of the Messiah who would be the son of David, sit on his throne and rule the nations.  But the kingdom was divided and went into exile, Israel in 722 BC to Assyria, and Judah in 586 BC to Babylon. When the children of Israel returned to the land there was no Davidic king to fulfill the Davidic covenant. It looked as though the covenant promise to David would not be fulfilled. But in the perfect timing of God’s plan the covenant finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the son of David. The historical development of the Davidic covenant is found in 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. Further development of the covenant is found in Psalms, Proverbs and the Prophets. The kingdom of God through Jesus Christ is the reign and rule of God in the hearts of his people and ultimately throughout the whole world.

     The New Covenant

The New Covenant fulfills all the previous covenants in Jesus Christ. Jesus, being the central message of the Bible, is the central focus of the redemptive covenants. He fulfills them all through his birth, life, death and resurrection. The tragedy of the Fall is redeemed through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He fulfills the Abrahamic covenant by being the promised seed who blesses all the families of the earth. Jesus fulfills the Mosaic covenant by perfectly keeping the law of God, and by becoming the sacrifice for sin the law demands. He also fulfills the Davidic covenant by being the son of David and the Son of God who establishes the eternal kingdom of God. The New Covenant is prophesied throughout the OT, especially in the Prophets. It comes to fulfillment in the NT gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The impact of the New Covenant on the plan of God and the redemption of the world is seen in the books of Acts and the Epistles culminating with the book of Revelation. We live under he New covenant and enjoy all the promises of God provided by the person and work of Jesus Christ.

When we understand how the covenants work and how they progressively unfold the plan of God, we hold in our hands another important key to unlock the rich treasures of the Bible. Without this understanding the Bible remains, in some measure, locked to us. But as we see the plan of salvation developed through the redemptive covenants, we not only understand the Bible better, we also experience our relationship with God in deeper and richer way.

Seven Keys to Unlock the Treasure of the Bible: Key Two – The Bible as Story

People love a story. Stories excite our imaginations and move our hearts. Children of all ages love to hear and read stories. I think the reason people resonate so much with stories is that we want to make sense of the world and our lives. Stories do that for us. The Bible itself is a story. We saw in the first key that unlocks the treasure of the Bible that the Bible has a central message which is Jesus and the salvation that he brings. Now we want to see that the message of the Bible is communicated through the story of the Bible. It may come as a surprise to some that the Bible is one large mega-story, but it is. The unity of the Bible, its central message, is seen clearly through its overarching story. The burden of this article is to unpack the story of the Bible in such a way that it becomes clear to the Bible reader. 

Since the Bible is a story, it has a storyline. The Bible is filled with stories. In fact almost half the Bible is comprised of historically true narrative stories. These stories are not independent units, but work together to present a unified story, a metanarrative, with a central message. Each book in the Bible communicates its particular story that fits into the storyline of the whole Bible. If one fails to see the bigger picture of the overarching story, then one will more than likely misunderstand the smaller stories. The individual stories are only properly understood in the larger context of the central story of the Bible.  

The story is about God’s beautiful creation that is ruined by the first people he creates. The sons and daughters of the first couple are corrupted as well as all their descendants. Things go from bad to worse until God intervenes by calling a pagan man from a pagan land to enter a relationship with him. God makes promises to this man. Through many struggles of faith the man begins to see the promises of God materialize in embryonic form. God’s relationship with the man becomes a relationship with his family, then the twelve tribes of his family. The tribes become a nation. The relationship is strained many times throughout the years by the rebellion of God’s people. God disciplines his unruly people, but never totally forsakes them. Finally, the nation is focused again on one man through whom all the promises to God’s people are fulfilled. This man is faithful where many others were unfaithful, and expands the promises to the whole world. This epic story becomes everybody’s story. That is, anybody who will enter the story by faith. The story is a true story that is rich and complex. We can begin to better understand the story by seeing the basic storyline in the Bible. It helps to grasp that the basic storyline of the Bible consists of four main parts that lay out the historical flow of the story. The four parts of the basic Bible storyline have been historically called: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration.  

Creation (Genesis 1-2) God created all things good. 

Fall (Genesis 3) Sin entered the picture and corrupted God’s good creation.

Redemption (Genesis 4–Revelation 20) God’s work to repair his broken world. 

Restoration (Revelation 21-22) God’s ultimate goal to make all things new.

Epic Stories – Epic Story

We have made the case that the Bible, though composed of many books and stories, is one overarching story with a storyline. If we look closely at the big picture of the Bible, we will notice that the Bible is actually six epic stories woven together into one amazingly beautiful story that communicates the reality and the development of God’s plan of salvation. Each of these six epic stories revolves around a main character of God’s choosing that moves the story forward, not only in his lifetime, but also before and after his life. That’s why these stories are truly epic. There are many other important characters in each of these stories, but they all relate to the main character in some way. The six main characters in the Bible are: Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and Paul. As we’ve already said, Jesus is the central character in the Bible and his story is the central story of which all the other stories are in its gravitational pull. All the other epic stories, while having their own focus, are about the central story and character, Jesus. If you can remember these six men and something of their stories, you have a handle on the flow and meaning of the Bible. The more you know about each man and his story, the more you understand the whole story of the Bible.

The first epic story with its main character is Adam. Adam is the first person to inhabit the earth. God gives him a woman as a suitable helper. They are placed in a garden paradise with two positive commands and one negative command. They were instructed to be fruitful and multiply and to have dominion over the earth. They were also commanded not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were put in a place of perfect opportunity by God, but they let the opportunity slip through their fingers. The woman was deceived by the serpent and ate the fruit and gave some to the man. In their sin and disobedience they fell from their created position and plunged the whole world into corruption. That day they died spiritually and would one day die physically. Sin had entered the world and death by sin because all people were now sinners by nature. The record from Genesis 4-11 is a record of spiraling decent into greater wickedness.

The second epic story is the story of Abraham. In the midst of growing wickedness in the world, God called a pagan man living in a pagan land into a covenant relationship. The upward struggle of redemption begins in earnest with this epic story. God promises Abraham land that will be the environment for the people of God to fulfill the plan of God. God also promises Abraham that he will be the father of many nations and peoples, and that through him all the families of the earth will be blessed. Abraham struggles in his faith to trust God to keep his promises, but grows to become the man of faith. The covenant relationship is renewed with Abraham descendants. The ultimate fulfillment of all the promises to Abraham is the Lord Jesus Christ.

The story of the Bible continues with the third epic story. In this story we find that Moses is the main character. The story begins about 600 years after the time of Abraham. Abraham’s vast descendants are enslaved in Egypt and languish under great affliction. God calls the reluctant Moses to rescue his people. With a mighty hand God delivers them from Egyptian bondage through Moses, showing himself to be the one true God. The Lord leads them to Mount Sinai where he gives them the covenant law to guide their worship and all aspects of their lives before him. As the people move out to enter the promised land, they refuse to go in out of fear for the inhabitants of the land. God brings judgment upon them and they wander in the wilderness for forty years until all the first generation dies off. At last, on the plains of Moab east of the Jordan River, Moses gives instructions on entering and living in the land of promise. After Moses dies Joshua leads the people to possess the land God had so long ago promised to Abraham. After the death of Joshua a loose tribal federation exists. The people time and time again turn away from the Lord. He brought judgment upon them which cause them to cry out to him for mercy. God then raised up a deliverer, a judge, to rescue the people. After the death of the judge the people once again turned away from the Lord. This cycle occurred multiple times creating a downward spiral of growing wickedness.

Years later the fourth epic story blossoms in all its grandeur in the plan of God. The main character in this story is David, second king of Israel. By the grace of God David goes from being a shepherd boy to king of all Israel and builds one of the greatest kingdoms of that time. David’s rise form obscure shepherd boy to mighty king is an amazing story of great intrigue with spellbinding drama. God leads David at every juncture and through every trial to be the king after God’s own heart. Although David is a great king, as a fallen sinner he fails and fails massively. The Lord disciplines him but never leaves him so that the Davidic kingdom navigates through trials and tribulations for 500 years. David’s son, Solomon, inherits the kingdom and begins well but sins against the Lord in idolatry. After his death the Davidic kingdom is split into two kingdoms, Israel in the North comprised of ten tribes, and Judah in the South with two tribes. Both kingdoms often turned away from the Lord so that he sent them into exile, Israel in 722 BC and Judah in 586 BC.  Then after over 400 years of exile and return under foreign domination, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, arrives on the scene to inherit and establish the kingdom of his forefather David, the kingdom of God.

The fifth epic story is the central story that fulfills the purpose of all the others. In the previous four stories God made promises to his people and the world concerning his plan of salvation. There would be a redeemer who would come and offer his life as a ransom for the sins of the world, thereby turning back the devastation of sin and the fall. All these promises find their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth, the son of David, the son of Abraham. But Jesus was more; he was the Son of God. Jesus was the Word made flash who dwelt among the people, full of grace and truth. Jesus travelled around teaching, healing the sick and casting out demons. The crowds flocked to him, but the religious leaders were jealous of him and had him crucified by the Roman authorities. But through this great wickedness of the people of God in rejecting and murdering their messiah, God was fulfilling his plan of salvation. Jesus was the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. After three days in the tomb, Jesus was bodily raised to life, defeating death, sin and the devil. Salvation has been provided.

The final epic story is the story of Paul and all the apostles of Jesus with all believers proclaiming to all the world the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Paul, who was known as Saul of Tarsus, was a persecutor and hater of Christ and his church. But the resurrected Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus as he was going there to seek out and arrest believers in Jesus. In that encounter Jesus called Saul to go to the Gentiles and to kings to be a witness for Jesus and salvation. Paul was faithful to the divine call and travelled the Roman world preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and planting churches. From that small seed the gospel spread throughout the whole world and multitudes of people from every tribe and language and people and nation became followers of Jesus who will one day gather around the throne of God and praise him for eternity. Jesus promised to build his church. Despite many ups and downs, the forward movement of the Church occurs throughout history. The world grows more wicked over time so that at the end of history Jesus returns in salvation and judgment to consummate the kingdom of God.  Thus, God’s plan of redemption is fulfilled and all things are made new.      

Grasping the storyline of the Bible is like an epiphany. We see it; we get it. When we see the way the Bible is put together it speaks to our hearts. This key not only unlocks the big picture of the Bible, it also unlocks all the small parts that before didn’t seem to fit. When we see the big picture of the story of the Bible we can better see our story and how we fit into God’s story. It is a critical key to unlock the treasures of the Bible. As we read our Bibles we must use this key so that God will speak to our hearts transforming and empowering us to fulfill his plan for our lives. 

Seven Keys to Unlock the Treasure of the Bible: Key One – The Message of the Bible

The Bible is the all time best selling book. Nothing else comes close. It might also be the least read book. Various studies and reports have been published bemoaning the lack of biblical literacy. While a large majority of American homes own a Bible and many believe it is inspired, only a small percentage read it daily.

There are many reasons why the Bible is not read more, but one of the main reasons is that it is a difficult book to read. It is an ancient book about an ancient culture with many strange practices that seem bizarre to modern readers. It is also a very long book.

Consequently, many people just do not read it much. It doesn’t seem relevant. What does a book thousands of years old have to do with twenty-first century life? People ask these kinds of questions and find the Bible outdated and unrelated to the struggles they face. But the reality is that the Bible is relevant to life in any age because it is the Word of God. And we desperately need God’s message for life. Therefore, reading and understanding the Bible becomes crucial. Can we treat the book from God as any other book? Can we let the difficulty we find in reading it keep us from devoting ourselves to that arduous task? What’s at stake in neglecting the Bible?

Surely, the most important thing in life is knowing God. If God is real, and I believe deeply that he is, then nothing can be more important than knowing him. The only problem is that we can’t know God truly unless he reveals himself to us. Thankfully he has made himself known.

God reveals himself in two ways, first in nature, his created world, but most fully in the Bible. This is often called General Revelation (nature) and Special Revelation (the Bible). We can see this wonderful and beautiful truth in Psalm 19 as well as Romans 1:18-20; 2 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:1-2; 2 Peter 1:20-21, to name a few.

If knowing God is the most important thing in life, and God most fully makes himself known in the Bible, then it is critical that we read and understand our Bibles. It follows that as we come to know and understand our Bibles we come to know and understand God. But this is the struggle for many people who want to know God in the Bible. Try as they may, they can’t seem to understand it. It seems to be a closed book, a locked book. The truth is that the Bible is an open book, but there are certain keys that unlock its treasures for the one willing to do the hard work to obtain them. Therefore, we will provide seven keys to unlock the treasures of the Bible. This will be the first of seven articles on important keys that help us better understand the Bible and God’s plan found in the Bible.

The first key is the message of the Bible. One of the wonderful things about the Bible is its unity and diversity. The Bible is a richly diverse book. It is actually a library of books. There are 66 books in the Bible by about 40 authors written over a period of around 1500 years, yet the Bible has one overarching storyline and one overarching message God wants to communicate to the world. The Bible displays a rich diversity but also an amazing unity that reveals its divine origin. 

The unity of the Bible is seen in its overarching message. The Bible fits together. All of its many and complex parts fit together beautifully. It is truly amazing that such a diverse book is so unified in its message. So, what is the overarching message of the Bible? What is the Bible trying to say to people through its many documents, authors and literary types? Jesus himself tells us the message of the Bible. The message of the Bible is the glory of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ accomplishing the plan of salvation that comes through him. We see this so clearly in Luke chapter 24. The resurrected Jesus encounters two discouraged disciples walking from Jerusalem to the small village of Emmaus on resurrection Sunday. As Jesus began to walk with them, they did not recognize him. They were discouraged because they thought Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, but he has just been crucified and put in a tomb. Jesus rebukes them for not knowing that the Messiah had to suffer first and then enter his glory. He then shows the two disciples from the whole Old Testament (“beginning at Moses and all the Prophets”) what was said about him. Jesus is the message of the Bible!

When the two disciples recognized Jesus, he vanished from their sight. They excitingly said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he spoke to us on the road, as he opened up to us the Scripture?” These disciples experienced burning hearts as Jesus opened up the Scriptures to them. Disciples today can experience the same burning hearts as they discover the message of Jesus and salvation in all the pages of the Bible. 

We see similar things in many other places in the Bible, such as, Luke 24:44-49; John 5:39; Acts 28:23-24; Romans 1:1-6 and Galatians 4:4-6. If we were to we work through the Old Testament we would see Jesus and the salvation he brings time and time again. We see Jesus in messianic prophecies like Psalms 22; Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:1-5; 52:13-53:12; Ezekiel 34:23-24 and Micah5:2 as well as many other places. We also see Jesus in the sacrificial system of the law of Moses. He is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The Old Testament is filled with the promises of the coming Messiah-Redeemer, while the New Testament is the fulfillment of his coming. The whole message of the Bible, therefore, is about Jesus and the salvation he brings.

It is important to know the central message of any book but especially the Bible. This first key is indispensable in unlocking the treasures of the Bible. Without it the rest of the keys do not hold the power they otherwise would. The Bible is about Jesus. Without understanding that one cannot grasp what God is saying in any part of holy Scripture.

Since the first key to unlock the treasures of the Bible is that the message of the Bible is Jesus, let us look for that message as we read every part of God’s word. Many passages mention Jesus specifically while many others do not. Yet we can find Jesus in some way everywhere we read. If we do that we will grasp the meaning of the Bible and like those early disciples, we will experience burning hearts.

The Book of 1 John

The writings of John the Apostle (The Gospel of John, 1,2,3 John and Revelation) are, on the one hand, simple in vocabulary, but on the other hand, they are complex and deep theologically, and profound and transformative spiritually. Because of this it is easy to miss their powerful meaning. The first letter of John is especially this way. It has a cadence to it as you read and a certain pious charm that can touch the heart. But it is more. In it we find deep waters of spiritual truth. Don’t go there if you don’t want to be changed. Because of its subtleties it may take a few readings before you begin to find your way beneath the surface. But what you find there is worth many readings. For the patient reader, each reading yields greater understanding and perception.

Many have noted the difficulty in finding a clear structure to 1 John. This is why the outlines of the book look so different. John has a tendency in all his writings to begin with one theme, move on to another, and then circle back around to the first. This idiosyncrasy, I think, is purposeful. By structuring his writings in this way, John is providing us with layers of truth. He is taking us way beneath the surface. But the basic flow of John’s message is this: (1) A prologue on the Word of Life (1:1-4), (2) An introduction (1:5-10), (3) The message of assurance of salvation (2:1-5:21).

John’s purpose in the book is to provide his readers with a clear path to the assurance of their salvation. He uses his unique style and other literary devices to do this. So, the outline of the book and the exposition of it will be somewhat different from other books. But I believe we will see things in 1 John that will help us better see God’s plan and even experience his presence.

The Word of Life (1:1-4)

The first four verses of the letter of 1 John are often called the prologue. They are very different from the beginning of most of the letters in the New Testament, but similar to the prologue of John’s gospel. The letter of 1 John is more like a sermon than a letter. In fact, it is just that to the church(s) he sends it to. 

John begins his message by reminding his readers that he was an eyewitness to the most amazing events in all human history. These amazing events were actually a person, the Word of Life, Jesus Christ. John’s stated purpose in the prologue is that his readers may, like John, have fellowship with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.

Walking in the Light (1:5-10)

John’s purpose in the book is to give his readers an assurance of salvation. But he doesn’t do that immediately after the prologue. He gives a short introduction to the rest of the book which will be an assurance of salvation. To introduce his subject John uses the theme of light and darkness. This theme refers to the polar opposites of truth and lies, and righteousness and sin. This lays the groundwork for the development of his message on assurance.

In the introduction John uses five conditional statements using the word “if.” We find every verse in 1:6-10 beginning with the word. Each conditional statement further reveals the sharp contrast between light and darkness. Again, the idea of fellowship is key here. People are far from God. They are in darkness and can have no fellowship with him while in the darkness. It is only as they enter the light by the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, that they have fellowship with God.

Assurance of Salvation (2:1-5:21)

In the third and final section of the book of 1 John we get into the meat of the book and the purpose for which it was written. As we’ve stated, John wrote the book to provide an assurance of salvation to his readers. He does this by giving them four ways they can know they are truly saved. These four ways are: (1) practicing righteousness, (2) loving the brotherhood, (3) having true faith in Jesus Christ, and (4) having the Holy Spirit. John weaves these four ways of assurance throughout the rest of the book in three parts of this final section (2:1-27; 2:28-4:6; 4:7-5:21).

John also uses other ways to communicate his message of assurance of salvation. First, John uses the phrase, “by this” some eleven times (2:3, 5; 3:10, 16, 19, 24; 4:2, 6, 13, 17; 5:2)  to introduce ways we can know we are true believers in Jesus Christ. Often the word “know” is used in connection with this phrase to show that this is a sure way we can have knowledge of our standing with God.

 John also used terms of endearment like, little children, children or beloved (2:1, 7, 12, 13, 18, 28; 3:7, 21; 4:1, 4, 7; 5:21) to connect with his readers and assure them of their love relationship with God as his dearly loved children.

The first of the three subsections where John is emphasizing the four ways of assurance of salvation is 2:1-27. He begins with a focus on practicing righteousness as a way to have assurance in 2:1-6. Here John acknowledges that we are all sinners, but that obedience to Christ is a mark of a true believer. While we fail occasionally, we desire to obey and by the Spirit of God our obedience is real. Next, in 2:7-14 the focus is on loving the brotherhood. Light and darkness are contrasted. Loving one’s brother is walking in light, while hating one’s brother is walking in darkness. At the end of this passage (2:12-14) John refers to his readers as children, fathers and young men as a way of encouraging them. The short passage of 2:15-17 John returns to the idea of practicing righteousness with an admonishment to not love the world. One cannot love the world and the Father at the same time. What we love will show itself in our lives and reveal our relationship with God. And finally, in 2:18-27 John emphasizes having true faith in Jesus and having the Holy Spirit as two ways to have assurance. He does this by warning them of false teachers he calls antichrists. These false teachers deny the Lord and therefore do not have true faith in him. John assures his readers that they have been anointed by the Holy One and have all knowledge. This is a reference to the Holy Spirit. They have the Holy Spirit living in them to protect them from the false teachers.

The second passage where the four ways of having assurance is 2:28-4:6. He begins again with a focus on practicing righteousness (2:28-3:10) as a way of knowing we are children of God. In this passage John emphasizes the family relationship of God as Father and believers as his children. Those born of God are his children practice righteousness as their heavenly Father is righteous. Next, in 3:11-24 we find John focusing on loving one another as the way to know we are God’s children. This love of the brothers and sisters is an active love that has a tangible expression in daily life. At the end of this passage we find John bringing all four ways of assurance into focus (3:21-24). Finally, in 4:1-6 John returns to true faith in Jesus and the Holy Spirit as ways of having assurance of salvation. The believer is to test the spirits, which refers to those who claim to speak the word of God by the Holy Spirit. Those who do speak from the Holy Spirit will confess that Jesus has come in the flesh. John was combating a false teaching in his day that claimed Jesus only seemed to come in the flesh. False teachers will deny something true about Jesus Christ and his word. The true believer who has the Spirit will be led into the truth by the Spirit.

The final passage of this large section of the book is 4:7-5:21. Here again John returns to all four ways of assurance. He begins with love for the brotherhood in 4:7-21. In this passage John returns to the foundation of all the ways of assurance. He first mentioned it in 2:2 and now again in 4:10. It is that God’s love comes to us through the death of Jesus for our sins. The Father sent his Son, Jesus, to be a propitiation for our sins. This means that the death of Jesus satisfies God’s righteous anger for our sins. It is the Father’s love that sends the Son and is therefore just and the justifier of believers (Romans 3:23-26). Then, in 5:1-5 we see true faith in Jesus Christ as a way of assurance. Those with true faith in Jesus obey God’s commandments. But in 5:6-12 John combines The Holy Spirit and faith as evidence of a person’s salvation. In the final passage of this section and the book (5:13-21) John returns to true faith in Christ and practicing righteousness as ways to know one is born of God. In the last three verses of the book (5:19-21) John concludes his letter with the fact that we can know that we are saved despite the constant powerful activity of the devil. Our God is more powerful than he.

In all the book John gives his readers ample insight into full assurance of salvation and also ways to discern the lack of true faith. Few things in all of life can be more important than knowing for sure that one is truly saved and going to heaven. Readers of this short biblical book can find the assurance they need and help other believers find assurance. The sweet reality of fellowship with God is all the sweeter when one has the peace of their eternal destiny.