Eric Bolger: The Biblical Story (A Story of Our Becoming)


Though it is common today to refer to the bible as if it is a reference book, or even a practical “manual” or “textbook” for how to live, it is in fact something much more grand and rich. The bible is a story, actually the story, of our existence. This story has a beginning, middle, and ending, and along the way it answers the deepest and most pressing issues in our souls. It shows us who we are, why we exist, and where we are headed. It also shows us the character of the One who guides the story, and invites us into the most fulfilling of relationships with this One.

Too many followers of Jesus Christ today have no sense for the story of Scripture. This lack of understanding leads to many problems, not the least of which is a tendency to read parts of the bible without respect to the greater drama it describes, and thereby to fall into various errors. The purpose of this paper is to sketch the story of Scripture in a way that impresses upon us both its majesty and its relevance to life in the 21st century.

Ultimately, the biblical story is the story of God enabling us to become what he intends us to be. Though there are many detours and false starts along the way, it is clear throughout the story that God’s intention will not be thwarted. And so we turn to the story of our becoming.

In the Beginning

The familiar words with which the bible begins are an obvious clue that we are entering a story: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” [1] Any good story has a beginning, and the bible is the best and most important of all stories, for it is the ultimate story into which all other stories fit. The biblical story begins not with a proof of God’s existence but a simple affirmation that the God of the bible created everything that exists. The emphasis on everything is made plain by the use of a figure of speech known as a merism, in which opposites are used to express totality. A common merism we use is the phrase “day and night,” by which we mean “all the time.” It would be a misunderstanding to think that someone who said they were studying “day and night” meant that they were studying once during the day and once during the night. In the same way the phrase “the heavens and the earth” in Genesis 1:1 does not mean that God created two things, first the heavens and second the earth. Rather, it means that at the beginning of the story God created everything that exists, so that there is nothing the existence of which is not a result of God’s action. In this way the bible affirms that all the other characters in the story, whether animate or inanimate, are derived from God and ultimately dependent on him.

Having affirmed that all that exists is dependent upon God, the inspired author of Genesis, whom we shall call Moses, [2] quickly narrows the focus of the story in a significant way: “And the earth was formless and empty…” Moses turns to describe in verse two not the “everything” that God had made in verse one, but one very small yet central part of it, “the earth.” If we imagine how odd it would seem to Moses’ readers if instead of the earth he had said “and Jupiter was formless and empty” or “the sun was very hot,” we can quickly understand why Moses begins with the earth: it is the place where his readers live! Thus immediately the story becomes relevant and personal, for though God created all planets and stars and galaxies, known and unknown, this story we are being told is not about the vast impersonal universe but rather it is about us and the place we call home.

This focusing of the story is made even clearer when we realize that the Hebrew word translated “earth” is elsewhere used by Moses and other biblical writers to refer to the land that God promised to give to Israel. For example, in Genesis 12:1,7 God says to Abraham, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. . . . to your offspring I will give this land.” The word translated land, and referring to the promised land, is the Hebrew word ‘eretz, which is the same word translated earth in Genesis 1:2. It is likely that Moses is speaking in Genesis 1:2 not of the entire planet but of the specific place God would later give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their descendents, the nation of Israel.

What does Moses tell us about the ‘eretz in verse 2? That it is formless and empty, covered with water, and dark. Interestingly, these are the exact things that will be addressed in the rest of chapter one, as we shall see below. But first we need to consider just what “formless and empty” means. Later in the Torah we find a helpful piece of evidence. In Deuteronomy 30:10 the Hebrew word translated “formless” is used to refer to the deserted land or wilderness in which God figuratively “found” the nation of Israel (“Jacob”). The audience to whom Moses was writing was made up of Israelites who had left Egypt during the exodus. Whereas most of the adult generation had perished during the wilderness wanderings, the second generation of those who had left was now preparing finally to enter the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had grown up in the desert, and Moses uses their experience as an analogy for what the ‘eretz looked like “in the beginning.” It looked just like what they’d been wandering in for forty years! [3]

So the land was deserted, dark, and covered with water (damp) after God made it in the beginning. And what does the Creator do? In the rest of Genesis 1 Moses describes how God addresses each of these issues. On day one, God makes light overcome the darkness that covered the land. On days two and three, he makes dry ground appear so that the land is no longer covered with water. And on the second part of day three through day six God makes the land a habitable place. By the end of chapter one God looks at all he has done and declares that it is “very good.” So in chapter one, we see three movements in our developing story. First God makes everything “in the beginning.” Second, the land was not yet livable, for it was deserted, dark, and damp. Third, God makes the land livable by bringing light, dry ground, and making it habitable. And he calls the entire process “good.”

In fact this description of the land as “good” is quite important for understanding our story. Significantly, Moses records seven times that God saw that what he’d done was good (verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31), though surprisingly these seven occurrences of the word good do not correspond exactly to the seven days of creation. What we need to ask is what does it mean for God to say something is good? Does this mean it is perfect and without fault? Does it mean that it is pleasing to God?

One way to get at an answer to this question is by looking at the antonyms of the word good in English. The two most common antonyms are “bad” and “evil.” To say something is evil is to imply a darker, more personal intention than to say it’s bad. For example, I might eat some food that has spoiled and naturally say it’s bad, but I wouldn’t say it is evil. In the same way, if I own a car that breaks down all the time I might say it’s a bad car, but not an evil one. Bad refers to something that doesn’t fulfill its purpose and that might cause us problems, but the word evil is used of personal, spiritual powers that intend to harm or destroy. Thus Satan is aptly called “the evil one.”

Which way is Moses using the word good in Genesis one, as the opposite of bad or of evil? If we look the various times it’s used, the answer is obvious. For example, God calls the light good in 1:4. Does Moses mean that before there was light it was evil? No, he simply means that the coming of light is a beneficial thing. In the same way, the water covering the land was not evil, but the appearing of dry ground was beneficial. And so on as we go through the chapter.

But we can ask another question: beneficial for whom? Was God saying that the creation of these things was beneficial to him, as if he was somehow lacking until there was light on the land? It is much more likely that God is actually saying that these things were beneficial for us, and that he’s the one who made them so! In other words, God’s affirmation of the goodness of what he makes in Genesis 1 is an affirmation of his intention to create for us a place that has what is good (or beneficial) for us! And this creation of what is good actually continues in chapter two, for in 2:18 Gods says for the first time that something is not good: the man is alone. And what does God do? He creates woman out of man for a companion. Thus we learn that the God who created everything that exists is also personally involved with his creation, so much so that he makes sure that the land in which he places the first humans is beneficial and conducive to their living there. We can say that this great creator God knows what we need (that is, he knows what’s good for us), and has the power to transform things that are not good for us (that is, things that are bad) into things that are good for us (that is, beneficial).

It’s worth stopping at this point in the story to look far ahead at something the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the church at Rome. In Romans 8:28-29 he writes these familiar words:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

Paul too understood that God’s actions on our behalf are good, that is, that God is at work to bring about what is beneficial in the lives of those who “love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This aspect of God’s character provides important continuity all through the biblical story. God uses even an event as apparently devastating as Jesus’ crucifixion for our good, to bring about our salvation. We can be assured that whatever happens to us, God is at work to bring about good.

What is the good that God intends for us? This is an important question, for it provides for us a lens through which to view the events of our lives. If we look at the first few chapters of our story to see what God has called good, we can identify a number of things. First, God prepared a place for us to live, which meets a basic human need. In fact, in the story of the bible one of the great plot tensions is whether the people will be in or out of the place God prepared for them (e.g., the promised land). At the end of the story, God’s people are all together in a place he has prepared for them (e.g., John 14:1-4; Revelation 21:3-4). In the beginning God put Adam and Eve in a place in which all of their needs were met. There was food for the taking (from the many fruit trees). There was fresh water welling up continually from the ground. There were even the elements that would later be used in the worship of God. For example, the sun, moon, and stars in 1:14-19 were provided to serve as signs and mark the festivals of Israel’s worship described later in the Torah. [4] And Moses even tells us that there was “good” gold in Eden (Gen 2:12), which is significant because gold was the primary material used in Israel’s worship.

Second, God provided companionship for us. We see this in the animals God made, though it is clear that none was fully suitable as a human companion (Gen 2:19-22). We see this most fully in his creation of woman as a companion for the man, and in the God-given endowment to “be fruitful and multiply” in order to create an entire human race (Gen 1:28). We see this also in the fact that God himself lived with the first couple in the Garden of Eden. God’s presence with them is actually unremarkable, until they eat of the tree of knowledge and experience the shame of their nakedness. Genesis 3:8 makes clear that God customarily walked in the garden with Adam and Eve (the Hebrew verb “walk” is in a form which suggests this). So from the beginning God created us for community with himself and with one another.

There is more to this story, and it has to do with the ultimate purpose for which God created us. In Genesis 1:26-27, Moses tells us that humans were created in God’s own image and likeness. We will explore the meaning of this further in another context, but for now suffice it to say that creation in God’s image means that God’s definitive purpose for us is to become like him. Humans were created to become like God. And one of the central characteristics of God that is already introduced in Genesis 1:26-27 is that God is a community of persons. To become like God then is to be enabled to live in the kind of community enjoyed by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As one author aptly puts it, we were “created for community.” [5]

The Problem

It becomes apparent very early in our story that there will be some major obstacles in reaching the goal God intends. Already in Genesis 3 Moses describes what we commonly refer to as “the fall.” The first humans break the one prohibition God had given them by eating of the tree of knowledge. It is noteworthy that the tempter (the serpent) offers them the very thing God already created them for, that is, that they might “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). In ironic fashion, the first humans act as if they know what’s “good” for them, that is, they act as if they are God (3:6), even though in so doing they break God’s explicit command. The results of this choice were, predictably, not good. The created order is now marked by enmity, strife, toil, and death. The man and woman are alienated from each other, from God, and from the entire created order, compromising the community for which humans were created. The rest of the story reinforces the reality of this alienation, as we read about characters like Cain, Jacob, Saul, David, and others. And certainly we today can testify to it through our own experiences of loneliness, isolation, anger, etc.

We should not make the mistake of thinking that somehow God was surprised by this turn of events. In fact, in the biblical story this kind of “fall” is treated as typical of humans, and becomes a means by which we are constantly reminded of both our own tendency to err and of our need for God’s intervention in order to reach our intended goal. In other words, from the very beginning of the story we are creatures with a great future but with an intrinsic tendency to hinder the accomplishment of that future! We are, despite our best hopes and intentions, utterly dependent upon our Creator to fulfill the purpose for which we were created.

At this early point in the story, we actually begin to read about God’s solution to our human problem. This nature of this solution is revealed gradually, and it is not until we reach the pages of the New Testament that it is made fully clear. From that vantage point, we see that God’s solution was to become human so that he might both experience what it is like to be human and, because he is divine, to set us free from the cycle of failure that binds us. Jesus Christ, who was prophesied in many and various ways in the Old Testament, came into our world as God in human flesh to provide a way out of our bondage. Already in Genesis 3 Jesus’ coming is hinted at, and the Old Testament portion of our story is held together by continuing revelation about how he would save us.

Framework for a Solution

In the chapter that describes the fall, there are already hints of hope for a solution to the human dilemma. In Genesis 3:15, God speaks a prophecy that provides the root of a majestic tree of hopeful biblical promises toward this end. God says to the serpent:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

There are a number relationships described here, including the serpent and Eve (there will be hatred between them), the serpent’s offspring and Eve’s offspring (again, there will be hatred between them), and finally the serpent’s offspring and Eve’s offspring (the serpent’s head is crushed and the heel of Eve’s offspring is
struck). It is this last relationship that is especially important, for it implies a number of important things that will drive the rest of our story. First, apparently Eve will have offspring, one of which will survive long enough to engage in some sort of battle with the serpent itself (the Hebrew referring to the offspring is singular: “his heel”). Second, the serpent will apparently be soundly defeated in this battle, since his head will be crushed (a lethal injury) while the offspring of the woman will receive a less severe injury. In sum, this passage foresees the defeat of the agent who led Adam and Eve astray, and this defeat will be accomplished by one of their own. The rest of the biblical story will trace this important promise regarding Adam and Eve’s offspring; this is one key reason we find so many genealogies in the bible.

This line of ancestry is traced through the early stories of the bible, including Cain, Abel, and Seth. Seth’s line is identified as the line of promise (i.e., the one from which God’s promise will ultimately be fulfilled), which is traced then through the genealogy of Genesis 5. The line of promise is radically narrowed in the story of Noah, who is descended from Seth, for after the flood there is only one family line left. The genealogies of Genesis 10 and 11 distinguish one of Noah’s sons, Shem, [6] as being in the line of promise. This line leads in Genesis 12 to Abraham, through whom God marks a new and revealing chapter in the biblical story.

The Lord gives Abraham, who is a descendent of Adam, Seth, and Shem, a series of far reaching promises known together as the Abrahamic Promise or Covenant. This promise is first recorded in Genesis 12:1-3, and is reiterated and expanded throughout the rest of the Torah (and even the entire Old Testament). It centers on three things:

  1. a special land (‘eretz) for Abraham and his descendants
  2. a great nation descended from Abraham
  3. God’s blessing upon Abraham and his descendants

These three things correspond to the things God made for humans in the Genesis 1 story of creation: he prepared a place (land) for Adam and Eve, he enabled them to multiply, and he blessed them with provision. This connection is important for understanding the story, because it shows that the promise to Abraham is God’s means of restoring what was lost at the fall in Genesis 3. In other words, the Abrahamic Promise is God’s way of returning to the human race the things he intended for them in the beginning, but which were lost through the choice (which all humans make) to disregard God’s wise commandment.

There is another aspect of the Abrahamic Promise that we need to note. Verse 3 ends with these important words: “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” In the beginning God had blessed the human race, yet sin had crept in to destroy the good God had intended. Through Abraham and his line, God promises to restore blessing to the entire human race (“all peoples on earth”), not just the Jews who would come directly from Abraham. The New Testament story begins by recalling this promise, as Matthew starts his genealogy by showing Jesus Christ as the offspring of Abraham: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac was the father of Jacob. . . .” (Matthew 1:1-2). Matthew tells us in this genealogy that the Abrahamic Promise pointed ultimately to Jesus Christ, who is the promised offspring of Abraham who will restore blessing to the entire human race.

As we move through the following chapters of the story in Genesis, we see the promise to Abraham reiterated to his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, who is renamed Israel. God’s control of the promise and its accomplishment are emphasized through the struggle that occurs within each generation of descendents of Abraham. In each case, a son other than the firstborn becomes the one through whom the promise is kept; this is at great odds with the cultural expectations of the time, which placed the greatest honor on the firstborn son. It is from Abraham’s descendent Jacob that the nation of Israel finally forms, so that by the time of the exodus from Egypt, the offspring of Abraham have multiplied so greatly and become such a large nation that the Egyptian rulers fear for the safety of their nation.

The threat posed by the Israelites sets up a great power encounter between God, who now reveals himself personally to Moses by the name Yahweh, and the Egyptians with their pantheon of gods. Yahweh’s victory over the Egyptian gods and subsequent deliverance of the Israelites from slavery is not merely a momentous event. It also establishes a paradigm we will meet again and again throughout the biblical story, namely that God is on the side of the weak and oppressed, and is in the business of delivering them from captivity. Jesus describes his own ministry in similar terms, when he quotes the book of Isaiah in the synagogue and applies it to himself:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).

Israel’s experience of deliverance in the exodus is, significantly, based on the promise to Abraham and his offspring in Genesis 12:

During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them (Exodus 2:23-25).

So we see a continuity developing in our story: God promised that the offspring of Eve would crush the head of the serpent; Abraham is descended from Eve and God makes him a promise to restore what was lost at the fall; and the people of Israel, the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are protected and released from bondage based on the promise to Abraham. What will the Lord now do with the growing nation of Israel?

What God does is vital for understanding not only Israel’s story, but our story as well. After God leads Israel out of Egypt with many signs and wonders, not the least of which was providing food (manna) and water in the desert for the great nation of Israel, he calls them together through Moses at Mt. Sinai. Here God establishes a contract or covenant with them, as seen in these words:

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:3-6).

This so-called “Old Covenant” or “Sinai Covenant” is foundational for understanding both the role of the nation of Israel in God’s plan, and also God’s broader intention for all humanity. We can list the following elements of this covenant:

  1. It is initiated by God, and made with the people of Israel.
  2. It is contingent on the people being faithful to the covenant.
  3. It affirms three things Israel will become if they keep the covenant:
    • God’s treasured possession;
    • a kingdom of priests;
    • a holy nation.

The fact that God initiates the covenant is not surprising; throughout the biblical story God is always the initiator in relationships. This means that if we seek him, it is because he has first sought us; we are simply responding to his initiative. Keeping this in mind is important, for it helps us to guard against any unbiblical sense that somehow we’ve earned God’s favorable response. The contingent nature of the covenant reminds us of Israel’s responsibility in particular, and more generally of the responsibility all humans have before God. Though God is fully capable of bringing to pass whatever he wants, he has chosen to involve us directly in the process. In this case the process requires Israel to keep the covenant stipulations God would give. If they do this they will become God’s treasured possession, that is, they will enjoy a unique and special status before God. Israel will also become a kingdom of priests. As a kingdom, they would be a nation under the one God, Yahweh, who was their king, the one who had delivered them from the oppression of the Egyptians. As priests, they would mediate between God and all the other nations of the earth. It is significant that God says Israel will be a kingdom of priests, because this means that all the people who made up this nation would function in the role of mediator. Unfortunately, as the story continues we see that God must make them a kingdom with priests, since even the Israelites are in need of mediation with God.

God’s calling of Israel to be a kingdom of priests serves to correct a common misunderstanding of the Old Testament portion of our story. Some people are under the impression that, according to the Old Testament, Israel was chosen by God as an end in itself, such that God’s plan was to bless Israel alone apart from any concern for the rest of the nations of the world. However, as we’ve seen in the making of the Old Covenant described here in Exodus 19, God’s plan was for Israel to be a missionary nation, that is, to bring God to the rest of the world. This calling was in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, in which Abraham is told that all peoples will be blessed through him. Israel, the descendents of Abraham, is the nation through whom God desires to fulfill this promise. In fact, he will fulfill this promise through Israel, though not in a way that is at this point entirely clear.

The third aspect of the Old Covenant is that Israel would be a holy nation. For Israel to fulfill its role as mediator to the nations, it had to become like God, that is, to take on the image or likeness of God. This is here referred to as holiness, and to show Israel what God was like he gave them a series of commands or laws. It was common in the ancient Near East for a king to provide a law code for his subjects, and the purpose of the codes was to exhibit the justice and righteousness of the king. And so it was for Israel: the laws God gave exhibited his character, including his concern for justice, righteousness, and faithfulness. Within the Torah we learn that Israel was unable to fulfill its calling to become holy. We also learn of God’s future plan, which was to change their human hearts so that they could fulfill their calling. This passage from Deuteronomy 30, at the end of the Torah, describes how Israel would turn away from God (i.e., be unfaithful to the Old Covenant) and how God would restore them and change their hearts so that they might then love and serve him wholeheartedly:

Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under heaven (i.e, as punishment for unfaithfulness), from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendents, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live (Deuteronomy 30:4-6).

The emphasis on the heart is a central theme in our story. Without a heart that is inclined toward God, it is impossible for us to become what the Lord has purposed us to be. This is true for Israel, and it is true for us. Fortunately, as this passage tells us, God has a plan to change human hearts so that they can indeed respond to him as he intends. This looks forward to what the prophet Jeremiah calls the New Covenant. In fact, this entire Old Covenant passage is echoed by Peter and applied to the new people of God created in under the New Covenant. Of this people, the church, Peter writes:

You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ . . . you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:5, 9-10).

Following the Old Covenant pattern, Peter exhorts his audience to covenant faithfulness after describing God’s purpose for them in the covenant:

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Peter 2:11-12).

The church, then, like Israel, is called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Its success in fulfilling God’s purpose depends on becoming these things. However, as we shall see, the means by which the church fulfills its calling is fundamentally different than it was for Israel under the Old Covenant.

When we return to the story of Israel, we see that its failure to keep the covenant does not stop God from keeping his promise to bless all nations through the offspring of Abraham. We see hints of how this promise will be fulfilled all through the Old Testament. One significant passage is Genesis 49. Here the aging Jacob blesses each of his twelve sons. The most positive and noteworthy blessing is spoken over Judah, which is surprising because Judah has not been a great role model in the story that precedes the blessing. What Jacob says to Judah concerns the “end of days” (this is the literal meaning in 49:1; NIV translates “days to come”). “The end” contrasts with “the beginning” we read about in Genesis 1, and thus this chapter gives us insight into how the biblical story will conclude. What are especially important for us to see are Jacob’s words to Judah in Gen 49:10:

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs, and the obedience of the nations is his.

Though this poetic language is not transparent, it is clear enough that in the future Judah’s line will be royal (the scepter and ruler’s staff), and that one whom the nations will obey will come from Judah’s line. We must keep in mind that Judah is a direct descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and thus part of the promised lineage from Abraham. This prophetic blessing tells us Judah’s line will be preeminent in Israel (see Gen 49:8), and the source of a future ruler who will rule all the nations of the world. This ruler will be the “lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5).

As we trace this line through the Old Testament, we find that Israel’s first righteous king, David, was indeed descended from Judah (through Judah’s son Perez; see Ruth 4:18-22). And it is with King David that God makes another covenant that is of the same significance as, and also an extension of, the Abrahamic Covenant. In this new covenant, known as the Davidic Covenant and found in 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God promises David and his descendents two things:

  1. an unending dynasty (a “house” that lasts “forever”)
  2. a special relationship with God (the king will be “the son” of God)

Within the covenant clear references are made to the Abrahamic Promise. For example, God tells David he will “make his name great” (7:9), just as God had promised Abraham in the Abrahamic Promise (Genesis 12:2). In the same way, he tells David he will plant Israel in a special place, just as Abraham was promised a land for his descendents to dwell in. These connections are important, because the Davidic Covenant is God’s way of moving towards the fulfillment of his original promise to Abraham, and thereby restoring blessing to all the peoples of the earth (Genesis 12:3). Matthew clearly recognized the centrality of these two Old Testament covenants (Abrahamic and Davidic), and therefore he begins his gospel by identifying Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of both: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

These two covenants (the Abrahamic and the Davidic) form the backbone of the biblical story. They reach back to the beginning through God’s promise that a descendent of Eve would crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15), and they reach forward into the New Testament where these covenants are shown to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the one through whom God brings blessing to all peoples, and he is the one who rules forever over God’s kingdom as the Son of God. Yet there are other pieces of the puzzle, and it is to these that we now turn.

Other Pieces of the Puzzle

If the Old Testament offers various pieces of the puzzle of God’s plan for us, then the New Testament proclaims that in Jesus Christ we have a picture of the completed puzzle. We’ve already seen that Jesus is the fulfillment of the related Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants. Yet he is so much more according to the New Testament. Another thread running through the Old Testament is that of our need for sacrifice as a means of atoning for our sin. The book of Leviticus in the Torah gives extensive instructions on how the Israelites could approach their holy God only with the proper type of sacrifice. These sacrifices were a continuing reminder that God is different than us, and that there was a relational gap due to sin that must be bridged in order to have full fellowship with God.

In the New Testament, Jesus’ death provides once and for all a sacrifice that allows us to enjoy unfettered relationship with God. This role of Jesus was prophesied most clearly in Isaiah 53. Here the so-called “suffering servant” is described:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

In Matthew’s gospel, an angel appears to Joseph and tells him not to be afraid that his bride-to-be Mary is already pregnant, “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21) Clearly Jesus answers the sin problem of the Old Testament, and offers a way out of the human bondage to failure first described in Genesis 3.

Isaiah’s picture of the suffering servant reveals something else that Jesus himself would embody, and that is perfect servanthood. The well-known passage in Philippians 2, which many consider to be an early Christian hymn, describes this characteristic of Jesus Christ:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8)!

Throughout the biblical story men and women have sought to secure their future through the use of power and domination of others. But Jesus, as prophesied by Isaiah, shows a very different approach. Jesus exemplifies true meekness and humility, letting go of his valid rights and privileges, all for the purpose of serving God by becoming a servant to other people. Such an attitude represents true “godliness,” since within the triune God such loving servanthood characterizes the relationship between Jesus and the Father. As Paul says, our attitude is to be the same (Philippians 2:5).

Jesus also fulfills the Old Testament role of a mediator. We’ve already seen that in the Old Covenant Israel was called to become a nation that mediated between God and other nations. Later God established mediators, called priests, within Israel because of its own need for mediation with God. Among these priests, who were descendents of Moses’ brother Aaron, the chief or high priest had the annual responsibility to offer a sacrifice for the nation’s sins on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). However, this sacrifice was imperfect, both because it had to be offered again and again, and also because the one offering it was himself in need of a sacrifice for sin. In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews explains that Jesus fulfills this high priestly role perfectly and once-for-all:

Such a high priest meets our need – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priest men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever (Hebrews 7:26-28).

It is through Jesus that all men are able to approach God under the New Covenant. It is also through Jesus that the church fulfills its calling to be a royal priesthood, mediating between God and the nations (1 Peter 2:9).

There are many other ways in which Jesus brings together the multi-faceted hopes of the Old Testament. He is the very wisdom of God spoken of throughout the Old Testament, especially in the book of Proverbs (see 8:22-31; 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30). He is the “one like a son of man” who was prophesied by Daniel to receive “all glory, authority, and sovereign power” and the worship of all nations (Daniel 7:14). He is the prophet like Moses that Moses himself said God would raise up (Deuteronomy 18:17-19). And he is the ultimate example of a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14).

Christ as the Image of God

One of the key Old Testament ideas taken up and applied to Jesus Christ is that of the image of God. Early in the biblical story we learn that humans were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and that they continue to carry this image after the fall (e.g., Genesis 9:6). The New Testament writers recognize that all humans bear the image of God (see 1 Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9), but they also reveal a surprising and significant new element: Jesus Christ himself is the image of God. For example, Paul writes about Jesus in Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” And in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, he writes, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Using slightly different language, the author of Hebrews writes, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (1:3). [7]

What are we to make of this new element in the story? How does the image of God given to humans at creation relate to the image of God in Jesus Christ? These are questions that will concern us in another paper. For now, though, we may summarize the biblical answer to this question. As the image of God, Jesus perfectly reveals to us God’s character, including the central relational characteristic of love. He does this by himself embodying the very character of God. His relationship with the Father, through the Holy Spirit, and his relationships with those around him on earth, all demonstrate the perfect love that characterizes the community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, they demonstrate true abiding relationships.

Jesus also establishes a community, which is called to experience and display this character as it grows toward future conformity to God’s image. This community is formed through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus gives at the day of Pentecost after his ascension to God’s right hand. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, this community will ultimately achieve the purpose of its existence, to be a community that images God. We live now in the process of becoming this community, which is the “good” toward which God works all things for those who love him (Romans 8:28-29). The particular group that God has called to participate in this glorious becoming is the church, whose goal is not its own happiness but the revealing of the glorious character of the triune God to all of creation. Discipleship is learning to participate in this becoming, “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14).

All of this depends on the work of God’s Holy Spirit, which Christ poured out on those who believe. In baptism the Spirit enables us to die to our selfish nature and rise like Christ to a new life of selflessness that displays Christ’s own perfect humility. Through the Spirit we enter into a community that overcomes the sin-induced alienation we all experience. In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit gives to us freely the grace that sustains us, a foretaste of the glorious messianic banquet we will enjoy when Christ returns. In the gifts of the Spirit we experience the power of God working through us and through others for his purposes to build up the church, i.e., to participate in its progress towards the image of God. In the Word of God the Spirit speaks to us, and we learn to hear God and to be shaped in our thinking and will toward the image of Christ, who is the image of God. In our relationships with other believers the Spirit teaches us humility, helping us to lay down our lives for one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to speak the truth in love, following in the footsteps of Jesus. In various spiritual disciplines, the Spirit helps us both to put off the old nature, characterized by self-interest, and to put on the new nature, characterized by sacrificial love for others. Discipleship, then, is full participation with God as He conforms us to the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is called walking in the Spirit, that is, the process of learning to let God be the one who leads us. And this happens as we learn to abide in Jesus as he himself abides in the Father. Finally, as Romans 8:29 promises, we will certainly become like Jesus, because God has predestined it: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” It is indeed Jesus himself, dwelling in those who believe, who as Paul writes elsewhere is our “hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).


[1] It is worth noting that the Hebrew word translated “beginning” does not refer to a point in time. Rather, it refers to an indefinite period of time before other events. Thus we should not think of the beginning as the ring of a bell at the start of a school day, but rather as that first part of that school day during which the day is still getting started. Return

[2] The book of Genesis never mentions its author, nor does the larger book (the Torah or Pentateuch) of which Genesis is a part. Jesus seems to ascribe authorship of the Torah to Moses, and this has been the traditional Jewish and Christian understanding for millennia. Return

[3] The prophet Jeremiah does something similar in Jeremiah 4:23-26, where he describes the appearance of the promised land after God’s judgment as “formless and empty.” In using this phrase, he tells the reader that God’s judgment was in a sense a reversal of the creation story in Genesis 1. Return

[4] The Hebrew word translated “seasons” typically refers to the worship festivals such as Passover that the Lord gave the Israelites. Unfortunately, we tend to think it refers to the four seasons of summer, fall, winter, and spring, since that’s the way we typically use the term in English. Return

[5] Stanley J. Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief With Christian Living (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996). Return

[6] Shem’s descendents are known as the Semites, from which we get the phrase “anti-semitism.”Return

[7] See also 1 Corinthians 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10. Return

Posted June 2005

About the author

MWS 501 Professor and former Academic Dean. Eric is a staff elder of Harvest Evangelical Free Church in Branson, MO and is the Dean of a nearby college.