Overview of Scripture
The purpose and context of the Bible as a whole
The Bible is a divinely-sanctioned collection of books on various topics and through various genres, assembled over a period of about 1500 years by about 40 writers. The unifying theme is the story of the creation, fall, redemption, and restoration of the world. In particular, it follows the history of the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob1 to eventually bring about the Savior of all.
So the Bible was not meant to be an exhaustive world history. But neither was it written in a vacuum, so we must consider every historical and cultural setting. At the very least, it tells us that God does not operate us like puppets or micromanage us. He made us as sentient beings, and the rebellion in the Garden of Eden could have justified God in abandoning us completely and eternally. Yet he did not do this, but rather planned for our salvation through many millennia.
One might then wonder why God would choose to allow such stretches of time to transpire, but that question has not been answered in the pages of scripture and will have to wait until history has ended. But what we can observe is that whenever God does intervene in history, he chooses the most unlikely vessels to carry out his will. Neither does God instantly and violently yank people into line when they stray, but instead patiently guides them. So the journey is as important as the destination, and our choices along the path as important as its length.
If we remember all these things and keep them in mind as we study the scriptures, we will be less inclined to misinterpret a given passage or misapply its application or lesson. This is the outer layer of context, but only one layer out of many. If we fail to consider all layers of context, we are vulnerable to stumbling over minutiae and connecting dots that were never intended to be connected. We’re all familiar with the “connect the dots” pictures we drew as children. But even as children we knew that we had to follow the order of numbers or letters, rather than connecting them any way we chose and then wondering why the result was not what the designer intended. So also we must not think, as many do today, that we can take any given verses and join them together as we see fit. This is not a matter of permission but of sound reasoning.
The Old Testament begins of course with the account of creation and the fall into sin and death, and then gives a historical account of the expansion of people groups over the earth. But once we pass the accounts of the Flood and Tower of Babel and eventually meet Abraham, the focus of scripture narrows to Abraham’s descendants. While other nations and peoples are mentioned, the clear purpose is to record the history of the Hebrews. This is a key aspect of context, since we cannot properly interpret prophecy if we are ignorant of the fact that the Old Testament tells nothing about the church to come.2 The church as a unique Christian body was not revealed completely until Jesus gave this knowledge to Paul; see Eph. 3:3–9 and Col. 1:26–27.
In the next chapter we will examine the distinction between the church and the people and land of Israel.
- 1 The terms Hebrew, Jew, and Israelite will not be distinguished in this book, as they all refer to descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
- 2 The word church will be used in this book due simply to its familiarity. As used throughout scripture, it could refer to the people of Israel or even a gathering of Gentiles of any given religious or political identity.