Editor’s choice: The whole Bible in an hour
Ruth Jackson reflecting on the Soul Survivor talks and seminars that really impacted her and the one that stood out most.
I have no doubt that many Soul Survivor talks and seminars have changed countless young lives over the years. But one that indelibly engraved itself in my 15-year-old brain was Chris Lane’s ‘Bible in an hour’. Before his seminar I’d dipped in and out of the Bible, but it largely confused, bored and baffled me. However, an hour in a sweaty tent changed everything. Chris strung a washing line containing the names of all 66 books of the Bible across the tent. As he moved along the washing line, he briefly unpacked each book, providing history, context and an overarching metanarrative for the entire Bible.
That seminar transformed my life. It triggered a deep love for the word of God, inspired me to share this love with others and led me to study theology at Oxford. And to be entirely self-indulgent, and in the hope that it might also inspire you, I asked Chris if he would kindly replicate his powerful seminar here. This is an edited version of his Bible in an hour…
The Bible starts with an explosion of goodness. Scientists talk about a big bang, but in Genesis God speaks into the emptiness (it was “formless and void”) and ignites goodness, life and vibrant creativity. Light, stars, plants, trees, creatures and more come into being through the words of the Creator. God pauses every now and again to enjoy what he is making, seeing that it is good. On the sixth day the pinnacle of the creation, the human or ‘adam’ – the only creature made in God’s image – is created. God looks and observes that it is not just good, but very good.
The human ‘Adam’ is the pinnacle of the creation, not so that he can exploit the earth, but to be the wise steward of the earth: looking after God’s good creation, naming the other creatures, tending the Garden of Eden and enjoying perfect communion with God.
But something in all of this apparent perfection is not good. What is not good? It isn’t sin; that comes in chapter 3, and we aren’t there yet. It is not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). So God creates a partner for the man: an ‘ezer’. This term is normally used to describe God and the way God helps us, but in this case it describes a woman called Eve. And it is only together, male and female, that humankind can truly reflect the image of the Creator.
It is not good for us to be alone. We have been created to need each other. That is why we have friendships. It’s why we have marriage and family. And it’s why we have Church. We cannot be the people of God without being in close community. We cannot do it on our own. When we sing “Jesus is all I need”, it isn’t true! We need each other. It was not good for Adam to be alone. He was in this incredible garden with no sin blocking his relationship with God, so why did he need anything more? Because God’s design is for humans to belong to each other in community.
But this idyllic scene doesn’t last long. The event we call the Fall, when humans rebelled against God, isn’t just the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 3. It is really the whole of Genesis 3-11, which describes what it looks like when we don’t follow God’s plan. And it is horrible. As well as the rebellion of Adam and Eve when they eat the forbidden fruit, there is the first murder (Cain and Abel), the vengeance of Lamech, the great flood and the arrogance shown at the Tower of Babel.
After all this mess and evil, the God who said: “Let there be light” now calls a people to be a light to the world; not just an individual hero, a superman, but a family that will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. It is an unlikely place to start – with an elderly couple, Abram and Sarai, who can’t have children – and yet this is what God does. He goes to the forgotten people and places, and he brings new life.
The apostle Paul tells us that Abraham (as he is renamed) is given the gospel in advance (Galatians 3:8). What can this mean? The calling of Abraham parallels the Great Commandment and the Great Commission: to have faith in God (“Love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”), and to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (“Go into all the world…”).
In Genesis 22 we find the story of a father willing to sacrifice his son. The father and son go up the hill together, the son carrying the wood for the sacrifice on his shoulders. And in the father’s words there are hints of resurrection: “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” I imagine Abraham standing on that hill – by Jewish tradition the eventual site of the Temple – and looking out towards the hill of Calvary and being given the gospel in advance as he says the words: “The Lord himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice.” A couple of millennia later, Jesus’ cousin John would introduce him with the words: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Worship, sacrifice, resurrection, faith, hope, salvation…we already have the gospel here and we’re only halfway through Genesis! Just 65 books to go! So the story of the generations is told. We have Isaac and Rebekah, then Jacob and Rachel. Jacob changes his name to Israel and has twelve sons, and because of the son with a particularly colourful coat they end up in Egypt. In Egypt the twelve families of Israel reproduce rapidly and become the twelve tribes of Israel, a powerful group that is such a threat they are forced into slave labour. They cry out to God for freedom and this leads us to…
Exodus! This is the key story in the whole of the Old Testament. This is the story that the prophets come back to again and again, and even the one Jesus refers to when talking about what he is going to accomplish on the cross (Luke 9:31). It is when God reveals his name to the people, when they emerge as a nation in their own right and are given the Law. After ten plagues they escape through the Red Sea to Mount Sinai.
Leviticus – your favourite book and mine – tells us about the law that the people gladly received. But because of their sin, the people wandered around the desert for 40 years, and these stories are found in Numbers. When they reach the edge of the Promised Land, Moses gives three great sermons, which are basically the book of Deuteronomy. Then he dies.
Joshua leads the people into the Promised Land with his own ‘Moses moment’, parting the River Jordan just as Moses parted the Red Sea. This epic era of Moses and Joshua is replaced by a cycle of falling away from God and attacks from their enemies, and then the people crying out to God for forgiveness and God sending a ‘saviour’ to rescue them. These saviours are also called Judges, and there are twelve in all: an unlikely bunch including the son of a prostitute, a coward, a heavy drinker, a woman who leads against the odds in a very patriarchal society, and a long list of other unexpected heroes. The story of Ruth is also found in this time period.
Then the people ask for a king, and God reluctantly allows his prophet Samuel to anoint Saul, who messes up. He is replaced by David, who, despite many struggles and sins, becomes Israel’s greatest leader and an eventual model for a future Messiah. David and his son Solomon rule over Israel’s Golden Age: a time of prosperity and expansion, during which creativity flourished and the five Wisdom books – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs – took on some of the form we know today. The Wisdom books, some of which are attributed to David and Solomon, contain advice, emotions and prayers to reflect every aspect of life: joy, peace, love, sorrow, pain, anger, sex, work and hope. However you are feeling and whatever you are doing, you will find something in the Wisdom literature to speak to your situation.
After Solomon, who builds the temple, Israel’s leaders go to war against each other and the kingdom splits in two, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. This begins a series of disasters under a succession of bad rulers who turned away from God, with the occasional good king who led a revival. It is generally a downward spiral. You can read all these stories in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.
It is during this time (of the kings) that the great prophets arise. The prophets do three things. Firstly, they speak to the rulers and call them to treat the people with justice and righteousness. Secondly, they call the people to repent, turn back to God and obey his law. Finally, they point to the future. This includes the more immediate future, which involves judgement and enemy invasions and exile if they do not repent (this happens in 722 BC in the north and 586 BC in the south) and the more distant future, when they prophesy that God will deliver them again. They foretell that God will send a saviour or messiah.
Isaiah talks about a servant who will be wounded for our transgressions and by whose wounds we will be healed. Jeremiah prophesies a new covenant that will be written on our hearts and minds – almost as if God himself would come to live within his people. Ezekiel describes God coming to rescue the people as their good shepherd, cleansing their sins and giving them a heart of flesh, not of stone. Daniel sees a vision of a divine-human figure called ‘the Son of Man’, who comes into the throne room of God and is given all authority and sovereign power, and all the nations of the earth worship him! They are the four ‘major prophets’ (Jeremiah also wrote Lamentations).
The twelve ‘minor prophets’ do the same thing. Micah tells us that a ruler will emerge from Bethlehem, whose origins are “from days of eternity”. Zechariah sees a king coming, “righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey”. The other minor prophets – Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah and Haggai – add their own richness to the story, and Malachi prophesies that a messenger will come to “prepare the way of the Lord”.
As the people return to the land after the time of Esther and the exile, Ezra and Nehemiah lead the people in a rebuilding of the city and of their worship and community life. And then the people hope and pray and search the scriptures. “When will God deliver us from our oppressors?” they wonder. Whether it’s Babylonians, Persians, Greeks or Romans, they were back in the land but never free. “How long, oh Lord? When will your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?” Centuries of oppression follow. Centuries of longing, persevering, praying and hoping.
Then John the Baptiser bursts onto the scene. He stands in the place of beginnings – the River Jordan where they first entered the land – and calls the people to a new beginning. One day Jesus queues up with all the sinners who are waiting to be baptised and forgiven, and John spots Jesus in the queue. He might have been number 14 in a line of 50 people – as Isaiah said, he was counted among the transgressors – but Jesus was no sinner.
John is like an Old Testament prophet who has snuck into the New. He speaks to the rulers (which gets him killed in the end), calls the people to repent and points to the future Messiah. But John has a special privilege. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world walks up to him and asks for baptism.
Jesus goes under that water for you and for me. As he emerges we get a glimpse of the trinity. The Father speaks, the Son emerges and the Spirit descends like a dove. Jesus is launched into an incredible three years of healing, radical living, teaching in word and deed, eating with all the wrong people, raising people from the dead, offending important people and bringing hope to the hopeless. As he dies on the cross he takes our sins upon himself and provides a new exodus for the whole world. Then he rises from the dead and everything changes. God’s future world has already begun, starting with Jesus and spreading through his followers, who are to take this good news all over the world. Matthew, Mark, Luke (including in his second book, Acts) and John tell us the stories of Jesus and the earliest Church as they see the world begin to change by the power of God.
As they start churches all over the known world there are issues that need to be dealt with, and the first leaders of the Church write letters to give help and advice. We have 13 letters from the apostle Paul (Romans to Philemon), as well as letters from James, Peter, John and Jude (plus an unknown author who wrote a letter called Hebrews). These letters give us a fascinating insight into what these people (most of whom knew Jesus personally) believed, did and taught, and into how they passed on the message of Jesus to subsequent generations, including us.
And finally we reach the book of Revelation, which teaches us that one day Jesus will return. He is, right now, making all things new, and he invites us to join him in that mission. The God who began a good work will bring it to completion. There is a day coming when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and there will be no more crying or pain, and death will be destroyed forever. This is the wonderful hope of the gospel. This is the story of the Bible.
CHRIS LANE leads Langworthy Community Church in Salford and is a theology lecturer at St Mellitus North West. He is married to Esther, and is teaching their three children to follow Jesus and Manchester United, in that order. Chris is a Soul Survivor trustee and the author of Ordinary Miracles: Mess, meals and meeting Jesus in unexpected places.