The Big Story of the Bible

As a pastor and disciple-maker, one of my goals is to help people learn how to read and study the Bible for themselves. I believe one of the best ways to enhance people’s ability to understand and study Scripture is to step back with them and look at the big picture message of the entire Bible. The reason this is helpful is because having a good understanding of the Bible’s big story helps us see how all the smaller parts of the Bible’s story fit together. Ultimately, every verse, passage, chapter, and book of the Bible fits into the one big story that God tells from Genesis to Revelation. Here is how I explain the big story of the Bible.

God’s plan for this world is to have his people, in his place, under his blessing. And the Bible tells the story of how that plan unfolds from creation and the fall into sin, to redemption, and ultimately the new creation. Let’s look at each of these stages in the story of the Bible and notice how God’s plan unfolds through each of them.

1. Creation

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). That’s how God’s story begins. The first two chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1 and 2) show us God’s plan for history. God’s plan is to have his people (starting with Adam, Eve), in his place (the Garden of Eden), under his blessing. We are told that God intends for his people to grow as Adam and Eve have descendants (Genesis 1:28, “be fruitful and multiply”), and that they are to spread out over the entire earth (Genesis 1:28, “fill the earth and subdue it”) cultivating and keeping it until multitudes of people all over the world are enjoying life under the blessing of God. There is only one condition that God’s people must meet to remain his people, in his place, under his blessing: they must obey him. Specifically, they must obey the one command God gave them, which was not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17).

2. Fall

Of course, in Genesis 3 we learn that, tragically, Adam and Eve fell to Satan’s temptations and ate from the tree in direct defiance of God’s command. As a result, God placed a curse upon Adam and Even, as well as the ground they were to subdue (Genesis 3:14-19). By sinning against God, and thereby bringing upon themselves God’s curse, every aspect of God’s plan was affected. Now, Adam and Eve were separated from God because of their sin, which means that without redemption they were no longer his people. Adam and Eve were also driven from God’s place (the Garden of Eden). And Adam and Eve were no longer under God’s blessing; rather, they were under God’s curse. This “fall” into sin presents a conflict in the Bible’s story that leaves one wondering how the conflict will be resolved and whether God’s plan to have his people, in his place, under his blessing will be able to be fulfilled.

3. Redemption

Right in the middle of the passage where God’s curse is given, there is a glimmer of hope—a hope that God will redeem his people from the curse brought on by their sin. In Genesis 3:15, God promises that one day one of Eve’s descendants will come and crush the head of the serpent that tempted them and got them into this mess in the first place. As early as Genesis 3:15, then, we learn that God’s story will go on. His plan will be fulfilled. And so from this point on, the Bible tells the story of how God will redeem the world from sin and the curse so that one day he will indeed have his people, in his place, under his blessing as he planned all along.

As we read through the Bible’s story, we learn that there are two major phases of redemption: (1) God’s redemption of old covenant Israel, and (2) God’s redemption of the new covenant church. From the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 to the end of the Old Testament, the Bible’s story tells us how God began to redeem a people for himself. Abraham’s descendant’s (the nation of Israel) were God’s people. He redeemed them and forgave them of their sins. He allowed them to live in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Out of all the nations on the earth, Israel experienced life under God’s blessing. They were his people, in his place, under his blessing. But, in order to maintain this, Israel (like Adam and Eve before them) had to meet a condition: they had to obey God’s law. By the time we get to the end of the Old Testament, we learn that Israel failed to obey God’s law, and as a result they were no longer God’s people, they were driven far from his place (in exile), and they were placed under his curse.

The second phase in the “redemption” stage of the Bible’s story is the new covenant church. At the beginning of the New Testament, Jesus (the hero of God’s story) steps onto the scene. Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus establishes a new covenant relationship with God in which sinners from all nations can be redeemed from the curse of sin so that they can become God’s people, can have the promise of one day inheriting God’s place (the new creation), and can experience life under God’s blessing forever. This is our experience as the church of Jesus Christ. We are currently living in this phase of God’s story. And our job as characters in this part of the story is to tell as many people as possible how they can be redeemed from the curse of sin through Christ.

4. New Creation

But our present experience of redemption in Christ is not the end of the Bible’s story. The Bible teaches that one day Jesus will come again, and on that day he will finish the work of redemption that he started at his first coming. Satan will finally be crushed, sin will be eradicated, the curse and its devastating effects will be totally lifted, and God will make all things new. The bodies of believers will be raised from the dead and glorified, and creation will be renewed (Romans 8:19ff; Revelation 21-22). And in that new creation, all the redeemed of all the ages will experience God’s plan coming to fruition: we will be his people, in his place (the new heavens and new earth), under his blessing for eternity. Creation → Fall → Redemption → New Creation. Ultimately, all the individual stories of Scripture tie together to tell this one big story of the Bible.

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10 Christian Books I’d Want My Church Members to Read

Christian Book Expo recently published a list of the bestselling Christian books of 2016. There were a few good ones on the list, but on the whole, it was full of books I would not recommend to my church members. What makes a list like this so tragic is that there really are a lot of great books out there, but instead people are bypassing those great resources to buy books that won’t help them as much, and in some cases will actually be detrimental to their spiritual health.

I don’t place all the blame for these bestsellers on the people buying the books, though. Part of the blame rests on pastors and church leaders who need to be helping their members grow in their hunger for good, solid resources, and in their ability to discern between the good and the bad. Part of the blame also rests on the Christian bookstores themselves who promote and display prominently the junk they know will make money rather than the books with good content that might not sell as many copies. The average Christian is probably overwhelmed when they walk into a Christian bookstore and see thousands of books on the rack. How do they know what to buy? If they just randomly buy something off the shelf, there’s a good chance it won’t be worth reading. And we’ve already established that going over to the bestseller rack isn’t going to help.

So, rather than just complain about all of this, I’ve put together a list of ten books that I would encourage my church members to read. None of them are too academic, so you don’t have to have a degree in theology to read and understand them. Also, this is not a top-ten-books-of-all-time list, and they aren’t in any particular order. They’re just ten good Christian books that are actually worth your time. If you are wanting to get your hands on some good books this year that will help you grow, here are ten good ones (with links to buy them on Amazon.com):

  1. Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis—A true Christian classic. This might be a bit more difficult to read than the other books on this list, but it’s worth it. Great defense of the Christian faith.
  2. I Am a Church Member, by Thom Rainer—Short, helpful book on what it means to be a faithful church member.
  3. Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send, by J. D. Greear—The goal of the local church shouldn’t be to grow as large as it can, but to send as many people out to fulfill the Great Commission as it can. J. D. tells us how to become this kind of church.
  4. The Cross-Centered Life, by C. J. Mahaney—So many Christians go throughout their days and weeks without a thought toward the gospel, or they are trapped in a legalistic mindset of works-based religion. Mahaney shows us how to stay focused on the gospel of God’s grace.
  5. What Is a Healthy Church, by Mark Dever—Just as Rainer’s book explains the marks of a healthy church member, Dever’s book explains the marks of a healthy church. Every Christian should want to be a part of a healthy local church, but how do we define what that is?
  6. What Is the Gospel, by Greg Gilbert—It’s been said that if one generation assumes the gospel, the next generation will lose the gospel. Gilbert does a great job of laying out very clearly the contents of the gospel message.
  7. Growing Up: How to Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples, by Robby Gallaty—How do we fulfill the Great Commission of making disciples in a 2 Timothy 2:2 kind of way: “What you have heard from me, entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also”? Folks at Calvary who have joined a discipleship group in recent months will be familiar with much of what Robby says here.
  8. God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible, by Vaughan Roberts—If you want to know how the big story of the Bible fits together, you won’t find a more helpful little book than this one.
  9. Ten Who Changed the World, by Danny Akin—Akin highlights ten missionaries from church history that made a huge impact for the Kingdom of God.
  10. Family Worship, by Donald Whitney—This book casts a vision for why families should have regular times when they gather together in their home to read the Bible, pray, and sing together. If you’ve wondered how to do family worship, this short book will be a tremendous help.

Sexual Purity & Relating to the Opposite Sex

As disciples of Christ who are called to live holy lives, one of the areas in which we must strive for purity is the area of sexuality. Sexual sin is one of the main ways Satan destroys our minds, our bodies, our marriages, our homes, our churches, and our lives. In order to guard ourselves against sin in this area we must understand what the Bible teaches about the purpose of sex, the boundaries for sex, and the importance of maintaining sexual purity of heart and eyes.

1. The Purpose of Sex

If we are going to walk in sexual purity, we first need to understand what God has to say about the purpose of sex. The Bible teaches that there are at least three reasons God has seen fit to make us sexual beings: 1) procreation, 2) pleasure, and 
3) avoidance of temptation.

The first purpose for sex is procreation (i.e., human reproduction). In Genesis 1:28, God told Adam and Eve they were to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” This meant that they were to have children, grandchildren, and so forth, until the earth was full of God’s image bearers carrying out God’s work. Of course, God has designed it such that the way humans multiply is through sex. Thus, one of the chief purposes of sex is procreation.

The second purpose for sex mentioned in the Bible is pleasure. God did not give humans the gift of sexuality simply so they could have children, but also so a husband and a wife could experience the pleasure that results from sex. This is seen, for example, in the book of Song of Solomon. The entire book is a love song between a husband and his wife, and much of it speaks of marital sex. Solomon, the author of that song, also tells us that sex is for pleasure when he writes in Proverbs 5:18-19, “Rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.”

The third purpose for sex given in Scripture is that sex between a husband and a wife can help them avoid temptation. In 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, Paul says, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. . . . Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Paul is saying that husbands and wives should have sex regularly, and that one of the reasons for this is so they will not be tempted to fulfill their sexual desires with someone outside their marriage. One of the best ways to avoid sexual sin is a healthy sex life with one’s spouse.

2. The Boundaries for Sex

The fact that God has given humans the ability for sex does not mean people are free to have sex with whomever they want. Sex is a good gift from God, but it is a gift that must be enjoyed within certain boundaries. The Bible teaches that the only proper place for the fulfillment of sexual desire is in the context of marriage. The act of sex is part of what initially joins a husband and wife together as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24), and it is only in the context of the one-flesh union of a marriage between one man and one woman for one lifetime that sex is to occur. This is why the Bible forbids both “fornication” and “adultery” (1 Corinthians 6:9). Fornication is sex before marriage. Adultery is sex outside of marriage. Both of these sins involve sex with someone to whom you are not married. This is also what the author of Hebrews means when he writes, “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4, NASB). In other words, in order to hold marriage in honor we must keep the marriage bed (i.e., sex) undefiled by not committing the sins of fornication and adultery.

3. Purity of Heart and Eyes

It’s very important that we not commit the physical act of sex with someone other than our spouse. But Jesus went further than this and said that we should not even lust after someone with our hearts and eyes. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). This means that even looking at someone of the opposite sex and desiring in one’s heart to have sex with them is sin. This would rule out lusting after a physical person, but it would also rule out the use of pornography of any kind. This is why Job said, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1). We must guard our eyes, and therefore guard our hearts, from lust. Any sexual desire that is directed toward someone other than our spouse is sin, even if that lustful desire remains at the heart-level and never leads to the physical act of sex.

One of the practical out-workings of this is that we must be vigilant in guarding how we relate to the opposite sex so as not to fan the flame of lustful desire with someone who isn’t our spouse. This is why Paul tells Timothy to “treat the younger women like sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2). No Christian is so strong that he or she cannot succumb to sexual temptation (e.g., David with Bathsheba). We would be wise, therefore, to set boundaries for ourselves with those of the opposite sex. For example, it is extremely unwise for a man and a woman to be alone together if they aren’t married. Likewise, we must guard against communicating with those of the opposite sex in ways that do not include their spouse, or at least a third party of some kind. Many cases of adultery can be traced back to texts, phone calls, emails, and other forms of private communication between unmarried people.

Questions for Reflection

Have you seen sexual immorality destroy the lives of people you know? How so?

Why is it helpful to understand that God gives marital sex for pleasure and not just for procreation?

Why is it unhealthy for a husband and wife not to have sex regularly?

What are some practical ways you can set boundaries with the opposite sex in your workplace, church, and other areas of life, to avoid the temptation of sexual sin?

What measures might you need to take to avoid the specific sin of looking at pornography?

Commitment to the Local Church, Part 2

This post is a continuation of a prior post on commitment to the local church.

Commit to Serve in Your Local Church

The fourth commitment you should make when it comes to the local church is the commitment to serve the other members of your church. By serving one another we are simply following the example of Jesus himself who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This is why the apostle Paul commands his churches: “through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). Paul also tells us that it is for the purpose of empowering us to serve one another that God has given each Christian spiritual gifts: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). While it is true that we should be willing to serve anyone with whom we come into contact, in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is specifically writing to the local church in Corinth and the implication of verses 4-7 is that the spiritual gifts God had given the believers in that church were to be used to serve one another. In other words, while the local church is not the only place we should serve using our spiritual gifts, it is the primary place we should serve using our spiritual gifts. Every disciple should ask themselves, how am I contributing to the health and mission of my local church through serving?

Commit to Give through Your Local Church

A fifth commitment that every Christian should make to their local church is the commitment to give through their local church. Giving through your local church is really just another way of serving the family of disciples that you are most responsible for serving. In the Old Testament, believers were expected to tithe (literally “give a tenth”) of all of their finances to the temple. This money would then be used to support the worship practices that took place in the temple, to support the priests whose full time job was to minister in the temple, and to help meet the needs of the needy among the covenant community. These needs still exist in the new covenant community, and so it is no surprise that the New Testament also emphasizes the need for believers to give financially. Christians are expected to give for two main reasons: (1) to support the church’s ministry and mission, and (2) to support the church’s poor and needy.

The expectation to support the church’s ministry and mission can be seen, for example, in Paul’s statement that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). This means that pastors and missionaries should be supported financially, just like the priests in the Old Testament, so they can focus their time and energy on the ministry of the gospel. This is what Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy 5:17-18, when he says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’” This means that a church should give financial support to its pastors, especially the pastors who do the majority of the preaching and teaching ministry. And since pastors are shepherds of particular local churches, the expectation is that the members of each local church should be the ones to support their pastors in this way. Beyond supporting the pastors, it is also important that each member give through their local church because of the practical needs that exist in a church if ministry is to take place (e.g., paying for a meeting place and its upkeep, providing supplies for various ministries, etc.).

The second expectation for giving (support for the church’s poor and needy) is seen in many places in the New Testament. For example, Acts 4:34-35 says that one of the reasons the members of the local church in Jerusalem gave was to take care of their own poor and needy church members: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” This is what Paul has in mind in his discussion of the widows list in 1 Timothy 5:3-16 as well. Godly widows with no other source of support, could be “enrolled” (v. 9), and from then on they would be financially supported by their local church. In order for a local church to support needy church members in this way, its members must give financially through their local church. Are you giving financially through your local church so that the ministry and mission of your church can be supported and so that the poor and needy of your church can be taken care of?

Commit to Being a Peacemaker in Your Local Church

The sixth commitment you should make to your local church is the commitment to being a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9). God desires for his people to live in unity with one another and to avoid factions and divisions (1 Corinthians 1:10). But being this kind of church is not easy. Peace doesn’t just happen in a local church, peace must be made. Being a peacemaker means that you support the church’s leadership (Hebrews 13:17), that you show grace and a willingness to be slow to anger to fellow church members (James 1:19-20), and that you live selflessly in the family of God, caring for other people’s needs more than your own (Philippians 2:3-4). People who refuse to be peacemakers in the church, and instead choose to be troublemakers in the church are destroying the temple of God (i.e., the church). And people who destroy the temple of God are setting themselves up for God’s discipline. “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you [plural] are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:17). Are you working to make peace in your church?

Application & Setting Goals

How can a Christian discover his or her spiritual gifts? Using our spiritual gifts can be done through official volunteer roles (e.g., nursery) as well as in unofficial life-on-life contexts. Discuss how we can use our gifts to serve one another in both of these ways.

While it’s great to give to parachurch ministries, why should giving through your local church have the priority? What hinders people from giving through their local church? If you don’t currently give through your church, we challenge you to start this Sunday.

How can we proactively contribute to the peace and unity of our church and avoid divisions? Have you seen positive and negative examples of this in past churches?

Commitment to the Local Church, Part 1

Commit to Membership in Your Local Church

The first commitment you need to make when it comes to the local church is the commitment to becoming an official member of your local church. Some say that “church membership” is not in the Bible. But while the exact words “church membership” are not in the Bible, the concept of church membership certainly is.

When we say “church membership,” what we are talking about is simply identifying with one particular local church. The New Testament assumes that every Christian will be part of a specific, identifiable, local group of Christians. There is no room in the New Testament for a Christian who floats around from church to church without ever being a meaningful part of one particular church. There are two main evidences for this in Scripture.

The first evidence for local church membership in the New Testament is the evidence from church discipline. There are passages of Scripture in which Christians are called to “discipline” or “hold people accountable” for sins they commit, and in those passages it is clear that it is one’s local church to which one is accountable. For example, in Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus tells his disciples what they are to do if their “brother” (i.e., fellow Christian) sins against them. First, they are to go to them in private and call on the sinning brother or sister to repent. If the person does not repent, then the second step is to take two or three witnesses with you and call on him or her to repent again. If they do not listen to the two or three witnesses and still refuse to repent, then the third step is to “take it to the church” (v. 17). What could that last phrase mean apart from an expectation that Jesus’ disciples would be a meaningful part of a particular local church? Doesn’t “take it to the church” imply that they are to take the issue at hand to their particular local church? And if that is the case, then doesn’t that imply that each disciple has in some meaningful way identified with a particular local church? They aren’t to take the issue to just any old church down the street. They are to take the issue to the particular local church to which they and the erring member belong. This same expectation is seen in 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul deals with a specific case of church discipline and tells the local church in Corinth that they should “purge the evil person from among you” (v. 13). Purge him from among whom? Evidently Paul expected that this unrepentant brother was a “member” of the local church in Corinth and it was from that particular local church group that he was to be purged.

The second type of evidence for local church membership in the New Testament has to do with church leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” This verse means that pastors, as church leaders, will have to give an account one day in judgment for how they have watched over the souls of certain people. The question is how does a pastor know for whom he will have to give an account on the day of judgment? Will I (Pastor Grant) have to give an account for how I have watched over the souls of all the Christians in Jackson, TN? If not, then for which Christians am I responsible? The answer is I and the other pastors of Calvary are responsible for watching over the souls of those people who have committed to our local church’s membership. In other words, pastoral ministry as watching over the souls of fellow Christians and giving an account for them on the day of judgment only makes sense if every Christian is part of an identifiable group of Christians—a local church.

Commit to Corporate Worship in Your Local Church

The second commitment you need to make as a church member is the commitment to corporate worship with your local church. Corporate worship gatherings have been an important part of what it means to worship the God of the Bible ever since Israel took part in that first worship gathering at the foot of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-20, when they assembled together to receive God’s Word and worship him. From then on, the people of Israel had regular corporate worship gatherings for the same purpose. This pattern continued in the New Testament. For example, the very first church in Jerusalem met “in the temple” for corporate worship, as well as “house to house” for fellowship (see Acts 2:46). Likewise, Paul refers to the “whole church” gathering together in Corinth in corporate worship (Acts 16:23; 1 Corinthians 11:18). It is not enough to fellowship with a subgroup of your local church. You should be committed to corporate worship with the whole church body as well.

Commit to Fellowship in Your Local Church

The third commitment you should make as a member of your local church is the commitment to fellowship. You should be committed to making deep and meaningful relationships with your fellow church members for the purpose of spurring them on in their spiritual growth. How else will you be able to carry out all the “one another” commands of Scripture (“love one another,” “pray for one another,” “encourage one another,” “admonish one another,” “rebuke one another,” etc.)? This is why the early church in Jerusalem, which numbered in the thousands, was committed to meeting in smaller groups than just the large corporate worship gathering in the temple. They met in various homes scattered throughout the city because those smaller groups were more conducive to fostering relationships, community, and fellowship. It was in this context that Christians could form the bonds required for doing the Christian life together. It’s what made it possible for them to “devote themselves to the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). This is what we try to accomplish through Sunday school classes at Calvary.

Questions for Reflection

Why is important to become an official member of a local church and not just hop around from church to church?

Why is it important to be a part of the large group corporate worship gathering of your local church and not just a small subgroup within the local church?

What does it take to have genuine, as opposed to surface-level, fellowship?