Reading Scripture: The Big Picture

Dr. Rob Wall

By Dr. Rob Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies

CBTE Director’s Note

We have reached the end of our four-year Lectio series. It has been a fascinating journey through the Bible’s sweeping story, guided by a chorus of expert voices. As the Lectio series runs again starting, naturally, with Genesis, I hope you will join with the Seattle Pacific community in engaging upcoming texts, whether to ponder the Lectios’ insights for the first time or to gain something new on a second reading. And look for some upcoming new series, specifically 1-2 Samuel to be written by Dr. Sara Koenig for Autumn 2015, and Hebrews to be written by Dr. Rob Wall for Spring 2016.

However, before we launch into our detailed study of the Bible, I thought it would be helpful to look at the big picture of Scripture. Via this adapted essay by Dr. Rob Wall from the forthcoming A Compact Guide to the Whole Bible, edited by Drs. Wall and David Nienhuis, I’m pleased to offer a crash course on the different sections of our Scripture and how to engage them for understanding and spiritual growth.

An Introduction to Scripture

An introductory course in Scripture should have as its primary outcome making readers alert to the importance of words and their grammatical relationship with other words set within a composition that tells a story, sings a lyric, makes an argument, or envisions a future with God. The Bible is a sacred text, inspired by God’s Spirit for Christian formation. This belief alone should motivate the most careful study of the biblical text. The faithful reader should never tire of gathering more information that will help her know the text inside and out.

Most of us learn that it’s best to read a book from cover to cover, front to back. This is because most plotlines or thesis statements unfold deliberately and logically, event by event or proposition by proposition. By following Scripture’s final form from cover (Genesis) to cover (Revelation), front (Old Testament) to back (New Testament), we hope to introduce you to a strategy for reading Scripture well. The reason for reading Scripture this way serves mostly theological rather than chronological interests.

Reading Scripture Theologically (or front to back)

In the first place, Scripture took its final shape one collection at a time, one Testament at a time, to form a whole. The long history of Scripture’s formation indicates that the writings of each collection in each Testament were carefully selected and fitted together at different moments in time, and that these different collections were then carefully arranged into a particular sequence in a process that would help secure their ongoing use for holy ends.

By using Scripture’s own narrative of God’s salvation — its “metanarrative” — in this discussion of each biblical collection, we attempt to guide readers into an unfolding drama in which they themselves are participants. If Scripture is a revelatory text, as we maintain, then this dynamic drama is an indispensable means by which faithful readers learn the truth about God. Bible stories show us how God acts and exists in the world.

In fact, the God whom Christians believe is incarnate in Jesus, who was born that his followers might be “born anew” (John 3:3), is none other than Israel’s God. For this reason, we don’t suppose that Scripture’s witness to God’s self-presentation in the world unfolds in a progressive way, as though Israel has the first shot at God but doesn’t get it quite right, or its portrait of God isn’t all there. Those who read Scripture in this way tend to marginalize the importance of the Old Testament or even assume that the Church has replaced Israel in the economy of God’s salvation. Rather, every biblical genre makes its own distinctive contribution to illustrating who God is and how God acts. Each one complements the others to form a single, integral word about God.


(Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)

Scripture’s first few snapshots of God provide the foundation for everything Christians assert to be true about God. At the start of the Pentateuch we meet God actively at work making all things very good, and then covenanting with Sarah and Abraham’s family to redeem a world that has gone very bad. God is the Creator of all things good but also Savior of all things bad. God is a covenant-making, covenant-keeping God who remembers promises made and keeps them without fail. God is the strangest thing about the Bible precisely because of this: when people fail God, God’s mercy remains relentless and on target.

But this doesn’t mean God is apathetic when people are faithless. The same God who remembers and rescues Israel from oblivion gets ticked off and needs Moses’ convincing to give the next generation of Israelites another chance at succeeding as God’s covenant people. God gives Israel a second turn but only after exacting the death sentence on those who disobeyed.

What we find at the beginning of Scripture is the same thing we find at its conclusion: God’s final word to creation is a “yes,” not a “no.” As creation’s sovereign Lord puts it to Moses, “The Lord! The Lord! A God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness, showing great loyalty to a thousand generations, forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion, yet by no means clearing the guilty, punishing for their parents’ sins their children and their grandchildren, as well as the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6–7). That’s a God who readily forgives but never forgets!

Historical Books

(Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther)

On Mount Sinai, God defines what it means to be God’s people: Israel is God’s “most precious possession […] a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5–6), through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). But there’s a catch. In concluding the Pentateuch, Moses names obedience to God’s law as the condition and mark of being Israel. God’s people have a future only when their covenant-keeping practices witness to their partnership with God in saving the world.

The second collection of writings in Scripture, the historical books, builds upon this foundational witness. It repeats the terms of covenant-keeping throughout the biblical story that plots Israel’s entry into the land of Canaan as a tribal confederacy and follows its rise and fall as a misbegotten monarchy. This is a story mostly about God’s dealings with a flawed people and failed kingdom, whose faithlessness results in a divided people and another exile.

Despite the routine failures of Israel’s tribal leaders, and later its kings, to manage the people’s covenant with God, kings David, Josiah, and Hezekiah embody a way forward — a prophetic perspective toward Israel’s future. During their rule, the Torah (meaning “instruction;” Torah is the Jewish name for God’s law revealed to Moses in the Pentateuch) is elevated not only to guide a people’s conduct but also to form their collective understanding of God and of themselves as a ”holy nation” through whom the families of earth will be blessed. Before his spiritual failure, Solomon also secures the importance of wisdom as a complement to Torah, while the David of 1-2 Chronicles (along with Josiah) adds the importance of a community’s worship of God to its religious curriculum. A nation cannot become holy without also becoming a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6).

This is the organizing vision for a post-exilic Israel under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. Although it is at the bidding of a pagan monarch, Cyrus, they institute a limited but pivotal role for this renewed Israel as caretaker of the Promise, living in the hope of the coming of creation’s messianic Lord, Jesus. It is the Messiah who will lead God’s people into the future God has ordained; he will exercise his rule by the light of the Torah, complemented by biblical wisdom and worship, all of which is interpreted and incarnated by the risen One.

Wisdom/Poetry Books

(Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon)

Before he is corrupted by political ambition, the young Solomon understands well the importance of wisdom and worship in forging a faithful partnership with God. At the center of biblical wisdom and the community’s book of worship (Psalms) is a robust vision of God’s providential care of creation. It is this theological vision that animates Israel’s forward movement into God’s future.

This is precisely the question Job poses to God in response to Job’s suffering, which is a mystery to Job and his friends. God’s self-presentation in the whirlwind is as much a reminder as a revelation: the Creator’s nature lesson makes sense of a world in which God allows freedom and mystery but also exercises great care. Things do go wrong; bad things can happen to good people. But Job reminds us that a holy negotiation of life’s hardships and heartbreaks requires a careful look into the real world that God has made good.

Ecclesiastes makes a similar point in the face of a similar skepticism but adds more instructive observations of a life well lived.

Job and Ecclesiastes, which engender confidence in God’s eternal order, appear on either side of Psalms and Proverbs. The humanistic orientation of Proverbs underscores the confidence the Creator vests in people just like Job and the sage addressing the community in Ecclesiastes — i.e., wise people whose fidelity to God enables them to discern straight from crooked paths in the way forward. The Psalms shift the reader’s focus from Job’s hard questions and the Creator’s equally demanding response, which both concern the human experience of the natural order, to the spiritual order forged by worshiping God in every circumstance.

This collection of books teaches the reader that a fully formed life requires attention to both witnesses (Psalms and Job). And both witnesses are necessary in confirming that God’s instruction is “tried and true” (Proverbs 30:5).

Prophetic Books

(Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)

The collection of prophetic books comes last in the Old Testament, and for good reason: prophets are carriers of God’s message who look back on the history of Israel’s failure to keep its covenant with God, which occasions a justifiable punishment (e.g., exile). But prophets also carry a word of hope about Israel’s future restoration, and a new exodus to a New Jerusalem at the center of a new creation. Ezekiel speaks of a new temple, while Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant in which worship and obedience are gladly given to God.

The Twelve (Minor Prophets from Hosea to Malachi) call salvation’s endgame “the day of the Lord,” when the Mount Sinai promise of a holy nation and kingdom of priests is realized. Then Israel will truly be Israel, a beacon light to all nations. In that moment at the end of salvation’s history, God’s holiness that demands a particular people’s faithfulness and God’s grace that extends to the repair of all nations and nature, which is the central dialectic of the prophetic word, come together to form an everlasting synthesis.

But from the prophets’ vantage point, this grand moment still lies in the future. It is forward and not final. What comes next in the Bible’s story tells of Israel’s destiny when the goal of its history is identified as the Son of God, the Messiah, Jesus, in whom the multilayered newness promised by the prophets is realized (cf. Romans 10:4).

The Four Gospels

(Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)

The fourfold Gospel tells the authorized biography of Jesus. His life is Scripture’s climax because through his life the truth about God is witnessed in a person. The Gospel is the reader’s plumb line; keep its plotline and its characterization of the risen (i.e., living) Jesus ever before you! After all, he is “the bread of life” (John 6:35), “the light of the world” (John 8:12). The Gospel interprets, and is interpreted by, all that precedes and follows it in Scripture. The Church’s ancient practice of using a lectionary of readings to guide a congregation’s hearing of the Bible in worship gets this right. The traditional offices occupied by the risen Christ — prophet, priest, king, and sage — are yet another way of imagining this same point: the various Old Testament collections, and the variety of witnesses each includes, aim readers ahead to the Gospel story of Jesus.

Even though the relationship between Jesus and his Father is the Gospel’s pivotal point, the Lord’s relationship with his disciples is also crucial for the reader to follow. Even though the biblical story of Israel in many ways resonates with Jesus, so too does the story of Jesus’ disciples. In various ways, like Israel, the disciples embody both the promise (e.g., their capacity to love enemies) and all the problems (e.g., faithlessness, hypocrisy) of their holy calling to live in a manner worthy of citizenship in God’s kingdom.

Acts and the Letters

(Acts, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude)

Some skeptics still wonder whether Jesus was a “one-off” — a charismatic flash-in-the-pan who is done and gone. Perhaps a response to this skepticism is latent in the Gospel’s concluding great commission: those who witness the risen Jesus and who, with Thomas, confess him as Lord and God are ordered to continue to do and say what Jesus began. But we don’t yet find out whether the Lord’s command to continue is obeyed. Hence Acts responds that the promised Spirit descends and fills up Christ’s followers to enable them to obey the risen Jesus. Even though he is the risen Lord, he is no one-off; his mission continues in his absence under the power of God’s Spirit. The promises God makes to Israel according to Scripture continue to be realized mission by mission to the end of the earth.

The two collections of apostolic letters, Pauline and Catholic, employ instruction, exhortation, and theological explanation to expound upon what is introduced in Acts. The narrative world of Acts arranges the missions and their respective apostolic leaders in ways that are suggestive of the working relationship between the two collections of letters. At the same time, the reader of Acts is well prepared for the crises that typically occasion her reading of the letters: theological error, internal conflicts, instructions that guide the worship and missionary practices of the congregation, and so on. Acts also cues Old Testament texts by citation and allusion that expand the reader’s preparation for encountering the letters.

Hardly another theme is more important in the letters than apostolic leadership. Most Pauline letters are generally concerned with defending Paul’s apostolicity (being a successor of the disciples) and his personal importance for the Church’s future; however, his so-called “Pastoral” letters (1–2 Timothy, Titus) are more concerned with the transmission of Paul’s apostolic legacy to the next generation. This also seems to be the case with the Catholic Epistles (letters of James, Peter, John and Jude), whose implied authors are eyewitnesses of the incarnate Word (see 1 John 1:1–4). This concern for an apostolic succession that moves the testimony of truth and love from one generation to the next clears away the brush for the Church’s forward movement toward the salvation now realized in heaven but not yet on earth.

The Revelation to St. John

The placement of Revelation at Scripture’s end provides an apt visual aid of the role it performs as Scripture’s concluding chapter. Revelation is read last not only to give the reader heaven’s perspective on all that has happened during the course of salvation’s history; it is read last to assure the reader of God’s final victory over all those deadly forces that oppose God’s eternal reign as Creator who “created all things” according to God’s will (Revelation 4:11).

At the center of Revelation’s vision of the last days is the same one whose Gospel stands at the center of Scripture: the exalted Jesus. He is called many things in this book: “faithful witness,” “the alpha and the omega,” “Lamb” and “Lion,” “King of kings and Lord of lords,” and still other metaphors that set out the scope and result of his messianic mission. We are reminded that it is by God’s partnership with a wounded warrior, from whose mouth comes a sword, that the world now ruled by an unholy trinity will be replaced by a new world populated by a global community of Lamb-followers who encircle the holy Trinity in worship and praise going forward into eternity. So concludes Scripture — hardly with a whimper, but with an awe-inspiring apocalypse of God’s salvation.

Reading Scripture Intertextually (or back to front)

As important as it is for us to learn to read Scripture as an unfolding story from front (Pentateuch) to back (Revelation), it is also important for us to learn to read Scripture from back to front! At times the Lectio series explores how some biblical texts recall other biblical texts, whether by citation or allusion, to amplify or clarify the meaning of one text by an appeal to another.

This literary phenomenon, which even the first interpreters of Scripture employed, has more recently been called “intertextuality.” A study of Scripture’s intertextuality typically concentrates on the working relationship between different biblical texts, and even between biblical and related non-biblical texts. Biblical texts should never be read in isolation from other biblical texts; the interdependency of the diverse parts of Scripture is characteristic of its overall unity. Careful readers note the canon consciousness of different writers who routinely quote specific verses from their collection of sacred texts (sometimes in revised form) to tell their stories or score their points. Close analysis of these “intertexts” that link together earlier texts from the writer’s Scriptures with those they have written is one way of reading Scripture from back to front.

While biblical writers often have earlier texts in mind when composing their stories or letters for easy reference, Scripture’s intertextuality is also a property of its canonization. We might allow that the Holy Spirit, who guided the Church’s formation of Scripture, had certain inspired intertexts in mind that are embedded in Scripture’s final form and are now recognized by careful readers. Scripture’s robust intertextuality, which extends to collections as well as particular pairs of texts, is a property of a single biblical canon, the production of “one body and one spirit” (Ephesians 4:4), and not of the authors or editors of those texts and collections. For this reason, our study of these various relationships, especially between canonical collections, follows the Church’s intentions for its Scripture, which is to use it for forming the saving wisdom of God’s people and equipping them for the good life of serving God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15–17).

With a bit of practice, readers can profit greatly by making connections between books and collections of the Bible. For example, the close relationship within the Pentateuch between Genesis and Exodus establishes the connection between creation’s beginning and the beginning of Israel as the covenant community promised to Abraham (see Genesis 12:1–3) and made good on Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 19). And what about the order of the Old Testament Wisdom books, which proceeds from Job’s story that puzzles over why bad things sometimes happen to good people before raising a series of responses to this hard question in the Psalms and Proverbs? Keep this sort of working relationship between biblical books in mind as you embark on the Lectio guided reading program.

The most important relationship created by the formation of the Church’s Scripture, of course, is between the Old and New Testaments. Much is made about the nature of their relationship as different witnesses to the one and only God. The most common approach is to think of the Old Testament — which concludes with the collection of prophetic books that promises a restored Israel, a renewed covenant, and a new creation — as continuing into the New Testament, which appropriately begins with a fourfold Gospel that plots the story of the resurrected Messiah through whom God fulfills the promises made to Israel according to Scripture.

Readers may also recognize that the addition of a second testament to the first creates a chiasm, i.e., a parallelism with a center focal point (abCb1a1). This pairs the Bible’s beginning (creation) with its conclusion (new creation), and pairs the historical books that tell of Israel’s beginning, complemented by the poets, sages and prophets, with the historical book that tells of the Church’s beginning (Acts), complemented by apostolic letters. Both these pairs encircle what stands at Scripture’s epicenter, the story’s climax and point of reference: the incarnation of God’s Son, Jesus, whose life is lived as a ransom for many. Some Church traditions help us visualize this theology with the lectionary, which combines Old Testament and New Testament readings, often with a Psalm sung or read responsively, before hearing the Gospel lesson read as the reference point for all Scripture.

The four-year Lectio series follows a “metanarrative,” a sweeping story that loops the diverse parts of Scripture together as indispensable elements of the biblical whole — both testaments, each collection, every book. We want to avoid reading solely from beginning to conclusion; inevitably this way of reading privileges the New Testament over the Old. “Old” becomes a metaphor for things already read, already completed, with value only as a memory of a strange past — Israel’s past. Rather, as William Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” [Author’s Note 1].

Readers should keep the Gospel’s narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection always in mind when studying Scripture, since the incarnation is Scripture’s constant reference point. But it is also true that readers should keep the Old Testament narrative of Israel always in mind when studying the Gospel’s narrative of Jesus! Jesus demonstrates that Israel’s “past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Next Steps for Learning Scripture Well

Cultivating the practices that enable us to read Scripture well, whether from front to back or back to front, requires both work and worship. The intellectual work involved targets knowing what Scripture says. Wrapping the biblical text in its various contexts for sound interpretation involves knowing something about the circumstances of its composition and canonization. The careful reader should also extend this context to engage the long history of its interpretation by God’s people and within culture.

But the reader’s intellectual formation is only one element of what is needed. Because the primary purpose of Bible study is to know God, one’s spiritual preparation is also crucial in meeting this goal. The reader should know the sacred text well; but she should also know God well. This is why the hard work of our intellectual formation should be accompanied by a community’s worship and prayer. Over the next four years of the Lectio series, we invite you to prayerfully engage in the life-enriching study of Scripture alongside the Seattle Pacific community as we strive to know God together.

Our hope is that the Lectio series will enrich your study of the Bible and increase your desire to know God better. The persistent practice of reading and rereading Scripture — all of it, forward and backward, hunting down solid answers to hard questions asked of it, investigating and using what you find there in the struggles of daily life — will continue to form in faithful readers a Spirit-fed wisdom and moral maturity that enables our full participation with God in the renewal of all things for Christ’s sake.

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (Random House, 1950).


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