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Look Through the Story

Posted by James Carroll on

While including thousands of stories, the Bible actually tells one long story. The individual narratives – like Noah and the big boat, Jonah and the big fish, and Jesus feeding the big crowd –  fit together into one grand narrative. These smaller stories are individually helpful as they convey truth about God and man. But more importantly, they provide context, curves, and content for the larger plot that is unfolding through the course of human history. The Creator God is doing something in His creation. This work is much more significant than rescuing animals two-by-two, saving a man inside a fish, or providing lunch for a hoard of people.

The larger story does not diminish the smaller ones; instead, it brings them to life in a way that makes them powerful to transform us. Many Christians in our context – 21st century American churches in the rural south – have been taught Bible stories as if they are Aesop’s fables. It’s as if the stories of Gideon, Samson, and Esther are tales (albeit true tales) given to present morals or proverbial wisdom for living. Aesop’s most famous fable is perhaps The Hare and the Tortoise. Who doesn’t remember the slow tortoise beating the much faster hare because the former steadily plodded along while the latter slumber in arrogance? The lingering moral of that story is certainly true, “the race is not always to the swift.”   

Despite the value of Aesop’s writing for teaching and illustrating good character, it is entirely different than biblical narrative. First, the Bible’s stories are true. Noah was an actual person who built an actual boat and survived an actual flood. Jonah was a real person who jumped into a real sea and was swallowed by a real fish. Fundamentally, the Bible is not a book of fables.

But second and perhaps more importantly, Aesop’s fables and the Bible’s stories are more profoundly different at the level of purpose. While the Bible contains wisdom for life and numerous good and bad examples to apply it, the purpose of its story-telling is much grander than making moralistic humans. The Bible is using these stories to reveal God and His grand plan to establish a Kingdom on the earth by saving sinners from His wrath. To be sure, we should acknowledge, applaud, and even emulate wise living. But a careful read of the Bible yields the distinct impression that none of the characters in the story are worth emulating. This thread of weakness and failure is not incidental; rather, it’s at the very heart of each individual story and the grand story. These men and women reveal our utter hopelessness and drive us to trust in God as our only hope. The point of Bible stories is not to encourage us to be moral, but to reveal our immorality and lead us to trust in God. The stories point beyond a simplistic moral to the divine Savior.

This grand narrative culminates in one Person who is the perfect example of wise living fulfilling God’s standard in every way. Of course, this One is Jesus. But even He is not shown primarily as a model to follow; instead, He is presented as altogether different than every other person in the narrative. The stories about Him in the Gospels don’t so much call us to be like Him as much as they demonstrate how unlike Him we really are. While there is a call to follow Him and pattern our lives after His, that call is grounded in the unique work He did to die for our sin and rise from the dead. He becomes a model for us only after we acknowledge our hopelessness, embrace Him by faith, and receive the Holy Spirit. Then, and only then, do we have ability or power to follow His example. 

So why does all this matter? Because as your pastor I don’t merely want to you to read the Bible, appreciate the stories, and find principles for living. I want to equip you so that the stories act as windows that reveal God, mirrors that reflect you, and shadows that point to Jesus. Don’t set your sights on becoming like Noah or Esther; rather, look through their story to see the One who is greater than they are and trust fully in Him.