Chapter 1

Bigger Than a Story: What Difference Does the Gospel Make

Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?

It has been already in the ages before us. Ecclesiastes 1:10

I entered through the front doors of Christian Heritage School in Trumbull, Connecticut, as I had done a thousand times before, but this September morning was different. When I arrived at my desk, it faced the back of the classroom rather than the front. I was now a teacher—at least part-time—at the small Christian school I had attended years earlier as a student.

A few weeks prior, in what I thought would be a quickly passed-over email, I congratulated the school’s new headmaster and offered to help in any way I could as he settled in to his new role. To my surprise, he responded that same afternoon and asked if I would meet him for lunch the following day. Over sandwiches and chips at a local grill, he told me there was, in fact, something I could do to help the school: teach an introductory Bible course.

He explained that Bible courses were the most difficult for some of the incoming transfer students. Unlike history, mathematics, or English, the Bible was often a strange and foreign world for students new to formal Christian education. This headmaster wanted to provide a class for all transfer students in grades nine through twelve that would cover the basics of the Bible, but he needed someone to teach the course. The teaching schedules of the full-time faculty were already overloaded, so he was looking for someone with a background in biblical studies to teach this single course, four days a week. I jumped at the chance.

Since there was no set curriculum, my initial approach was to teach straight through the Bible, starting in Genesis and working all the way through Revelation, highlighting the important people and events over our two semesters together. The Bible is, after all, a story. That idea has become something of a cliché in recent years with the publication of many wonderful books and studies aimed at helping people learn to read the Bible as a single, unified story with Jesus at the center. But as I discovered during my first few weeks of class, sometimes telling the story is not enough.

On our first day together, I punted. I handed out the course syllabus, told my new students a little about myself, and asked them what they were hoping to learn over the course of our year together. There were only fifteen students in the class, so I could spend a couple of minutes focused on each one. Their questions were good ones, and I left school that afternoon excited to jump into the creation account from Genesis the next day.

Over the next two weeks, however, I found myself continually falling behind in my lesson plans. Each class period would end before I could get to all my points, and I would start the next day trying to make up for the previous day’s abrupt ending. Since I was a new teacher, the lion’s share of the blame was probably mine, but I sensed it was more than that. Every day, the students asked a lot of questions—great, important questions—and these questions always found their way back to the gospel. With their questions and arms stretched to the ceiling, my students wanted to know what difference the gospel should make in their lives. That’s why we could never finish the class lesson I had planned.

These were kids who, for the most part, had grown up in church and were being raised by Christian parents, but they had somehow gotten the idea that the good news of Jesus Christ was about nothing more than getting into heaven someday when they died. They couldn’t understand why we were spending so much time in Genesis talking about Adam and Eve, Noah, and Abraham. And no matter how many connections to Jesus I could show them in those early chapters of the Bible, they simply weren’t interested. None of it mattered to their everyday lives.

And they were right.

If the Old Testament is only background information for Jesus’s mission, isn’t it worth skipping over? By the same token, if Acts through Revelation is just the history of the early church, interesting as it may be, isn’t it merely a distraction from the gospel? The Bible may well be a unified story from start to finish, but if we can’t see that the gospel is there on every page, then it doesn’t matter how well we know the people, places, and events the Bible records; it’s all just filler. Story is not enough.

In the Dark, Under the Sun

In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon wrote, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). It’s not the kind of verse you often see on family Christmas cards. It’s downright depressing, but it neatly sums up the theme of Ecclesiastes and, I realized much later, the feeling in my classroom.

Solomon wrote as a man looking for fulfillment in this world. He tried everything: acquiring knowledge (1:12–18), pursuing pleasure (2:1–11), living wisely (2:12–17), working hard (2:18–26). He had money, power, and more wives than he could count, but nothing seemed to bring lasting peace and contentment. This world is broken, and we are powerless to fix it. “What has been is what will be.”

The key to understanding Solomon—and what difference the gospel makes to our lives here and now—lies in the phrase, “under the sun.” From where we live our lives every day here on earth, under the sun, life does appear to be meaningless. “All is vanity,” Solomon wrote (ecclesiastes 1:2). We live, we die. We come into this world with nothing, and we leave with nothing. There are joys, to be sure, but there is also suffering, and no one escapes it completely. From this vantage point, it seems Solomon is correct: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (2:24). If the promise of the gospel is only heaven once we die, then it doesn’t change much in this world. It makes the hopelessness we often feel in this life only temporary, but it doesn’t remove its weight from our shoulders as we walk through our days.

Above the sun, however—now that’s a different story. From heaven’s perspective, this world may be broken, but it was not always so, and it will not always be so. In fact, because of the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, the brokenness of this world is being undone right now. Solomon, in his search, gets a glimpse of this. He sees that in the end God’s justice will prevail: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (ecclesiastes 12:13–14). Solomon didn’t see the whole picture, however. God’s plan as he works through human history is not just to judge the world but to save it (john 3:17).

In the beginning, the world God created was good, but then sin entered the garden God had placed at the center of it all and spread across time and space, corrupting and twisting everything in its path. Everlasting life, as tremendous as it is, does not begin to set all this right. What about the creation all around us that waits for its redemption? What about the kingdom of darkness that continues to oppose God and stalks all who have been created in his image? What about God’s holy design for humanity, now shattered? The gospel is the cure for every strain of sin’s disease. It’s so much bigger than a ticket to heaven to keep until we die. That’s the good news.