Chapter 2

What Scripture is About: One Holy Nation, Under God

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples.” (exodus 19:5)

It’s one thing to claim the Bible is a single story, quite another to say what unifies it. What holds this sprawling, 750,000 word, two-testament tome together? What connects the gardens of Eden and Gethsemane, the exile of Israel and the cross of Christ, the beginning (Genesis) and the end (Revelation)?

God’s story is a tale of two cities. Each city is also a kingdom, with its own people, place, and prince. There is conflict, even war, between the two cities. The Bible recounts the fall of one city and the future of the other.

In the beginning, God decided to share his life with others, so he created a world to be the home of creatures—covenant partners—who bore his image. Adam and Eve, the first humans, were vice-regents: stewards of God’s garden, charged with ruling wisely in his place. “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . . over every living thing” (genesis 1:28).

In every story, the heroes have some problem or conflict to resolve. It does not take long to appear. The Serpent questioned, then denied God’s word (“Did God actually say?”—genesis 3:1). This led Adam and Eve to do the one thing they should not have done. Their sin was not their fondness for forbidden fruit, but their disbelief and disobedience. To trust any other word than God’s is to lose one’s grip on reality. The Bible depicts the devil as “a liar and the father of lies” (john 8:44) and sinners as lost wanderers.

After Adam and Eve forsake God’s word, things go from bad to worse. Sin quickly disorders the created order. Just a few chapters later, the human race builds a tower reaching up to the heavens. The tower of Babel is a failed monument to self-centeredness. It is the exact opposite kind of place God originally set out to make. The people in that place exalt themselves, creatures, over their Creator. Babel (later Babylon) is the city of Man.

The story is far from over. God refuses to abandon his original project to create a place on earth to dwell in harmony with people. Instead, he reboots his plan. He chooses Abraham, who believes God (genesis 15:6; romans 4:3; galatians 3:6; james 2:23), and promises to make him into “a great nation” (genesis 12:2).

This promise is both theme and turning point in the biblical story. Everything that follows concerns the fate of God’s covenant to dwell with the children of Abraham in the land of Canaan (genesis 17:4–8). The New Testament says that Abraham “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (hebrews 11:10). The promise comes with an addendum that will figure prominently later in the story: all people on earth will be blessed through Abraham (genesis 12:3).

God proves himself as good as his word when he rescues Abraham’s descendants from slavery in Egypt. The Exodus is the great saving event of the Old Testament. God frees Israel from bondage so that the people can worship God in their own land: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (exodus 19:6). As we’ve seen, the Bible also describes this covenant as God taking the people as his bride (jeremiah 2:2; revelation 21:2).

The rest of the Old Testament traces the history of this covenant relationship. Exodus and Leviticus provide Israel with guidelines for holy living, an essential requirement for a holy nation. Will the people live up to their responsibilities? Will they respect the law God gave them on Mount Sinai (exodus 20) that marked them as God’s chosen people? Or will they repeat Adam’s mistake and fail to trust and obey God’s word? Such questions provide the story’s suspense: will Israel keep her pledge to have no other gods, or will she be unfaithful? (Spoiler alert: the people turn out to be serial adulterers).

The Old Testament is the story of God’s faithfulness—and Israel’s poor citizenship. Immediately after being delivered from Egypt, they grumble against God. The result: forty years of wilderness wandering. Act I of Israel’s history ends with the people not yet in the right place (the Promised Land); not yet in right relation (obedience) to the Lord.

Act II is “Israel settled in the Promised Land.” And they lived happily ever after. Well, not quite. Instead of living according to God’s word—the “Book of the Covenant” (exodus 24:7; 2 kings 23:2)—the people pester Samuel for a king “that we also may be like all the nations” (1 samuel 8:20). This request was a major faux pas. The whole point of being a holy nation was to be different.

God nevertheless gives them a king (David) and appoints a place (Mount Zion/Jerusalem) for his temple—the “house” symbolizing God’s presence with his people. The king’s responsibility was to be a model citizen who displayed wisdom by delighting in and obeying God’s law (psalm 1). Wisdom and obedience are prominent themes in the writings of David and his son Solomon.

Alas! Like Adam, the kings (with few exceptions) “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (2 kings 13:2). Things in Israel go from bad to worse. The Israelites become so much like the people of other nations that they join in worshiping idols. The prophets—prosecuting attorneys for God’s covenant—accuse the nation of consorting with other gods. Israel had forgotten the first commandment, one of the distinguishing marks of the holy nation: “You shall have no other gods before me” (exodus 20:3). Worshiping other gods was a slap in God’s face.

Act III of Israel’s story sees the people losing the Promised Land. Some are exiled to Assyria, others to Babylon. God judges disobedience by banishing sinners from his saving presence (namely, the Jerusalem temple). The prophets alternately berate Israel and hold out hope for a future Exodus (isaiah 35), a new Davidic king, a new Jerusalem, and a people with new, more obedient hearts (jeremiah 31:33; ezekiel 36:26). The Old Testament ends with God’s people still waiting for life in God’s place under God’s prince.

The Old Testament ends with God’s people still waiting for life in God’s place under God’s prince.

Jesus completes Israel’s unfinished story. The two stories are tightly interwoven. Jesus is a prophet greater than Moses, a priest greater than the Levites, a king greater than David. Jesus is both prime minister and model citizen of the kingdom of God. Not only that, Jesus is the lamb of God, greater than any other sacrifice. As God in the flesh, Jesus is the one mediator between God and humanity (1 timothy 2:5), “the mediator of a new covenant” (hebrews 9:15). His death on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice, the one that makes God’s people holy once for all. Jesus is and does everything the Jerusalem temple was and did.

This is the gospel, the good news at the heart of Christianity: God sent his son to do what Adam, Israel, her kings, and her temple failed to do. Jesus’s death and resurrection make it possible for everything to be right before God. The risen and exalted Christ is the new place to fellowship with God. “Therefore is there now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (romans 8:1).

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the climax of the story, but it’s not the conclusion. The church (the followers of Jesus Christ through time and geography) takes up Jesus’s cross—and the rest of his story: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (romans 6:4). The church is the “the temple of the living God” (2 corinthians 6:16) made up of “living stones” (1 peter 2:5). The people of God form a living temple because they are the place where God now dwells. The church is the “body of Christ” (1 corinthians 12:27) because its members are united to the risen Christ through his Spirit. The church is the people of God in God’s place, ruled by the Prince of Peace (isaiah 9:6): the city of God.

Every local congregation is an outpost of the city of God: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (ephesians 2:19–21).

The process of building up and expanding the church through the ministry of the word continues. At present, people have divided loyalties. The city of Man is made up of sinful people in a dark place ruled by the “prince of the power of the air” (ephesians 2:2). The Bible is the story of how God sent light into the world to rescue people from darkness. “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (colossians 1:13). The purpose of Christian witness and evangelism is to help people “turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God” (acts 26:18).

The Bible is a tale of two cities: two peoples in two places under two different rules. It is a life and death story of light versus darkness. In Paradise Lost, John Milton rightly calls Satan the Prince of Darkness. Living things need light; darkness means death. The good news of the Bible is this: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (isaiah 9:2). John describes Jesus as “the light of the world” (john 8:12). He says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (john 1:4–5).

The Bible ends with a picture of a holy city, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (revelation 21:2). A voice rings out, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people” (revelation 21:3). This is the inheritance promised to the saints, citizens of the new Jerusalem. This is the Christian hope: to live forever as citizens of a holy nation in the new Jerusalem with Jesus, our crown prince.