The Grand Narrative of History

By J. Luis Dizon

Have you ever read a good story? We all have certain stories that we gravitate towards, and they may take the form of romance, science-fiction, action, or some other genre of literature. Most of the stories that we read have a rather predictable plot to them, and those who study literature can readily identify what those parts of the narrative are (we generally refer to them as the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement, or resolution).

What most of us are less aware of, however, is that we are living in a story of our own. The story that we are living in is nothing less than the grand narrative of history. In our postmodern times, the idea of a grand narrative underlying all of history is looked upon with much suspicion. Some will say that to claim such a narrative is to impose one’s views upon everyone else. And yet we cannot escape doing this. Even those who deny the existence of a grand narrative end up creating their own narratives and imposing them upon others. The question then, is not whether there can be a grand narrative—for such a concept is inevitable to anyone who thinks seriously about life—but whether any given narrative can truly explain human history.

This is where God enters into the picture. God is the great storyteller who created the universe and arranged all of history into what can be said to be the greatest story ever told. In fact, this story has become the example that many others have tried to copy in their own stories, because its elements are central to the very core of our being. God has revealed the structure of this story in His word, the Bible. While the story is complex and has many complexities and side-stories woven into it, the general plot outline is clear. One can divide the grand narrative of history as found in the Bible into the following four sections:

  1. Creation
  2. Fall
  3. Redemption
  4. Restoration

We will look at each of these four sections in turn. As my exposition of the story is a meager substitute for reading the story yourself, I invite you to take a Bible and read through the sections that are to be mentioned and explained.

Creation

In the beginning, there was nothing. Matter and energy did not exist. Only God did. Then God created everything. According to Genesis (the first book of the Bible), God accomplished his creation in six days. Whether these are literal twenty-four hour days or represent longer periods of time is of secondary importance here, as the important thing to highlight is how He did not have to take any existing material to bring everything about, for there was none. Instead, He spoke the word “Let there be!”, and His very word brought everything that exists into being. And God looked at everything that he made, and said that it was good (Genesis 1). In so doing, God affirms that despite all the problems that have come into this world, it is still fundamentally a good creation.

Of all of God’s creations, however, none was more majestic than humanity. God created human beings in His own image, thereby making them higher than all of the plants and animals that had been placed on this earth. He then gave humanity the responsibility of taking dominion over all of creation (Genesis 1:26-28). All of human civilization comes from this task of taking dominion, as we shape the created world around us in ways that reflect the artistry of our own Maker.

Furthermore, God created human beings into male and female. Saying that it is not good for a man to be alone, God took a rib out of the side of the first man, and from it, He fashioned the first woman (Genesis 2:18-22). When the man saw the woman for the first time, he exclaimed,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
(Genesis 2:23)

This was the first marriage in human history, and became the basis for every other marriage that been formed ever since. The very act of creating humanity as male and female reflects the fact that God is a relational being. Although God is one, He speaks with the first person plural, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). This indicates that there is plurality within God’s being, and this enables Him to have relationship within Himself. In the same way, this same relational nature is passed on to human beings, and is expressed in the most intimate way through the love relationship that exists between husband and wife.

So the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve, lived in the Garden of Eden, where they lived an idyllic life. God commanded that they could eat from any of the trees found in the garden, except for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The moment they eat from that tree, they would die (Genesis 2:17-18). This seemed like a simple enough instruction, and if they kept it, they would have life. But this was not to be.

Fall

Alas, it did not remain as it was in the beginning. You see, God created an angel by the name of Lucifer to be the greatest of His angels. Yet this angel rebelled against God, causing him to be cast out of heaven (Isaiah 14:12-15). From then on, he came to be known as Satan. Then, in the form of a serpent, he came into the Garden of Eden. He tempted Eve, asking her: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1).

In so doing, Satan accomplished two things: First, he cast doubt into the truthfulness of God’s words, by asking whether God really said them. The second thing is that he twisted God’s words into something other than what God actually said. Notice that the serpent does not ask whether only the Tree of Knowledge was forbidden, but any tree. All subsequent attempts by Satan to undermine God’s authority essentially boil down to casting doubt either upon the truthfulness or the clarity of God’s revealed instructions, following the line established in the Garden.

In reply to the serpent, Eve said, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” To this, the serpent replied, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:2-5). The remainder of the story is fairly straightforward and well known: Eve took the serpent’s word, and ate the fruit from the tree. She also gave some to Adam, who also ate the fruit.

Adam and Eve did not physically die there and then. However, they did experience spiritual death, and in the process, also brought the inevitability of physical death upon both themselves and everything else. Because at this point, sin had entered into the world. Sin is not just the individual actions that Adam and Eve and their descendants have committed, but is something that permeates the very nature of humanity from that point onwards. For this reason, King David would proclaim later on in writing that “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5).

Another result of this is the entry of shame into human life. We see this by how Adam and Eve react to their nakedness. You see, they were created naked, but felt no shame about this (Genesis 2:24). When sin enters the picture, however, they experience shame for the first time, so they cover themselves with fig leaves (Genesis 3:7). They also tried to hide from God, but they could not.

What happens next is the first instance of blame-shifting: God questioned Adam as to whether he had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam shifts the blame to his wife, saying “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” In so doing, Adam managed to blame both his wife for tempting him, and God for giving him his wife to begin with. Then God questions Eve, who shifts the blame to the serpent, saying “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12-13).

What follows is a string of curses that plague humanity as a result of this disobedience. I will not repeat them here, but one can read about them in the historical (not poetic) narrative (Genesis 3:14-19). Interestingly, in the midst of these courses, God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). In so doing, God gives what is seen as the first hint of the Gospel (good news). This will be shown in its fullness later on, but only after many thousands of years of toil and death which has loomed over humanity.

From this point on, we see things heading steadily downwards. First, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden. Then, after they have their first two sons, Cain and Abel, Cain slaughters Abel, thereby becoming the first murderer (Genesis 4). More children are produced, but they and their descendants becoming increasingly wicked, to the point that God has to wipe everyone out in a great flood and start anew, because it is written that God “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:4). God started everything anew with Noah and his sons, who were spared from the flood, but the cycle of human sin continues. Things would continue to spiral downward, as Satan had intended, but God already had a plan.

Redemption

The drama of human history is a continuous cycle of humans attempting to build themselves up, only to find themselves stretched to their limits and cast down by their own sinful pride. This is exemplified in the story of the Tower of Babel, where God confuses the languages of the people and scatter them throughout the earth (Genesis 11). Even after being scattered, people continue to assert themselves against one another, creating empires, going to war against others and subduing them in tyranny and oppression.

In the midst of this, God called upon one man, Abraham, to leave his home city of Ur in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). God said to Abraham:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Abraham obediently followed God until they reached Canaan (modern day Palestine). There, God made a covenant with Abraham. This is just one of many covenants that God makes with various people throughout history. A covenant is basically an agreement, whereby God promises to His people that He would do something for them. God’s people are then expected to respond in faith to His promises. Here, God promises to Abraham that he would have descendants who would inherit the land of Canaan, and out of this nation would come blessings for all the nations. This seemed impossible at the time because Abraham and his wife were already too old to have children. But God allows them to have a son, Isaac. After Isaac comes Jacob, and after Jacob come the twelve sons, who would become the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel.

Note that both Isaac and Jacob had brothers. Isaac had Ishmael as a brother, and Jacob had Esau as a brother. Both times, God made a choice to work through one son and not the other, and both times, God chose the younger son even though pride of place was traditionally granted to the older son. This was to show that God is sovereign over all of humanity, and predestines whomever He wills to whatever ending He deems fit (Romans 9:6-18). This is to show that as Creator, God has supreme right over His creation, and that nobody can force His hand in anything He does, saying that what He does is unjust (Daniel 4:35).

That being said, we see that God takes Jacob and his sons, and creates a nation out of them. This nation of Israel goes to Egypt to escape a famine, where they remain for 400 years. They become slaves to the Egyptians, until God raises up Moses as a prophet to lead Israel out of Egypt to Mount Sinai. There, God establishes another covenant with the people. In this covenant, God declares that His people are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). He gives them a Torah (Law), which would govern all of their lives so that they would be holy and pleasing to God, and so that they would become an example for all the other nations to emulate (Deuteronomy 4:6-8).

Also, God included with this covenant a plan for a sacrificial system. Because sin was such a serious matter to God, he commanded that animals would be sacrifices to make atonement for the sins of the people. This is because the Torah, it is written: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Leviticus 17:11). The most important of these sacrifices was during Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), where the Israelite high priest would sprinkle blood on the altar in their temple so that God’s wrath would not come down upon the people for their sins (Leviticus 16). This will become important later on, when God brings about the final, perfect sacrifice for the purification of sins once and for all.

Why is such a bloody system necessary? It is because God is a holy and just God. He cannot simply allow guilt and sin to go unpaid for, or else He would contradict His own holiness and justice. So that sin must be paid for either by having the sinner condemned or offering a blood sacrifice to avert God’s wrath. The blood signifies how serious sin is in God’s eyes. Yet the sacrifices were not perfect, which is why they had to be performed repeatedly every year. This is where we get the term “scapegoat,” where the sins of the people are transferred to the sacrificed animal (human sacrifice was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord).

When the nation of Israel settles in Canaan, they establish a monarchy with the royal family of David ruling over them. With King David, God makes yet another covenant. This time, God would promise that David’s descendants would sit on the throne forever (2 Samuel 7). The kingdom then divides into two, with David’s descendants ruling over the southern portion. Eventually, the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire, and the southern kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. Through it all, God continued to preserve David’s dynasty, until we arrive at the time of Jesus, who is the last in this royal line.

At this point, you wonder why people make such a big deal about the person of Jesus. You see, all of human history finds its climax in the life and work of Jesus. He is the Messiah (anointed one), whose arrival is predicted in the writings of the prophets who came hundreds of years before Him. Their predictions about the Messiah are so precise that nothing other than the divine plan of God could explain how they could have been fulfilled in all their details. To see this in action, read the prophecy in Isaiah 53 and compare them with the life of Jesus as found in the New Testament. The parallels will be very striking.

Jesus, you might recognize, is no ordinary human being. In fact, the prologue to the Gospel according to John calls Him the very Word of God, who shares God’s very nature, is inseparable from Him and is the same Word that God used to create everything (John 1:1-18). In a great act that can only be described as “divine condescension,” He entered into the world in human form, being born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. Jesus lived among the people in Palestine, performing miracles and teaching the people about the Kingdom of God. He obeyed the Law of God perfectly, never once breaking it throughout His life, thereby being the one person in all of history that can be described as sinless (1 Peter 2:22).

One of the most enigmatic statements made by Jesus is the declaration that He would be killed, and that He would then rise again from the grave. He makes this declaration many times throughout His ministry. Interestingly, He connects this to the sacrificial system of the Torah when He said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This was eventually fulfilled when the Jews and the Romans occupying Palestine at the time conspired together to capture Jesus. After several mock trials, He is nailed to a cross in Golgotha, outside of the city of Jerusalem. There He cried, “It is finished,” before finally dying (John 19:30). After this, the curtain hiding the holiest part of the temple split in two (Matthew 27:51). These signify that the sacrificial system of the temple was no longer needed, as a final and perfect sacrifice had been offered for sin, and that those who are atoned for by this sacrifice now have direct access to God by faith.

Jesus’ death was the most scandalous evil act devised by men in history, and yet God demonstrated His power by taking this evil act and causing the greatest good to come out of it. Here, the promise that Eve’s offspring would bruise the serpent’s heel is fulfilled (Genesis 3:15), and here we find that sacrificial system of the Sinai Covenant reaches its completion, just as the prophets predicted (Isaiah 53). This is redemption accomplished for those who believe and are covered by the sacrifice, that they would be forgiven by God of all their sins and adopted by God as His children.

But this is not the end of the story.

Restoration

Although Jesus died on the cross, He did not remain dead. He was buried in a tomb for three days. After that, the door of the tomb split open, and Jesus emerged alive, never to die again. This is what is known as His Resurrection. After this, He appeared to His followers to prove it. It is written that “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). These disciples write in their letters that they were eyewitnesses to all of this (John 21:24, 2 Peter 1:16-18, 1 John 1:1-5). His resurrection is attested to by many witnesses, who gladly came to believe in him. This even included some people who were previously suspicious, such as Saul of Tarsus (later called Paul). Paul hated this good news and thought it was all garbage. He even tried to have those who believed in Jesus arrested. But then Jesus himself appeared to Paul and showed him the error of his ways. Paul wrote on the importance of Jesus’ coming back to life, stating,

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).

Many people in these modern times might find the idea of a dead person coming back to life as something fantastic and unbelievable. Those who do, however, need to think this over: If God is at work here, are not all things possible with him? Also, note that there were many people who saw Jesus alive and who previously could not believe it either. And when they saw him, their lives were changed! Many of them were even willing to die at the hands of their persecutors for his sake. They could never have done this had they not known for certain that their Saviour had risen from the dead.

The importance of Jesus’ Resurrection lies in the fact that it points to our own Resurrection. There will be a Resurrection in the end of the age where everyone, good and evil, will stand before God to be judged. The prophet Daniel describes this event this way: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). The difference here is between those who have had their sins cleansed by the sacrifice of Christ, and those who have rejected Christ and therefore must pay for their own sins with eternal death.

All of this is connected to the New Covenant, which is the latest of God’s covenants with humanity, and is the completion of all the covenants that came before it. This covenant was prophesied about hundreds of years beforehand (Jeremiah 31:31-34), and with Jesus’ arrival, it has finally been inaugurated. In this New Covenant, the covenant made by God with Abraham to bless all the nations through his descendant is fulfilled. Also fulfilled here are the demands of perfect obedience and atonement for sin demanded by the covenant made with Moses. Also, after Jesus ascended into Heaven, he was seated at the right hand of God the Father, to rule eternally on David’s throne from there, fulfilling the covenant made with David. From henceforth until the end of time, the New Covenant is the paradigm by which God relates to believers.

The final part of the story, however, is yet to come. At present, the Kingdom of God is at work in the world. Jesus described it as a mustard seed, that begins as the tiniest of seeds, but grows into a great big shrub once it is fully grown (Matthew 13:31-32). In the same way, we see the expansion of the Kingdom of God in history, as it spreads from Palestine to the rest of the world. It is destined to fill the whole earth, reversing the effects of the Fall and bringing all nations under itself in the process (Daniel 2:31-45), which will result in the end of wars and of ignorance about God (Isaiah 2:1-4, Habakkuk 2:14). And at the end of the age, Jesus will return, and He will judge every person who has ever lived. This great event is described in the book of Revelation (the last book of the Bible) as such:

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15).

After this, the old world system with its corruptions will have been replaced by a new heavens and a new earth, whose description can be found in Revelation 21. Here, the children of God will dwell in everlasting peace and prosperity. There will be no sin and no death, and the sorrows of the present age will be a thing of the past. This is the inheritance that God is preparing for those who trust in Him and in the work of Jesus Christ.

The Grand Narrative and You

After hearing this story, you might think, “Well, that is a very interesting story, but what does this have to do with me?” The answer is that it has everything to do with you. You see, God demands a response from every individual. Nobody can be neutral. We can either accept the grand narrative of history as presented to us in the Bible as truth, or we can reject it as false.

When you come before God on the last day, you can come to Him either as one of His forgiven, adopted children, cleansed of all sin by the sacrifice of Christ, or you can come to Him as a condemned sinner who has broken God’s Law and must bear the full weight of responsibility for those sins. If we measure ourselves by the standard of God’s Law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments, we all fall short (Romans 3:23). We all lie, steal or blaspheme God’s name at some point in our lives. And even if we don’t break all of the laws, we have to deal with the fact that to break one law is to break them all: “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). Because of this, the only way we can be acquitted before God is if we are covered by the atoning work of Jesus. As it is written elsewhere in the Bible: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

The difference between these two categories is a matter of faith. Faith is not just nodding to a statement and saying it is true. Faith is defined by trust. One trusts that God’s provision for forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of Christ is sufficient, and that we need not add anything to that. This does not mean we can live our life however we want. What this does mean, however, is that God puts His Holy Spirit in believers, so that they would have a changed heart and be able to live out their faith in obedience to God’s Law (Ezekiel 36:25-27). This only comes after one is already forgiven by God, however. It cannot come before forgiveness, and it certainly cannot be a requirement for forgiveness.

These are the two ways to live: The life of faith, resulting in forgiveness, a renewed heart and hope for the future, and a life of disbelief, resulting in condemnation, entrapment in sin, and despair for the future. Remember that your choice in this life will affect you for all eternity. So don’t delay. After all, as scripture says: “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3)

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” – Saint Augustine of Hippo

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