The challenge we face today is reading the Bible so the basic storyline of salvation history is clearly seen and understood. We are not talking at this stage about understanding detail, but about grasping the scope of the divine story, the big picture. It is important to keep in mind that, while the Bible is a book of seemingly obscure details, it is also a letter written by our heavenly Father. Letters are written to be understood.
The Bible, although made up of many stories, contains a single story within its pages. Though not evident at first glance, the story is about God and his relationship with his creation, the universe. As the creator of the universe, God could certainly have said much about the beauty and complexity of the galaxies. However, he limits the field on which this divine story is played out primarily to planet earth. While the earth is marvelous and in itself speaks of his power and glory, its role is to be a glorious stage for the greatest story ever told.
At center stage stands man, the most complex creation in the universe and the true object of God’s love and affection. It is this man that would betray God, and yet God in turn would die for man, and by means of a covenant bring man into the family life of the Trinity. This is the world’s story, invented, orchestrated and executed by God. By inviting mankind to be his friend, companion, and most importantly his son and daughter, he has made his story man’s story.
God Enters the Life of His People
From the very beginning it was God’s intention to walk with mankind in a love relationship, but this relationship was severed through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. The fall of Adam and Eve introduced sin into the human race and has had devastating repercussions down through the centuries. Out of balance with his Maker, yet with the “desire for God written in the human heart,” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 27) man struggles to find meaning in life.
Starting with the very early chapters of Genesis all the way through the book of Revelation, God gradually reveals his plan to re-establish the broken relationship between himself and his treasured creation. It is only in God’s revealed plan that man once again finds his intended purpose for being “because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (CCC 27).
It is important for the modern Catholic to understand that, when they read the Bible, they are reading a book of history. History becomes very important to the Christian, for it was within actual human events that God revealed himself. There should be no misunderstanding—this is true history as opposed to cleverly devised tales. Pope Paul VI said:
“the history of salvation is being accomplished in the midst of the history of the world.”Directorium Catechisticum Generale 52
The Bible gives a wide range of examples of how through word and deed God has entered the life of his people.
God Reveals Himself to Man Gradually
Although God greatly loved all of mankind, we see early on in the Scriptures that his strategy to redeem all of humanity was to start with one family first and then progressively influence more and more people to the point where all of mankind would have the opportunity to be a part of his worldwide family.
Interwoven throughout the family story is a divine method of teaching. “The divine plan of revelation is realized simultaneously ‘by deeds and words which are intrinsically bound up with each other’ and shed light on each other” (CCC, 53). In Dei Verbum, Pope Paul VI says:
“The deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them.”DV 2
God communicates himself to man gradually by this method as if to welcome us by stages. The primary theme throughout the Bible is the mighty deeds of God as they relate to the salvation of man. These great deeds of God are understood in and through the lesser deeds of the various Bible characters. For example, the sacrificial nature of God’s love is graphically illustrated and better understood in the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac, found in Genesis 22. It is here in this passage that we learn one of the revelatory names of God, Yahweh Jireh, “the Lord will provide.”
Pope Paul VI speaks of this progression:
“Wishing to open up the way to heavenly salvation, he manifested himself to our first parents from the very beginning. After the fall, he buoyed them up with the hope of salvation, by promising redemption (Gen. 3:15); and he has never ceased to take care of the human race. For he wishes to give eternal life to all those who seek salvation by patience in well-doing (Rom. 2:6-7). In his own time God called Abraham, and made him into a great nation (Gen. 12:2). After the era of the patriarchs, he taught this nation, by Moses and the prophets, to recognize him as the only living and true God, as a provident Father and just judge. He taught them, too, to look for the promised Savior. And so, throughout the ages, he prepared the way for the Gospel. After God had spoken many times and in various ways through the prophets, ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son’ (Heb. 1:1-2). For he sent his Son, the eternal Word who enlightens all men … “DV 2
Han Renckens, the Dutch Catholic theologian states the same truth when he says, “this God travels along with people, grows with them from ‘my God’ and ‘God of my fathers’ to family God and to a tribal and national God” (A Bible Of Your Own, 24).
Dr. Scott Hahn often refers to this covenantal evolution in his lectures on salvation history. He shows how the Catholic Church is the culmination of salvation history and the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenants with Israel. As Dr. Hahn explained in his lecture, “Defending the Faith VI”, at Franciscan University of Steubenville in 1995, when reading through the Bible historically, these expanding covenant families are significant benchmarks and will give the reader a sense of progression.
The five covenant families are: One Holy Family (Noah), Tribe (Abraham), Nation (Moses), Kingdom (David), and one Holy Church (Jesus Christ).
One Holy Family
The instrument God used to bind himself to his people was known in antiquity as a berit, or a “covenant.” A covenant is a sacred family bond, “an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance” (David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, 1179). The result of a covenant is a mutually beneficial family relationship that previously didn’t exist between two parties. The major covenants in the Bible each progressively expand in scope to take in more sons and daughters into the family of God.
Hahn develops his argument by pointing out that God made his first and foundational marriage covenant between Adam and Eve, the first couple. The fruit of their covenant love was children.
The story then progresses to Noah and his three sons, in total four marriages, making one holy family with Noah as the mediator of the household. In Genesis 9, God makes a covenant with Noah, but it extends beyond Noah, for God said that this covenant is “with you and with your descendants after you” (Genesis 9:9). The mission of Noah’s family would be to guard, reveal and communicate love. This would become a “living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity” (Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio 32).
One Holy Tribe
Next we find the number of people included in the covenant expanding to one holy tribe with Abraham acting as the tribal chieftain. In Genesis 12:1-3 God makes three promises to Abram:
- royal dynasty
- worldwide blessing.
These three promises provide a broad outline for salvation history as well as a sure foundation which future generations may look back upon in times of trouble.
In Genesis 15, God upgrades the promise of land to covenant status, letting Abram know that “your descendants will be sojourners in a land not theirs, and will be slaves there and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions” (Genesis 15:13-14). This promise of land was fulfilled as the children of Israel conquered Canaan under the leadership of Joshua.
Abraham’s grandson Jacob, whose name was later changed to “Israel” had twelve sons (Jacob received a new name from God, “Israel.” The name Israel means “he struggles with God.” This would later become not only the name of the Covenant Nation, but would also describe the character of the people. (see Genesis 32:28). These twelve tribes of Israel spent four hundred years in Egyptian bondage where the covenantal expansion plan silently progressed.
One Holy Nation
It was in Egypt that God raised up Moses of the tribe of Levi to lead Israel out of bondage to become one holy nation. Exodus 24 describes the dramatic scene as the nation of Israel is gathered around Mt. Sinai after leaving Egypt through a miraculous deliverance. There at Mt. Sinai Moses spoke to the Israelites the words of the covenant he had received directly from God, and they agreed to enter into a national covenant with Yahweh.
In Genesis 17, God upgrades the promise to Abram of royal dynasty to covenant status and changes Abram’s name meaning “exalted father,” to Abraham, meaning “father of many.” At this point God introduces circumcision as a sign of the covenant and promises that Abraham will have a son with whom God will establish an everlasting covenant.
One Holy Kingdom
God’s covenantal plan took a major leap several hundred years later as God began to draw other nations together under the leadership of King David. Through God’s covenant with David (2 Samuel 7:5-16), this new conglomerate blossoms into one holy kingdom where Israel mediates the divine revelation of God to other nations. This promise of royal dynasty is reflected in verse 16:
“And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.”
The third promise, worldwide blessing, speaks of including all the world in the covenantal family at some future point. This promise is upgraded to covenant status when God says to Abraham at the offering of Isaac:
“By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven … and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”Genesis 22:16-18
One Holy Catholic Church
Finally, all of the Old Testament covenants find full expression in the New Covenant which was made between Jesus Christ and his Church. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the climax of the biblical story, for this was God’s ultimate deed. The entire story of the Bible is Christ-centered. The Old Testament prophetically spoke of Jesus’ forthcoming, the Gospels describe his life on earth, the Epistles speak of life in light of his coming. This New Covenant certainly is the grandest of all for it is a worldwide covenant where God rules and reigns as the head of his one holy Catholic Church.
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Jeff Cavins is passionate about helping people understand Scripture and become disciples of Jesus Christ. Though he was born Catholic, Jeff went to Bible school and served as a Protestant minister for twelve years before reverting to the Catholic Faith. He then quickly became a leading Catholic evangelist and author. Jeff is best known for creating The Great Adventure Bible study programs published by Ascension, which have been used by hundreds of thousands of people to engage in Scripture in a life-changing way. Some of his recent projects include The Activated Disciple, The Jeff Cavins Show (his podcast), and the Great Adventure Bible studies, Ephesians: Discover Your Inheritance, and Wisdom: God’s Vision for Life.
This post is an excerpt from “His Story is Your Story” by Jeff Cavins, a chapter in Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God, published by Emmaus Road Publishing. It was first published on The Great Adventure Blog, The Ascension Blog’s former home, on July 17, 2015 and has been modified to fit The Ascension Blog’s style. Learn more about The Great Adventure Bible studies here.
Featured image of Gaudenzio Ferrari‘s “Stories of life and passion of Christ”, (1513) in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie sourced from whyinitaly.it. This work of art is also in the public domain.