(This is the second part of a three-part series. The first part can be read here.)
As I mentioned in the first part, a good story has five elements: the setting, the characters, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution.
The setting is basically the container for the other elements of the story. In God's story, the setting is earth, although it also includes the backdrop of the rest of the universe. Earth is where God has revealed Himself to the characters of His story. 1 The setting also includes the laws by which things in the story function. In God's story we have natural laws such as the law of gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, and the law that each living thing reproduces itself in kind. We also have spiritual laws, such as 'Be sure your sins will find you out,' and 'What you sow, that you will reap.'
The characters are all the people, good and bad, that have parts in the story. In God's story, this includes not only men and women, but animals (Numbers 22:21-30), angels, demons, and even God Himself. One thing that sets God's story apart is that His characters are real. Sherlock Holmes exists only in the world of fiction. The simulated characters on Star Trek: Next Generation's holodeck could only live on the holodeck, which itself is a fictional device in a fictional story with fictional characters. But we are real and we'll continue to exist with the Author after the setting of the universe is gone. We are more like actors on a stage who, after the play is over, get to go to their real home.
The plot (or story-line) is what the story is about. It contains not only the main events in the story, but also sub-plots, smaller stories, within the main story. In God's story, the main plot is about His redemption of fallen man. There are also many sub-plots, which include what happens in the lives of individuals. All of the sub-plots, however, work together towards the main plot.
The conflicts are the elements of the story that appear to work against the plot. In God's story, the main source of conflict is Satan working through man, but it also includes man rebelling against God, man walking in the flesh, and the consequences of his sin. As I mentioned in the first part, conflicts are essential to a good story, but a good story is not about the conflicts.
The resolution is how the goal of an author is achieved in the story in spite of the conflicts. This is where the author's character is best seen. An evil author concludes his story with evil triumphing over good. In God's story, good will triumph over evil in the end, because God is good. 2
In some stories, the conflict is essential to the resolution. This is especially true of God's story, where He used His people's rejection of their Messiah to make the reconciliation of man to Himself possible. On one level Israel was working against God, but on the higher level they unknowingly fulfilled His purpose.
Before we look at God's story in more detail, let's take a look at one aspect of how a story is written.
Not In Time
When an author writes a story, he does not necessarily write it in the order it will be read. He might write the ending first, the beginning next, and then fill in the middle. After he has completed the first draft, he might go anywhere in the story to tweek the details or do a partial rewrite. An author can do this because his timeline is not the same as the story's timeline. An author can change anything at any time in his story, so all points in the story's timeline are effectively in the present to the author.
Likewise, God's timeline is not the same as our timeline. (God may not even have a timeline the way we understand it.) This is why we sometimes make a distinction between our perspective of time and God's perspective of eternity. There are subtle clues to this found throughout the Bible. For example, Jesus' statement "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am" in John 8:58 sounds like bad grammer to our ears. But Jesus was just telling His listeners He is not from our time but from eternity.
Another clue to God not being in time is seen when He answers our prayers before we pray.
Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.
– Isaiah 65:24 (ESV)
Helen Roseveare (1925-2016) experienced the truth of this verse while a missionary in the Congo. In her book, Give Me This Mountain, she recounted an incident where a mother died giving birth to a premature baby, leaving a 2 year old child. Helen needed a hot water bottle for the infant, but their last one broke. She told the other children at the mission about the need for a hot water bottle. One 10 year old boldly prayed for one to be sent, along with a doll for the 2 year old. Helen thought that prayer a bit too bold… why would someone send a hot water bottle to Africa? But that same day a package arrived containing (among other things) a hot water bottle and a doll. The package had been shipped from England five months earlier! God had answered before they had asked. 3
God's timelessness is also shown in His complete foreknowledge of our lives. He knew the entire story of your life before you were conceived. He knew every word you would say, every joy you would experience, every struggle you would go through, and every sin you would commit. Interestingly, the Bible describes God's knowledge of our lives using the picture of an author recording it in a book:
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
– Psalm 139:16 (ESV)
Before Adam was created, God knew he would, of his own free will, eat the forbidden fruit, and by that unleash the consequences of sin and death. His knowledge of this did not cause it to happen, just as my knowledge that the sun will rise tomorrow does not mean I will cause the sun to rise. With that foreknowledge, and before the world was created, God planned His story with the end in mind: the restoration of man to Himself. This resolution would cost Him dearly, and this He also knew:
…and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.
– Revelation 13:8 (ESV) 4
Your translation may read "…whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world," but both imply the same thing: God knew before anything was created that He would have to send His Son, the Lamb of God, to die to redeem us from sin to Himself. Jesus' death and resurrection to pay the penalty for our sin was not Plan B. Unlike a human author, God did not need to revise or adjust His story, not even to compensate for our choices. He knew what our choices would be and wrote the story taking that into account. His first draft is the final story.
Seeing The Story In The Bible
We, on the other hand, don't see God's story as a timeless present. We experience the story from the inside as a sequence of events moving from the past to the present. Everything beyond the present is unknown to us apart from what God has revealed will happen. So we usually don't know how the events we experience contribute to the overall plot. They seem so random and limited to our own personal experience. How does working every day in a low-end job, being robbed, or getting diagnosed with terminal cancer fit in with God's story? I don't think we are meant to know while we are still in the story. But God has provided plenty of examples in the Bible of how people who experienced a life filled with seemingly mundane events fit in with the plot of His story. Perhaps the clearest example of this is seen in the story of Joseph.
Joseph's father was Jacob. Before Jacob raised a family, he spent some time working for his uncle Laban. Jacob fell in love with Laban's younger daughter, Rachel, and agreed with his uncle to work seven years for her. But when the seven years were up, Laban tricked him and gave him his oldest daughter, Leah. Jacob wasn't pleased, but he agreed to work seven more years for the girl he loved.
Leah provided six children to Jacob, while Rachel was barren. Four more children were born through Jacob's concubines before God opened Rachel's womb 5. She conceived and bore Joseph. Rachel being Jacob's favorite wife, Joseph became his favorite son, to the chagrin of his older brothers. Their resentment increased when Jacob gave Joseph a tunic of many colors. To top it all off, Joseph had dreams of his family bowing down to him, and perhaps unwisely let them know what he had dreamed.
One day, while Joseph's brothers were tending their father's sheep a long way from home, Jacob sent Joseph to check up on them. As he approached, they saw him and immediately plotted to kill him. Reuben didn't agree so he rescued Joseph by suggesting they cast him into a cistern instead. Reuben's intention was to bring Joseph back to his father alive.
When Joseph arrived, his brothers stripped him of his tunic and threw him into the cistern. Then a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants came by. They were on their way to Egypt to sell their goods. Judah said, "Instead of killing him, let's make a profit. After all, he is our brother." So they sold Joseph to the merchants. Afterwards, they killed a young goat and dipped Joseph's tunic in the blood to make their father think he was killed by a wild animal.
When Joseph and the caravan arrived in Egypt, he was sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of the guard. Joseph worked for his master honorably, and God blessed Potiphar's house. Recognizing the blessing, the captain raised Joseph up to a position of trust. But it was not to last. Potiphar's wife sought to lie with Joseph, and when he refused, she swiped his clothes as he fled. She then accused Joseph of attempted rape, and in anger, Potiphar threw Joseph into Pharoah's prison.
While in the prison, Joseph gained the respect of the warden who also put him into a position of trust. Then, Pharoah's cup bearer and baker were thrown into prison with him. They each had a dream, which Joseph interpreted for them: The cup bearer would be restored to his position, but the baker would be executed. Joseph asked the cup bearer to remember him before Pharoah when he was restored. Shortly thereafter, it happened as Joseph fortold. The baker was executed, and the cup bearer was restored… but he forgot to tell Pharoah about Joseph.
Two years later, Pharoah had a couple of disturbing dreams that no one could interpret. The cup bearer then remembered Joseph, and told how he foretold his restoration by interpreting his dream. Pharoah immediately summoned Joseph from the prison who interpreted the dream for him: There would be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of drought. Egypt must prepare for this. Seeing Joseph was wise, Pharoah put him in charge of Egypt to oversee the preparation. During the years of plenty, Joseph stored up the harvested grain, and when the famine struck, Joseph doaled out the stored grain to the people.
The famine also affected Jacob and his family in Canaan. So, he sent all of Joseph's brothers except Benjamin to Egypt to buy grain. When they arrived, they bowed before Joseph, not recognizing him. And while Joseph recognized them, he made like he didn't. Joseph accused them of being spies, but they denied it and spoke of their situation in Canaan. They also mentioned their youngest brother, Benjamin, who was not with them. Joseph put them in prison for three days. He then freed all but Simeon, gave them grain, and sent them back to Canaan. But he told them not to come back unless they brought their youngest brother with them. Joseph also secretly put their money in the sacks of grain, which they didn't discover until they arrived home.
When that grain ran out, Jacob begrudgingly sent his sons to Egypt again for more. This time Joseph, after feasting them and acting a gracious host, gave them grain, but he snuck his silver cup into Benjamin's sack. The brothers hadn't gone far before Joseph sent his steward to confront them with having stolen his cup. They denied it until it was found in the Benjamin's sack. Then they returned to Joseph and pled for mercy before him. Joseph then revealed himself to them. At first they didn't believe, but when they did, they rejoiced.
Joseph sent his brothers back to Canaan one more time to bring the rest of the family to Egypt, and Jacob saw the son who he thought had died years ago.
When Jacob died, the brothers were in fear that Joseph would retaliate for their previous treatment of him, but Joseph said, "Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you had devised evil against me; but God had planned it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive" (Genesis 50:20).
Throughout the story of Joseph, we see God controlling the details just as a human author would…
- Laban's trickery, Rachel's barrenness, Jacob's favor, and the dreams: They all worked to make Joseph despised in the eyes of his brothers. It may have seemed to him like bad luck. But God was orchestrating it all so He could get Joseph to Egypt to save his people and fulfill His promises to Abraham.
- The brother's plot to kill Joseph, Reuben's rescue, the caravan arriving at the right time, and Judah's profit motive were also all part of God's plan to bring Joseph to Egypt. God used the brother's fallen propensities for His own purposes.
- Potiphar recognizing his house was blessed because of Joseph, his wife accusing Joseph of attempted rape, Joseph cast into prison, the baker and cup bearer offending Pharoah, their subsequence imprisonment and dreams, and the cup bearer forgetting about Joseph were intended to make Joseph ready to meet Pharoah at just the right time.
- God gave Pharoah dreams of subsequent years of plenty and famine to raise Joseph to the highest position of authority in Egypt. This made it possible for Joseph to bring his father's family to live in the best part of Egypt where they would grow into a great people.
God used all of the characters to work towards His goal of doing the best good for His people. The results reach even to the present day. God's purpose in this story was not just to bless Joseph or Israel but to bless us. David Guzik, in his commentary on Genesis 50:20 writes:
"…if Joseph's brothers never sell him to the Midianites, then Joseph never goes to Egypt. If Joseph never goes to Egypt, he never is sold to Potiphar. If he is never sold to Potiphar, Potiphar's wife never falsely accuses him of rape. If Potiphar's wife never falsely accuses him of rape, then he is never put in prison. If he is never put in prison, he never meets the baker and butler of Pharaoh. If he never meets the baker and butler of Pharaoh, he never interprets their dreams. If he never interprets their dreams, he never gets to interpret Pharaoh's dream. If he never gets to interpret Pharaoh's dream, he never is made prime minister. If he is never made prime minister, he never wisely administrates for the severe famine coming upon the region. If he never wisely administrates for the severe famine coming upon the region, then his family back in Canaan perishes from the famine. If his family back in Canaan perishes from the famine, then the Messiah can't come forth from a dead family. If the Messiah can't come forth, then Jesus never came. If Jesus never came, then you are dead in your sins and without hope in this world. We are grateful for God's great and wise plan."
Seeing The Story Today
God has done something no human author has ever done: He has revealed to His characters what happens later in the story. And while the biblical characters usually weren't aware God had written their story before it happened, there were signs available to them:
- One hundred twenty years before God destroyed the world with a flood, He told Noah He would do so (Genesis 6:3,7,13,17).
- Many years before Joseph rose to power in Egypt, God revealed what He would do to Joseph in his dreams (Genesis 37:5-11).
- More than 600 years before David, and 1600 years before Jesus, God revealed to Jacob that the kings of Israel would come through Judah (Genesis 49:10).
- God revealed to Moses what would happen to Israel over a period of thousands of years (Deuteronomy 28,30).
- God revealed Jesus to David as seen in the Psalms (Psalm 2,22,110).
- Jesus revealed to His disciples that they would be persecuted for His sake (John 15:20). He even revealed to Peter how he would die (John 21:18-19).
- And in the book of Revelation Jesus gave a glimpse to the apostle John of how the story would conclude.
Prophesy is God's way of telling the characters in His story what's in store for them later in the story's timeline. Each prophecy was written to describe an event that would definitely take place. The proof of this is in the fulfillments, for no prophecy has ever failed. This proves God is in control of His story, and His purposes will be done. Abraham saw this. He willingly offered his son Isaac on the altar, confident that God would either stop him or raise Isaac from the dead (Genesis 22:2,5,8, Hebrews 11:17-19) 6.
The apostles recognized God's purposeful hand in history. Peter told his audience that God purposely gave Jesus into the hands of lawless men to have Him crucified (Acts 2:23). Herod, Pontius Pilate, and the people were gathered together in Jerusalem "to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place" (Acts 4:27-28, Luke 22:22). But most people in the Bible were not convinced God was in control. Even the apostles weren't convinced at first…
And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?"
– Mark 4:37-40
Looking at their circumstances, it was easy for the disciples to think they were in peril. I would have been scared in their situation. But they knew Jesus was the Messiah, and having all the Old Testament prophecies of what He would do, they should not have been afraid. Jesus would not die then because He had to die later on the cross to fulfill God's purpose. They would not die either because they would be needed to spread the gospel after Jesus rose from the dead.
The great story continues to the present today, and like most people in the Bible, we are generally unaware of it. We see the conflict element most clearly. It's usually the only thing we see. So, like the disciples, we tend to conclude God is not in control. But we also have signs of God's hand in the story available to us in the Bible if we will look. Again, these signs come in the form of prophecy and fulfillment.
- Israel's return as a nation in 1948 was directly foretold in the Bible thousands of years earlier (Deuteronomy 30:1-6, Isaiah 11:11–12, Jeremiah 3:18, 16:14–15, 23:7–8, Ezekiel 20:33–44, 36:1–12, 36:22–24, and Zechariah 10:6–8).
- Jesus foretold many would come and say they are Him (Mark 13:5-6,22), and many have done so.
- Paul accurately foretold the condition of the hearts of men today (2 Timothy 3:1-9), which are worse than even in his time.
- Jesus foretold Christians would be hated and killed of all men (Matthew 24:9). We should not be surprised at unjust suffering.
- Jesus forefold that He would return after the gospel had been preached throughout the whole world (Matthew 24:14). This prophecy is on the verge of completion.
As we see these prophecies fulfilled, we see the evidence that we are still in God's story. Not only that, as we look back and see God's work in our own lives, we see His hand in our part of the story.
In 1850, a nominal Christian teenager was walking to his Congregational church in a snow storm. Seeking shelter, he took a side street and entered a Primative Methodist chapel. The regular preacher was not there. In his place, there was an inexperienced substitute in the pulpit. The lay preacher read from Isaiah 45:22: "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else." Having nothing to say beyond that, he repeated the scripture, then repeated it again. The teenager later recalled what happened in his autobiography:
"He had not much to say, thank God, for that compelled him to keep on repeating his text, and there was nothing needed—by me, at any rate except his text. Then, stopping, he pointed to where I was sitting under the gallery, and he said, 'That young man there looks very miserable' . . . and he shouted, as I think only a Primitive Methodist can, 'Look! Look, young man! Look now!' . . . Then I had this vision—not a vision to my eyes, but to my heart. I saw what a Savior Christ was. . . . Now I can never tell you how it was, but I no sooner saw whom I was to believe than I also understood what it was to believe, and I did believe in one moment.
"And as the snow fell on my road home from the little house of prayer I thought every snowflake talked with me and told of the pardon I had found, for I was white as the driven snow through the grace of God." 7
God orchestrated this incident, with its snowstorm and seemingly inept preacher, to save Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who then led thousands to Christ. God orchestrated Joni Eareckson Tada's accident that left her a tetraplegic to later grant help and hope to thousands of disabled people around the world. God orchestrated Richard Wurmbrand's suffering under torture to later start a ministry to help the suffering church.
We generally don't see God's hand immediately in the events of our lives. Joseph probably didn't see it until Pharaoh raised him up. But when we do, we gain confidence that God is in control. We are able to trust Him with everything that happens in our lives, even if we don't see His hand in those things. And as our faith grows, our fear dies.
In the next part, we'll look at the purpose of God's story, see how free-will fits into it, and answer some other questions you may have.
- This is not to say there can't be intelligent life playing parts in the story elsewhere in the universe. The Bible does not speak of life elsewhere, so it is not to concern us. ↩
- Just as there are sub-plots, conflicts can have 'sub-resolutions.' We see these scattered throughout the Bible. One example is the Jews' triumph over their enemies in the book of Esther after Haman tried to exterminate them. Seeing the sub-resolutions help us to trust that God will eventually bring about the main resolution at the right time. ↩
- Cf. Give Me This Mountain, Helen Roseeveare ↩
- See also Matthew 25:34 and Ephesians 1:4. ↩
- Genesis 30:22 ↩
- Interestingly, before Abraham's faith fully matured, he thought God needed his help to move the story along: he fathered his first son, Ishmael. But while God didn't need his help, He still incorporated what Abraham did into His story. ↩
- Spurgeon's Sermons, Vol. 50, No. 2867 ↩