Essentially, the Bible is about God’s plans and purposes for fellowship with people on the earth. God created everything, including people who are made in His image and made for the express purpose of having fellowship with Him.
Genesis tells of the creation of the first people, Adam and Eve, their fellowship with God in the Garden of Eden, and then their fall into sin, which broke that fellowship. As a consequence of mankind’s rebellion, death and hardship entered the world. The world is not now as it was created; however, God did not simply write off Adam and Eve and all of their descendants. He continued to pursue them and draw them to Himself, in spite of their sin.
The early chapters of Genesis demonstrate the depravity of mankind. Cain killed his brother Abel. Within a few generations, the world was so corrupt that God decided to wipe out everyone with a flood and start over with Noah and his family. God instructed Noah to build an ark to save his family and some animals. Even after the flood, Noah proved to be a sinful man as well. Then the population increased, and the whole world came together to build a tower “to reach into heaven.” This was humanity’s attempt to reach God on their own terms. God was not pleased, and He confused their languages, which scattered them over the earth.
In Genesis 12, God singled out one man, Abraham, and his descendants to be the means by which fellowship between God and mankind would be renewed. God promised that through Abraham the entire world will be blessed. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of Abraham’s family (the nation of Israel) and God’s interaction with them. God also promised Abraham the land of Canaan as an inheritance for his descendants.
The rest of Genesis tells the stories, some of them featuring glaring failures, of Abraham, his son Isaac, his grandson Jacob (later named Israel), and Jacob’s twelve sons. Some of the twelve sons sell Joseph their brother into slavery out of jealousy. God is with Joseph, and over a period of about 20 years, Joseph rises from slavery to become ruler over all of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh. When famine strikes, Joseph’s brothers go to Egypt to buy food and are reunited with Joseph, who forgives them and moves them all to Egypt where they will have food enough and to spare.
Exodus begins some centuries later. The Israelites have multiplied, and the Egyptians, in fear of their numbers, have enslaved them. The Pharaoh commands all newborn Hebrew boys to be killed. One mother hides her baby boy as long as possible and then makes a little waterproof basket and puts him in the river near where the Pharaoh’s daughter comes to bathe. The princess finds the basket and determines to keep the boy, whom she names Moses and raises as Pharaoh’s grandson. Later, as an adult, Moses sees the oppression of his people and kills an Egyptian overseer who is beating an Israelite slave. Pharaoh finds out about it, and Moses has to flee the country. He spends the next 40 years as a nomadic shepherd. Then God appears to him and tells him to go back to Egypt and lead the people out of slavery. When Moses goes to Pharaoh, Pharaoh refuses to comply with God’s demands. God sends terrible plagues upon Egypt, culminating with the death of the firstborn male in each household. However, anyone, Israelite or Egyptian, who applied the blood of a sacrificial lamb on the doorposts and lintel of his home would be spared—God’s judgment would pass over that home. With the last plague, Pharaoh told the people to go, and Moses led them out. As they came to the banks of the Red Sea, Pharaoh changed his mind and came after his former slaves with his army. God parted the sea, and the Israelites walked through it on dry ground, but the sea closed in on the pursuing Egyptians, who were destroyed.
As the book of Exodus continues, Moses begins the task of leading the Israelites to the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants. On the way, they receive the Law of God, which told them how to behave righteously in order to please God. They also receive plans for the tabernacle (a mobile temple) where God would meet them. In the book of Leviticus, God gives Israel instructions on ritual and the sacrifices necessary for sinners to approach a holy God. Even though the people promise to obey and honor God, the book of Numbers highlights their repeated failures. In fact, the Israelites ultimately refuse to enter the Promised Land, thinking that the people who occupied it were too strong for them. As a result of their unbelief, the people lived in the desert for about 40 years until one generation died off. Then God took their children into the land. The book of Deuteronomy contains Moses’ final addresses to the new generation, most of whom had not experienced God’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt firsthand.
The book of Joshua tells how the Israelites conquered and occupied the Promised Land through God’s strength. Judges tells of their religious compromise and worship of the false gods of Canaan. The repeated cycle in Judges is the nation’s rebellion, God’s punishment, and then deliverance through a judge after their repentance. The book of Ruth tells the story of a righteous Moabite woman who joins Israel and becomes the great-grandmother of David, who will become Israel’s greatest king.
1 Samuel is the story of the prophet Samuel and how he anoints Israel’s first king, Saul. Saul is a failure because of his disobedience to God, so Samuel anoints David. David becomes an aide to King Saul, and eventually Saul suspects that David is destined to be king, so he tries to kill him. Saul is finally killed in battle, and David becomes king. 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles tell of David’s reign. Although he has some stunning failures, he does love and honor God. God promises him that he will always have a descendant to sit in the throne.
The Bible also contains a set of books known as wisdom literature. Job tells the story of a man who lost everything but continues to trust God. The point of Job is that sometimes righteous people suffer for no apparent reason—but God always has a reason, even if He does not choose to let us know what it is. Psalms is a book of prayers/hymns/poems. David wrote many of them. They include songs of praise and prayers of deliverance from many different stages of Israel’s history. Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings and practical wisdom, primarily attributed to Solomon. Ecclesiastes chronicles the futility of Solomon’s life after he fell away from the Lord. The Song of Solomon (also called in some translations the Song of Songs) is a love story that speaks of the pleasures of marriage.
1 and 2 Kings tell of the kings who follow David. His son Solomon begins well but then descends into compromise with idolatry. When Solomon’s son becomes king, the ten northern tribes split from him, dividing the kingdom into north (Israel) and south (Judah), with only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remaining faithful to David’s line. None of the kings of the northern kingdom followed the Lord, and only a few from the south did. (2 Chronicles tells more about the kings of Judah, or the southern kingdom.) There were many dynasties in the north, but all the southern kings were descendants of David.
Throughout the time of the kings, God sent prophets to warn His people that judgment was coming if they did not repent of their sin. Hosea and Amos spoke to the northern kingdom. Isaiah, Jeremiah (and Lamentations, written by Jeremiah), Joel, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah spoke to the southern kingdom. (Obadiah and Jonah spoke to foreign nations.) The people did not repent, and finally God sent judgment. The northern kingdom was destroyed by Assyria about 722 BC, and the southern kingdom was defeated by Babylon in 586 BC. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and many of the people of Judah were deported to Babylon. Ezekiel and Daniel were prophets of God during this time of exile. The book of Esther is the history of Jews living in Persia during this same time.
After Judah had been in exile for 70 years, God started bringing the people back to Jerusalem to rebuild. Nehemiah and Ezra record this time of rebuilding, and the prophets Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi spoke God’s word to the people during this time. All along the way, the prophets spoke of a restored kingdom, a new covenant, and a descendant of David who would rule forever. They even began to indicate that Gentiles (non-Jews) would be included in the blessing. But just how all this would come about was not made clear yet. Malachi is the last Old Testament prophet, and after him there were about 400 years without any prophetic speech recorded in Scripture. During those 400 years, Israel gained independence briefly but then was subjugated by the Roman Empire.
In the New Testament Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), a new prophet, John the Baptist, comes on the scene as the first prophet in four centuries, announcing that the Kingdom is at hand and that the Messiah who would rule is on the scene. He identifies this Messiah as Jesus. Each of the four gospels tells us about Jesus’ life and ministry. Although He was born in Bethlehem, that was not His beginning, for He is actually God in human flesh come to live among us! The gospels record His miracles and divine claims such as claiming to be equal with the Father, forgiving sin, and accepting worship. Jesus gathered a small group of twelve disciples to train and teach. He revealed to them that He would be killed to pay for the sins of the world. They did not understand what He was saying then and rejected the idea. How could the king, the Messiah, be killed? But, just as He said, Jesus was betrayed and crucified and then rose from the dead. Instead of instituting an earthly political kingdom, He told His disciples to spread the good news of His life, death, and resurrection to the whole world. Anyone who trusts in Him will have their sins forgiven and become part of His kingdom. When the time is right, He will return visibly and powerfully. The Old Testament Law is fulfilled by Him, and because of Him the temple as well as the sacrifices and the priesthood are obsolete. When He returns, the promised kingdom will be inaugurated.
The book of Acts records the coming of the Holy Spirit and the spread of the gospel across the known world by the original disciples (apostles), minus the betrayer Judas and plus his replacement Matthias, as well as a new apostle named Paul. Paul had been a persecutor of the church, but Christ appeared to him and commissioned him to become an apostle to the Gentiles.
The New Testament Epistles are letters written by the apostles to Christians in various parts of the Roman Empire, explaining correct doctrine and admonishing correct behavior. Thirteen of the epistles are written by Paul, and their titles reveal to whom they were written: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians were written to churches in the cities of Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, etc.; 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon were written to individuals. All of these letters explain further who Jesus is and how the gospel relates to everyday life.
Several other epistles are named after the men who wrote them: James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2 and 3 John; and Jude. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews is unknown, but it is written to Hebrews (Jews), explaining how all the Old Testament has been fulfilled in Jesus.
Revelation is the final book of the Bible. John the apostle penned it to relate visions he received from Jesus. Revelation is filled with fantastic and mysterious imagery, but it all points to the fact that one day Jesus will return, and His reign will be visible and undeniable. In Him all the promises to Abraham and to the world will be fulfilled. Those who reject Him will be banished to the lake of fire. It is because of His life, death, and resurrection that people can be forgiven and have the kind of fellowship with God that Adam and Eve first knew and then lost. At the end of it all, God will create a new heavens and new earth. The climax of the story is in Revelation 21:3: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’”
The Bible is a saga that spans all of human history. The story of the Bible is that our fellowship with God, which was lost in the beginning, is being restored through the ministry of Christ. This fellowship will be experienced perfectly in the re-created heavens and earth, but through the Holy Spirit, those who put their faith in Christ can enjoy a measure of that fellowship here and now.
The best way to get to know the Bible is to read it. If you are just getting started, you can get the “storyline” of the Bible by reading the following books in this order:
Luke (or any of the other gospels)