Book Review: “God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible” by Vaughan Roberts

RobertsIn this book, Vaughan Roberts gives the reader a simple introduction to Biblical theology. As the title suggests, he traces the storyline of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation using the theme of “God’s Kingdom.”

Summary

In the introduction to the book, Roberts tells the reader why he is writing this book – he is concerned that too many people are ignorant about what the Bible is about and the content of the Bible in general. He begins the book by discussing how the Bible is one book with one author and one subject (salvation through Jesus Christ). He identifies the center of the biblical story as “the kingdom of God.” He says that the kingdom of God provides a good center to the Bible because it gives unity to the book while enabling each part of the Bible to contribute something of value in light of the whole. Roberts, following Graeme Goldsworthy, defines God’s kingdom as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing” (22). He then briefly shows how he plans to discuss the unfolding of the kingdom of God in the Bible’s storyline.

Chapter one discusses Gen. 1-2 and is called “The Pattern of the Kingdom.” In this chapter, Roberts shows that God is the creator of all things and He is the king over all of His creation. God made mankind in His image, and they are the pinnacle of creation. God made mankind to share in His creation rest by enjoying the creation that He made. There are perfect relationships between God and man, man and woman, and mankind and creation. In the Garden of Eden, God’s people are Adam and Eve, God’s place is the garden, and they enjoy God’s blessing by living under His rule.

Chapter two discusses the fall and is called “The Perished Kingdom.” He begins with the temptation and discusses Satan’s tactic in the garden. He says that the sin of Adam and Eve is not just disobeying, but of “deciding what is right and wrong” (39, italics his). The result of sin is a break in the harmonious relationships between God and man, man and woman, and mankind and creation. Sin and death now dominate human existence, and this is demonstrated by the stories of Cain and Abel, the genealogies that describe the death of generation after generation, the flood and the tower of Babel. After the fall, humans are no longer God’s people by nature, they have been banished from God’s place and instead of living under God’s rule and blessing, and they live in disobedience and curse.

Chapter three discusses God’s intention to restore the kingdom as it is expressed in the promise of the gospel to Adam and the call of Abraham. It is called “The Promised Kingdom.” Although mankind has disobeyed God, He gives Adam a promise that the “Seed of the woman” will crush the serpent. Interestingly, Roberts points out that there is a pattern of God showing mercy after judging sin. He protects Cain, Enoch does not die, and God makes a covenant with Noah and Abraham. Roberts includes in this chapter a sidebar discussion in which he discusses the biblical covenants. The focal point of this chapter is the covenant with Abraham. This covenant defines this stage of the kingdom. God’s people are now the descendents of Abraham, God promises a place (the land of Canaan), and God promises blessing to Israel and the nations.

Chapter four discusses the exodus, conquest and monarchy, and is called “The Partial Kingdom.” This chapter is broken up into a discussion on God’s people, place, and king. The promise that Abraham would be a great nation is fulfilled in Isaac, then in Jacob and his twelve sons, and then in the great multitude in the nation of Israel. God delivers them from slavery, gives them His law, and then promises to live in their midst by means of the tabernacle.

Roberts then discusses how the promise of God’s place comes to be fulfilled in the land of Canaan. God’s promise of a serpent-crusher is also fulfilled preliminarily in the judges and kings of Israel, especially in David. But the kings fall short and it will truly be fulfilled only in David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The partial kingdom consists of the Israelites as His people, Canaan and the temple as His place, and the law and king as His means of ruling and blessing the people. Unfortunately, as Roberts points out, the kings fail to lead the people according to the law and the partial kingdom is dismantled and sent into exile.

Chapter five discusses the prophetic books and is called “The Prophesied Kingdom.” Roberts discusses that the prophets were covenant enforcers. They spoke to the people about their failure to obey God’s covenant. They wrote even as the kingdom was being dismantled, and despite the message of judgment, they had a message of hope. Though they were going into exile, God would restore them through another exodus, another king, a new temple, a new creation, and a new covenant. In the prophets, God’s people are the remnant of Israel, but also the nations will be included! God’s place will be the new temple and new creation; God’s rule will be by the new covenant and the new king, and there will be blessings for the world.

Chapter six discusses the gospels and is called “The Present Kingdom.” Roberts discusses how Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of OT expectations – He is God’s people, God’s place and God’s rule. He fulfills the role of Adam and Israel in a way that they failed to do; He is the true tabernacle and temple; He introduces the new covenant, and is the new King and source of all blessing. Though He is killed as a common criminal, He saves His people through His substitutionary sacrifice.

Chapter seven discusses the New Testament times up through our day (commonly called the “church age”) and is called “The Proclaimed Kingdom.” Roberts discusses how “the time between the first and second coming of Christ” is called ‘the last days’ (130). God sent the Holy Spirit to equip us to proclaim Christ until He returns. God’s people are the church, God’s place is the believer and the church, who are both described as the temple of God. God’s rule in the New Covenant is lived out by the power of the Holy Spirit. Since Christ has set us free from the condemnation of the law, we are able to start to “live up to God’s standards” (139).

Chapter eight discusses the consummation of Christ’s kingdom at the end of time and is called “The Perfected Kingdom.” Roberts discusses the book of Revelation, and while describing the various views on it, he does say that he holds to the amillennial position. He says that the book of Revelation gives a description of how God will destroy the old order of sinful humanity and make all things new, restoring His people to a new heavens and new earth. He says that “The promises of the Kingdom will all be completely fulfilled at the end of time” (159). God’s people will include all believers of all times, God’s place will be the New Creation and the New Jerusalem, God’s rule will be expressed through the perfect reign of Christ, and all of His people will be perfectly blessed.

Finally in the epilogue, the author expresses what he hopes people will do as a result of reading this book. He wants the reader to “know Christ in all the Scriptures,” “teach Christ from all the Scriptures,” and “love Christ through all the Scriptures” (163). He discusses the fact that every Bible passage has both a historical and vertical dimension: the historical dimension is the place of the passage in the redemptive-historical timeline. The vertical dimension is the relationship between God and people. Each passage shows us something of God’s kingdom, but also challenges us personally with how we are relating to God.

Analysis

This book is a helpful beginning book on biblical theology (BT). It is pretty basic, but faithfully expresses the heart of the Bible and shows how to connect it all together into one whole story about God’s work of redemption in Christ. Anyone who has been a Christian for a couple of years should be able to handle this book. If you have read much on BT, you might find it a little basic, but still enjoyable. I can commend the overall thrust of the book, which I find to be very helpful. I can also commend a couple of the particular things that I found interesting or helpful.

Again, for the newer believer, the sidebars give some good basic information about some theological topics. Roberts helpfully summarizes basic Christian teaching on things like the covenants and the law of God in a one-to-two page sidebar. I also found his illustration of how all prophecy is fulfilled in Christ to be helpful: Roberts compares the fulfillment of prophecy to a man who promises to buy his son a horse when he is older. In the meantime, the car is invented, and so the father is no reneging on his promise if he buys the son a car. There would be no way that they would have even understood what a car was; he was communicating within the framework that was available at the time. This illustration helpfully describes how we can see prophecy of a second exodus, a new temple, “David” sitting on the throne, etc. to be fulfilled in Christ – it is simply speaking within the framework that was available at the time.

Another helpful aspect of this book is the challenge that the author extends in the epilogue to consider both how the passage points to Christ and how the passage challenges us in our relationship with Christ. While doing a great job of showing how David presents us with a type of Christ, he is also willing to see how David presents us with an example of faith. While many people are helpfully rediscovering how the OT relates to Christ, there are those today who struggle to be well-balanced in this area, and so many people seem uncomfortable with exhorting us from the OT or showing how OT characters are examples. I think that Roberts really hits this balance just right in a way that I found refreshing.

One area that I didn’t like as much was the way the kingdom framework of “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing” seemed to be a little bit artificial at times. The places in which I see the parallel most clearly are between Adam and Eve in Eden, Israel in Canaan, and all believers in the new heavens and earth. It seemed the most forced when it came to “The Present Kingdom.” While I see how Christ fulfills the themes of “God’s people” and “God’s place” (although I might be more happy to talk about “God’s presence”), I don’t see it as fitting neatly into the author’s paradigm.

For example, if Jesus is God’s people as well as God’s place, then who is God with in His place? Roberts says that “if we want to meet with God we must go, not to a building, but to Jesus” (119). Very well, but if we are going to meet with God through Jesus, are we God’s people? Apparently not, because Jesus is God’s people. This leaves us with Jesus, God’s people, meeting with God at Himself, God’s place. When we add that Jesus is the King, then Jesus, as God’s people, obeys Jesus as God’s king. This seems to result in nonsense, and I think it is a result of pushing the framework too far. Somehow Jesus does not fit into the pattern in the way that it is presented (see the appendix for one proposed solution).

Despite that one complaint, this book has a lot of helpful information to benefit the student of the Bible. It is a simple introduction to BT that could be helpful for those who are just discovering it. While the pattern of God’s kingdom might not be as airtight as it is presented, it still provides a really helpful framework that gives unity to the storyline of the Bible.

Bibliography

Roberts, Vaughan. God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2002.

Appendix:

An Alternative to Roberts and Goldsworthy’s “Kingdom of God” Pattern

While I found the pattern of the kingdom of God in Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible to be extremely helpful, I was left with some discomfort with how all of the parts of the Bible were placed into this framework. Specifically, I didn’t think that Jesus in His incarnation fits the paradigm of God’s people, place and rule very well. So here are some adjustments that I would like to propose for the sake of my own teaching and preaching and in order to further the conversation about how to best interpret the Bible (see the link below to the see the diagram that goes with this).

First, the clearest parallels of God’s people, place and rule involve three main movements of the Bible: Creation, Israel, and Christ (and by extension the church as those who are “in Christ”). These are illustrated in the diagram by the three circles with the crown, representing the kingdom of God. As far as Roberts goes with these aspects of redemptive history, I think he does a great job. I have no complaints about them. The second circle, representing the kingdom of God as foreshadowed in Israel, combines the three aspects of Roberts’ outline: kingdom promised, partial and prophesied. While for the sake of preaching a teaching it can be helpful to utilize those three parts of the kingdom foreshadowed in Israel, I see them as being fundamentally united.

Second, rather than portraying Jesus’ incarnation as having a distinct period of kingdom history, I think it might be better to represent him as the link between the kingdom as foreshadowed in Israel and fulfilled in Christ (circles two and three). In fact, Jesus begins the fulfillment of the kingdom of God when He begins His public ministry. As can be seen in the diagram, the kingdom as it is foreshadowed in Israel and fulfilled in Christ actually overlap.

Third, the kingdom of God as it is fulfilled in Christ also consists of several subsections. There is the public ministry that begins the fulfillment, the crucifixion and resurrection, the ascension, and the pouring out of the Spirit. These events represent the first stage of kingdom fulfillment: fulfillment in the gospel events. (notice that it is with the death of Christ that the kingdom as foreshadowed in Israel comes to an end as the Mosaic covenant is brought to an end and the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants lead to the New Covenant.) The second stage of kingdom fulfillment takes place as the church makes disciples by proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth (Roberts’ “Proclaimed Kingdom”). This is the stage of the “already.” The third stage (the “not yet” aspect) of kingdom fulfillment takes place at the second coming of Christ.

What about the themes of God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule? God’s people in the Garden are Adam and Eve (as Roberts says); God’s people in the foreshadowed kingdom are Abraham’s descendents – literally the nation of Israel. But the “Seed of Abraham” par excellence is the Lord Jesus Christ (this is where the fulfilled kingdom overlaps with the foreshadowed kingdom). The “people of God” in the fulfilled kingdom is Christ, and by extension, those who are in Him.

God’s place is patterned in Eden and foreshadowed in Canaan. It is fulfilled on the whole earth in several stages. In the first stage, Christ literally walked on earth and “tabernacled” among us. In the second stage, God dwells on earth through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believer and in the church. But in addition, the people of God actually “live in heaven” by virtue of the fact that the Believer is already “seated in the heavenly places in Christ” and “[they have] died, and [their] life is hidden with Christ in God” (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:4). But while they are already citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), they have not yet received their inheritance in full. They are now “sojourners and pilgrims” (1 Pet. 2:11) and wait for the consummation in which God totally reclaims the earth for His glory in the final judgment. Now God lives on earth in part and believers live in heaven in part, but God will yet bring heaven and earth together in the new creation. At that time believers of all ages will experience the life of Heaven on earth when their bodies are perfected receive their inheritance to live with God forever.

I think the aspect of the kingdom that Roberts calls “God’s rule” would be helped considerably if he would at this point bring in the covenants. So for example, Adam and Eve were governed by the relationship that they had with God in the Garden (which functions more or less like a covenant, regardless of whether a person chooses to call it a covenant). The foreshadowed kingdom is structured by the covenants with Abraham, Moses and David (with the Noahic covenant establishing a stable creation that forms the background of the story of redemption). There are especially parallels between the relationship between Adam and Eve in the Garden and Israel under the Mosaic covenant. But where Adam and Israel fail to live under the rule of God expressed in covenant stipulations, Christ succeeds, and by His obedient life and death ends the Mosaic Covenant and fulfills the trajectory of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants by establishing the New Covenant. As a result of His obedience, the blessing of God is able to come upon all who are “in Him” freely by grace.

Alternative to Roberts Kingdom pattern

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