A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Ryan Kucera
Summary of Content
Greg Gilbert loves the mountains. Near the beginning of his new book, The Epic Story of the Bible: How to Read and Understand God’s Word, he shares his experience of hiking the Himalayas. He then goes on to weave the mountain metaphor throughout this helpful, introductory work of biblical theology. Gilbert wants his readers to be able to identify some of the majestic peaks of the biblical narrative as they trek cover to cover through the Scriptures.
Gilbert recounts that before he set out to climb Mount Everest, he was briefed by his tour guide on what lay ahead: the sites, dangers, and trail markers. This briefing enriched his experience because as he went through different stages in his journey he knew where he was and what he needed to look out for. In a similar vein, he clearly states his purpose in writing The Epic Story of the Bible: “What I’m aiming to do with this with this book [is] give you a briefing about what you’re going to see, what you’re going to experience, what you should look for and look out for as you set off on the long trek of reading the entire Bible” (14).
As a pastor, it’s clear Gilbert has spent a few decades traversing the terrain of the Bible and desires to take his readers along with him on the journey. This book is written primarily for newer students of the Bible that may struggle to put the pieces of Scriptures together, but Bible college and seminary students will benefit from it also. In a sense, the book doubles as an introductory treatment of biblical theology and hermeneutics. Gilbert quotes from Graham Goldsworthy’s According to Plan and even includes one of his charts outlining the history of redemption (40). Readers who may not be ready for Goldsworthy—or a more challenging work such as Geerhardos Vos’s Biblical Theology—would do well to start here.
The book contains six key chapters, bookended by an introduction and Gilberts’ concluding thoughts. Chapter one, entitled “What the Bible is, and Where it Came From,” provides a brief history of the formation of the cannon and some basic tools for biblical interpretation. Gilbert notes that when early Christians had any sort of debate about whether a particular book belonged in the canon, they typically used four tests: apostolicity, antiquity, universality, and orthodoxy (31). As the reader finishes chapter one, he is left with confidence in the validity of the Bible. While the back history Gilbert provides helps, the reader is ultimately left encouraged by the fact that Jesus himself believed the Bible was God’s Word. Jesus “endorsed the Old Testament and authorized the New. That’s why we believe it” (33).
Chapter two is essentially a briefing for students preparing to set out across the Bible’s terrain. Gilbert notes ten different pictures—or keeping with the mountain terminology, peaks—that Bible readers should be looking for: The creation and fall, the flood and God’s promises, the exodus, the conquest, the crown, the exile, the return, the Messiah, the church, and the end (41-60). While the descriptions of each peak are brief, they provide readers with helpful snapshots of the trail markers ahead.
Chapters three through six make up the heart of the book. Each chapter contains one of “the Bible’s main themes, which weave in and around each other to shape the main course of the biblical epic. Those themes are God’s presence, covenant, the kingship, and sacrifice” (66). Gilbert reminds his readers that these are not the only themes found throughout the storyline of Scripture, but these are four of the most dominant (66).
Chapter three addresses the theme of God’s presence. Gilbert notes that the theme of God’s presence “arguably gives shape to the central riddle of the entire storyline: How can a perfectly righteous and holy God ever have rebellious, sinful human beings in his presence without destroying them in his righteous wrath?” (66). Gilbert explores God’s presence from Eden throughout the Old Testament narrative—and all of the pain and fallout from Israel’s repeated rebellion towards Yahweh. Ultimately, “The biblical theme of God’s presence finally finds its fulfillment in Jesus” (80). The Son of God has come and tabernacled among us (John 1:14). From there, Gilbert traces God’s presence from the coming of the Holy Spirit to the establishing of the New Testament church, and finally, the new heaven and new earth where we will be perfectly home in the very presence of the Savior.
Chapter four unpacks the theme of covenant and its place in the biblical narrative: “It could be said that the entire storyline of the Bible is organized around a series of covenants that God makes with various humans” (83). Gilbert makes a point to differentiate the various times in Scripture God “cuts a new covenant” vs. the times he establishes (or reestablishes) an existing covenant (87). For example, Gilbert notes that the Noahic covenant in Genesis 6:18 is established rather than cut. In other words “the covenant was already in existence before Noah…it was initially cut with Adam” (87). Hence why Gilbert does not designate the Noahic covenant as one of the five major covenants he explores—he includes Noah in the same section as the Adamic covenant. All in all, the reader is left with a good understanding of God’s covenants with Adam, Abraham, Israel, David, and finally, the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus (111).
Chapter five addresses the theme of kingship. In this section, Gilbert makes a point to remind his readers that while each of the themes can be traced individually throughout the canon, “In many ways they build on each other and reinforce one another, much as the various strands of a rope are not one and the same, but weave around one another and thereby strengthen one another” (113). One could argue that without kingship the other themes “simply can’t cohere” (115). Adam’s work in the garden had a regality to it. He was to exercise dominion and rule over the creation (Gen. 1:26). Among other things, Adam’s sin showed he failed to be the king the garden needed. God then declares in Genesis 3:15 that there will come a day when the descendant of the woman will crush the serpent’s head. “In other words, he’ll be the King that Adam failed to be” (119).
Gilbert notes that from Genesis 3:15 forward, the recurring question of the Scripture becomes “Which one of the descendants of Eve will be the one to set everything right?” (119). Readers of the book of Genesis quickly discover this king is not Cain or Lamech or Noah. Neither is it Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Joseph. Near his death, Jacob declares that the king will actually come from Judah’s line (Gen. 49:10). Kingship is established in Israel in the story of 1 and 2 Samuel, and it appears that after the Lord moves on from Saul, David may be the promised Messiah. But neither David, nor Solomon, nor any king after proved themselves worthy until Jesus of Nazareth arrives. Luke says, “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
The fourth and final theme is the topic of chapter six, “Without Blood, There Is No Forgiveness: The Theme of Sacrifice.” Gilbert notes, “The reality and theology of sacrifice is critically important to the unfolding of the epic story of the Bible. In fact, the whole thing becomes incoherent without it” (141). The theme of sacrifice answers many of the key questions of the Bible. Perhaps most notable is the question, “How will a holy God dwell among a sinful people?”
The theme of sacrifice is launched near the end of Genesis 3 when the Lord God “made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). There can be no skins to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness and shame unless an animal died (142). Death becomes the penalty for Adam and Eve’s sinful assault against their Creator (Gen. 2:17). Gilbert traces this theme throughout various scenes in the book of Genesis spending ample time focusing on God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. As the story of the Bible develops, “the theme of sacrifice begins to wrap more and more tightly together with kingship” (151). In the end, the nation of Israel will need a king to not only represent them, but also suffer in their place (151). Ultimately, the theme of sacrifice finds its fulfillment in Jesus who will lay down his life for the sheep and give his life as a ransom for many (John 10:11; Mark 10:45).
Gilbert concludes the book by encouraging the reader to take their time studying the Bible and to let the experience “teach you to see Jesus more clearly and therefore worship him more deeply” (165).
The Epic Story of the Bible is a helpful resource for everyday Christians seeking to grow in their love and understanding of the Scriptures. For those that struggle to put the bits and pieces of the Bible together, Gilbert proves a skillful guide. While the book is relatively short, Gilbert covers significant ground as he treks through the canon. A careful reading will leave you with a deeper understanding of the vastness of the Scripture and the riches it contains. Ultimately, Gilbert helps us marvel at Christ—whom all the majestic peaks of Scripture point.
Buy the books
THE EPIC STORY OF THE BIBLE: HOW TO READ AND UNDERSTAND GOD’S WORD, by Greg Gilbert