For many readers, the Bible can seem like a big, intimidating book –mysterious, tedious and often hard to understand. Stan Guthrie’s new book “God’s Story in 66 Verses,” is a spiritual tool that helps readers understand the entire Bible by focusing on just one verse in each book. These verses which serve as the chapter’s themes can make reading the Bible less confusing, and feel as if you’ve read the entire book. This excerpt provides a glimpse into the Bible’s first three books: Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus.
He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
THE BIBLE STARTS NOT WITH ADAM AND EVE BUT WITH THE LORD, who creates the universe (Gen. 1:1), setting up the natural (1:3– 31) and moral laws (2:16–17) to govern it. Our first parents, however, listen to the serpent and reject God’s law in favor of their own (3:1–6), plunging the world and the human race into a cycle of sin and death that continues to this day (3:7–19). But the Lord graciously provides an animal sacrifice to cover our sin (3:21). This promise comes in the context of God’s promise of an ultimate Savior who will fatally crush the serpent’s head while sustaining a painful wound to himself (3:15).
Pursuing this plan, the Lord saves a reprobate human race (“every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” [6:5]) from ultimate destruction in the Flood by providing an ark for Noah and his family (6:6–8). After scattering a dangerously proud humanity at the Tower of Babel (11:1–9), the Lord gets specific in how he will save us. He calls Abram from the pagan land of Babylonia into Canaan, the land bridge of the ancient world, to “bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (12:2). Part of God’s promise to Abram, who is an old man without an heir, is the provision of offspring as numerous as the stars in the night sky (15:3–5). Abram responds in faith: “He believed the Lord, and [the Lord] counted it to him as righteousness” (15:6).
It is a pivotal moment in the history of salvation, revealing how God graciously deals with his people. The verse and all sub¬sequent salvation history make clear that people are counted righteous by a holy God not on the basis of their good works but on their trusting faith in him. The book of Hebrews says,
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (11:8–10)
And God is faithful to his promise to Abraham, providing Isaac as his son (Gen. 21–22) and Jacob and Esau as his grandsons (25). Jacob is a scoundrel who, despite God’s promised blessing, cheats his older brother, Esau, out of his birthright (25) and is forced to flee from the promised land, acquiring wives, children, and wealth (28–31). Jacob returns to the land, wrestles with God, and is a changed man (32), finally making peace with Esau (33).
One of Jacob’s sons is the precocious and self-confident Joseph, who alienates his jealous, cutthroat brothers and is sold into slavery in Egypt (37). Joseph, with God’s hand of blessing, rises to politi¬cal prominence in Egypt (39–41). Back in Canaan, his brothers are forced by a killer drought to head for Egypt (42:1–5), where Joseph welcomes them (42–50). God has placed Joseph as second in com¬mand in Egypt for their protection (50:20). Their descendants, as evidence of God’s promise to Abraham, grow into a mighty nation, presenting a strategic problem for Egypt, which eventually will send them back to the land promised to Abraham.
Abraham’s faith, credited to him and his descendants as righ¬teousness, is amply rewarded in the history of God’s people, who grow into a dynamic kingdom that points the nations to God. When that kingdom falters through the people’s unbelief, God remains faithful to them, eventually sending Israel’s ultimate King, Jesus Christ. Abraham’s faith, credited to him as righteous¬ness, is also a model for the faith in Christ that is required to be in a saving relationship with God:
No unbelief made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justifica-tion. (Rom. 4:20–25)
As our key verse shows, salvation comes through faith—to Abraham and to us.
If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine.
THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL, STARTING WITH ABRAHAM, HAVE RECEIVED God’s promises of a land, a seed (or offspring), and a blessing (Gen. 12:1–3). Escaping a colossal famine, under the leadership of Joseph, the fledgling nation is welcomed into the protective cocoon of Egypt, where it grows into a mighty people after the patriarchs have passed from the scene (Ex. 1:6–7). Yet the cocoon is turned into a tomb with the advent of “a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (1:8). This pharaoh, fearing for the stability of his regime, oppresses the Jewish people with hard labor and a form of genocide, the execution of the male Hebrew chil¬dren. Yet God protects many of them (1:11–22).
One of the babies who escapes the edict is Moses, and in God’s sovereign plan he grows up as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter (2:1–10) before being driven out as an exile in the land of Midian (2:11–22). God hears the people’s cries for deliverance from Egyptian oppres¬sion (2:23–25) and calls Moses to be his instrument (3–4:1–17). A reluctant Moses goes with his brother, Aaron, back to Egypt and delivers the Lord’s command: “Let my people go” (5:1), and the proud king of Egypt refuses, increasing their burdens. When Moses complains to God, the Lord assures him, “The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them” (7:5).
Then the Lord acts, unleashing a series of plagues on Egypt, Egypt’s false gods, and a stubborn pharaoh: the Nile turned to blood (7:14–25), frogs from the Nile (8:1–15), dust turned to gnats (8:16–19), flies (8:20–32), the deaths of Egypt’s livestock (9:1–7), boils (9:8–12), hail (9:13–35), locusts (10:1–20), darkness (10:21–29), and the deaths of the firstborn (11:1–12:32). In the first Passover, the people who spread the sacrificial blood on their doorposts are spared as the angel of death passes over their homes (12). It is a riveting preview of the substitutionary death of Christ for his people.
Finally, Pharaoh proclaims to Moses, “Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!” (12:31–32).
The rejoicing people leave Egypt, instituting the Passover, consecrating their firstborn, and crossing over the Red Sea, while Pharaoh’s pursuing hosts are destroyed (14). In the wilderness, Moses sings (15:1–21), but the people begin to complain (15:24–27). Nonetheless God provides bread from heaven (16), water from a rock (which Moses strikes, 17:1–7), and victory over pagan enemies (17:8–16).
The first eighteen chapters of Exodus focus primarily on the escape from Egypt. The second thematic half of the book (chapters 19–40) speaks to the kind of free people the Israelites will be servers of self and the gods or worshipers of the true Lord of heaven and earth. Thus the book hinges on God’s charge in 19:5 and its surrounding verses:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (19:4–6, emphasis added)
The freedom graciously granted to God’s people is an invitation not to license but to a life of significance, holiness, beauty, and service. Such a life begins by worshiping the Lord rightly for who he is, and this section focuses on Moses giving the Lord’s commands (19–24, including the Ten Commandments [20:1–17]); the Lord’s instructions for his portable place of worship, the tabernacle, which the people will use in their travels (25–31); his discipline (32–34); and his tabernacle constructed as the place to meet him (35–40). The question of Exodus is, will the people obey him?
In Exodus, we see the Creator of heaven and earth graciously save a sinful and thankless people, give them rules for righteous living, prepare them to bless the world, and lay the groundwork for a future Lawgiver, who will also be the ultimate Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), sacrificing himself for our salvation.
I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.
IN GENESIS, THE LORD CREATES AND CALLS A PEOPLE FOR HIMSELF in order to bless the world. In Exodus, he rescues them from slav¬ery through Moses and begins instructing them about how he is to be worshiped. In Leviticus, the Lord tells them what kind of people he expects them to be. As our pivotal verse says, the people of God are to be holy because he is holy. While in Exodus, Moses has laid down preliminary rules for God’s people to live together in a holy community and worship him before a watching world; in Leviticus, he gets specific.
In chapters 1–16, the Israelites, who have not yet entered the promised land, receive what theologians generally call God’s ritual laws. These regulations focus on how God’s people, who are unholy, are to worship their holy Lord. These rituals remind the people that they are sinful and that access to God is not to be taken lightly. In Leviticus 1:1–6:7,1 Moses institutes five offerings: the burnt offering (for giving thanks or praying), the grain offering (for praying or praising), the peace offering (for fellowshipping with the Lord), the sin offering (for repairing one’s relationship with the Lord), and the guilt offering (for repairing one’s relationship with God in more serious matters). Then the Lord instructs the people about how to handle, eat, and dispose of these offerings (6:8–7:38).
The many details in these rituals hammer home the fact that worshiping God is a gracious privilege but is to be done on his terms. Because we are sinners, we cannot just come to God in any way we please. But in these chapters God graciously invites us to come to him. These laws show in gracious detail how the Lord’s people are to be distinct from the fallen cultures around them so that they can reveal God’s holiness and beauty to people who are otherwise lost in darkness. Chapters 8–10 establish the priesthood: Aaron and his sons are ordained (8), the inaugural service at the tabernacle is cel¬ebrated (9), and Aaron’s sons are dealt with for worshiping the Lord presumptuously (10).
Chapters 11–15 present laws concerning cleanness and uncleanness. The concept of being clean before the Lord is a physi¬cal picture of a moral and spiritual reality. Because God is holy, his people are to be holy. The key verse, 11:45, says this explicitly, linking the command to the historical fact of his gracious salvation from Egyptian bondage.
God’s holiness denotes his attribute of moral perfection. The word holy basically means to be set apart. God is holy, set apart from sin, and above and beyond his creation, which is fallen because of Adam and Eve’s sin. Yet his holiness is communicable to men and women, who are created in his image. We cannot become perfectly holy in this life, but by God’s grace we can make holiness our goal and an increasing reality in our lives.
We are to be set apart from the world’s sinful patterns in order to save the world and bring glory to our Creator. Ending this first major section of Leviticus, chapter 16 spells out instructions for the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish year, in which the high priest enters the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (and later, the temple) once a year to atone for the sins of the people.
The second main section of Leviticus (17–27) deals most broadly with moral laws but not exclusively. There is much over¬lap between God’s ritual and moral laws, as the Lord seeks to reign in every aspect of the believer’s life.
Chapter 17 talks about blood, which is central to the Old Testament sacrificial system. This section anticipates the death of Christ. As Hebrews 9:12 says, “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” Chapters 18–22 focus on God’s people being holy in compari¬son to the pagan nations around them and in their own ritual obligations.
Chapter 23 lays out the feasts of Israel: the Sabbath, the Passover, Firstfruits (to celebrate the harvest), Weeks (called pen¬tecost in the New Testament, to recognize the Lord as provider), Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah, the New Year), Atonement, and Booths (release from Egypt). The rest of the book describes other regulations for worship, blasphemy, the years of Sabbath and Jubilee, redemption, and the importance of keeping one’s vows.
If the people disobey God’s gracious call to holiness, instead of his intended blessings, they will face his curses: “I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desola¬tion, and your cities shall be a waste” (26:32–33). Yet God’s gracious will is for humanity to glorify and enjoy him forever.2 Similarly, as Jesus would later say, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Leviticus brings together God’s glory with our holiness and joy.