Theology 101

You’re a Key Character in the Greatest Story Ever Told

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There’s a powerful scene at the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that was not in the movie. After the ring is destroyed at Mount Doom and eagles rescue Sam and Frodo, Sam wakes up from his sleep surprised he is alive and surprised to see Gandalf standing at the foot of his bed.

He gasps, “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Pastor Tim Keller recognized how deeply Sam’s question resonates in the hearts of men and women around the world in his sermon the Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Put plainly, the world today does not make sense. Even with the saving grace of Jesus Christ, the reality of sin makes it plain that things are not as they should be. Pain, suffering, and destruction plague the earth.

As Christians, we struggle to find purpose in our work. We face conflict in relationships. We have trouble applying our faith to every area of life. We get stuck in the rut of mundane life, unable to see how the stories in the Bible connect to our day-to-day lives.

The description of John Eldredge’s book, Epic: The Story God is Telling, says it well:

Life, for most of us, feels like a movie we’ve arrived to forty minutes late.

Sure, good things happen, sometimes beautiful things. But tragic things happen too. What does it mean? We find ourselves in the middle of a story that is sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful, usually a confusing mixture of both, and we haven’t a clue how to make sense of it all. No wonder we keep losing heart.

The answer to Sam’s question (and the feeling like we’ve missed the beginning of the movie) can be found in the historical redemptive narrative of the Bible. We have to go back to the beginning in order to understand the present.

Going Back to the Beginning

In scripture, we see the gospel in four parts (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration) and not just two parts (Fall and Redemption). This is the big-picture story. We see the way things were, the way things are, the way things could be, and the way things will be. This is what has been called “the four-chapter gospel.” It focuses our mission within the context of God’s greater mission so that we can live our lives in obedience and honor of God.

In the beginning of the story, we learn about how and why we were made—in God’s image, to love him and fulfill his mandate (Gen. 1:27-28). Only by going back can we be equipped with a clear calling in our own lives. We also gain the perspective and incentive to fulfill God’s purposes—namely, to steward all our resources, talents, and gifts in love to the glory of God. This calling touches every aspect of life and all of our relationships. It frames the way we talk, think, and act. It is completely comprehensive.

Understanding Your Part in the Larger Story

N.T. Wright uses the helpful metaphor of a play to explain the biblical narrative. A similar metaphor helps illustrate the importance of understanding our role within God’s larger story…

Imagine you uncover a lost manuscript of a Shakespearean play. Upon further reading, you quickly realize it is the greatest play Shakespeare ever wrote. It consists of four acts, each with three scenes. As you read the play, you see that Act III scene iii is missing. It has been destroyed or lost over the years. In order to perform the play as Shakespeare wrote it, you have to rewrite scene iii.

But, you can’t just make up a scene inconsistent with Shakespeare’s style. Instead, you must study the larger story and the playwright to understand what Shakespeare intended. While the other acts are important, without Act III scene iii, the play doesn’t make sense.

Today, we are living in Act III, scene iii. In order to live out this scene in God’s grand story of creation, we must understand who God is and what he intended for his characters, and we must live out that understanding in every dimension of life. Living in Redemption, Act III of the play, we are waiting for the full resolution of the story, the Restoration. This is the greatest story ever told, and we are key characters in the story.

Allowing the Grand Story to Shape You

In a lecture to Regent College, author and theologian Michael Goheen reinforces the relevance of the gospel narrative:

The question is not whether the whole of our lives will be shaped by some grand story. The only question is which grand story will shape our lives. For the one who has heard Jesus’ call to follow him, the call comes with a summons to enter the story of which he was the climactic moment—the story narrated in the Bible. It is an invitation to find our place in that story.

In answer to Sam in Lord of the Rings, we do have an everlasting, assured hope in the restoration of everything sad in this world. It will come undone in the last chapter when God will make all things new. Through our faith in Christ and the grace of God, we will experience eternal, everlasting flourishing in the presence of our creator.


Editor’s Note: This article contains excerpts from the booklet, All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel, by Hugh Whelchel. Available in paperback and digital versions in the IFWE bookstore.

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