Key chapters of the Bible, its basic storyline and biblical illiteracy

"Jesus replied, You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures.'" — Matthew 22:29

15 key Bible chapters

The list below does not necessarily contain the "15 Best Loved" of all 929 chapters into which the various documents in the Bible have been divided.

These 15 chapters may not be the "15 Most Well Known" chapters. One hesitates to even call them the "15 Most Significant" chapters.

However, these 15 chapters do contain key scriptural events and themes which are the heart of the message of the Bible. At Southern Nazarene University, we think even a beginning student of the Bible should be somewhat familiar with all 15 chapters.

Bible

Key Old Testament chapters

Genesis 1-3: Creation, Fall, first promise of a Redeemer
"In the beginning"
Genesis 12: Abraham's call, a giant step toward fulfilling the promise
"Through you all peoples will be blessed" [ Was having Abraham move to the Promised Land a "strategic move" by God? ]
Exodus 20: Giving of the Ten Commandments
"I am the Lord your God"
Joshua 24: The "line in the sand"
"Choose you this day"
Isaiah 53: The "suffering servant" passage that looks to the coming Messiah
"The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all"
Psalm 23: The Shepherd's Psalm
"The Lord is my shepherd" [ Devotional thoughts on Psalm 23 ]
Psalm 51: David's prayer for forgiveness and cleansing
"Create in me a clean heart, O God"
Proverbs 31: Ode to a virtuous, godly woman
"Far more precious than jewels"

Key New Testament chapters

Matthew 5-7: Sermon on the Mount [ Devotional thoughts ]
"Blessed are you . . ."
John 17: Jesus' High Priestly Prayer
"Sanctify them" [ more info ]
Acts 2: Holy Spirit's coming on Day of Pentecost
"All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit"
Acts 15: Jerusalem Council: Must one become a Jew to be a Christian?
"He has made no distinction between them and us"
1 Corinthians 13: Love chapter
"The greatest of these is love"
Hebrews 11: Hall of fame: heroes of the faith
"By faith . . ."
Revelation 7: The Grand Finale
"A great multitude that no man could count"

The basic storyline of the Bible

The Bible, though written by about 40 different authors over a period of perhaps 1500 years, is one story. The 66 documents of the biblical canon tell that story and contain supporting material to enrich it.

The introduction to that story is the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Those chapters set the stage and outline the plot: God's audacious attempt to win back His rebellious creation.

The story begins in earnest in Genesis 12 with the choosing of Abraham. The conclusion of the story is given in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. There, John sees the fulfillment of what God had promised to Abraham, that through him all nations would be blessed.

To boil scripture down to a one-page story, here -- in chronological order -- are the principal events which I think need to be in that storyline:

Creation
Fall
First sin, First promise of a Redeemer
Abraham's call
Slavery in Egypt and Exodus
Moses, Ten Commandments, 40 years wandering
Conquest, occupation and re-settlement of Canaan
Period of Judges
The Dark Ages of Israel when every person did "what was right in his own eyes."
Establishment of monarchy
Saul, David, Solomon and his building of Temple
Division of kingdom into Judah (south) and Israel (north)
Fall of Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians
Fall of Southern Kingdom to the Babylonians
Burning of Temple
Babylonian exile and return under Ezra, Nehemiah
Coming of Promised Messiah
Jesus' birth, death and resurrection
Coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost
Missionary journeys of Paul
John's description of End Times
The apocalyptic vision

Like to try doing this summary from word pictures? See if you can write a one-page storyline for the Bible using this page of images

Sample of an actual student-written story of the entire Bible in one page

    -- Howard Culbertson


"Hear, O Israel."

"Hear, O Israel."

"But hear what? The Bible is hundreds upon hundreds of voices all calling at once out of the past and clamoring for our attention like barkers at a fair, like air-raid sirens, like a whole barnyard of cockcrows as the first long shafts of dawn fan out across the sky.

"Some of the voices are shouting, like Moses' voice, so all Israel, all the world, can hear. Some are so soft and halting that you can hardly hear them at all, like Job with ashes on his head and his heart broken or like old Simeon whispering, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace."1

"The prophets shrill out in their frustration, their rage, their holy hope and madness. The priests drone on and on about the dimensions and furniture of the Temple. The lawgivers spell out what to eat and what not to eat; and the historians list the kings, the battles, the tragic lessons of Israel's history.

"And somewhere in the midst of them all one particular voice speaks out. It is unlike any other voice because it speaks so directly to the deepest privacy and longing and weariness of each of us that there are times when the centuries are blown away like mist. It is as if we stand with no shelter of time at all between ourselves and the one who speaks our secret name.

"Come," the voice says. "Unto me. All ye. Every last one." — Frederick Buechner

1Luke 2:29

from A Room Called Remember by Frederick Buechner. Quoted by Bob Benson in Disciplining for the Inner Life


"They asked each other, Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'" -- Luke 224:32

Why is an introduction to the Bible class required at Southern Nazarene University?

"I don't expect those outside Christianity to know the Christian book. But I do think the people of the Book should be familiar with it." — David Eikenberry, youth pastor

Introduction to Biblical Literature is a basic Bible facts course. That course was designed to help students acquire key Bible facts and grasp the narrative running through Scripture, material that is foundational to the Biblical interpretation and Christian doctrine courses.

This news story on Biblical illiteracy illustrates why SNU students are required to take must take a Bible course.

Bible literacy slipping, experts say

originally by Clayton Hardiman, Religion News Service

For comedians, there are subjects that are almost too easy -- sure things that guarantee a laugh. For one host of a late night television show, it was people's knowledge of the Bible. During one television show, the host moved through his audience asking people what they knew about the Bible. "Name one of the Ten Commandments," he said.

"God helps those who help themselves?" someone ventured.

"Name one of the apostles," the host asked. No one could.

Finally, he asked them to name the Beatles. Without hesitation, the answer came ringing from throughout the crowd: George, Paul, John and Ringo.

The television show host wasn't spoofing the Bible that evening. He was spoofing our society, which claims a grounding in Judeo-Christian principles and yet -- according to a number of surveys -- is increasingly losing touch with the Scriptures of those two faiths.

Only two of 10 people participating in a recent Gallup survey correctly identified who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, said David Eikenberry, youth pastor at Orchard View Congregational Church in Muskegon, Michigan. "Typically, people could name only three or four of the Ten Commandments," Eikenberry said. Even that, however, did place Gallup's respondents ahead of Leno's "Tonight Show" audience.

Rev. Willie Burrel, pastor of Christ Temple Church in Muskegon Heights and a teacher with Western Michigan Bible Institute, also noted a decline in biblical literacy. "In order to be a practicing Christian, you have to be a Bible reader. There are a lot of un-practicing Christians," he said.

The trend can be attributed in part at least to "the busyness of people's schedules," Burrel said. "Because of their work load and play load, people are spending less time in the Word of God."

Eikenberry said he recently gave a simple quiz on Bible facts to people at his own church, Orchard View Congregational Church. The average score was just 40 percent -- and that, said Eikenberry, is no knock against his congregation. The truth, he said, is that many Christians are struggling. Eikenberry, who wrote a 100-page thesis on Bible literacy while working on a degree at Cornerstone College (Grand Rapids, Michigan), said people generally have some pieces of the puzzle but lack the framework in which those pieces fit in a meaningful way.

Eikenberry asked churches and youth pastors in West Michigan to administer a simple biblical literacy survey to parishioners. "The scores were just atrocious," he said. "I don't expect those outside Christianity to know the Christian book, but shouldn't people of the Book be familiar with it?"

In China, people have the time and interest to read Bibles but, because of government restrictions, no access to them. On the other hand, Eikenberry said, "We live in an America where we have Bibles everywhere, and yet we're too busy to read them."

The Bible's impact on American culture is immense. It goes beyond values or faith. Without biblical references, lots of phrases would never have made it into our language. Every day people season their conversations with phrases like "eye for an eye" and Good Samaritans. They talk about the lure of "forbidden fruit." They refer to burdensome circumstances as their "cross to bear." They balance competing priorities by "robbing Peter to pay Paul." Mismatched opponents are compared to David and Goliath. Often, people use such phrases without a clue as to their biblical origin. [ more ]

Educators tell horror stories about intellectually advanced students who fail to recognize literary references to Jonah or the prodigal son.

Generally, people know the Bible's major figures -- Adam, Abraham, David, Solomon and Jesus. Ask them to put those names in chronological order, however, and they are stumped. The question is: Why?

In part, Eikenberry sees growing biblical illiteracy as a kind of reaction against educational methods of the past. "For a time," he said, "there was a kind of overstated catechism in the mainline churches. Now generations of people are saying, `I didn't learn anything -- I'm not sending my kid.' The pendulum has swung the other way."

A kind of educational inertia has also set in, causing parents to pass more and more responsibility for their children's education to professional educators.

Eikenberry believes that Sunday school is not enough to make people biblically literate. "Would you send your kid to learn math or science for just an hour a week with no homework?" he asked. "Yet we think that by osmosis kids are going to learn the Bible."

Biblical illiteracy may also be part of a general malaise in education. "It's a dumbed-down society," Eikenberry said. "Literacy in general has suffered."

Whatever the reason, people are reading the Bible less. Occasional Bible readers declined from 79 percent of Americans to 59 percent in just twenty years according to a Gallup Poll. Only 16 percent of Christians polled said they read the Bible daily.1

Some Christian leaders are trying to fight back. Eikenberry has established a couple of biblical literacy classes at Muskegon Community College. Burrel, who says Bible study is a priority in his own church, has challenged members of his church to read daily 10 chapters to "get deeper in the Word."

"Some of them were so happy I put that out there," Burrel said. "Some of our young people are doing it -- some of our very young children."

distributed by the Associated Press (AP). Edited and used by permission.

"Great is the Lord's anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us" -- 2 Kings 22:13 (King Josiah's words upon discovering the lost Book of the Law)


1Gallup, Alec and Wendy W. Simmons, "Six in Ten Americans Read Bible at Least Occasionally," The Gallup Organization.

Why can't Johnny read . . . the Bible?

Bible literacy: Can the tide be turned?

Decades ago, Rudolf Flesch's book Why Johnny Can't Read startled the world of public education. Flesch's book pointed to an alarming trend among America's children. Simply put, Flesch said: "Many of them cannot read. Not well, anyway." In his book, Flesch attempted to trace the roots of this educational embarrassment. Then, he suggested ways to reverse the tide of functional illiteracy.

Decades have come and gone. The "Johnny" of Flesch's book is now at least a grandfather. Hopefully, he's a better reader than he was when Flesch wrote his book. Sadly, there is one area where Johnny still can't read. Not well, anyway. Simply put: Johnny cannot (at at least doesn't) read the Bible.

Some time ago, a George Barna survey showed that, in a typical week, 22% of evangelical Christians do not read the Bible at all. Another thirty percent read something in the Bible only once or twice a week.The reason? People say regular Bible reading is hard to maintain, that busy schedules and lack of good reading plans hinder Bible reading. Others say that they find Bible study boring and not life-related.

For many people, direct encounters with the Written Word have given way to books about the Bible that "guarantee" immediate application to life. It has become easy to let others tell us what the Bible says. Tragically, when Christians go to a best-selling Christian book or to a commentary rather than to the Bible itself, they miss out on direct contact with God's Word.

This lack of direct encounter with the Bible concerns me. I am a Nazarene whose heritage is within the Wesleyan theological tradition. John Wesley once said: "Let me be homo unius libri (a man of one book)." Furthermore, being Wesleyan also means we're Protestant. Thus, we should stand on the foundational principles of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. One of those key Reformation principles was that Christians can and may read God's Word for themselves. This principle of direct access to the Bible was so critical to early Reformers that many of them forfeited their lives promoting it.

Today, many adult church members are "biblically illiterate" – lacking the skills, confidence, and even the incentive to read the Bible as a daily guide for life. Today, I have to wonder if we Protestants — by our lack of Bible reading and study — are making proper use of that right to read the Bible which so many people sacrificed to make possible.

Recently, I observed an animated Sunday school class session. Those present were discussing some political topics. While several people quoted the Bible in support of their particular perspective, no one actually opened God's Word and read the words written there. In this case and others like it, Sunday School sessions become simply "Christians discussing" rather than being "Christian discussions."

What can churches do to reverse the rising tide of biblical illiteracy? Here are some strategies:

1. Affirm the authority of God's Word.
We Wesleyans say we live under the authority of God's Word. We claim to believe that the Bible is the primary source of truth. While our other "teachers" include life experiences, reason, and church history, we must never accord these sources the same level of authority as God's Word.
2. Read the Bible with a sense of expectancy.
Some people have let the Bible become too commonplace. Biblical passages are heard without reverent ears so many times that they can be read without engaging the mind. The Word disintegrates into merely words. Every time we come to a passage of scripture, no matter how familiar, we should sense that a new insight or new idea may be waiting for us.

Rather than coming to well-read passages and thinking "I know what this is all about", growing Christians come to God's Word seeking fresh understandings of God's revelation.
3. Directly encounter the Word.
We can do Bible study two ways: inductively or deductively. In deductive Bible study, we start with a life situation, a problem, or a decision and work back to the Bible for examples, answers, guidance. Inductive Bible study does the opposite. We start with a biblical passage, and -- using the investigative tools at hand -- we discover life truths. Both Bible study methods are helpful. However, the deductive method often becomes overused because it appears to be "easier" and perhaps more immediately helpful. Inductive Bible study, because it allows the Word to "speak for itself," must be regularly used by adults.
4. Encourage Bible study dialogue
It is in dialogue that believers can enrich each other's understanding of God's Word.
5. Model for other believers the effectiveness of Bible principles.
The Bible is not merely an ancient document held precious by the church. The Bible is not boring or unrelated to life. It is a book about life today. Every passage speaks of life. Growing Christians can and should take every opportunity to talk about how regular Bible study does make a real difference in the way we live.
6. Promote Bible study tools.
We say that we can go directly to God's Word and understand it. We also know that Bible study aids such as commentaries, Bible dictionaries and Bible handbooks can deepen our understanding.

Acts 8 tells the story of an Ethiopian reading from Isaiah without fully understanding what he was reading. Many adults find themselves frustrated in similar ways in their Bible reading. We can help them find keys to unlocking the Word just as Philip did with that Ethiopian.

Some time ago James Smart wrote a book titled The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church. In that book he urged church leaders to keep biblical preaching prominent. Smart said, "The church that no longer hears the essential message of the Scriptures soon ceases to understand what it is for and is open to being captured by the dominant religious philosophy of the moment."

We must let the words of the prophets, of the apostles, and of Jesus sound in our ears. We call ourselves people of the Word. Let's make that statement true.

Originally written by Randy Cloud and published in The Herald of Holiness (now Holiness Today). Revised, adapted and used by permission.

"Present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who . . . correctly handles the word of truth" — 2 Timothy 2:15


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    -- Howard Culbertson


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