By Randy Frazee
Have you ever struggled to understand how the various stories in the Bible connect to one another? Or wondered how those stories relate to the story of your life today? What if the testimonies in the Bible, the lives of everyone who ever lived, and your own “story still in progress” are all connected—all part of one big divine epic?
Two of the most famous works of art in the world help us understand how the long, sweeping story of the Bible—seemingly a narrative only about God and ancient people with strange names—connects with your story. To view the first painting, you would travel to Paris and enter the renowned Louvre museum and walk past painting after remarkable painting by artists whose names are familiar: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, and others.
After climbing stairs and moving from one cavernous room to another you would finally spot it: the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci—the most popular painting in the world and also the most valuable, worth a reported $700 million. It is in a room all by itself. The size of the painting is surprising. Based on legend and popularity you might expect it would cover the entire wall, yet its dimensions—20.875 inches by 30 inches—are not much larger than a built-in microwave oven in your kitchen.
To the untrained eye, the painting appears somewhat ordinary at first. But as you gaze at the colors and shadows, the details, the translucency of the flesh and atmospheric illusionism of the background, it grows on you. For some reason, you are drawn to her gaze and might even agree with those who say her eyes follow you as you move.
The longer you look, the more you want to know about the woman staring back at you, so you lean closer to the docent who is explaining the painting to a group of English-speaking tourists. Ms. Lisa, you discover, was born on June 15, 1479, during the Italian Renaissance. Her husband was a wealthy Florentine silk merchant who supposedly commissioned this painting for their new home to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea.
But there must be more to her story, you think to yourself. What was happening in her life at the time she posed for this picture? What was that enigmatic smile on her face all about? Was she happy? Was she sad? After 10 to 15 minutes in front of this famous painting, you stroll through the museum, stopping every now and then to study other paintings that catch your eye: Christ at Emmaus, by Rembrandt; Liberty Leading the People, by Eugene Delacroiz; The Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist, by Raphael. Each one has its own unique tale utterly unrelated to the Mona Lisa story. By the time you leave the museum, you will have stood in front of dozens of exquisite paintings each with a different and disconnected story behind it.
To view the other famous work of art you would fly to Rome and then take a cab to the Vatican. Upon arriving you would walk across a magnificent plaza and enter the Sistine Chapel and look up to see the breathtaking work of Michelangelo. Interestingly, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci painted their respective masterpieces within the same decade. Yet, where da Vinci isolated one person on a single canvas, Michelangelo captured a full sweep of history.
Perhaps the most famous scene from this dramatic mural shows the strong arm of God reaching to touch and give life to the limp hand of Adam. It has been reproduced and printed on countless posters, prints, and postcards. As you stand in the Sistine Chapel, the original is directly above you.
As you gaze at this painting, your neck tilted back in an almost painful position, you ponder the 300 characters painted on the ceiling of this room: Adam, Eve, Noah, Jacob, David, and more. While each section of this massive mural depicts an individual story, they all are connected to tell a grander epic. At the highest point of the ceiling nine scenes from the book of Genesis unfold, beginning with God dividing light from darkness and ending with the disgrace of Noah. Just beneath these scenes are paintings of 12 prophets who foretold of the birth of Christ.
Moving down the walls, crescent-shaped areas surround the chapel that include the ancestors of Christ, like Boaz, Jesse, David, and Jesus’ earthly father Joseph. The entire scheme is completed in the four corners of the room with dramatic biblical stories from the Bible, like the heroic slaying of Goliath by young David.
Each scene, each painting, tells its own singular story, stories you may have heard from childhood. Yet the artist connected them to display one magnificent story: humanity’s need for salvation as offered by God through Jesus.
The Louvre and the Sistine Chapel both display astounding art. The Louvre tells thousands of unrelated, separate stories. The Sistine Chapel tells only one.
On the surface, you and I—along with billions of other humans—are individual paintings hanging on the wall of some cosmic gallery, distinct and unrelated to each other. But if you look closer, you will see that your story is intricately woven into the same seamless narrative depicted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: God’s story as recorded in the Bible. One story as seen through many lives.
God desires for us to read the Bible as we would view a mural. The individual stories on its pages entwine to communicate one overarching story. Woven tighter than reeds in a waterproof basket, they together compile God’s one grand story. To stand beneath the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is to see what the entire narrative from beginning to end says to us as individuals. To better understand this story, we will view it wearing bifocal lenses. Through the lower lens we will gaze at individual stories from the Bible. Think of these individual pieces as our Lower Story.
The Lower Story reveals the here and now of daily life, the experiences and circumstances we see here on earth. Goals and fears; responsibilities and rights. In the Lower Story, we make money, pay bills, get sick, get tired, deal with breakups and conflicts. These are the story elements we care about, and as people of faith, we trust God to meet our needs in this Lower Story. And he does! God meets us in our Lower Story and helps us by offering us wisdom and guidance on getting through life with dignity and purpose. He intercedes and applies healing salve to our physical and emotional wounds. God loves to lavish us with his care, stretching out his arms to comfort us when we are in distress and encourage us when we are downtrodden.
But he has a higher agenda than our survival and comfort. When we rise above the here and now, look beyond the daily grind, and view each of these stories in the Bible from God’s perspective, we see something much bigger. When we look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it gives us hints that the Bible isn’t filled with a thousand individual stories of God’s intervention just to get people through a rough day, but rather one grand story of something larger, something eternal.
Consider the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. Viewing his life from the Lower Story, it looks like a bad case of sibling rivalry. He shared a dream in which his brothers bowed down to him, and his brothers didn’t like it. They roughed him up, sold him to a band of gypsies on their way to Egypt, and later told Dad (Jacob) that he was mauled and killed by a mountain lion.
In Egypt, Joseph experienced a series of incredible ups and down. All along the way, we get several peeks into the Upper Story. We are told numerous times that “the Lord was with him.” God was involved in Joseph’s daily life. God was intervening to tell a grander story. Fifteen years later, Joseph found himself a prince in Egypt, second only to the mighty Pharaoh. His job was managing a seven-year famine that affected people everywhere. Twenty-two years after Joseph’s first dream, his brothers came to town for food and found themselves bowing down to their younger punk brother they threw under the bus.
Joseph had the power to put them to death, which most people would have done. Instead, he said to them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). God used what they did to Joseph in the Lower Story, which was evil, and he used it for good in the Upper Story. Joseph captured that idea somewhere along the way, and it gave him the ability to forgive his brothers.
God’s Upper Story
This is the Upper Story. As we view the Bible through this lens, we see that God has been up to something amazing from the very beginning. He has a vision, a big idea, and it is all good news for us. When we look at the Upper Story of God—his magnificent mural—we discover where we fit in because this story was created to deliver one, singular message: “If you want to live life to the fullest and enjoy it forever, then become part of my masterpiece. Align your life to my Upper Story.”
God’s promise is recorded in the New Testament: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Put another way, “If we will love God and align our lives to his Upper Story, he promises a good story for our lives.” What a deal.
Here’s the invitation. You may be going through a rough or confusing season right now. That is how it looks from the Lower Story. But if you would dare to align your life to the story God is telling from above, you will see things differently and trust he is up to something good.
Click here to hear an audio file of this article read by the author.
Adapted from The Heart of the Story: Discover Your Life Within the Grand Epic of God’s Story, by Randy Frazee.
Randy is the lead teaching pastor of Westside Family Church in Kansas City. He is the author of 15 books and the architect of The Story and Believe Bible Engagement campaigns.