Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?  So closes the final song of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s critically acclaimed musical Hamilton.[1] One of its main themes is the idea of ‘the narrative.’ Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and other historical figures fight for their legacy and place in history, knowing that will be determined, in the end, by the identity of the ultimate storyteller. In the way that art imitates life, it is no surprise to find this idea prevalent in our quotidien experience. With Shiny Happy People being the latest installment of #ChurchToo (albeit, it turns out, a cult), our focus on ‘the narrative’ is evermore sharpened. Your story holds more weight when you are the one telling it, and losing that narrative control is profoundly disempowering.

Perhaps this is precisely why the Bible often feels so foreign to us. We are not the main character, and the characters we come across have strange customs and say things to which we cannot relate. When we finish the chapter and verse, we can cleanly separate the sins of Israel from our morning coffee run. Our disorientation is only temporary.

Now imagine growing up in a state of constant disorientation. At eight years old, you go to bed only to find out the next morning that you are now king, your play clothes permanently replaced by royal robes, your play friends now your servants. You don’t see your father, the previous king, around anymore. He was just murdered so that you would be in power. Even as a youth, you come to know that you come from a line of objectively evil people. Your grandfather was notorious. Far off the deep end into dark spirituality, he even sacrificed one of your uncles who might have been your age as a burnt offering to some other god.[2] Your own father did not fall far from the proverbial tree. And now you, fatherless and sitting on a throne given to you through the killing of your own flesh, how will you rule? How can you know ‘who you are’, when all of the writing on the wall says that core to your DNA is the proclivity to murder?

This is not some made-up scenario, but the real life of King Josiah. The Chronicler and author of Kings both give us a small glimpse into his childhood. At sixteen years old, eight years after his traumatic rise to power, Josiah began to seek the Lord.[3] Neither text says what prompted him to do so, but there were likely two options—follow in his father’s footsteps or chart a new path. His own life and the life of his people depended on this decision. In the ancient world, nation rose up against nation, empowered by their king but ultimately empowered by the gods they worshiped. The understanding was that whoever won the battle obviously served the stronger god. To be godless meant to be powerless.

Even at sixteen years old, Josiah understood the weight of this decision. Inheriting the religion of his father and grandfather, rife with child sacrifice and a disregard for human life in general, was probably the easier option. It was at least familiar. No one would blame him for following his family line. The second option was to go back further in family history and seek the God of King David, his ancestor. The remnants of this God could be found all around Josiah — the temple, the palace, and murmurings of stories. Could the stories about this God, the one who rescued his people out of enslavement, be true? Even without a theologically sound understanding of the God of his forefather, Josiah broke with the status quo and chose to hold onto a better narrative.

Ten years after this decision, now at 26 years old, the Book of the Law was discovered, long neglected in some back corner of the temple. Scholars debate the nature of the book’s contents. Was it the entire Pentateuch, just Deuteronomy, or something else altogether? Regardless, upon hearing this book read aloud, Josiah tore his robes. In the world of fast-fashion, distressed clothing passes as chic and fashionable. But for a Hebrew monarch, the tearing of a very expensive royal fit signified great distress. For if the narrative of this book were true, then he and his people were doomed. In drifting so far from the original agreement with God, signified by the covenant, exile into hostile territory was all but certain. Covenants are no mere contractual agreements; their goal is, “intimacy, friendship, communion, the richest of interpersonal relationships, in which persons are persons to the full, as is the communion between them.”[4] Feeling under pressure and at his wits’ end, Josiah calls upon wise counsel to answer the question, “what do we do?”[5]

Centuries later in the same city of Jerusalem, the reaction of King Josiah would be the reaction of the Jews who had just heard Peter give an impassioned account of their narrative — the one in which they had murdered the Messiah they had been eagerly waiting for. Upon recognizing the blood on their hands, they were “cut to the heart.” Only one question remained, “Brothers, what shall we do?”[6] For both King Josiah and Peter’s contemporaries, the answer to this question required the presence of both wise counsel and community.

Some might argue that both the Jews in Peter’s day and Josiah himself could claim more relational connection to the events at hand than we do when we read the Bible. Wasn’t Josiah a direct descendant of David? Weren’t the Jews present to hear Peter at least some of the same people who had condemned Jesus to death? Of course, they would feel guilty. They were implicated and involved.

To hold biblical accounts at an arm’s-length is understandable. Many have tried to import their literal understanding of biblical living into the present day, with disappointing results.[7] Instead of jumping to these kinds of applications, spend a moment weighing the biblical narrative as personal rather than abstract.

What if the Bible is not a story we must adopt and adapt for our lives, but a narrative into which we are adopted? Could it be the ultimate story that out-narrates the fleeting narration of our culture?

This willingness to be adopted does not come naturally. We are far too comfortable where we stand. Indeed, we often reject the idea of original sin because we were not there. So, the challenge remains, and a shift in perspective is required.

As long as you’re reading the Bible as a story of foreign people and foreign lands whose names you can’t quite pronounce, you have not yet stepped into the story of following Jesus. Until the Bible becomes kitchen table stories for you — where you start to realize these are the stories that are narrating my life…that’s when the process of Christian discipleship is deepening, and maybe even beginning for the very first time. — Rev. Abraham Cho[8]

Whether it starts with an emotion or moment of cognition, accepting the biblical story as our own will be, in the same breath, both terrifying and comforting — disturbing, yet not leaving one hopeless. It may be a little bit like Francis Spufford’s experience of listening to a Mozart clarinet concerto:

It is not music that denies anything. It offers a strong, absolutely calm rejoicing, but it does not pretend there is no sorrow. On the contrary, it sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary, but still there is more to be said. I had heard it lots of times, but this time it felt to me like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigamaroles in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness. Shut up and listen, and let yourself count, just a little bit, on a calm that you do not have to be able to make for yourself, because here it is, freely offered. You are still deceiving yourself, said the music, if you don’t allow for the possibility of this. There is more going on here than what you deserve, or don’t deserve. — Francis Spufford[9]

Josiah’s response and Peter’s exhortation are chords derived from the same key that lives on into our present day. For Josiah, hearing the chords of his story led him on a mission to deconstruct all altars to other gods throughout the land. He went to great lengths to make things right with God — for only this would lead to fullness of life for his people. Then he gathered everyone together and read aloud the book of the Covenant.[10] This signified a new chapter in the story of his people and their relationship with God.

Centuries later, on the other side of Jesus finishing the assignment Josiah started, Peter repeated Josiah’s call. He told the crowd to repent, to go in a new direction, and to be baptized in the name of Jesus. The very next section in Acts details a changed community that at first sounds like a cult-like utopia. They shared everything. They sold possessions to provide for others. They would mirror John Lennon’s Imagine, if not for the center of this community’s motivation resting firmly upon theism. Throughout the rest of the book, the gospel story is re-told, like episodes of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. Each re-telling disrupts the cultural equilibrium. Events in the lives of Stephen, Peter, and Paul each illustrate a different kind of disruption leading to greater witness — one of the central themes of Acts.[11]

Much of what we know about Stephen comes from the moments leading up to his death. He delivered an impassioned speech, connecting ancient Jewish history to contemporary events to show that Scripture had been fulfilled. Ultimately, his indictment of the most powerful Jewish court in its own presence led to his murder. Stephen’s understanding of the biblical narrative gave him words to boldly witness to a hostile crowd and the hope to know that death was not his ultimate end.

Although Peter rebuked the crowd in Acts 2, he himself had to be reminded of the truth of the gospel story first introduced in the Old Testament — that true ‘Israel’ included those who were not ethnically Jewish. Acts 10 details a vision through which he, a Jew through and through, finally understood that the good news was also for the Gentiles. But beyond simply understanding this, he welcomed his role in delivering this good news to them and gets to witness the Holy Spirit falling upon the Gentiles.[12] Even as a man who had already zealously lived for God’s glory, Peter humbly accepted God’s disruption and allowed himself to be redirected.

In a dramatic set of events, Paul too was impacted by the witness of Jesus while on his way to Damascus. Whatever he had been telling himself to justify his persecution of Christians crumbled once Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me?” Paul sat in literal darkness for a few days as his transformation was underway. He traveled for several years before coming back to Jerusalem to meet and make peace with Peter. Paul’s new narrative, grounded in a merciful God, propelled him to not only turn from his old ways, but to make amends with former enemies that were now his family in Christ.

The 21st century West presents us with a similar set of circumstances to those in the early church and even the Old Testament. We inhabit a world full of disorienting narratives that will become our accepted norms if we do not remember the meta-narrative of the gospel. What would it look like to adopt — even more, to be adopted into — the gospel story and truly consider it as our own? How will our lives be any different?

  1. We will be more easily disturbed. Without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, becoming jaded is a logical end. How else can one go through all of life’s struggles without developing a layer of nonchalance as a defense mechanism? However, by making the gospel story personal, we will be far more disturbed by the effects of sin and yet not completely cast into the depths of despair. Like Josiah and Peter, we will seek to work out the answer to the question, “what shall we do?” in the presence of community, as imperfect as it may be.
  2. We will seek at least the echo of hope. If Jesus died for our sins so that we may have new life in him, we have access to the greatest hope in the world no matter how bleak the outlook may be. For those of us who believe in Jesus but find ourselves in a hopeless situation or state of mind, we will know that an echo of hope means that our faith is not in vain. As we wait upon the Lord to deliver, we can pray to experience the peace that surpasses all understanding because God himself has promised it to us.
  3. We will follow where the Spirit leads. Claiming the gospel story as our own will embolden us to seek the Holy Spirit even more. The Spirit will give us words to speak in hostile places, rebuke to redirect us, and provide us with grace to reconcile with those we once considered our enemies.

The Bible is a mosaic of God’s grand narrative for his people, pointing them to the person and work of his son. Jesus’s life and death becomes more precious as we continue to experience the great depths of his love for us in new ways. He lived, he died, and he continues to narrate the greatest story ever told — one that we can claim as our very own.

[1] Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.

[2] Speaking of Manasseh, Josiah’s grandfather, the author of Kings writes, “He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.” – 2 Kings 21:6

[3] 2 Chronicles 34:3

[4] Micahel D. Williams, Far as the Curse is Found, 116 quoted in Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2022), 247.

[5] “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the remnant in Israel and Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that is poured out on us because those who have gone before us have not kept the word of the Lord; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written in this book.” – 2 Chronicles 34:21

[6] Acts 2:37

[7] As detailed by, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

[8] Rev. Abraham Cho, Empowered with a New Identity

[9] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic, 15-16 quoted in Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2022), 174.

[10] 2 Chronicles 34:29-31

[11] Acts 1:8

[12] Acts 10:44-45

Heidi Wong is the Executive Director for Exilic Church in New York City and also oversees its college ministry. She worked in management consulting and big tech prior to entering vocational ministry. She is a graduate of Cornell University and received her Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary in New York City. You can find her on Twitter at @kheidiwong.

Meet Heidi