The Bible is one main story with one main focus, sharing what God has done and will do through His Son Jesus Christ. Like any epic story, there are many threads that run through it. Understanding those threads and how they develop aids our study of Scripture. Kevin Halloran interviewed Tim Sattler, WordPartners Training Director, on the importance of tracing themes throughout the whole Bible.
Kevin: Tim, can you explain the importance of tracing Biblical Theological threads?
Tim: Sure. The Bible’s one story, and like a story, there are multiple threads that develop and are involved. These threads hold the story together all the way along. We don’t have a series of disconnected stories. There are threads that pick up early on.
Example 1: Comparing Genesis with Revelation
If you have ever looked at the beginning chapters of Genesis and the ending chapters of Revelation, it’s interesting how many of those threads come together. We see the heavens and earth being created in Genesis and the new heavens and new earth being announced in Revelation 21. We see land and water and sea at the beginning, and land and no sea at the end. We see a garden in the presence of God and God dwelling with man—the great announcement of Rev. 21 is the dwelling of God is with man again.
Example 2: The Promised Seed
There are these different threads that pick up through the storyline. One key thread would be the promised seed that is going to conquer Satan and overcome sin (Genesis 3:15). The whole genealogical structure of Genesis follows this thread along. Abraham it picks up again. Later in the Davidic promise focused more specifically so that we would know who we are looking for in this king that would come.
Example 3: The Temple
One great thread is the temple, the idea of God dwelling with His people. They were pushed out of that dwelling because of their sin. They were pushed out of that place of His presence but the tabernacle, the temple—all these symbolic images where God comes and dwells among His people. Interestingly, both the tabernacle and temple are filled with God’s glory, but the third temple after the exile isn’t. You don’t see that glory come back to the temple. There’s something missing.
But then you have Jesus standing and the Spirit descends on Him like a dove. We understand that He came and tabernacled among us. This is God Himself tabernacling. It’s not an accident that John uses that terminology in John 1:14. All along we see that God is wanting to restore His presence with His people.
In Ephesians, Paul says we are being built up into the true temple, the dwelling of God in the Spirit. You can follow the theme of the Holy Spirit from the garden all the way through the book of Acts. It’s God’s presence restored through Christ that makes us the indwelling of God.
Example 4: A sin-atoning sacrifice
The strand of sacrifice goes along right from Genesis 4 all the way through to the cross.
These stories ebb and flow in the overall story but they are all pulled together like the strands of a rope. As a rope has many different strands, so the story of the Bible has many different strands.
Kevin: It’s rich to see how the story develops and those threads develop, how the Old Testament points forward to Christ. Also, as we understand who Christ is for us, we can look back at the Old Testament and see the build-up and appreciate Christ all the more.
Tim: You can. That’s right.
Kevin: You’ve mentioned to me in the past that you prefer to say tracing Biblical Theological threads rather than themes. Why is that?
Tim: It’s not a big deal to me frankly! I would use theme and thread interchangeably except for this: As we have been training pastors and sometimes use the word ‘themes’, it gets confused with thematic preaching. Instead of telling the story or understanding the development of Biblical Theology in a storyline, it becomes a topical proof-texting of a theme in the Bible—which really doesn’t help. That is more systematic theology (which is fine) rather than biblical theology.
As we are talking about tracing a thread or a theme, we are really trying to unfold the natural development of each part of the story. The tabernacle isn’t as great as the temple, is it? One’s a more permanent place, there’s been a development from one dwelling place to another. It’s there to show us that God wants to be in a permanent place with His people. In Genesis the dwelling place was lost, but it will be restored. We find out that that the tabernacle and temple were never intended to be the permanent place—the permanent place is the New Heavens and the New Earth.
What we’re trying to do is keep it in language that helps us understand the development of a storyline. Not simply tracing thematic theological ideas.
Kevin: How do you recommend tracing Biblical Theological themes?
Tim: Read the Bible.
Kevin: Good answer.
Tim: We need to know the Bible.
Kevin: There’s no shortcut. We shouldn’t want a shortcut.
Tim: If you really want to know what David Copperfield is about, read David Copperfield. You need to read the whole book; you need to read the whole story. Dickens put a marvelous story out there for us and the Bible is an even greater story. We really do need to read the Bible. We need to know how each book fits with the unfolding of the story, which books are really mainline in the story, and which are commentary on the main story. We need to know what’s happening.
Kevin: Which biblical books are main-line verses commentary on the main story?
Tim: Genesis and Exodus would be mainline. Leviticus would be commentary into the story because it’s not moving the story along, it’s bringing more depth to the story. It’s the whole sacrificial system. Numbers is moving the story along, in the wilderness. Deuteronomy at a point where you are getting ready to transition, but is at a moment in time as Moses is giving his last words. Joshua moves us along. Judges moves us along. 1 & 2 Samuel move us along. Kings does as well. Ezra and Nehemiah coming back from the exile carry the story along. Most of the prophets would be voices spoken into the people and the times. The Psalms speak into the times. Basically, Psalms are songs about the times that are put together in kind of a symphony looking back, the last compilation of these is looking back over Israel’s history from Moses all the way to after the exile coming back into a temple that’s been rebuilt. It’s a commentary into how God has been working among His people and that it’s God’s king meets God’s people through this valley to God’s grace. There are books that carry the story along; there are books that speak into it.
The storyline is contained in fewer books than we think so it’s easy to get that storyline.
Kevin: You had mentioned before that you recommend four key questions for understanding Biblical Theology as it pertains to a passage.
Tim: Yes, they are questions a friend Phil Wheeler from Sydney, Australia, put together. I think they’re really good questions:
Wherever you are in the Bible, you need to know what the story has been leading up to that point in time. What’s happened so far?
Now we are looking at what a particular story contributes. What is it about?
Take Judges, for instance. What is Judges about? It’s about everybody doing what’s right in his own eyes. That’s commentary. It’s also about a leadership gap after Joshua. There’s a question, who would be king? The more you study these judges the more you see they are trying to fill a leadership void. But they are going about it the wrong way. We find out the end in the next story, not Ruth, but Samuel—God provides a king. He wants it to be His king and His way: David.
Before we even look at leading us to Christ there are lessons about the way God works. The way God is accomplishing things in the world.
Not every story is on a major highway towards Jesus. We need to learn about the way God does things. But there are major stories; every book is contributing to the major story of Jesus. So, what do we learn about how God does things through Jesus.
Often times we miss true Biblical Theology because we don’t get it on the book level first; we are looking for Jesus in every little detail. A lot of preachers look for Jesus in too many places and make too many wrong connections. We need to understand what the book contributes to the story first.
What we learn about how God does things through Jesus and then how pieces unfold that. There may be more than one strand in a book, but at the same time, we want to be with those major strands as we are talking about Christ.
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