Saturday 11 July 2009

Exploring Biblical Themes (1): Introduction

[This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity on 6 July 2009.]

Many of us are struggling with the Bible.

It’s not that we don’t hold it in high regard, for we do. Evidence suggests that most church leaders and people who call themselves Christians believe the Bible is God’s loving self-disclosure of himself, his trustworthy word to men and women – but we’re struggling at every level to understand it and apply it, even to read it in the first place.

And what we intuitively know to be the case has been confirmed by more formal research commissioned by the Bible Society into levels of biblical literacy in the UK church. Findings there have demonstrated that it’s not only our contemporary culture that is biblically illiterate, but that the church is suffering too – its people and its leaders.

Our knowledge of the Bible is a little like some people’s knowledge of London. We might visit London by train, arriving at Euston station. We want to do some shopping, so we get the tube to Oxford Circus or Bond Street; or maybe the shops on Oxford Street don’t have quite what we want, so we need to catch a tube to Knightsbridge to go to Harrods. Then, because we’ve booked ourselves on the London Eye in the afternoon, we catch another tube to Westminster. It may well be that we’re planning to meet a friend later in the day for a meal. We arrange to meet at Trafalgar Square, so we take the tube to Charing Cross. Then at the end of our evening, we catch the tube back to Euston to get our train home.

We have surfaced into London from three or four tube stations during the day, but might not have any idea how those places are linked to one another. Even for some people who live in Greater London, their knowledge of the capital is limited to a few key places they visit by the underground with no real understanding of the connections between those places above ground.

And that’s the experience some of us have with the Bible. We have a London Underground equivalent view of Scripture. We pop out into the fresh air of creation, dive back underground again, and pop up at the exodus or in Ruth or David and Goliath, down again and then back up again at Psalm 23 or Isaiah 53, but with very little idea, perhaps, whether and how these places in the Bible’s big picture are connected.

One of the ways we can start to see the big picture of the Bible is to understand the story the Bible tells, from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation.

This year (2009), LICC’s ‘Word for the Week’ email service is taking subscribers through the main contours of the biblical story, in 50 emails, seeking to show how a whole-life discipleship perspective is woven through Scripture as a whole. That story element is crucial, because it gives us the wide-screen version of the Bible, how the director wants us to see the whole thing.

But a look at the big story the Bible tells can be complemented by looking at the major themes the Bible presents – the overarching thematic strands or threads that move through the Bible.

These are the themes that arise from the Bible itself. For instance, as we read the biblical story, we come to Solomon and the building of the temple with its dedication in 1 Kings 8. But, 1 Kings 8 is itself part of a theme about God’s presence with his people which moves from the garden of Genesis to the city of Revelation.

The major turns in the plot of the biblical story – like creation, sin, covenant, salvation, temple – set up themes, or are a part of themes, which are then woven through the rest of the story, and the themes themselves then help us understand the story more fully, in a mutually-reinforcing way. The themes allow us to see how the whole Bible hangs together, Old and New Testament, and makes sense as the one word of God, drawing the connections between its various parts.

Perhaps the best way to show what we’re talking about is to offer a brief example.

If we were studying Psalm 23 – the Shepherd Psalm – for instance, of course we should study it in its own right. But it may also be helpful to see, even in broad terms, how the shepherd/sheep motif is drawn on elsewhere in the big picture of Scripture.

The word ‘Shepherd’ was widely used in different ancient Near Eastern cultures to describe rulers. Kings, for instance, were described as shepherds over their people who were said to be their flock. And the Bible says a number of times – not just in Psalm 23 – that God himself is the shepherd of his people, protecting his sheep, providing for them, guiding them, gathering them together.

And, when David becomes king, 2 Samuel 5 and Psalm 78 speak of him as shepherding the people. But centuries later, God promises through Micah (in 5:2) that one will come from Bethlehem who will shepherd the people of Israel, which, of course, is picked up by Matthew in chapter 2 of his gospel, where it’s applied to Jesus, great David’s greater son.

Then we have passages like Ezekiel 34 and Zechariah 11-13 where false shepherds are judged, and where the Lord promises that he will shepherd his people – that he will seek the lost, and will bring them home; he will feed the hungry; he will heal all the injured and sick – and he will send his servant David to be a shepherd to the people.

So, if we read John 10 against the background of Ezekiel 34, it becomes clear that here is Jesus, the son of David, stepping into that role for God’s people, being their good shepherd, and laying down his life for the sheep. That resonates with other passages in the gospels about people being lost and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, and parables about sheep being lost and found.

And then, in John 21, Jesus commissions Peter to ‘feed my sheep’. That links nicely with 1 Peter 5:1-4 with its reference to ‘undershepherds’ of the Chief Shepherd. And then we have Revelation 7:17, with its bizarre image of the lamb of God shepherding the flock of God!

So, when Jesus says, ‘I am the good shepherd’, he does not do so out of a clear blue sky; he does so in a context of cherished, authoritative, centuries-old traditions, which reach backwards and move forwards.

Now, it might not be fully appropriate to read all that back into Psalm 23, but we can see how helpful it might be for us to understand 2 Samuel 5 or Psalm 23 or John 10 or 1 Peter 5 against the larger biblical theme.

A book by Timothy Laniak, published by Apollos in 2006, does this. It’s called Shepherds After My Own Heart, and it looks at the shepherd metaphor against its ancient Near Eastern context, and throughout Scripture as a whole, not just in the Old Testament but also in the New Testament, in terms of understanding the significance of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and its implications for pastoral ministry and leadership among God’s people today. What Laniak offers, effectively, is a biblical theology of shepherding, its implications for understanding how God and Christ care for us, and for how we should care for others.

But here’s a thing… if we can do that with something relatively peripheral in Scripture, like the ‘shepherd’ image, how much more can we do it with major themes like creation, covenant, land, salvation, temple, kingship, and so on?

So, it’s illuminating and beneficial to trace trajectories like this through the various parts of the Bible – the themes that draw the Bible together in a unity.

And we do so not just as an intellectual exercise, but because it is God’s word, through which we get to know his mind and through which we hear his voice as it speaks to us.

Further Reading

Ronald J. Allen, Wholly Scripture: Preaching Biblical Themes (St Louis: Chalice, 2004).
Although intended primarily for preachers, others who have already done some work in the area may find the discussion and worked examples useful.

Tim Chester, The Message of Prayer: Approaching the Throne of Grace, The Bible Speaks Today: Bible Themes Series (Leicester: IVP, 2003).
The two parts of this book are devoted to the foundations of prayer and the practice of prayer. Although the book itself is a helpful treatment of the topic of prayer, it’s mentioned here because of the series it belongs to – Bible Themes – which explores key biblical passages related to a particular theme. So far, volumes have been published on creation, the cross, evil and suffering, heaven and hell, the living God, the resurrection, mission, salvation, and the trinity.

Andy Croft and Mike Pilavachi, Storylines: Tracing the Threads that Run Through the Bible (Eastbourne: Survivor, 2008).
Topped with a brief overview of the biblical story, and tailed with a chapter on ‘the what, why and how of the Bible’, this looks at several threads: Jesus, covenant, presence, kingdom, salvation, and worship. One of the best (with Vaughan Roberts below) for a beginner to this area.

James E. Davison and Sara Covin Juengst, Journey Through the Word: Exploring Biblical Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003).
Short chapter treatments (including lesson plans for Bible study groups) on creation, covenant, the people of God, sin, righteousness, hope, compassion, and discipleship.

Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House (eds.), Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007).
A full textbook by key scholars, with long essays devoted to the covenant relationship, the commands of God, the atonement, the servant of the Lord, the day of the Lord, the people of God, and the history of redemption. More academic than most of the items in this list.

Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology 20 (Leicester: Apollos, 2006).
This is the book mentioned above, exploring the ‘shepherd’ motif in Scripture. Many of the books in the ‘New Studies in Biblical Theology’ series explore other biblical themes.

Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008).
More challenging than most of the books in this list, exploring select themes with the added dimension of tracing parallels between the biblical texts (especially Old Testament) and the ancient Near East.

Vaughan Roberts, Life’s Big Questions: Six Major Themes Traced Through the Bible (Leicester: IVP, 2004).
An introductory exploration of how the single story of the Bible, told in different types of literature, answers six questions: who is the king? what does it mean to be human? how should we view money? what does God say about marriage? how does the Holy Spirit work in the world and in our lives? what part does mission play in the Christian life? One of the best (with Andy Croft and Mike Pilavach above) for a beginner to this area.

H.H. Drake Williams III, Making Sense of the Bible: A Study of 10 Key Themes Traced Through the Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006).
A middle-level treatment of the themes of creation, covenant, idolatry, Messiah, law, salvation, kingdom, Holy Spirit, people of God, prophecy and fulfilment.

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