Anyone reading this would most likely admit to loving a good story. Our preferences for the form of the story might be different—a feel-good movie, a riveting novel, an autobiography of a historical figure—but appreciation for drama and adventure, despite the form, is a common delight in our human experience.
At times, we are so enchanted by certain stories that we return to them over and over again. We do so because we want to be reminded of our favorite plots, characters, and themes. But could it also be that we return to our favorite stories because something about them helps us to make sense of our own?
Whether we realize it or not, there is one story—The Story—that helps make sense of ourselves and everything in our world today. This story was written by our Creator God. The Bible is a cohesive book, written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit, over a span of fifteen-hundred years, with sixty-six books and forty different authors. This grand book tells an overarching story that points us to the author Himself. The major storyline of the Bible can be summed up in the following four words: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. These four words summarize God’s work in our world.
The word creation reminds us of Genesis 1 which teaches us that God created this world and mankind for His purposes, while the word fall reminds us that our first parents, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God by choosing to reject His commands, resulting in fallen humanity. The word redemption brings hope to our sinful despair. In Genesis 3:15 God announced a Savior would come who would crush the head of the serpent. The entirety of the Bible is the fleshing out of Genesis 3:15—where we see God’s people living in anticipation of a Redeemer who would bring reconciliation between God and man. The end of the story points toward eternity, where God will restore all those who are in Christ. This is the story from Genesis to Revelation, and the story goes on today as we await the restoration of all things in Christ.
While the major storyline of the Bible is summed up in four words that outline the major events of the Scriptures, the Bible also uses themes to develop the story and to point to redemption found in Jesus. The number of themes in the Bible seem to be endless once you start looking for them. For instance, the following: covenants, kings, shepherds, the tabernacle, gardens, Israel, suffering, creation, land, the priesthood, feasts, etc. The list really could go on and on! Thinking about it is exciting because it confirms the creative heart of our God in the ways He seeks to communicate with us through His Word, and it affirms the divine inspiration of Scripture.
We can conclude that the Bible’s use of themes and how they are fulfilled through the work of Christ cannot be the sole work of human writers, revealing to us that God is the ultimate author. Another benefit of tracing themes can be found in how it increases not only faith in the Bible as God’s Word, but also a love for God’s Word. This love pushes us to a greater enjoyment of and love for God, and we begin to discern how to pattern our lives after a biblical worldview.
If we want to benefit in these ways, where should we start? How do we trace the themes? I suggest the following:
Step One: Make it your practice to read through the Bible every year or every two years. My favorite Bible reading plan is the Robert Murray M’Cheyne plan. It breaks down the Bible into approximately four chapters a day, which means the reader goes through the Old Testament once, the New Testament twice, and the Psalms twice. Another plan to consider would be a chronological reading, where the daily reading is arranged according to the year the Bible book or chapter was written rather than according to the Bible’s table of contents.
Step Two: As you read through the Bible, seek to identify the themes that stand out and jot them down in a journal or notebook. For example, if you’re reading in the Book of 1 Kings, it might become obvious that kings is a theme that is on repeat.
Step Three: Choose one of the themes you have noticed and study it more deeply to discern how the Bible mentions the particular theme throughout the Old and New Testaments. Use cross-referencing and a good concordance, as well as online Bible tools to research the theme.
Step Four: As you research the theme, contemplate how the theme relates to the overarching story of the Bible and how it is developed in creation, in the fall, in redemption, and ultimately in restoration.
Step Five: Meditate upon the particular ways Jesus fulfills or relates to the theme and invites you to participate with Him in the story.
Let’s consider the theme of kings mentioned above and flesh out how to trace it throughout the Bible. Since we have the theme identified, I’ll start with Step Three. Pretending that this theme stood out to us while reading 1 Kings, let’s say that in our Bible reading, we also noticed in 1 Samuel that the elders of Israel asked Samuel for a king to rule over them because they had noticed how other nations have kings (1 Sam. 8:5). The Lord instructed Samuel to give the people what they asked for, citing that they had rejected God as their true King (vv. 7-9). That leads to the thought that God is the ultimate sovereign King who rules over His people. Cross-referencing and a concordance might lead you to verses that speak of God being King over the creation and the nations, and how His rule extends to the earth.
When you think about God being King over creation in particular, you would then begin Step Four—relating your particular theme to the Bible’s overarching story. Going back to Genesis 1, you might come across Genesis 1:26-28, where kingly language is used as God delegated His authority to man and woman when He made them in His image. He told them twice to have dominion over all living things and to “fill the earth and subdue it” (v. 28, ESV). He then placed man in the garden to begin this kingly rule, but the man and woman fell into sin, failing to exercise dominion over the serpent. The Lord gave a promise, however, in Genesis 3:15 that the woman’s offspring would defeat the serpent.
From that promise on, the people of God awaited the Messiah, a righteous King, who comes from the kingly line of David. (See 2 Sam. 7:12-13.) We know this offspring to be King Jesus (see Matt. 1:1), who preached about the kingdom (see Matt. 4:17), and who died and rose from the grave. Risen, He proclaims as King that “All authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18, ESV) has been given to Him. He commissioned His disciples to extend His kingdom by proclaiming the gospel in light of His authority—a commission we are given as well. And one day, He will return and set up His kingdom on earth and extend His righteous reign forever. This shows us how Jesus ultimately fulfills the theme of kings that began with something we noticed in 1 Kings, and how it can be traced throughout the Old and New Testaments, as well as how we are invited to participate (Step Five).
What a joy it is to begin reading the Bible by tracing themes. The story of the Bible, with all its themes, is truly the one that helps us make sense of God’s story and our own.
Julia Higgins is originally from Tuscumbia, Alabama, is a member of The Summit Church in Raleigh, and serves as an assistant professor of Ministry to Women at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She holds an MDiv in Christian Education and a PhD in Leadership. She is married to Tony Higgins, who serves the RDU area as a biblical counselor. They enjoy cooking, watching SEC football, and hanging out with their sweet dog, Charlie.