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How do you get from London to Edinburgh? Even if you’ve never visited either city, you’ll likely know that there’s more than one answer to the question. Plug the destinations into a maps program and you’ll be offered a host of routes, and even those will be just the major ones. In reality, there are thousands of connections between the two capitals, an almost endless number of ways you can travel between them. Of course, some are more obvious than others, the large motorways cutting a clearer trail than the winding country roads. But the point remains: there are many ways to make the journey.
When it comes to Scripture, what links Genesis to Revelation? We know that the Bible is one book, giving a coherent, unified message. It is, ultimately, the product of one Author, revealing one way of salvation to mankind. But is there only one theme that binds the Bible together? The answer, surely, is no. Just as on any other journey, there are multiple paths we might follow as we trace God’s great redemption story. To change the image, Scripture is a book woven together by many threads, a rope of many intertwining cords. To search for “the one theme” of the Bible is a pointless exercise; rather, we can enjoy discovering dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different melodies that combine to create the final symphony.
Let’s consider some of the major roads. It’s sometimes noted that the Bible nowhere uses that common evangelical phrase “relationship with God.” This is not, of course, because there is no relationship with God. Rather, the Bible’s word for that bond between Jesus and His people is covenant. Unsurprisingly, therefore, covenant is a major road through the pages of Scripture. Beginning in the garden of Eden, God entered into a covenant with Adam. Although the explicit word covenant doesn’t appear in the text of Genesis 2, all the elements that make up a covenant are there: the two parties (God and Adam), the terms of the relationship (wholehearted obedience, expressed in the command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil), penalties if the covenant is breached (death), and rewards if it is kept (eternal life, symbolized by the Tree of Life; Gen. 3:22). Indeed, Hosea later refers to this arrangement as a covenant (Hos. 6:7).
Once Adam breaks this covenant of works, as it has most commonly been known, God doesn’t abandon the idea of covenant. Instead, He continues to bind Himself to His people through covenant, this time not of works but of grace. Abraham receives incredible promises and enters into one such covenantal union with God (Gen. 15; 17). But Abraham is not called to perfect obedience as the terms of this covenant. Rather, he “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (15:6). In time, Abraham’s family grew and ended up in slavery in Egypt. But “God remembered his covenant with Abraham” and came to the rescue (Ex. 2:24). As a result of this rescue, He refreshed and expanded His covenant with Israel, this time at Mount Sinai. The same promises that were made to Abraham were reissued (land, descendants, protection), together with the covenant promise “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Fast-forward several hundred years, and David and his descendants are added to the covenant story: from now on, he and his offspring will rule God’s people.
And so, eventually, we come to the new covenant. Jesus inaugurated this with His death, resurrection, and ascension and the pouring out of His Spirit at Pentecost (Mark 14:24). But the shape remains as it has always been: God’s people trust His gospel promises, and He blesses them out of sheer grace. The promise of a land is expanded to include the whole new heavens and earth. The largely ethnically Jewish people of the Old Testament grows to include those from all nations. But fundamentally, the work of Jesus in the new covenant is, as Zechariah sings, because God has come “to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham” (Luke 1:72–73).
We might also consider the theme of God’s presence with His people. In the garden in Eden, God met with Adam and Eve, walking in the cool of the day. The fall led to man’s expulsion from God’s blessed presence, with the garden guarded by cherubim wielding a fiery sword. God promised to be with Abraham, and there were occasional theophanies, appearances of God, throughout Genesis and Exodus—think of Abraham’s mysterious visitors (Gen. 18) or the burning bush (Ex. 3). But it is with the building of the tabernacle, the portable dwelling place of God, that we get the next great step forward. At the close of Exodus, fire falls on the Most Holy Place, the perfectly cubic center of the tabernacle, the throne room of God. Yahweh is back with His people, though distanced through the various protective zones of the tent. This tabernacle is in fact reminiscent of Eden: the entrance is to the east, as was the garden’s entrance. Cherubim are sewn into the curtain guarding the entrance. Candlesticks are shaped like trees.
This garden-temple theme continues with the building of the permanent temple under King Solomon. Now the Israelites have a homeland and capital city, David’s son builds a “permanent” home for his God, and again fire falls as Yahweh “moves in” (2 Chron. 7). God is present with His people in this way, right through to the dramatic visions of Ezekiel, in which the prophet sees the glory of the Lord depart. Coupled with the destruction of the temple, it would seem that God had left His people. Hence the incredible opening of John’s gospel, where we read, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14, author’s translation). God has returned to dwell on earth; indeed, Jesus Himself is the true temple (2:21). As His body is broken and then raised, He ascends to pour out His Spirit on the church and thus can promise them that He will be “with [them] always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Between Christ’s first and second comings, God is present with His people in a way that means that both the individual believer and the church can be described as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). Finally, on the day of Jesus’ return, the dwelling place of God will be with man again, as heaven and earth are reunited. Indeed, the new Jerusalem is described as a perfect cube to symbolize that the whole new earth has become a Most Holy Place, as God lives with His people.
Covenant and God’s presence are just two “major roads” through the Bible. We could have traced the theme of God’s people—from Adam and Eve in Eden, through the godly line of Seth, the family of Abraham, the Israelites at Sinai, down to the multinational church of our age. We might consider the kingdom of God. Adam was given dominion over all creation but lost his throne as he submitted to Satan’s word. Israel as a nation was a “kingdom of priests” but failed to exercise its duties well. David, who together with his descendants had the privilege of being called “sons of God,” was at best a mixed blessing to God’s people, and the kingdom of Israel was divided, conquered, and in large part destroyed under his successors. But with the resurrection of Jesus, we finally meet a King who has been given all authority and can therefore rule over a kingdom that knows no end. For now, that kingdom is found in the church (Matt. 16:18–19), though one day it will encompass a whole new creation.
So Scripture is bound together by myriad intertwining themes. Pulling on even minor threads can prove fruitful. Think of the thorns that we meet for the first time as part of the curse but that we find ultimately woven into a crown adorning the Messiah’s brow as He bears that curse for His people. Similarly, the fall leads to sweat: work has become unpleasant and tiring, forcing life to ooze out of us. What a relief, therefore, to see that Jesus sweats blood for us in the garden of Gethsemane, a reminder that the work of our salvation lies in His hands alone as He pours His life out for His people. Marriage, too, runs from Genesis to Revelation, painting the story of redemption. Marriage was created to depict Jesus’ love for and union with His bride, the church, but that picture is distorted in adulterous Israel before it climaxes in Christ’s sacrificial death and will be consummated at the great wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6–7).
These last examples are clearly less central than those of covenant, kingdom, or God’s presence. But they help show that although there is not one single theme that binds the Bible together, there is one main character on whom it all centers. While there are villains, victims, servants, and sidekicks aplenty, there is only one hero. Wherever we find ourselves in Scripture, the spotlight is always shining on the triune God and the rescuing work of the Lord Jesus Christ. All the melodies of God’s one great symphony combine to sing His praise.