Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bible Study Tips: Trace the Jesus Themes

Most of the Bible study tips that I have shared so far have been singularly focused on specific texts. Today, however, I want to share a study technique that has a much broader scope. I am a big supporter of methodical inductive study but it is also important that book or passage studies are done within the broader context of a wholly Biblical theology. The Scripture is a unified body of teaching that is interconnected and interdependent. The unifying theme of the entire Bible is Jesus Christ and what He has done. When looking at only smaller units of the Bible it is easy in certain places to miss those important connections that bind the Scripture together. I pray that this tip will help you to gain a deeper and richer appreciation for those connections.

It should be obvious to any reader that the New Testament is saturated with references to the Old Testament. Virtually every major teaching segment in the New Testament either directly quotes from or is alluding to some or other Old Testament passage. Looking these up is itself a useful thing to do (and I will probably write on this in the future) but there is also a rich set of Biblical themes that are not direct quotations or commentary but are a very important connection between the testaments. Recognizing those themes and tracing them can lead to all sorts of really rich observations about both the New Testament and the older writings. There are various ways to apply this technique but by far the most productive and valuable is to focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ directly. Let me explain how it works.

The first thing to do is to choose a New Testament passage and then begin to look for figurative uses of language related to Jesus Christ. You want to find some description of Christ by a New Testament author that is not a direct factual statement about Him, such as that He is the Messiah, but one that is clearly important but cannot be completely understood literally. For example; in the first chapter of John we see that “in Him (Jesus) was life, and the life was the light of men.” John goes on to repeatedly emphasize the identification of Jesus Christ in his introduction with The Light. Clearly John is not saying that Jesus Christ is a series of wave packets of energy that stimulate our optic nerves. It is clear that light is functioning in some sort of figurative sense.

The next step is to look at how the theme of light is developed throughout the particular book. In this case, John talks quite a bit about “light” in relation to Jesus. What does he say? How does he develop that theme? Once you have looked at that, the next step is to begin in the Old Testament by analyzing the occurrences of the word “light”. You have to be very careful at this point because not every occurrence will be relevant to your study. You must carefully study the context and the way the figurative term is developed in its New Testament passage. Then look at the contexts of the Old Testament uses to identify parallels that link the references thematically. Below are a few examples of verses you will find in O.T. when looking for occurrences of “light” and how you might handle them.

1.      Genesis 1:4 says “And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.” This is a reference to literal light so it is contextually different and would not be considered part of the thematic trajectory that is picked up by John. You would move on to the next reference.

2.      2 Samuel 23:4 says “he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.” At first glance this sounds like it has potential because it seems to be talking about light as a life giving element. The problem, however, is that this is a reference to a king who rules in the fear of God. Of course, Jesus is a perfect king so there may be a potential connection but more work would have to be done to know for sure. For example, is it a prophetic passage? We know that Christ is the son of David so other themes may be intertwined. In this case I would make a note to come back and study this further and move on to the next reference.

3.      Psalm 36:9 says “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” Notice here that light and life are both connected just as we saw in John. If you look at the context of this Psalm you will notice that it is about God’s steadfast love. The light here is connected to spiritual life and relationship with God. This is a match! You then want to look carefully at the point made in the Psalm about the light of God. Meditate upon the relationship between what is revealed there and what John is saying about who Jesus Christ is.

4.      Isaiah 9:2 says “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” This is another match. Isaiah is using light in a figurative way to refer to spiritual awakening and discernment. This is also clearly a prophetic text that is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ. What is the promise of Isaiah? What is John’s claim about Jesus in relation to that promise? Work through the connections by reading and meditating upon them. You will be blessed by how many things in the text the Holy Spirit will bring to your attention as the connections begin to click.

There are many other Old Testament references that develop the theme of light that we could have looked at but my hope is that these 4 give you a good start on how it works. If you begin to trace this use of light to refer to spiritual vision and discernment you can observe how it develops throughout the O.T. until the theme finally culminates in Jesus. The last step then is to see what other New Testament writers have said about Christ and light when used in similar contexts.

If you study these thematic “threads” as they run through the Bible I am confident it will deepen your appreciation of the unity of Scripture and of the majesty of our Lord.

Thankfully, the New Testament in general, and the Gospels in particular are quite rich with this kind of language in relation to Jesus so it isn’t hard to find places to start. In fact, with just a quick reading of the Gospel of John as I prepared to write this article, I found at least 15 potential references that could be traced. I am sure there even more if you look closely! Just for starters, in John’s Gospel alone, Jesus is described as:

  • The Word of God
  • The Light of God
  • The Lamb of God
  • The Son of Man
  • The Temple of God
  • The Serpent Lifted up
  • The Bridegroom
  • Living Water (or at least the source of it)
  • The Prophet who was to come
  • The Bread of Life
  • The Door of the Sheep
  • The Good Shepherd
  • He Who Comes
  • The True Vine
  • The King

Each of these descriptions is developed to some degree in John’s Gospel and they are all references that build on themes that are found throughout the Bible.

I pray that the Lord would bless your study.

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