Understanding the theme of a book can be very instructive in coming to grasp what its message actually is. Human authors often write books, even works of fiction, with an axe they have to grind, a point they wish to make, or a lesson they wish to teach. Understanding what the theme of the book is will help greatly towards understanding what that lesson or point is. For example, if you knew the theme of a book was racism, as you read it you could look for the point the author was trying to make about racism. If the theme of another book was war, you could study the book to see what it had to say about war.
In the same way, I believe that understanding the theme of the Bible will aid us greatly in grasping the point of what God is trying to teach us through the Bible. Ultimately, the Bible is a great book that has many themes and many lessons to teach us. There is not any one lesson or one theme that is the exclusive point of the Bible excluding all else. Yet I believe that there is an overarching theme that, if we understand it, will help us to much better understand all of Scripture. Many of the lessons It teaches will relate to this, and many stories will become clearer when we study the Bible in light of it.
When I have asked my students what they thought the main theme of the Bible was, I have found I will receive many answers. Some say that God, or Jesus Christ, is the theme of the Bible. Yet I would protest that He is the Main Character of the Bible, but not Its theme. That might be a little bit different way of looking at it for some of you, but when you think about it, that is what He is. The theme is not necessarily the most important thing in the Bible. Without a doubt the Lord is the most important thing in the Bible, and yet He is not the theme of the Bible. It is also true that the Bible is written for the purpose of revealing the Lord to us. That is its purpose, and that is its greatest use for us. Yet that is not the theme of the Book.
Others suggested that salvation is the theme of the Bible. Many read it as if that were the theme, and thus they see salvation in passages and verses where I do not think it belongs. I would agree that salvation is AN important theme of the Bible, and relates to THE overall theme, but I do not believe it is the theme in and of itself. It is certainly the most important starting point for us, for without it we would never be able to relate to God or have any place in His eternal plan.
Others suggested that Christ’s death and resurrection is the theme of the Bible. Certainly, those events were in many ways the center of the acts of God in the Bible, and everything else relates to them. But ultimately, while I believe that His sacrifice is crucial to the theme, it is not the theme itself.
No one group suggests all possibilities that might be put forth. I suppose depending on the group I was asking, some might suggest that “the church” is the theme of the Bible. My first point would be that they are apparently only familiar with the New Testament Scriptures, since the word “church” does not appear in the Old Testament. The theme of the Bible certainly could not be confined to its final quarter! Yet I would also point out that really the word “church” does not belong in our Bibles at all. It is not a good translation of the Greek word ecclesia, the word that our Bibles usually translate as “church,” and it certainly is not a good translation of any other word. Even ecclesia is not the theme of the Bible, though it does have an equivalent word in the Hebrew Old Testament, qahal. Yet whatever qahal/ecclesia means, it is not the theme of the Bible.
Some might say that Israel is the theme of the Bible. Israel is certainly the chosen nation throughout Scripture, but it was never all about them, even when God chose them as His people. Others might be more generic and say that “God’s people” are the theme of the Bible, whoever they might be, Jew or Gentile. Though we would have little of the Bible left if we removed God’s people from it, I still do not believe that His people are the main theme of the Bible. Again, certainly the main theme relates to us, just like it relates to God, but we are not the theme.
Since I am a dispensationalist, and many of my readers are as well, I suppose that some of my readers might think that dispensationalism is the main theme of the Bible, or at least might suppose that that is what I am going to say. Certainly the principles of dispensationalism are crucial to understanding the Bible, and without them we would never be able to “rightly divide the Word of Truth.” But dispensationalism is really a tool that we use to understand what God has written. It is not the theme of what He has written.
There are many other suggestions that I have received when I asked this question. Some suggested that heaven is the theme. Others suggested that truth is the theme. Some said love. Others said faith, and still others mercy or forgiveness or grace. Some set forth resurrection as a possibility, while others said redemption, and still others suggested eternal life. Many might insist that the theme is the gospel. Ask this question yourself in a room full of people, and I think you will find that you have no shortage of ideas.
I suppose if I asked enough people this question, they could give me many ideas that I have not mentioned here or even thought of, if I would ask them. Yet ultimately, though I believe all these things are important, I do not believe they are the theme. I wish that I could write this message to take my readers through the Bible and show them irrefutable proof of what I believe the theme to be. Yet I do not think that pointing out a theme is that easy. If an author does not state his theme in the title of a book (like a non-fiction book I have read, “Buried Alive,” clearly states what it is about in its title,) or else somewhere in its book jacket or forward, then all one can do to discover the theme of a book is to read it and draw your own conclusions. And, in the case of the Word of God, I believe that I cannot just prove what the theme of the Bible is from any particular statements. All I can do is proclaim what my belief is regarding its theme, based upon my reading of it. No list of verses, no proof text, will suffice to show that this is indeed the main theme. I might be able to prove that it is A theme, but only continual reading and consideration and study of the Word will ever convince anyone it is THE theme, unless they choose to just take my word for it, which I encourage no one to do.
So, what do I believe the theme of the Bible to be? I believe, quite simply, that the theme of the Bible is the Kingdom of God. I believe that many of these other themes…salvation, Israel, God’s people, resurrection, and so on…are all related, ultimately, to that Kingdom, and to God’s plans regarding it. I believe that from beginning to end, God’s Kingdom is the focus of what God does, His interactions with people, and His work here on earth. When He chose Israel, it was in relation to the Kingdom. When He saves men from their sins and declares them righteous, it is with a view to His Kingdom. When Christ died, it was to make that Kingdom possible. All these things, I believe, ultimately relate back to His great purpose, the theme of the Bible, which is His Kingdom.
Now, having stated this, I cannot prove that it is so. I could turn to all the passages that talk about the Kingdom, but someone else could turn to all the passages that talk about other things, and maybe find more. Yet I believe that the Kingdom is referred to by many names, some of which are not associated with it in the minds of most people. It is the theme of many stories, many prophecies, and many actions of God, even if it is not specifically stated so. But, since I cannot prove it very simply or clearly, all I can do at this point is state that this is my personal belief and conviction as a result of my own studies. I believe that the Kingdom of God is the theme of the Bible.
Yet one thing I can do to point out the importance of this theme is to point out the importance it held in the ministry of the apostle Paul. Since many of my readers are dispensationalists, I am sure they will view Paul, as I do, as the vessel through which God set forth His unique truth for today. So if Paul viewed this matter of the Kingdom as of great importance, then I think it shows that I am not exaggerating in giving great importance to it myself as well. So let us turn to Acts 28 to see how important Paul viewed this matter of the Kingdom of God.
First of all, let us read Acts 28:23. “So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening.”
Here, we see Paul speaking to the leaders of the Jews (verse 17.) They allow him one day to speak all he has to say to them. The Holy Spirit sums up for us in this verse what Paul said to them. What were the two things that Paul thought were so important that they summed up the ministry he had to these Jews as he taught them all day the things that he most wanted them to know? The answer, as we can see, is that he taught them the kingdom of God and the things concerning Jesus. These things were what Paul viewed as of primary importance, and were what, when he had just one day to teach these men, he chose to teach them above all other things.
Now look down with me a few verses at Acts 28:30-31. After these Jews left Paul, we read, “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.”
So here we see, as Paul teaches for two years, his ministry is summed up in two topics that he teaches to all those who come to him. They are the kingdom of God, and the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ. These are his two great topics, and these things sum up his teaching and ministry then. Now it makes sense to us that he would teach the things concerning the Lord Jesus. But notice that he also teaches the kingdom of God, as if it were of equal importance! These are his two topics, and these are set forth as the things he taught. In my words above, he was teaching about the theme of the Bible, and the Main Character of the Bible.
Now the verses I have stated above come on both sides of the important Acts 28:28 dividing line. They sandwich that critical place in time. And they show that these two topics were considered just as important after that dividing line as before. We cannot say that the kingdom was important before Acts 28:28, and ceased to be important afterwards, for these verses show most clearly that that was not at all the case. The summary of Paul’s message after that dividing line is the same as the summary of his message beforehand. He is still teaching the kingdom of God as something of primary importance.
Yet having shown that this is important, let me also say that I am well aware that many people do not have any idea what the Kingdom of God really is. When it comes right down to it, the ideas that are set forth as to what the meaning of the phrase is are many and varied, and so most believers have only a vague idea of what the Kingdom of God is. It is not usually something that they have decided based on their own personal study of the matter, but rather something that they have just “picked up” along the way as the probable definition, and thus have adopted. A sad state of affairs, if I am correct about this being the theme of the Bible! And even if I am wrong, it is certainly sad that something that Paul viewed as of such great importance is now so little known or understood.
So what are some of the ideas many hold about the Kingdom? Some believe that it is the same thing as heaven. This belief probably extends from two things. One is that the Kingdom is, in Matthew, often described, not as the “Kingdom of God,” but instead as the “Kingdom of Heaven.” So many assume that this just means “heaven.” They probably feel backed up in this belief by the fact that the Kingdom of God is set forth as the future hope of certain people. For example, Luke 13:28 teaches that God’s saints of the past will be present in the Kingdom of God. “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out.” Yet the Kingdom of God does not mean heaven. Consider Luke 17:20-21. “Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” Without going into what the Lord meant by “within you” here, we can note that the Kingdom of God is spoken of as “coming,” and the Lord confirms that it will come. “Heaven,” a place, cannot “come.” Thus, the Kingdom of God cannot be heaven.
Another idea people hold about the Kingdom of God is that it is the same thing as the church, or the same thing as Christianity or Christendom. People get this idea more from common, Christian lingo than they do from the Word of God. People who plant churches are said to be “spreading the Kingdom,” and so men equate the Kingdom with the church. Yet such a meaning simply does not fit with the Biblical evidence. The “kingdom” cannot possibly mean the church in any passage in the Word of God. For example, according to Luke 13:28, are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be “in the church”? This just does not make sense.
Another idea people have is that the Kingdom of God is just a name for all believers. Yet this does not fit with Biblical evidence either. For example, Luke 19:11 states, “Now as they heard these things, He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem and because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately.” How could all believers “appear immediately”? Or consider Luke 21:31. “So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.” How could all believers be near?
Some hold the idea that the Kingdom of God is a spiritual thing that happens in peoples’ hearts. Those who teach this have two main passages that they use to support this idea. One is Luke 17:21b, which states, “For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” The other is Romans 14:17. “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Yet, though such a meaning might seem to fit in these two passages, this meaning will not bear out if we search out the rest of the occurrences in the New Testament. For example, Christ said in Luke 22:18, “for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Was He not to drink of such fruit until something spiritual came into men’s hearts? This does not make sense!
So what is the Kingdom of God? I think we would do best first to ask ourselves what a “kingdom” is. One of the great mistakes men make in defining things in the Bible is that they define what phrases mean without first considering or defining with the individual words within the phrases mean. Since we are pretty clear what “God” is, and “the” and “of” should need to explanation, we would best move toward answering with the kingdom of God is by asking ourselves first what a “kingdom” is? And to answer that question, we must consider the Greek word “basilea,” which is the word we have translated “kingdom.” It is related to the Greek word “basileus,” which we have translated as “king.” Yet we must keep in mind where this translation comes from. This is the traditional translation that we get from the King James Version of the Bible in English. Even though many of us no longer use the old King James, many of the traditional words of the Christian vocabulary come from that version, and so are carried over as familiar into the modern translations of the Word.
The King James Version, as most of know, was first published in England in 1611 at the request of King James I. In England, the traditional form of government was a kingdom, and so they translated the words basileus and basilea as “king” and “kingdom” respectively. Yet if the Bible had been translated in Russia, these words might as well have been translated “Czar” and “Czardom,” in Persia, “Emperor” and “Empire,” or in other traditional ways in other parts of the world. In our country and culture, we have governors, so we might translate these words in modern, American English as “governor” and “government.” For that is what basilea means, “government.” There is nothing sacred about the word “kingdom.” Government is our modern word, and it is the word we should use for basilea.
So the Kingdom of God is nothing more nor less than the government of God Himself. And the teaching of the Bible clearly is that the Government of God is someday to come, not in heaven, but upon the earth itself! How many have a concept of God’s future plans that includes a Government of God ruling and reigning over the earth? Many deny such a fact, most notably the amillenialists. Yet this is the clear teaching of Scripture, once we clear away the tradition and superstition surrounding this word “kingdom” and understand it the way God truly used it. There is a government of God coming, and it will rule over the earth.
Many in traditional churches repeat from memory the part of the Lord’s prayer that states, “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Yet I wonder how many who repeat this phrase realize just what it is they are asking for? When God’s government comes, there will be no more government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Men will no longer be free to rule their own affairs, or to live and worship as they see fit. There will be no freedom of religion, and no freedom of expression. Everything on earth will be ruled and governed by God. Do we truly want this? Let us not pray such a prayer unless we are certain that we do!
Our earth is in a mess. We sorely need our God to step in and take action upon the earth to set things right. I believe that the Bible teaches that He will do this, and it calls the time when He does so the Kingdom of God. This is the hope for this world that the Bible sets forth. It is the hope that God first set before Adam and his wife after they sinned in the garden, and it is the hope that we see being fulfilled in the book of Revelation. And everywhere in between the expectation of a future government of God is the theme that is woven throughout the Bible. Understanding that this is the theme will help us in understanding many passages and unraveling many mysteries. Men who substitute other themes in their minds like salvation or heaven or morality often end up frustrated and confused in trying to understand a Bible that does not match up to their expectations in what it talks about. Once we understand this as the theme, it will help us to see so much more clearly the plan that God sets forth in His Word.