Bible Basics: Composition, Compilation, and Biblical Themes

The Bible is a compilation of books and it did not come into existence at one particular time or place. The 66 books of the Bible were written at different times, places, and under varying conditions.

The Bible we have today is composed of two major parts—the Old and New Testaments. Its structure is based on the fact that God made two testaments or covenants with His people, and that the second has replaced the first.

The Old Testament contains 39 books divided into four groups according to their contents. The first group from Genesis to Deuteronomy, containing the five books of law. These books are also called the Pentateuch and form the basis of all the Jewish law. They contain some of the best-known historical events recorded in the Bible such as the creation, the flood, and the exodus from Egypt.

The second group, from Joshua to Esther, contains 12 books of history and continues recording the history of the Israelite nation. They include the Israelite's settlement into the land of Canaan, the span of time under kings, the years spent in Babylonian captivity, and their return from exile.

The third group contains five books of poetry—Job to Song of Solomon. These books, written by various authors, are strong in ethical emphasis and content.

The fourth and last group in the Old Testament, from Isaiah to Malachi, is made up of 17 books of prophecy. These are sometimes sub-divided into five books of Major Prophets and 12 books of Minor Prophets—a distinction based on length. These books cover how Isaiah and other prophets brought God’s Word to their people and foretold the Messiah’s coming.

The New Testament contains 27 books, which are also divided according to their contents and arranged in a certain chronological sequence.

The first five, from Matthew through Acts, are books of history. The first four books, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, tell us about the life of Christ. Then the book of Acts teaches us about the church’s establishment and its early growth.

Next are 21 letters of apostolic teaching, from Romans to Jude, which were written to congregations and individual Christians with instructions for the church and Christian living.

The final book in the New Testament is a book of prophecy known as Revelation. It portrays the continual struggle between the forces of good and evil.

Despite the order in which the books of the New Testament are arranged, the letters from the Apostle Paul were among the first to be written. After becoming a Christian, he began preaching Jesus as the Messiah and dedicated the remainder of his life to spreading Christianity.

Paul travelled all over the Roman world and wrote letters to the Christians in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, and so forth. These letters addressed specific problems or situations Christians were facing at that time. These letters were treasured, copied, and circulated, and various congregations and individuals made collections of them.

When were the accounts of Jesus’ life put into writing? At first there were only oral accounts by eyewitnesses, men who had been with Him. But as years passed, eyewitness accounts became insufficient, increasing the demand for authoritative written narratives. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John filled this need.

Their writings are called gospels because each one announces the Good News about Jesus Christ. For example, John gives his reasons for writing:

But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name. (John 20:31)

The first generations of Christians did not have the New Testament as we have it today, but the letters making up the New Testament were considered authoritative and were read in public assemblies (1 Thessalonians 5:27).

The New Testament was added to the Old Testament as an apostolic witness of Christ. From century to century, book by book, the unique compilation of our Bible came into being.

What’s the main theme of the Bible? There are many repeated themes in Scripture, but only a few that flow continuously from Genesis to Revelation. One example is the theme of God’s revelation of Himself and the Person of Jesus Christ. Another is the theme of sin and its consequences. There is the theme of covenant. Still others have suggested the main themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

No one theme adequately captures the message of Scripture. But one flexible enough to integrate several different interlocking themes summarizing the fundamental and central message of the Bible is the theme of the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is about the reign of God. In one sense, God is always the King of kings and the Lord of lords, ruling over everything that happens. But in another sense, God’s reign has been flouted since the fall of humankind, and the Scriptures tell the story of the kingdom regained. 

The focus on God as King is evident in the regular refrain found in Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, where God is identified as the Lord. As Lord, He is the Sovereign One, the Creator of all, the One who deserves praise and obedience. In other words, saying that the theme of Scripture is God’s kingship is verified and confirmed by the constant refrain that God is the Lord.

The kingdom of God is also about human beings as the subjects of the King. Human beings are the crown of creation, having been created in God’s image. Since God is King and Lord, it is His purpose and design that He be glorified in all things and by all people. God the King is honoured when human beings receive and depend on His love and experience His salvation.

The sovereignty of God and His kingship take place in history in the salvation story recounted in the Scriptures and revealed supremely in the ministry and person of Jesus Christ. And it is by means of His covenants that God’s rule is established in the lives of His people. In the covenants God promises that He will accomplish salvation for His people and be their God.

Finally, the kingdom of God is about His rule being worked out in the realm of earth and heaven. The entrance of sin into the world represents a rebel kingdom that threatens God’s kingship and seeks to undo His love. The story of Scripture is not only the relationship between God and human beings, it also relates to the universe. What is the destiny of the world that God has made? The Scriptures promise that there will be a new heaven and a new earth—a new creation where the glory of God will illumine the cosmos.

So, the kingdom of God has a threefold dimension, focusing on God as King, on human beings as the subjects of the King, and the universe as the place where His kingship is worked out. The composition, compilation, and themes of the Bible may come from different times and places, but they all point to the same truth of who we are and what our purpose is, culminating in the ultimate return of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.