Use Thematic Outlines to Grasp the Big Picture of a Book of the Bible

I don’t usually feel helped by the outlines of books of the Bible that I find in commentaries, Bible dictionaries, or study Bibles. They’re usually too general and rarely identify a theme that summarizes the whole book.

The outlines I find most helpful are what I call thematic outlines. They do two things: 1) state the theme that a book is about, in one sentence, and 2) show how that theme is worked out in each major section of the book. Dan Block and Doug Moo are among the few scholars who consistently pull this off in their commentaries.

The benefits of a thematic outline of the Bible

Thematic outlines are particularly helpful for preaching. Maybe that’s why few scholars don’t bother with them. Here are a few of the benefits I have experienced.

1. When you, the preacher, know the theme of the entire book, you can come up with an exegetically informed title for your sermon series.

2. You are prevented from climbing up soap boxes when you consistently interpret the details of individual passages in light of the book’s theme.

3. Knowing the theme of the whole book provides a major clue for passages that seem to be off topic for the author (e.g. Genesis 38, Romans 16, or, below, 2 Thessalonians 3).

How to outline a book of the Bible

Even if Moo and Block had a commentary out on each book of the Bible, I’d still make up my own outlines. It’s one of the ways I digest a book before a sermon series. These are the three guiding principles I use to do so.

1. Read through the whole book several times. Look for key words or concepts that pop up throughout the book.

2. Once you think you have your theme for the entire book, test it out. Can you fit that theme into each section of the book without pulling a Procrustes? If not, go back to the drawing board.

3. If you have your theme, work from bigger to smaller sections of your book, outlining in light of that theme. This is where you move from science to art.

A thematic outline of 2 Thessalonians

I’m recently finished a series on 2 Thessalonians. I think Paul’s main point is “persevering faith holds on during times of adversity.”

I. The worthiness of persevering faith is demonstrated during times of persecution (Ch. 1)

A. Persevering faith grows during persecution, and is therefore worthy of boasting (1:3-4)

B. Persevering faith waits for God’s judgment, and is therefore worthy of God’s kingdom (1:5-10)

C. Persevering faith resolves to work, and is therefore worthy of God’s calling (1:11-12)

II. Persevering faith stands firm during times of deception (Ch. 2)

A. Non-persevering faith stumbles because of the deception of the man of lawlessness (2:1-12)

B. Persevering faith stands firm in the face of deception because of the sovereign salvation of God (2:13-17)

III. Persevering faith manifests itself in faith and action despite opposition without and within (Ch. 3)

A. Persevering faith eagerly receives the word and obeys its commands despite the threat of persecutors (3:1-5)

B. Persevering faith keeps believing and obeying despite the compromise of other Christians (3:6-15)

There are few things more satisfying to me as a student of God’s word than to know what an entire book is about, and how all the pieces fit together.

You can see how the theme that “persevering faith” works its way into each part of my outline. Yet the main points and subpoints add specificity to what that means. This combination gives the series unity, while saving me from preaching the same sermon every week.