Pattern: A model or original used as an archetype; a person or thing considered worthy of imitation; a plan, diagram, or model to be followed.

 Like gold dust flashing in a miner’s pan, “patterns” are the commonalities left at the bottom of existence after the dross of individuality is washed away. “Here is what we all share,” patterns tell us. “Here are the shapes and precedents that fit our lives.” “Here are life-paradigms, life-truths, that apply to every human being.”

The patterns (or “paradigms”) of Scripture address such important matters as who we are, how we’re broken and how we are healed, transformational moments that occur in every life, and the shape of life as it was meant to be. These patterns are embedded in stories about individuals we meet in the pages of the Bible. But, in some sense, the pattern is more important than the individual. Abraham, for example, may be an instance of the importance of God’s “calling” and the need for obedience to that calling. But the story of Abraham is bigger than Abraham’s particular call. The story preaches over the Abraham’s head to all who read it: we also have a call on our lives … we also must hear and obey.

Thus, a careful reader of the Bible is aware that the story of Adam, Eve, and the Fall is not just a tragedy staring the first man and woman; it is the story of every life, a failure we all experience. The “journey” of Exodus was not just Israel’s expedition; it is the common lot of all human beings—wandering and wilderness and wavering. The agony of “barrenness” isn’t only Sarah’s or Hannah’s pain; it is shared, in some sense, by us all. “Lost” and “found” are not merely qualities of sheep and coins and certain sons; those are “everyman” words.  The dynamic of cross and resurrection, death and new life, does not shape Jesus’ life alone; all disciples experience that same two-step dance.

Each of these ideas (and others besides) belongs to a “pattern palette” the Bible dips into extensively, repeatedly. These are the primary colors from which sacred writers paint life in all its seeming complexity and variety. The Old Testament (for instance) has no interest in portraying unique personages without peer or compare. Rather, these stories tell of people who are “like us” in significant ways, people who teach us about our own lives by living theirs on the public canvas of Scripture.

Jesus painted from this same “pattern palette.” His parables, his aphorisms, his very life drew from these primary colors to teach life-lessons to a wide world. The seed that dies. The boy who remembers his father’s house. The King who returns for a reckoning. In a very real sense, Jesus’ teachings were not “original.” They were restatements, profound reminders, of patterns and themes already sounded in the Sacred Writings.

Paul relies on this same “pattern palette” when he draws on the fall of Adam, the faith of Abraham, and the stubbornness of Pharoah to help Roman Christians understand key concepts of the gospel; he believed these themes and stories applied to all people. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John relied on the same quality when retelling the ministry of Jesus; they believed the experience of the crowds and the apostles would resonate with, help shape, disciples who came long after. This quality explains why the Hebrew writer spent so much time instructing his Christian audience using the rituals and experiences of Israel; he was convinced that Israel’s worship and life-style provided a pattern Christians could build a faithful life upon.

It is this quality of patterns—their universality, their applicability—that makes biblical patterns resonate with people of every age.

They keep popping up. They “paradigms” occurs repeatedly in the Bible, not because it is interesting or dramatic, but because it fits so well the shape of life as God designed it … the shape of life as we can experience it.

[This article was first published as a part of a Wineskins special publication edited by Edward Fudge on “Patternism”–]