(If you would prefer to listen, you can find the audio here)
Do you want to know the key to unlocking the Bible?
Do you want to know the secrets to figuring out how each passage applies to you?
My goal is to help you with that. But I have couple spoilers. First - the Bible does apply to you, but not in the way that some say. Second - there are no secrets and there are no keys. So there goes my dramatic intro! And actually, the idea that secret messages contained in the Bible can only be figured out by having insider knowledge or special insight is part of an ancient heresy called Gnosticism.
Today I want to talk about Biblical Theology. That phrase doesn’t just mean our theology comes from the Bible. It’s a proper noun – a way to distinguish one approach to theology from another, such as Systematic Theology or Historical Theology.
These intimidating phrases are just ways to describe different methods for approaching the Bible. The idea is not that you should choose, as if one is better than another. Instead, we should understand each approach so that we can apply them where they are appropriate.
I’ve been teaching a Systematic Theology class in Sunday School for a while now. Systematic Theology is just a way to understand the major doctrines taught in the Bible by starting with basic ideas then building to more complex ideas. It’s a great way to cover all the major aspects of Christianity without getting overwhelmed. If you’re interested in joining us, it’s not too late. J
With Biblical Theology, rather than ordering doctrines logically, it’s more of a chronological approach. The basic idea is to look at the Bible as it was written and study the principles as God revealed them. It doesn’t necessarily mean you must start in Genesis every time you read, but you ought to be aware of the chronology of scripture so you can understand how a passage you are reading fits in. You must be aware of the whole to understand the parts. In being aware of the big picture you will often be able to see things that might not otherwise be evident.
Studying the Bible
I think it’s easy to think we’re studying the Bible when we’re actually just reading. When we read, we may identify the words and sentences, but that doesn’t mean we really grasp the meaning behind them. There’s a difference between reading the Bible and understanding the Bible.
For instance, how should we read the story of Joseph? Do we just read it out of duty? Is it mandatory history that God requires us to know? Is there something important we ought to know about Joseph? Or is it because we’re like Joseph and understanding him tells us something about us?
Applying some Biblical Theology will help us to understand that question, and I’m going to suggest it will make your Bible studying more meaningful and even enjoyable.
What Are We Looking For?
It can be tempting to try and find ourselves in the narrative. It’s super-popular too. I’d like to ask a question though: Should we?
I don’t say this to embarrass anyone. Like I said, this is an incredibly common approach. It doesn’t take much searching to find books that teach Christians that God wants us to have a super life, that he has promises for us if we will only claim them, and that there are new and personal revelations waiting for us. There are well-known teachers that encourage you to cross out “you” in the Bible and replace it with your name. So I get where it comes from. It’s everywhere. And I don’t want to suggest that introspection is bad, because it is not. However, I think that we, as humans, and specifically as Americans at this point in history, have a remarkable preoccupation with finding ourselves in scripture. We want to hear a fresh and personal word from God, we want to know what promises God has made us, what prophecies we will see fulfilled, and what miracles we should expect.
I think that’s totally upside-down though. On the one hand, we can learn important things about humanity in general and how God has interacted with His people; after all, the Bible contains a whole lot about people. Where Godly men and women acted virtuously and with God-honoring character, it is noble to emulate that. Think of the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews. Clearly we are meant to read of their obedience and be inspired to follow their lead. However, the Bible is not primarily about the people in the stories, and while the Bible is for me, it’s not about me. It’s primarily about God.
Biblical Theology starts with recognizing that we are reading material inspired by God, directed to specific individuals or groups (that have been dead for a long time), and that has been preserved for our benefit. And if we fail to read the Bible through this lens, we are going to set ourselves up for frustration and failure as we try to understand God and life.
Hang with me as I try to make this distinction clear.
It has become very popular to ask a fellow believer, “what does that verse mean to you?” rather than simply asking “what does this verse mean?” As a nation, I think we have subconsciously fallen for the idea that scripture is subjective and only has meaning when we give it meaning. But that’s not what scripture is. The Bible is the most authoritative text in existence, yet we don’t treat it that way. Since we just passed the 499th anniversary of the Reformation, I’m going to pull in some Martin Luther. One of his criticisms of the Roman Catholic church was that they would read meanings into scripture that weren’t there to justify themselves. He said they treated scripture like a wax nose, twisting it to make it look however they wished. I think we’re all prone to fall into the same error.
It’s incredibly popular to read the Bible like Aesop’s Fables where we come away with a bunch of handy rules for living. We tend to see it as a collection of stories that teach us valuable life lessons. I’m not saying we think it’s fictional, like The Tortoise and the Hare or The Boy Who Cried Wolf – just that we interpret it the same way. For instance, we may learn from Joseph to honor God even when we’re oppressed. We may discover that we should be like Daniel in the face of political persecution. Job is seen as teaching us to be faithful in adversity. In fact, we might believe that faith is what will sustain us when we have our own Red Sea moments. We’ll read about Goliath being killed and think David is an example of courage when we face our personal giants. And if someone is ever seen as having no hope, we’re quick to remind people that David sinned a lot and God still loved him.
Many of these takeaways are generally good life principles, but they are things that we have imposed upon the text. Does that make sense? When I say that we imposed it, I mean that we are making the text say something it’s author did not necessarily intend. What I mean is that God did not include a historical account so that I could find myself in it. He included it because it glorifies him. It tells us something about him. If you find a story inspirational and it drives you to be a better person, I suppose that's not the worst thing in the world, but don't assume that's why the story is there. The Bible was not meant to point to us. It was meant to point to God.
Clearly, when the Bible records how people are obedient to God and flourish in their faith, we can read that for our spiritual growth and benefit. My question is not whether Bible stories are good examples, because often they are. My question is whether that was ever the point. Did God have those people go through those things so thousands of years later I could apply their promises and situations specifically to myself? I don’t think so.
Let’s look at one example to see if that helps explain my difficulty with this approach. If you’re following along, it’s in Judges 13-16. This is where we meet Samson. What do we know about him? Super strong. Something about his hair. That may be about it. Here’s a quick rundown to refresh our memories:
Samson was the last of the judges that God put over Israel. At the time, Israel was being oppressed by the Philistines. When Samson became a man, he took a Philistine wife, even though marrying a foreigner was forbidden by God, and marrying one who was an enemy seemed like an especially bad idea. This would not be the last of Samson’s terrible ideas. Samson had taken a vow to live according to strict rules for holy living, but he also violated every rule in the vow. Samson was also fantastically strong. He went out of his way to pick fights with the Philistines, and regardless who was in the wrong, Samson always ended up killing lots of people. After his wife was killed, Samson moved in with a prostitute named Delilah. (Remember, he was not only an Israelite, but their leader, and he had taken an additional vow of holiness. Not good.) Delilah learned his weaknesses and betrayed him. Samson was captured and his eyes were gouged out. In the end, Samson got his revenge by collapsing the building the Philistines were holding him in, killing thousands, including himself.
So, let’s say you are teaching children, or leading a home group, or even reading for personal application. What is your take-away? How do I appropriate this story for myself? Is there a promise, perhaps a life verse? Let’s look at some options:
- Maybe I should take a Nazirite vow and grow out my hair
- Or marry a woman who dishonors God and betrays me
- Should I tear apart a lion with my bare hands?
- Don’t trust the advice of women?
- Kill dozens of people if they cheat at my game
- Does God want me to burn the crops of my neighbors?
- Maybe he wants me to kill 1000 more people with a donkey bone
- I wonder if I should sleep with prostitutes
- Maybe it’s ok to lie to people
- Kill myself, and take thousands with me?
I’m not intending to be facetious here. These are real things he did, and according to the Bible, the more memorable points of his life. So, what is the lesson of Samson? What does this biblical account mean to me? How can I apply this passage to my own life?
To be honest, I’m hard pressed to find any useful application here. Unless… Unless that’s missing the point entirely. What if I’m not supposed to find anything about myself in there? What if there is a bigger story that is here – as well as in every other story recorded in the Old Testament?
Let’s look at the big picture here. Let me tell you the story of Samson another way to see what you think.
It all begins with an Israelite couple. Their nation had abandoned God. They were being ruled by a stronger nation. They needed a deliverer. An Angel of the Lord appeared to this couple from the tribe of Judah and told them that they would miraculously conceive and give birth to a son. Their baby would be special. He would deliver the people. Rather than send armies to fight as other rulers had always done, he was going to fight on their behalf. And the way he ultimately delivered his people from their enemy required him to give his own life. Sadly, even after that, the people he died for continued to do what was right in their own eyes. Though he had delivered them from their enemy, most did not return to God.
Sound familiar? Whose story did I just tell? Know anyone else who fits that general narrative? JESUS!
Types of Christ
Samson is just one example of what theologians call a “type of Christ”. That doesn’t mean he is a kind of Christ – it means that he is an example that shows some aspect of what Christ will be like. Think of a type of Christ as being a hint. A type of Christ was a narrative that, if told enough, ought to eventually be very familiar and easy to recognize. We humans aren’t that bright though. Rather than being the smart guys, we’re usually pretty slow on the uptake. Most of the Jews missed it and most of us miss it until it’s pointed out.
Samson Should Change How You Read the Bible
Here’s the thing – Samson isn’t a weird exception to the rule. I’d like to challenge you to completely abandon the narrative we’ve all somehow picked up that the Bible is about us. It’s not. What would happen if we read the whole Bible looking for Samson stories? Or to be more accurate, looking for Jesus. The truth is that typology is everywhere in scripture.
The author of Hebrews referred to this very principle, referring to these types as mere shadows of real things that were yet to come. (That’s where we get the word foreshadow.) When we see a shadow coming, that tells us something about the thing it represents. It’s are a flat representation of something three-dimensional. It is fuzzy and misshapen and incomplete. That’s because a shadows is not the thing itself. That’s why we see a broad framework in Samson that is familiar, but the comparison falls apart when we look in too much detail. For instance, Jesus’ strength was not in his hair, Jesus did not sin, and he never drove the Holy Spirit away. But nevertheless, Samson was a type of Christ.
To prove I’m not making this up, let’s look at another example: How about Joseph. He was specially loved by his father. He was sent to his brothers, but they rejected him. He was betrayed and sold. He was unjustly accused and condemned. He was put in prison – you might say he was buried. He later rose from prison, and was exalted to sit at the king’s right hand. He was appointed as the one who would give “bread of life” to a dying world. The first time his brothers saw him after his exaltation, they did not recognize him. Do you see anything familiar here? The story of Joseph is not intended to tell you anything about yourself. You’re not supposed to find yourself there. You’re supposed to find Christ there! But sadly, and all too often, we don’t see it because we’re looking for ourselves.
And it’s not just Samson and Joseph. I’ll give you a few more examples:
- In Adam, one man’s sin separated us from God. In Christ, one man’s righteousness reconciled us to God.
- In Abel’s unjust death, his blood called from the ground for payment. In Christ’s death, his blood called from the ground that payment had been made.
- In Aaron, the people of Israel had an imperfect atonement offered by an imperfect man on an altar made by men. In Christ, both Jews and Gentiles could receive perfect atonement, by a perfect man, in God’s actual presence.
- In David, one who appeared to be meek and mild singlehandedly slayed the enemy while all the nation’s warriors cowered helplessly in the distance. In Jesus, one who appeared to be meek and mild singlehandedly slayed the enemy while all of us cowered helplessly in bondage.
This typology is not just with people, but sometimes with objects and events.
- In the wilderness, anyone who had received a fatal snakebite would be spared by looking at a bronze snake, which was a symbol of the curse of sin, that Moses placed on a pole. Today, anyone living under the fatal curse of sin will be spared by looking to Christ – who became a curse – on his pole, which was a Roman cross.
- In the exodus, the Children of Israel left their bondage in Egypt and wandered the wilderness until they reached the promised land. Today, we are given the opportunity to leave our bondage to sin, then navigate the wilderness of this life – where (just like the Israelites) we alternate between obedience to God and open rebellion – as we await our promised land of heaven.
It’s Not About Us
The Bible is for you and me, but it’s not about you or me. In fact, it’s not even written to us. It had a primary purpose and an original audience, and that was a long time ago. It’s not about us, but it is for us. It is for us in a way like how a math book is for us. It was written to a specific audience, it contains true things, and we can benefit from knowing them. The obvious difference is that this text is breathed out by God. So, while God knows us individually and cares for us individually, that doesn’t mean he wants your Bible personalized. He gave us the Bible so that we can know him – not so we can find ourselves.
The Bible has plenty of passages that teach us what Godly character looks like. Take the Beatitudes and Proverbs, for instance, and Paul's letters. They tell us how we ought to live. The Bible also has a significant amount of narrative, where God is showing us how he has been unfolding his plan over many generations. While it is useful to recognize good character in the narratives, realize that you can recognize it because of the teaching passages.
Where the Bible talks about things that happened, it is talking about other people. That's not a good place to find direct application. Where it says more pointed things like "honor God and worship him only" and "don't sin in your anger", and "be kind to one another" - those are the places you can mine all kinds of personal relevance. Remember, God said often that we should obey his commands in scripture, but he did not tell us to obey the stories in scripture.
Credo magazine notes that, “When the sixteenth-century Reformation erupted, one of the alarming dangers that became blatantly obvious to reformers like Martin Luther was the pervasiveness of biblical illiteracy among the laity. It may be tempting to think that this problem has been solved almost five hundred years later. However, in our own day biblical illiteracy in the pew continues to present a challenge. Many Christians in our post-Christian context simply are not acquainted with the storyline of the Bible and God’s actions in redemptive history from Adam to the second Adam.”
The Reformation isn’t over. Or at least it shouldn’t be. We can continue what the Reformers started by becoming even more familiar with the story arc of the Bible, and by helping others to see the right way to read it.
The Bible is a whole. 40 authors wrote 66 books over a span of 1500 years. Their message is uniform and cohesive. The Bible is not primarily a collection of wise sayings or helpful life applications. “The Bible’s main (though not sole) concern is to reveal the character of God. It does so by describing the works of God and by making clear propositional statements about the Lord.” To put in more simply – the Bible is not about you. The Bible is about God.
It’s a drama about God, written by God. It is the unfolding narrative of who he is and what he has done. It’s the story of what God created for his own glory. Central to the story are the humans he created – sometimes faithful to him, but more often not. From these people, some would be called out and drawn to him. These would be the church, which the Bible calls the bride of Christ. We were not created for us – we were created for Jesus. We were not saved for us, we were saved for him.
The shadows were gone, because the real thing they pointed to had come. To quote Saint Augustine, “The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed.” In the Old Testament, the major plot is that mankind is hopelessly lost, but God was sending a savior. Four gospels tell us about that savior’s life on earth and how he accomplished his mission of saving mankind. The rest of the New Testament talks about this rescue mission’s implications for us. That is the theological heart of the Bible. Remembering that big picture is Biblical Theology. Keeping this in view is critical to every believer so that we might better understand the message that God preserved for us.
 “[Biblical theology is] that approach to scripture which attempts to see Biblical material holistically and to describe this wholeness or synthesis in Biblical categories. Biblical theology attempts to embrace the message of the Bible and to arrive at an intelligible coherence of the whole despite the great diversity of the parts. Or, put another way: Biblical theology investigates the themes presented in scripture and defines their inter-relationships. Biblical theology is an attempt to get to the theological heart of the Bible.” – Elmer A. Martens
 Hebrews 11
 Hebrews 10:1
 Read the account of the disciples who met Jesus on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24 - especially note vss 25, 27, 44)
 Romans 5:14-15; 1 Corinthians 15:22,45
 Genesis 4:8,10; Hebrews 12:24
 Exodus 28:1; Hebrews 5:4-5; Leviticus 16:15 ; Hebrews 9:7, 24
 1 Samuel 17; Romans 6:8-10
 Numbers 21:9
 John 3:14-15
 Galatians 3:13
 We could also talk about the context of the original hearers. Words like cool, gay, “the web”, and tweet meant something very different 50 years ago than they do today. If people from a different generation hear you speak, they may be confused. Imagine what differences could accumulate over thousands of years! Since we are Americans in the year 2016, we have a different context than Hebrews and Greeks in the year 30 did – not to mention their predecessors 1000 years farther back. For an example, if I mention going to the sea, you probably think I’m talking about an upcoming vacation - or maybe I am Navy cadet about to be deployed. A Jew reading the Bible when it was written would not have thought of those things. They didn’t have a Navy, and they certainly didn’t go to the shore to relax. The sea was a terrible place. Storms came from the sea. People drowned in the sea. The sea was a fearful place. That’s why we see mention of monsters coming from the sea. To them, the sea was dangerous and dreadful. So, when we see Jesus calming a storm, or walking on the sea – these are not just average miracles. They showed that he mastered even the scariest and most powerful things. The sea did not swallow Jesus up like it did Jonah (and by the way, neither would the grave). So, what does it mean when we read in Revelation that the new earth will have no sea? I don’t know that it means that there will no longer be large bodies of water. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. I’ll tell you what it meant to them though. It meant that once God makes all things new, there will no longer be storms, death, monsters, or dread. It means that God wins.
 We could look at understanding the context surrounding passages. For instance, Jeremiah 29:11 only makes sense when you know who God had plans for, and that means starting at the beginning of the chapter. And 2 Chronicles 7:14 is not talking about Christians praying for the restoration of America.
 Fancy word for these is called “didactic” (or teaching) passages
 It can be helpful to think of these as prescriptive, rather than merely descriptive passages
 Exodus 20; Deut 11:1; Luke 11:28; John 15:4; 2 John 1:6; 1 Peter 1:14; James 1:25
 “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that through patience and through encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” – Romans 15:4
 Biblical Theology, by Scott Hafemann, pub. 2002, pg 262
 The book of Hebrews was written to Jews to plead with them not to return to these types and shadows. The real thing these pointed to has now come. Why would you want to go back?! (Note the similarity to the Exodus from Egypt)