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Rightly handling the word of truth.
Biblical theology and God’s unfolding purpose in the story of Scripture.
The following is a paper originally prepared for a seminary class on theology. May it be blessing to you as you are discipled in the Word of the Lord.
It was the late R. C. Sproul who once quipped that every Christian is a theologian. While, at first, that assertion might daunt you or even bore you, that does not take away from its truthfulness or its significance. In some corners of the “church universal,” you might often hear the sentiment that theology and doctrine are only for those who have decided to cloister themselves in the ivory towers of biblical higher education, with the inference being that such disciplines are unnecessary since all a believer really needs is Jesus. There is, to be sure, a level at which it is true that not everyone is a theologian, at least in the professional sense of the term. However, the impulse to sneer at the idea of learning or doing theology is not only misguided, it is wholly mistaken. Truth be told, whether consciously or not, everyone makes theological assertions all the time. Therefore, the declaration that you do not need theology, “you just need Jesus,” like Dr. Sproul suggests, should be followed up by the inquiry, “And who is Jesus?” Any answer to such a question will inherently involve some measure of theology or doctrine.
The true question, then, is not whether or not you are going to be a theologian, but whether or not you are going to be a good one. A “good” theologian, as defined by Scripture, is one who is described as a “worker who has no need to be ashamed,” and who “rightly handl[es] the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). It is telling that the apostle Paul uses the word “worker” in the context of admonishing and encouraging his protégé Timothy to steadfastness in ministry. This term is suggestive of both a laborer in the fields and an artisan with his canvas, which is an incisive and insightful way to understand theology itself. It is both a craft which requires labor and an art form which allows for exploration and necessitates expression. Rightly handling the word of truth, then, means finding joy and fulfillment in surveying the breadth and depth of theological discovery by scouring the pages of God’s Word.
One area of theology which is, perhaps, the most needful in our present moment is that of biblical theology. Maybe that is a term that sounds somewhat foreign to your ears. It should, however, be the area of theology with which you are most familiar and most comfortable. The thrust behind biblical theology is to take a panoramic view of the Bible in order to trace its over-arching story. From Genesis to Revelation, what is the Bible trying to tell us? Maybe that is something else to which you have not given much thought. Despite being a literary book composed of over 30,000 verses, 1,189 chapters, and 66 individual books, authored by numerous men over hundreds of years, God, in his providence and wisdom, has preserved his Word in order to reveal one particular story — that is, the story of God’s glory as revealed in the salvation of sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son. Biblical theology is the endeavor to capture the essence of that story by tracing the ways in which that story is interwoven throughout the entire Bible.
The case for biblical theology.
Perhaps the best example for what biblical theology looks like, and why it is so necessary, comes from an example of its negative, which can be found in our text, Luke 24. In verses thirteen through thirty-five, Luke relays the story of two of the Lord’s disciples who have a chance encounter with the resurrected Lord himself, only they do not recognize that it is him (Luke 24:16). This duo, one of whom is named Cleopas (Luke 24:18), are journeying towards the little village of Emmaus, which sat roughly seven miles west of Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus, who that morning walked out of his temporary tomb (Luke 24:6), joins them and begins to probe for the reason why they had such long faces. We learn, of course, that Cleopas and his friend had been discussing the recent happenings back in Jerusalem, concerning the brutal torture and excruciating death of their beloved teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. As they relay these events, however, we soon learn that these two disciples had pinned their hopes and dreams on Jesus being “the one to redeem Israel,” that is, the Messiah (Luke 24:21). But, as it was, they saw him expire while nailed to a Roman cross between two other common criminals. And, as they report, “it is now the third day since these things happened.”
The sense of finality and defeat which colors these disciples’ words stems from the fact that their hope in Jesus being the Messiah was more akin to Jesus being Israel’s supposed “champion.” That is, the long-sought-after Messiah was, in their minds, a divinely-sent warrior who would rise up to overthrow all those who had oppressed and enslaved the people of Israel, restoring the seat of David’s kingdom to its rightful heir, and returning Israel itself to its previous renown. No wonder, then, these two looked so somber. When Jesus breathed his last, they did not only lose a friend, they lost all hope.
But such is when Jesus, hearing these disciples express their understanding of Scripture, decides to lead them through, in no certain terms, a study of biblical theology. “O foolish ones,” Jesus says, “and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25–26). According to Jesus’s own testimony, what just occurred on the outskirts of Jerusalem was supposed to occur. Indeed, it was something of which Israel’s beloved prophets foretold. As he goes on to say, this was the point all along. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). On a road to a nondescript town in the suburbs of Jerusalem, Jesus leads the best Bible study ever held — and, notably, it is entirely concerned with what we would call biblical theology.
Accordingly, one of the reasons why biblical theology is so important is that it demonstrates how the Bible is connected. The truth is, the Bible was not put together haphazardly or at random. It is not a serialized digest of moral, ethical, or philosophical short-stories, such as Aesop’s Fables. Rather, as Jesus himself announces to the Pharisees, it is the pages of Scripture which “bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Or, again, as Luke says in our text, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). God the Father has a purpose behind each of the books of the Bible which his Holy Spirit inspired, with each one serving as an indispensable link to the other.
Furthermore, biblical theology accounts for the selective nature of what is recorded in Scripture. It might surprise you to know that the Bible is not a comprehensive book when it comes to ancient Palestinian and Mediterranean history. In fact, if you were to trace what is recorded in the historical books of the Old Testament, for example (that is, Joshua through Nehemiah), there are a few instances where the inspired writer of Scripture skims or even skips over large swaths of world history. This is because the project of the biblical authors was not to record history, but was to relay the story which God had revealed and inspired them to record.
Biblical theology also serves as an aid which can help us interpret some of the more troublesome texts of Scripture. Notwithstanding which book of the Bible you find yourself reading, it will not be long before you come across a passage which gives you pause, grief even. There are texts peppered throughout both the Old and New Testaments which cause no small amount of confusion and conflict. The horrific account of an Israelite woman’s desperate cannibalism (2 Kings 6:26–29), for example, is clarified by a broader understanding of God’s willful allowance of Israel to experience for herself just how desperate things can get when God’s words are disbelieved and disregarded. Similarly, the trilogy of chapters in 2 Kings 8, 9, and 10 serve to record for us the smoldering carnage that surrounded the throne of King Jehu. Rather than merely be an accounting of violent anecdotes, these texts remind us that God is always a God of his Word, whether that means devastation or deliverance. This is where biblical theology shines since it strives to keep an overriding framework at the center of biblical interpretation and application. Once you are able to notice how connected the Bible is, some of the difficult edges will begin to wear off.
The practice of biblical theology.
Like the disciples of Luke 24, we now understand, from the mouth of Jesus himself, that he himself is the concern in all of Scripture. Though there are stories and applications to be made in the granular sense, the grand program of the Bible is to unfold the particular story of how God brought forth his Son “when the fullness of time had come,” in order that he might “redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons,” as Paul explains so well (Gal. 4:4–5). Jesus’s own words, back in our scene on the Emmaus highway, similarly suggest that the unanimity of Scripture finds its convergence in “the Christ.” “O foolish ones,” the Lord says, “and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25–26).
That Jesus would call two of his own disciples “fools,” while unnerving, indicates that the topics and events at hand are of such consequence that he is resolved to have Cleopas and his friend not miss his point. It just so happens that topic at hand was, in a manner of speaking, the notion of biblical theology, with the events at hand being the long-foreseen fulfillment of that theological project — only these two disciples were not able to grasp it. Their understanding of the Scriptures led them to believe that their hopeful Messiah would be a figure who was in possession of some amalgamation of cultural verve, political sway, and religious authority. When their “suspected Messiah” was tried and crucified as a blasphemer and traitor, we might well imagine how devastated they were.
However, as Jesus seems to make apparent, Cleopas and his buddy’s principal error, which was also the chief cause for their discouragement, could all be tied back to how “foolishly” they had examined Scripture — or, to put it another way, they were operating with a misinformed biblical theology. Their mistaken understanding of Scripture had tilled the ground for dashed expectations. When the seeds of faulty interpretation are sown, the only harvest is false hope. “Rightly handl[ing] the word of truth,” then, prevails as one of the Christian’s foremost pursuits. Accordingly, how do we practice biblical theology? How do we “do” it? What does studying the Scriptures through the framework of biblical theology look like? And is this something that everyone can practice, or is it reserved for scholars and pastors and those with degrees? As it is, biblical theology is an all-inclusive practice — and practicing it ought to be ubiquitous with what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
The practice of biblical theology is as easy as knowing what to look for and cluing into specific keynotes which appear throughout the Scriptures — chief among which is noticing how God reveals himself throughout the Bible. Part of “rightly handl[ing] the word of truth” means grappling with the manifold symbols, types, and patterns which are meant to epitomize or synopsize the will and wisdom of God to deliver man from his sins and redeem the cosmos from the clutches of darkness. This, of course, has always been the determination of the Triune God. From the unforeseen offering of a ram which Abraham sacrificed instead of Isaac (Gen. 22:9–14), to his sudden appearance to Moses in the burning bush which summoned him to service (Exod. 3:1–6), to “the sound of a low whisper” which wrapped Elijah in a blanket of comfort (1 Kings 19:9–12), the pages of the Old Testament are populated with the sacred furniture of God which all find their fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ.
These ancient augurs of the Savior serve to rouse our faith, hope, and confidence in the providence of God, whose plan to “reconcile to himself all things” is effected by the cross of Christ his Son (Col. 1:20). Throughout the varied narratives and literary forms of Scripture, we are invited to examine the manifold ways in which God deigns to show up. Biblical theology provides a framework for keeping the vast array of linguistic terms, phrases, phonetic pictures, and cultural archetypes tethered to the same sprawling tapestry, which the Bible everywhere reveals is the Christ of God himself. He is the embodiment of the “good things to come,” which were expressed in types and shadows throughout the ages (Heb. 10:1; Col. 2:17).
Later on in the narrative of Luke 24, the whole company of the Lord’s disciples are together, including the two from the Emmaus road, along with Jesus himself. As they break bread with one another, Jesus reveals that what has just occurred — namely, his crucifixion and resurrection — has been the point the whole time. “Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44–45). From this moment onward, the apostles are seen championing the message of salvation through Jesus’s name alone (Acts 4:11–12). Everywhere they went, they proclaimed a biblical theological message which unequivocally shows that the Jesus of Nazareth, who had only recently been crucified, was without doubt “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Therefore, those who heard this message were left with no other recourse other than to repent and believe (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 20:21).
The resonance of biblical theology.
If we were to track the trajectory of the apostles’ message throughout the book of Acts, it would become undeniably clear that their project was one which reverberated with the hope, grace, and assurance found within the paradigm which biblical theology offers. The apostle Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is a prime example of the apostolic discovery, so to speak, of preaching from a platform of biblical theology. In order to substantiate and explicate the supernatural phenomena just witnessed (Acts 2:1–4), Peter “lifted up his voice” to address the doubters and naysayers with the adamantine truth of God’s Word. With a sharp wit and a keen grasp of the Old Testament prophets, Peter proceeds to demonstrate how Jesus of Nazareth is none other than the Christ of God — who, in the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” subjected himself to be “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
Peter was, in many ways, speaking on behalf of all those who had been with Jesus and who had their eyes opened by him just before his ascension. The “eureka!” moment for Jesus’s apostles persevered in the establishment of the early church, as is seen the development of this method of preaching by the church’s first deacons. For example, Stephen’s extensive sermon in Acts 7 is, at its core, an exploration of biblical theology from Abraham, to Joseph, to Moses, to the law and the temple, all the way to the cross. In the moments leading up to his execution, Stephen boldly announces that the Righteous One, long-foretold by the prophets, was none other than the one who was only recently betrayed and murdered (Acts 7:53). Likewise, Philip the Evangelist spends considerable time with the eunuch from Ethiopia, opening up the Scriptures to him in order to tell him “the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35).
It is clear, therefore, that the apostolic method for understanding the Bible is the same method which Jesus showed them leading up to his departure. It is the means by which the early church apprehended the work of God in them, and for them, in the world. As the church underwent seasons of weal and woe, their faith was upheld by the words of God which gave them continual grace and conclusive hope. Even as the apostle Paul stood before King Agrippa, with his life in the balance, his message of defense was encapsulated by a decisive articulation that all that “the prophets and Moses said would come to pass” did actually come to pass in Christ (Acts 26:22–23). As he says to the Corinthian congregation, “All the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20).
Paul’s poise and perseverance through unimaginable bouts of suffering were not self-motivated or self-generated (2 Cor. 11:16–30). If that were the case, he surely would have resigned or recanted long before his tumultuous years of bouncing from one Roman magistrate to the next as he waited to hear what would become of his life. But even in the midst of all of that indecision and uncertainty, Paul remained certain that, for reasons yet unexplainable to him (1 Cor. 15:9–10), the God of all grace and comfort had engrafted him into the divine story of redemption and reconciliation that crescendoed in Christ and was still yet being carried forward through Christ’s church. The very same Pharisee who had inflicted such grievous havoc on the early believers out of a zealous enthusiasm to discredit the name of Jesus eventually became the loudest spokesman for Jesus, modeling for a world of sinners how the Lord can “display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16).
Biblical theology, then, imbues us with hearts and minds that are ready and able to follow wherever God’s Spirit might lead. While our culture is captivated by the anthem, “Listen to your heart,” Christ and his apostles would wholeheartedly disavow such a claim. Instead, they would insist that you follow the Word; that you trace the heart of God as it is brought to light throughout the winding histories of God’s people. God, in his wisdom and grace, has decided to reveal his heart through a story that encompasses our own while incorporating us into his better story. Faithfulness in our day is not found in our sanguine speeches or pithy plans for self-improvement. It is only found in the story of God’s Word become flesh in order to help the “offspring of Abraham” by making propitiation for their sins (Heb. 2:14–18). The prevailing element which tethers us to the early church is “the word of truth” (Acts 2:42–47). “Rightly handl[ling] the word of truth,” therefore, remains the prevailing need of the moment. There is nothing more important, necessary, or urgent in our day than the fervent declaration of God’s Word as the only source of grace and truth in world that is desperate for both.