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Biblical Theology and the Sermon

Discovering the themes, ethics, and storyline of Scripture.
Biblical Theology and the Sermon
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The sermon is meant to be drenched with the theology of Scripture, which is why biblical theology is so vital, especially when we understand what biblical theology is. Put simply, and this is the definition we provide in our volume, Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach, “Biblical theology is the theology of the Bible.” In other words, biblical theology is not our own theology, or that of our church or denomination; it is the theology of the biblical writers themselves. Biblical theology is what the various Prophetic and Apostolic writers say about God, his character, and his purposes, and what all of this means for how we should live in his world.

While the Books of Scripture were written by different individuals at different times, there is continuity in Scripture, since the theologies of the biblical writers are ultimately unified and not contradictory, as they express the unitary purpose of God in biblical revelation.

Understood in this way, a grasp of biblical theology by the preacher will result in a certain amount of variety as they proclaim the theology of Isaiah, John, or Paul, while at the same time bringing unity to their preaching ministry. They won’t be contradicting what they’ve said on other occasions, for the different theologies of the biblical writers combine into a compatible and consistent theology of the scriptures as a whole.

When bidding farewell to the Ephesian elders, the Apostle Paul solemnly declared, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27). In his three-year ministry, Paul covered the entire range of biblical material.

Today’s preachers should do the same. In so doing, they should move beyond expository to biblical-theological preaching and help their congregations draw meaningful, God-intended connections between various parts of Scripture. In this way, they will encourage their people to become whole-Bible Christians.

Major Themes

In Biblical Theology, which is meant to be a rich biblical resource for preachers and teachers of Scripture, for every Book of the Bible, we discuss the themes, ethics, and place in the storyline of Scripture. In this way, we aim to blend a book-by-book reading with both a central-themes and a metanarrative approach.

There are themes that run through the entire Bible, such as creation, kingship, love, salvation, covenant, temple, and Messiah, and each is important. No one theme says or sums up everything that we need to know about God and his purposes.

A focus on theme does not relieve the preacher of the necessity of close study of a particular Bible passage, of course, but it will assist them to see what is most important in any passage, for theme is a vital indicator of a writer’s distinctive emphases and convictions. There are both major and minor themes, and each biblical writer makes a unique contribution to the theology of the Bible as a whole.

Ethical Teachings

In our book-by-book survey of the two Testaments, we explore ethical teachings as well as theological themes. Too often, biblical theology has neglected the all-important “So what?” question, but Scripture is not only inspired; it is also authoritative. It contains divine speech acts that call for human moral action (ethics).

This requires a stance of obedient submission to God’s Word. We come to the Bible not merely as scholars or students, seeking information or intending to increase our knowledge about its contents. We come to find out what it is God wants us to do (James 1:22–25; cf. Matt. 7:21–29). Each biblical writer provides instructions and guidance as to how God would have us live.

For example, Scripture contains the preaching of Moses in Deuteronomy, the moral demands of the Prophets, the wise sayings collected in Proverbs, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and the ethical portions of Paul’s letters (e.g., Rom. 12–14; Col. 3–4). In addition, there is an ethics of the Pentateuch and of the Old Testament as a whole, and of Jesus, Paul, and the New Testament as a whole. The Bible teaches what we might call “global virtues,” exhibiting an ethics that never goes out of date, including love, generosity, purity, hospitality, and the care of the poor.

In this way, biblical theology will assist the preacher to have something insightful and relevant to say on every moral issue of our time.

Storyline of Scripture

There is also a storyline that runs through Scripture, and the Books of the Bible have been put in a certain order by earlier generations of readers, which is intended to help later readers like us to make sense of the Bible as a whole.

We live in a time of soundbites, tweets, and the Bible on the smartphone. These technologies run the danger of atomizing the Bible, leaving Scripture passages without context and connection to other Bible passages. Again, this is where biblical theology becomes so important.

There is a storyline running through the Bible, as reflected in passages like Nehemiah 9, Psalm 78, Daniel 9, Acts 7 and 13. Likewise, in terms of the structuring of the canon, the books are found in blocks, such as the Pentateuch, the Former and Latter Prophets in the Hebrew canon, or the fourfold Gospel and Pauline Corpus in the New Testament. In Biblical Theology, we don’t play the biblical storyline off against the canonical framing of the books, for both frameworks are vital for a proper reading of Scripture.

Preparing and Preaching a Biblical-Theological Sermon

How, then, does a preacher prepare and preach a biblical-theological sermon, such as on the Book of Genesis?

The first step is to read through the entire book on which we are preaching and note major themes and connections, both within the Book and with other parts of Scripture.

For example, when preaching on the Joseph narrative, what are the connections with God’s earlier promises to Abraham? Also, in what ways does Joseph’s life connect with the life of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels?

Or, to give a New Testament example, you’re preaching on a passage in Galatians. You’ll want to use Acts to elucidate Paul’s references to his reception of the gospel “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12) and to his “former life in Judaism” (1:13) and explain why he is talking about his background in the first place. Then, Paul himself draws biblical-theological connections in Chapters 3 and 4 to Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. So here, the preacher can simply track Paul’s argument and explain why, on a close reading of the Old Testament scriptures, justification is by faith, not works, and why that matters.

By drawing these connections in our sermons, the preacher will not merely exposit the text; we will also help people in our congregation learn how to read their Bibles in their entirety. The whole story of Scripture will come alive, and our audience will come to see how the library of 66 Books of Scripture is beautifully woven together into a storyline consisting of a plethora of major and minor themes, as in any good story, only better, as this is the inspired Word of God and the greatest story ever told.

Editor’s Note: If you would like to explore more on the topic of Biblical Theology be sure to check out their new book, Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach (Crossway, 2023). In it they analyse all 66 Books of the Bible and provide key insights for each passage discussed. This analysis includes: key biblical-theological themes, the Book’s place in the overall storyline of Scripture, and show how God seeks to transform the lives of his people.

Andreas J. Köstenberger is the theologian in residence at Fellowship Raleigh, a cofounder of Biblical Foundations, and the author, editor, or translator of over sixty books.

Gregory Goswell is academic dean and lecturer in biblical studies (Old Testament) at Christ College, Sydney. He is the author of the EP Study Commentary Ezra–Nehemiah and coauthor of Unceasing Kindness: A Biblical Theology of Ruth and God’s Messiah in the Old Testament: Expectations of a Coming King.

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