By Dr. Abner Chou, John F. MacArthur Endowed Fellow
Getting Theology from the Text
With a new year, we yet again try to read through our entire Bible. We have plans, strategies, apps, blogs, and even groups that assist us in making the journey through the Scriptures. Yet, we struggle. Why is that? Of course, discipline plays a major part. However, we can often get bogged down because there are parts of the Bible that puzzle us. As people often say to me, “I just don’t understand what I’m reading.”
Now what do we mean by this? To be clear, we do understand some things. We know what happened in the stories, the names in a genealogy, the descriptions within a prophecy, the processes in the sacrificial system, or the regulations within the law. We understand what the text says. That’s not our dilemma. Our dilemma is that we’re not certain why it is there. Because of this, we start skimming (or even skipping) passages we can’t figure out and eventually, we stop reading our Bibles altogether.
So sometimes we become frustrated in our devotions because we know all Scripture is profitable (cf. 2 Tim 3:16) but can’t seem to easily identify how certain texts are profitable. In the end, we are wondering, “Is there really theology in every passage of the Bible and if so, how do we find it?” That’s the key question.
The Biblical Writers As Theologians
At this point, we could talk about a lot of practical methods and tips of gleaning theology from the text. Those are all helpful but we need to think through something far more fundamental, something that influences our entire thought process of reading Scripture: Who are the biblical writers?
In answering this question, we may often think of the prophets and apostles as farmers, fishermen, shepherds, poets, or historians. It is true that many of the biblical authors came from humble backgrounds. They also wrote accurate history. But here’s our problem. If we think of them only as shepherds or fisherman, then that slants the way we read them. If we see these authors as simple, then their stories, genealogies, and laws must also be just as simple. We won’t look any further because in our minds, this is who they are and so that’s all that they wrote. But the prophets and apostles are more than that. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they are not just farmers or shepherds; they are theologians.
Although this might be a different way to think about the biblical writers than we are used to, it isn’t that radical. After all, we constantly point out how the biblical authors loved God’s Word (Ps 119:97) and meditated on it deeply (Josh 1:8; Pss 1:2; 63:6; 1 Tim 4:13-15). That is often cited as a reason why we should read our own Bibles! If we know the biblical writers were such deep thinkers of Scripture, then why wouldn’t they be theologians? Their writings actually show they intentionally engaged the depths of God’s Word. Scholars observe that Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets constantly allude to other Scriptures such that on average, one in ten verses is an allusion to prior revelation. Accordingly, the prophets and apostles were constantly discussing and expounding upon Scripture. When the prophets and apostles wrote, they had a purpose to explain Scripture further, reveal its ramifications, fill in more detail, illustrate its power, or proclaim its bearing on life. With that, the biblical authors wrote as theologians and their writings are intentionally and thoroughly theological.
This reality should make us rethink how we read our Bibles. To be sure, the Bible has historical records and the like. But they are not only that. The biblical writers are not just historians who accurately recorded what took place. They are theologians who wrote theology not just in epistles or psalms but in those genealogies, stories, prophecies, and laws as well. Everything they wrote has theology. Thus, there is more to these texts than meets the eye. They do have a theological purpose and we need to look further because something deeper is there.
Connecting the Dots
So how do we do that? In sum: we need to be a better cross-referencer. We just observed that the biblical writers referred to previous revelation in order to expound upon it. Accordingly, those earlier texts serve as a sort of interpretative anchor point. They establish the concepts and ideas that are being developed in the passage we are reading. By examining those cross-references, we can confidently know the theology that is discussed in the text. After all, we didn’t make this up. We are following exactly what the author wanted us to think. We have in mind the context he wanted us to have.
How does an author point us to other passages? He often uses distinct words or phrases that will trigger us to think of other passages. Even in the modern day, we play games that do something similar. We try to identify a word based upon associated words or supply the final words of a familiar phrase. If I said, “For God so loved…,” most of us would be able to say, “the world.” In the same way, the biblical writers put unique phrases in their writings to clue us in to go back to an earlier passage.
That gives us a strategy. In essence, there is inspired cross referencing in the Bible and we just need to connect the dots. We need to see how one passage is connected with another via similar wording and from that, we can see how every word and phrase contextually in one passage builds on the theology established by the other. That enable us to bridge text to theology.
Theology in Food and Genealogies?
Connecting the dots really helps us to see that theology is in every text, even in those that we were puzzled about. For example, in 1 Kings 4:20-23, we see a list of the foods that Solomon’s household ate. What devotional idea could ever come from that? However, if you cross reference some of those animals, you realize that they only occur in Deut 14:5. In context, Deuteronomy 14 lists the foods Israel could enjoy in the land God was about to give to them. However, such enjoyment is related to a greater reality. God intentionally words Deuteronomy 14 to make us associate it with Genesis 2 and the Garden of Eden. He declares to Israel that they can eat from any clean animal (Deut 14:9) just like He told Adam that he could eat from any tree of the Garden (Gen 2:16). God’s blessing of food is indicative of His greater agenda to return the world back to Eden. So when Solomon experience such bounty, God is working out that very purpose. At times we may wonder if God is dealing with tragedies like famine or world hunger. What we read in 1 Kings demonstrates that paradise regained (Isa 49:10) is not a hyperbole and that God is able to overcome this fallen creation to make all things new. Solomon’s kingdom provides us precedent and confidence that there will be a day when hunger will be wiped out in this world (cf. Isa 49:10; Rev 7:16). God did this in part in history and so, in the end, He will do it in full through the One greater than Solomon (cf. Matt 12:42). A food list may not seem to have theology but it contains immense hope if we connect the dots properly.
Here’s another example. We might be puzzled at those genealogies throughout Scripture. How are they devotional? However, these genealogies connect back to Gen 3:15 which talks about how woman will give birth to a seed that crushes the serpent’s head. The genealogies tell the story of how God kept that promise of sustaining a line that culminates in the Messiah. That’s why the genealogies start with Adam and his wife (Gen 5:1), then narrow down to the line of David (Ruth 4:13-22) and then further winnow down to Jesus (Mattt 1:1-17). Genealogies reveal God’s enduring faithfulness (for generations!) and the proof that there is no one like Christ. Out of all mankind-every descendant of Adam and Eve-God has narrowed down the messianic line to One who is the culmination of that line and thereby the very focal point of nation, promise, and history: the Lord Jesus Christ. Genealogies, by design, demonstrate the exclusivity and supremacy of Christ.
Can I Really Do This?
At this point, you might think, “Is this something I can really do?” We might not currently know our Bible well enough to pick up on all the phrases the biblical writers used to refer to other passages. But we can grow. By continuing to read our Bibles, we will become more familiar with the Scripture so that when we stumble on a phrase which makes us say, “Didn’t I read this somewhere else?,” we can connect the dots that the biblical writers wanted us to. Don’t let impatience or perfectionism prevent you from growing. Instead, we need to be thankful for every new insight we learn. It is a blessing from the Lord. Let’s be excited at the prospect of discovery. That will not only help us be better at cross-referencing but also read our Bibles in general.
Even more, we are so blessed to have tools that can aid us in this endeavor. We have cross references in our Bibles, concordances, Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, commentaries, study notes, pastors/teachers, and even online classes and lectures. All of those references reflect people who have already diligently connected the dots for us. With so many helps, it is easier than ever to do this for ourselves. We have no excuse. Ultimately, connecting the dots isn’t really about special ability or having the right tools but about effort and personal investment.
Reading the Bible Fully in a Year
That reminds us that as we read the Bible this year, we don’t just want to read it through, we want to read it well. When we come to a text where we wonder, “How is this useful?,” don’t just skim over it. That’ll only reinforce our wrong conception that the Bible isn’t that profitable. Rather, connect the dots. See how the biblical writers alluded to earlier revelation and how the passage we are reading contributes to that theology. The solution is not to skip over passages but to get deeper into them. That’s because the biblical writers are theologians and all that they wrote is theological. Doing this will make our quiet times more compelling. Figuring out cross references, context, and how all the details of a text build upon the theology of previous revelation is like solving a puzzle. It keeps our minds occupied with God’s Word. And as we figure things out, it makes us more curious to see what else there is to learn and how everything plays out. All of this will make us go back to read the Bible more, wrestle with the text more, and meditate on it more —the very things we want to do.
Doing this will also make our quiet times more profitable. As we start to learn how everything in the Bible is theological, we see the wisdom of God in how He wrote His Word. Even more, we see how every detail and facet of Scripture announce the complex majesty and beauty of the God of the Word. With that, our lives will never be the same again.
So may we this year not only read the Bible through but well. That kind of time in the Word is truly devotional.