An excerpt from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “New Colossus” is etched upon a plaque mounted to the Statue of Liberty. It reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Like battered immigrants approaching the shores of Ellis Island, people stream into church sanctuaries on Sunday morning like “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” They live life weighed down by sin and its cursed effects, wearied by a fallen world without and a fallen heart within. These weary travellers need a bastion of hope, standing before them with arms raised, lifting a lamp to shine light on their sin-darkened souls.
No other light can turn back this darkness but the light of “the prophetic word made more sure…a lamp shining in a dark place” (1 Peter 1:19). These pilgrims need God’s prophetic word declared to them boldly, to see revelation held up as a light shining in a dark place—simply put, they need preaching. But not just any preaching will do. They do not need what John Piper calls “moral or psychological pep talks about how to get along in the world.” They do not need bare theological principles either, what Jay Adams calls “naked proclamations of truth”, but rather truth rooted in history.
In my last post, I sought to define biblical theology and demonstrate why it’s needed in the practice of preaching. In this post, I want to offer guidance on how to use biblical theology in the preparation of sermons. Biblical theology outlines the Bible’s view of how history progresses and informs us how God works in and through that history. Employing biblical theology in preaching ensures that the preacher does not give simple steps to better living or isolated tenets of theology and practice but rather demonstrates how the truth presented in each passage is shown to be but one ray of light emanating from the lamp of God’s redemptive plan. Those who listen to preaching need to hear the grand story of God’s work throughout history and how that work informs their hearts and lives on a daily basis.
So what is this story found in the Bible? The storyline of the Bible consists of events and their subsequent consequences that build the plot and bring about its resolution. There are four stages to the biblical story that frame the narrative. The following figure shows how the stages are divided up by four major events and their subsequent consequences for the relationship between God and mankind.
|Major Event||Resulting Stage|
|God creates the heavens, earth, animals, and mankind||Mankind lives with God in unhindered fellowship and harmony with the created order (Genesis 1-2)|
|Adam rebels against God||Mankind’s fellowship with God is broken; onset of the Old Age: creation is now marred by sin, death, and Satan; God begins to foreshadow his redemptive work through the nation of Israel (Genesis 3 – the end of the Old Testament canon)|
|The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ||The New Age is inaugurated in the midst of the Old Age (Gospels); mankind can be reconciled to God in Christ and enjoy life in the Spirit but the curse of the Old Age is still present (New Testament epistles)|
|The return of Jesus to establish God’s Kingdom on earth||New Age reigns unfettered by the Old; all enemies of God are defeated; God’s people enjoy eternal, unhindered fellowship with God (Revelation)|
Figure 1. Stages of the Biblical Story
Every passage in Scripture exists in this flow of narrative and either narrates a significant event or describes life in the stage that results from one of those events. No event or stage is isolated from the others but instead they shape and form (and inform) one another. The major events move the plot forward, both providing development from the previous stage and setting the tone for the subsequent one. Every event or stage is both a continuation of what comes before and a force that shapes what follows. This has significant implications for preaching.
There is a current that sweeps through the biblical narrative that constantly flows toward the resolution of the plot. At any given point in the river of the narrative, a passage is being rushed over with water that flows from previous events and stages and at the same time is being pushed downstream, toward the events and stages that complete the story. The preacher who integrates biblical theology in his preaching has in mind both the prior events and stages that shape the current passage as well as the resulting future realities the text anticipates.
When preaching a text, the preacher should come with biblical theological questions. Does this passage narrate a major event? In what stage of the story of redemption does this passage occur? How do prior events and stages influence this particular text? Where does the story go from here? How does this text influence or anticipate future events and stages in the story? When the preacher roots each text in biblical theology, he is rooting the truth of each text into the story of God’s interaction with humanity and thus brings all of God’s redemptive work to bear on the listener.
John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 15.
Jay Adams, Preaching With Purpose: The Urgent Task of Homiletics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 15.
Hamilton, What is Biblical Theology, 27.
The following figure is adapted from a diagram in David Wenham, “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament” in A Theology of the New Testament, George Eldon Ladd (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 1993), 712-713. As Wenham argues, this outline of the biblical story is not comprehensive. For example, it could be said that a new type of existence was brought about by the presence of God in the midst of Israel through the tabernacle and temple. But, while introducing a new degree of relationship with God, God’s presence in the midst of Israel does not make a fundamental change in the nature of human existence. See, however, James Hamilton, God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old & New Testaments (Nashville: Baker Academic, 2006), who argues that God’s people did experience regeneration in the Old Testament.