A peculiar post to classify under thoughts on church ministry, but I think that biblical theology is immensely important if one is to teach or preach or cite from the Old Testament.
What is biblical theology?
Biblical theology is an approach to studying the bible which attempts to place individual texts in their historical context. History is not static, but is a series of unfolding events, in which God progressively reveals himself and his grand plan of redemption, ultimately terminating on the person of Jesus Christ. Simply put, biblical theology is about historical context. We cannot read the book of Deuteronomy this side of the cross in the same way the Israelites did. However, this sort of dislocation of individual texts from their historical context happens regularly. As a result, many Christians wrongly spiritualise OT texts. The key to interpreting the Old Testament is the person of Christ. Jesus himself points out how all Scripture pointed to him: And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Note that it was everything in ALL the scriptures. All things in the OT point to Jesus Christ. We need to recognise him when he is present in the OT text, without wrongly imposing him onto it, or wrongly ‘spiritualising’ texts and learning the wrong biblical lessons from them.
An example: 2 Chronicles 7:14
Here’s a classic example of a text that I think is often dislocated from the historical context – or perhaps even the context itself!
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. – 2 Chronicles 7:14
On face value, this can be understood as simply an exhortation to Christians that they need to humble themselves and pray to God, seeking him and repenting, that he might hear them and forgive their sin and heal their land.
But let’s expand the text, and see what the context is:
“I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 2 Chronicles 7:12-17
Note that the oft-cited verse is located in a much bigger story. God appears to Solomon at night (probably in a dream) and tells Solomon that he has heard his prayer. This should automatically get us thinking – what did Solomon pray for? We won’t go into detail on Solomon’s prayer, but Solomon basically pleads with God to hear prayers offered up in the house he has just built for God. He cites various situations, and asks that God would answer accordingly to the prayers offered up to him in these situations. Therefore when God is saying that his eyes will be open and his ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place, the place he speaks of is the temple Solomon has just built!
The place of prayer, not the act of prayer, is the first main point
The first thing of note is that prayer must be made in a certain place. Before the arrival of Christ, God chose and consecrate the temple as this place of prayer. With Christ having died and risen, he is the temple to whom we go to where God will hear our prayers. The temple and God’s hearing of prayers points to the future reality of Christ being the One through whom God would hear all our prayers. This is where biblical theology is important. We must understand that it is not simply prayer and the condition of our hearts that invites the answer of God. It must be prayer in the right place! For the Israelites, it was the temple. For us, we would be foolish to go looking for a geographical temple. The true temple is Christ.
The pattern of sin and redemption is the second main point
The second thing is that I’ve often heard this verse cited in the context of praying for the nations. Now, we are asked to pray for all the nations, and we can pray for the healing of land, but this is not the point of this verse. To see this, note the context in which God says he will answer prayer: when he shuts up the heavens so that there is no rain, or commands the locust to devour the land, or sends pestilence among his people. Solomon’s prayer in the previous chapter makes it clear why God will bring such calamity on his people and the land they live in. Because of sin. Sin brings about the judgment of God. In this period of redemptive history, God’s judgment on sin is acted out on his chosen people. Yet he also offers a way of redemption – sacrifices, prayer and repentance. God is clearly setting out a pattern he wants his people to learn. First, they will sin. Solomon is not naive about this reality in any way (6:36). And God will judge them. Second, God in his mercy has offered a way of redemption. He has established a place for his people to repent – by offering sacrifices for their sins, and praying for mercy.
This is a pattern, a shadow of the reality that is now found in Christ. First, we are all sinners. Jesus affirms this time and time again. We are all under the judgment of God. Suffering and death in this world are not the primary judgments of God. Christ warns us to fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mt 10:28) But God, who is rich in mercy, has offered a way of redemption – Christ. He is the sacrifice for our sins. He is the conduit of mercy. He is the high priest who offers up our prayers to God. He intercedes for us before the throne of God. He is the temple through which we might approach God.
Using biblical theology to interpret the OT in both a timeless AND historical fashion
Therefore biblical theology again teaches us that this verse cannot be obeyed to the letter. There are some timeless truths in there, namely about the condition of man and the nature of God. But there are things that must be interpreted according to their historical context. I’ll give a little summary of what I mean:
The condition of man is still the same. We remain sinners. This is a timeless truth.
During the time of Israel, God clearly showed his people that sin resulted in judgment, and made this judgment manifest in various calamities on the land and on his people. In our time, Christ has made clear to us that the judgment of God that sin brings is not geographical and temporal, but eternal. This is biblical theology at work, to understand that our historical context differs from those of the Israelites.
Another timeless truth is that God has offered a way of redemption. Yet again, the nature of this redemption has changed across history. In the time of Israel, this was centered on the temple. In our time, this is centered on the true temple, the person of Christ. This is important because the temple is merely a shadow of the true redemption that can only be found in Christ. We are fools to keep focusing on the physical temple when the true temple is amongst us. It’s akin to staring at a picture of the person you miss most while he sits in your living room.
The practical implications of applying biblical theology
Practically, understanding this verse in its historical context has implications for the way we pray. First, the Israelites prayed in the temple to God, hoping that he would hear them. Christians pray to God through Jesus Christ knowing that he is our Father and that he hears us, and will answer in accordance with his will and what he deems good for us. Second, our prayers remain prayers of daily repentance from sin, in accordance with the Lord’s Prayer. In the time of Israel, these prayers of repentance were accompanied by the sacrificed of an unblemished lamb. But in our time, the sacrifice of the perfect lamb, Jesus Christ, has been made. We can be certain of our forgiveness if we ask God for it. Therefore we do not have to pray for deliverance from judgment, because Christ has already been judged in our place. Third, our prayers for the nation are not centered on the redemption of our land and its people from temporal suffering, but are centered on their redemption from eternal suffering.