Biblical Theology in Discipleship

by Nancy Guthrie September 24, 2020

A number of years ago I was teaching a  study of Genesis in my church when one of the discussion group leaders, an older godly woman, came and sat down by me. “How come I’ve never been taught this before?” she said with tears in her eyes. She was beginning to recognize that, as many years as she had spent studying the Bible, she had never seen how the story of the Bible fit together in a way that is centered on the person and work of Christ from Genesis to Revelation. She was seeing and adoring Christ in new ways. Her tears were for all of the lost years of approaching the Bible in lesser ways. And I totally related to that. As someone who grew up having all of the answers in Sunday School, studying Bible in college, and a career in Christian publishing, as well as years spent in Bible Study Fellowship as an adult, when I began to hear preaching and teaching that was saturated in biblical theology, I realized needed to go back to kindergarten in terms of understanding the Bible. I wanted to understand it in the way Jesus taught it to his disciples when “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Since then, I’ve been on a mission not only to understand the Bible this way myself but also to introduce and infiltrate Bible studies —especially women’s Bible studies in the local church—with biblical theology. I often look at church websites to see what studies are being offered to the women of the church or in adult Sunday School classes. And I am often disheartened to discover studies that are felt-needs driven, studies with little biblical or theological rigor, and studies oriented around self-improvement. I am thrilled when I see studies of particular books of the Bible, as that indicates an expectation that what we need most is God’s Word and that we can expect it will speak to us. But sometimes even these studies can be oriented to jumping too quickly from what the text says to personal application, untethered to the larger story the Bible is telling that is centered on Christ.

Here’s why I believe biblical theology should be woven into the fabric of discipleship in the local church:

Biblical theology keeps us from ignoring large chunks of the Bible. For most of my life I would have been unable to articulate the basic storyline of the Old Testament—the line of the patriarchs, slavery in Egypt, redemption from slavery, entering the land, establishment of the kingdom, division of the kingdom, exile of the northern ten tribes, exile of the southern two tribes, and return to the land. I just had a mishmash of people and battles and stories in my head with no real sense of how they fit together.

When we don’t have a basic grasp of this history, we simply cannot make sense of the latter history books or the Major and Minor Prophets. That means that we might dip into the parts of these books that appeal to us, or we might simply ignore them altogether, assuming there is nothing there for us. But if we believe the Bible is God speaking to us, and that we live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” why would we ever settle for having parts of the Bible that we write off as irrelevant or indiscernible? We want to hear everything God has to say to us.

Biblical theology helps us to understand challenging passages in the Bible. Biblical theology brings into view major and minor themes that run throughout scripture—themes like king and kingdom, sacrifice, wilderness, clean/unclean, light/darkness, offspring, blessing/curse. When we are familiar with these themes, and then see one of those themes arise in the text we’re studying, it gives us insight into the text that helps to guide us into the Holy Spirit intended meaning of the text. It helps us to appropriately connect that text to the person and work of Christ so that we get to the gospel in the text rather than mere self-help or legalism.

Biblical theology gives us categories for grasping and embracing God’s purposes in the world and in our lives. Recently I was asked in a Q&A session, “How do I find where the Bible talks about things I’m interested in?” And, of course, that’s the way many people approach the Bible and what they expect from the Bible—answers to their particular questions and life issues. But one of the beautiful things about the Bible is that it actually answers questions we don’t know enough to ask. The Bible sets the agenda in God’s communication to us, telling us what we most need to know. So as we see the themes that run throughout the Bible we discover what God most wants us to know. We find out what is important to him, which therefore makes it important to us. This means, for example, as we trace the theme of the tabernacle and temple, we discover how important it is to God to dwell with his people. This prompts us to orient our anticipation of the future toward God dwelling with us rather than simply longing for escape from this world. When we explore the theme of sacrifice, the principle of substitution is brought before us again and again. This serves to punctuate the nature of the atonement and guard us against diminishing or forsaking this core truth.

Biblical theology keeps the emphasis on what Christ has done rather than on what we must do. When we approach the Bible as a series of stories from which we are meant to draw lessons about how to live, we miss what is being communicated to us about Christ. When we approach the Bible as a series of stories from which we are meant to draw lessons about how to live, we miss what is being communicated to us about Christ.For example, apart from looking at the passage through a biblical-theological lens, we could assume that the point of God asking Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice is to challenge us to be willing to sacrifice to God what is most precious to us. But when we read it in light of the larger story of the Bible we see that really it is preparing us to see that God was willing to sacrifice what was most precious to him—his own beloved Son—for us. A biblical-theological lens helps us connect the commands of God to the only person who ever obeyed him perfectly. It makes being united to Christ by faith urgent and necessary.

Biblical theology corrects sentimental notions of the future God is preparing for us. For most of my life, my understanding of the trajectory of the Christian life was that we are urged to put our faith in Christ now so that he will accept us into heaven when we die. But when we more fully understand the story the Bible is telling, rather than a diminished hope of a spirit-with-no-body existence forever somewhere away from this earth, our rich hope is anchored in an eternal life—resurrected body and soul—on a renewed earth. We begin to long for the day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).

Editor's Note: This originally published at Credo Magazine.