This post is the first in a series on Hebrews from BibleMesh Institute Research Fellow in Biblical Studies, Tim Bertolet.
Evangelicals have always believed that our theology, the beliefs that we confess about God and his work, comes from the Bible. However, we have not always been clear on how we arrive at what the Bible instructs us to confess. One approach, “Biblical theology,” offers a helpful way to read the Bible with an ear to the confession it offers, without imposing as much of our own thoughts or systems upon our reading of it.
When scholars and pastors refer to Biblical theology, we are talking about an understanding of the Bible that recognizes the Bible as God’s progressive revelation of himself that unfolds in one coherent storyline with its culmination in the person and work of Christ. Biblical theology is concerned with both what the Bible says but also how the Bible says it.
When we talk about “Biblical theology” sometimes the words “redemptive history,” “salvation history,” or even the Latin historia salutis are used. Biblical theology pays attention to the ways that God has revealed himself down through history and that his history of working to save a people is not a hodge podge of random events and stories but has been part of one plan, unfolding like one giant cohesive narrative that comes to a climax in the person and work of Christ—both in his first coming and finally in his second coming. The discipline of Biblical theology seeks to let the shape of the Bible’s metanarrative impact how we view and interpret the various parts of the Bible. Every text and book in the Bible contributes in some way to God’s unfolding revelation, the story that he is telling.
God Speaks in His Son
In this essay, I’d like to use Hebrews 1 as a window for understanding what Biblical theology is and why it is important for understanding the task of confessing the Bible’s theology on its own terms. I can think of no better simple explanation of Biblical theology than Hebrews 1:1-2:
Heb. 1:1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,
Heb. 1:2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
The opening lines in the Greek text have a wonderful alliterative quality that doesn’t translate into the English translation. Equally, this opening gives us a wonderful way to root our understand of God’s activity in his world. God has been revealing himself and speaking down through history. The Bible is a record of that activity as we see him speaking many times and in many places. We see his self-revelation vary from being in burning bushes, on thundering mountains, to still quiet whispers. Sometimes his words are direct and audible, other times he guides through providence or the subtlety of dreams and interpretation.
Despite the variety of “many times” and “many ways” there is continuity and progression in the revelation. As history progresses, God increasingly reveals himself through a series of covenants that build on each other. Some of the particularly important ones are the Abrahamic covenant, which is built upon by the Mosaic Covenant, then the Davidic covenant that promises a Messiah from within the people of God, and finally the promise of the New Covenant. And yet, all of these unfold as part of the promise of Genesis 3:15 “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” God’s work is about undoing the curse of sin, through the offspring of the woman to bring about the final fulfillment of Genesis 1:26-28 that the fall threatened to undo.
The Bible shows us that history is moving somewhere. History has a goal, an end, or a telos. God is purposefully revealing himself covenantally along the way. Thus, the Bible is not merely a collection of stories—like a sort of Aesop’s fables for Israel. God has been speaking along the way and as one plan and purpose. As Geerhardus Vos has said “He [God] has caused His revelation to take place in the milieu of the historical life of a people. The circle of revelation is not a school, but a ‘covenant.’”1
The author of Hebrews recognizes that the climax of this story is God speaking in his Son, Jesus Christ. The Old Testament pointed to this coming Messiah. Now, the Messiah has come. When Hebrews uses the phrase “in these last days,” he is not simply saying “recently” or “with the last few years.” Instead, it is using the concept rooted in the Old Testament and developed in the intertestamental period of the last days—the climax of God’s plan, the dawning of God’s ultimate plan and work. Theologians and scholars call this “eschatology”—the last days. Not only is God’s revelation taking place in history but it is the center of history. The revelation of the person and work of Jesus is the climax or the telos (end/goal) of that redemptive history.
For Hebrews, these “last days” have dawned. Eschatology is not something future but something that has started or been inaugurated by the work of Christ. History can be divided into two phases: the present evil age and the “age to come” or “the last days.” For the New Testament, this new age has started with the work of Jesus as he is redeeming and saving a people. Of course, the mystery of this is there is now an overlap.
The climax of God’s speech is a self-revelation as God speaks in his Son. God speaks by sending his very Son, who is eternally God with the Father, into the creation. In the climax God doesn’t just speak to someone but he speaks in the very personal presence of the Son. “The Word become flesh and dwelt [tabernacled] among us” (John 1:14). “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4–5).
The Sum of All Things
In Hebrews 1, we see how God’s salvation history culminates in Jesus and his exaltation. God’s speech may have been voluminous and varied in the past, but it has been zeroing to the culmination. In this climactic moment of speech God gives us his own son. God shows us something about himself: he is eternally Father and Son. The work of redemption in history is also the revelation of the God who lives outside of history and is not bound by it. The Son steps down into this creation so that he can be raised up and crowned over it. As we’ll discuss later, this culminates in the Father addressing the Son particularly in Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110:1.
All of us should be continually growing in our knowledge and understanding of the Bible so that we can know God better. If we are going to grow in this understanding, we will need to pay attention to Biblical theology because God has revealed himself progressively down through history. The greatest and fullest revelation of God comes in the Son. If we do not know God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we really don’t know God. Hebrews 1 gives us a window into how we should understand the whole of the Bible as well as showing us the glory of the exalted Son so that we might rejoice and worship the God who has made himself known.
Timothy Bertolet currently serves with the missionary sending agency ABWE International, located in Harrisburg, PA. He has also served as youth, and then a senior pastor at two different churches, and earned a PhD in New Testament Studies from the University of Pretoria.