[K:NWTS 5/1 (May 1990) 32-46]

Building the Biblical Theological Sermon
Part II: Text and Context

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The few, by Nature form'd, with Learning fraught
Born to instruct, as others to be taught,
Must study well the Sacred Page; and see
Which Doctrine, this, or that, does best agree
With the whole Tenour of the Work Divine.

—John Dryden, Religio Laici (1682)

Traditionally, the preaching moment has been the result of a syncretistic or integrative process. The preaching event has attempted to integrate or pull together the interrelated areas of the theological encyclopedia: Old and New Testament Introduction, Apologetics, Systematic Theology, Exegetical Theology, Church History, History of Doctrine, Ethics, Practical Theology. To a greater or lesser extent, elements of each of these aspects came together when the pastor sat down in his study and began to consider how he was going to proclaim a particular portion of the word of God to the people of God.

As in the preaching task generally, so in biblical-theological preaching particularly. The biblical-theological sermon is integrative—it pulls together text and context. The dynamic here is twofold: (1) the text in its immediate context; (2) the text in its redemptive-historical context. Therefore when you attempt to construct a biblical theological sermon, you must face two questions. First, what is the relationship of the text to the book in which it appears? Second, what is the relationship of the text to the on-going history of redemption? The relationship of the church to the text will be found in her identification with the dynamic revealed in the passage—both the dynamic of the immediate context and the dynamic of the redemptive- historical context.

The Text in its Context: The Gospel of John

Every biblical-theological preacher wants to integrate his particular text/pericope with the scope of the book of the Bible in which that text/pericope is found. Thus he asks himself questions about the purpose, goal, intent, destination, etc. of that particular book. Let me provide a specific illustration of this point. The first section of the gospel of John is called the Prologue (1:1-18). As you examine the basic structure of the gospel of John, you will observe that there is also an Epilogue to the gospel. The Epilogue begins at chapter 20:30 and proceeds to the end of the gospel (21:25). The substance of the Epilogue is the lakeside encounter with Peter. In between the Prologue and the Epilogue (the introduction and the benediction), lies the Body of the gospel

Admittedly, this is a simplistic structural analysis of the flow of the gospel of John, yet it is very much in accordance with a type of literary analysis which reaches all the way back to Aristotle. In his Poetics (7.1-7), Aristotle observes that every literary work has a beginning, a middle and an end. Indeed John has organized his gospel around a beginning (the Prologue, 1:1-18); a middle (the Body of the gospel, 1:19-20:29); and an end (the Epilogue, 20:30-21:25).

Incidentally, if this suggestion about the basic structure is correct, it gives the lie to redaction critics and form critics who say that the Epilogue (namely the 21st chapter of John's gospel) was an addendum, i.e., it was added by a later editor on behalf of the early Christian community to reflect the primacy of Peter. If my suggestion about the broad structure is correct, then I trust you will notice that the integrity of the gospel is reflected in that structure. If you break off the Epilogue as an after-thought or as a later addition made by a redactor (editor), you have destroyed the symmetry of the gospel and the unity of the text.

Therefore, the Prologue is part of the broader context of the gospel. It forms the introduction to the Body of the gospel while balancing the concluding Johannine "Great Commission" (i.e., the Epilogue). The biblical-theological preacher is conscious of this integration of the text of the Prologue with the context of the gospel as a whole.

The Text in its Redemptive-Historical Context

But what about the redemptive-historical context? How does the Prologue of John relate to the on-going history of redemption? Consider the following analysis.

The Prologue commences, "In the beginning." The phrase reminds us of Genesis 1:1. In fact, the first two words of John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1 are exactly alike in the respective Greek versions. Why? It is in fact a new creation, isn't it? What the apostle is telling us by that en archê ("in the beginning") is that he is going all the way back to the first creation so that he may say: "This is the beginning of the new creation; this is the beginning of the gospel of Christ; this is the beginning of all things being made new." In the ensuing verses of the Prologue, John unfolds this creation imagery. He talks about light, doesn't he? Light shining in the darkness! He talks about the Word as the Creator, doesn't he? Finally at the heart of the Prologue, he says that whoever believed on him to them he gave power to be sons ("children," cf. tekna in John). What is the denomination of Adam in the genealogy of Luke's gospel? He is the "son of God" (Lk. 3:38), isn't he? Thus the whole concept of "sonship" is a creation image. Adam was made a child of God, a son of God. Jesus (according to the Prologue of John) gives those who believe power to become sons of God. How do they become "sons of God"? Notice the emphatic negatives repeated three times in John 1:13 ("not..., not..., not..."). "Born of God" is a creation motif. It is John's regenerative creation motif (cf. John 3). Thus we have sonship through (re)birth—childlike relationship through a new creation. All this has become possible through the one who is incarnate—tabernacling (1:14, eskênosin)—the one who comes to dwell in the midst of his people (even as God came to dwell with his first "son" Adam in the garden).

Backwards and Forwards

The themes of the Prologue take us back to the creation, reminding us of creation imagery. We are led to integrate John 1 with Genesis 1 and to pull together the retrospective redemptive-historical pattern: creation/ new creation. However, John also asks us to look ahead—to look ahead to the way in which motifs from the Prologue are developed subsequently by the gospel. There is a prospective aspect to the material in the Prologue. John has introduced his gospel with the Prologue because he wants to introduce the gospel in the Prologue. Thus when we read Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus (Jn. 3), the center of that dialogue is: "How does one become born again (born from above)?" John is fleshing out one of the themes of his Prologue. He is elaborating and expanding upon the theme of rebirth in the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. Thus the Body of the gospel develops, expands, draws out the themes that have been laid down in the Prologue. The Prologue is a prospectus of the gospel itself.

What about the image of light (cf. 1:4,5,7-9)? We have already noted the retrospective creation motif of light (Gen. 1:3-5). However, notice also the prospective dimension. On two occasions, Jesus calls himself "the light of the world" (8:12; 9:5). The second occasion is the healing of the man born blind, where John integrates light-dark/sight-blind motifs in a way which suggests creation-new creation (or creation-[re]creation). In John 8:12, the context is the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. 7:2,14,37 and the omission of the story about the woman taken in adultery, 7:53-8:11). Here John's purpose is the displacement and replacement of light peculiar to Israel in order that the new creation-light may extend to Jew and Gentile alike (i.e., the "world"). The so-called "lighting ceremony" occurred on each day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Huge menorahs (lampstands) were erected in the Court of the Women in the Temple complex at Jerusalem. At dusk each evening, the lighting of these menorahs cast a glow throughout Jerusalem "lighting each corner of the city." On the last day of the Feast, Jesus said, "I am the light of the world." During the Feast of Tabernacles, when light reminded Israel of the theophanic pillar of fire in the wilderness (Ex. 13:21)—light itself emblematic of the glory-light reflected in the first day of creation (Gen. 1:3-5)—Jesus claims to be the light! And not only the light of Jerusalem, but the light for Jew and Gentile alike (the "world").

The Jesus of John's gospel is saying that the Jewish character of the Old Testament is being replaced and displaced by himself because it is being fulfilled in him. Do you want light? I am the light of the world. Do you want the birth, the new birth? I am the one who comes down from above with the (re)birth of the new creation. From Prologue to Epilogue, the gospel of John proclaims the displacement and replacement of the former era by the "better things" of the age to come. If the age of Moses was glorious for the law, Jesus is greater than Moses because he brings the fullness of grace and truth (1:17). If the former era was filled with ritual purifications, Jesus brings an age in which that water is replaced by the wine of the gospel era (2:1-11). If they ate bread in the desert under Moses and died (Jn. 6), the living bread will satisfy the hungry sojourners of the end of the age to eternal life. If the era of father Adam is the era of the curse and death, then Jesus calls the dead to life and removes the curse from his loved ones (Jn.11). Jesus comes to fulfill the Old Testament by completing it with himself and the surpassing riches of his glory. This fulfillment is anticipatory and prospective in its own right. There is an arena where life and light endure forever—an arena where former things are passed away—an arena where all is a new creation. This heavenly arena is the dwelling place of our Savior—the place to which he has gone in order to bring us unto himself. The heavenly banquet here is spread with living water and living bread. The feast is like a wedding celebration, but Christ is not a guest—he is the host-bridegroom. And the guests in that eschatological banquet had have no mark of the curse and death upon them—they possess the resurrection-life of their Lord who raises them up both now and at the last day.

Again, the Body of this gospel is arranged around the themes of the Prologue. Several scholars, who have called John the "signs and discourses" gospel, have recognized this pattern. Many of Christ's miracles in John's gospel are followed by discourses. The purpose of the discourses is to draw out the meaning of the miracles (semeia, cf. English "semaphore"). Hence the miracles and the discourses are an exegesis of the incarnation of the Word, i.e., a display in word and deed of the creative power of the Son. Healing the nobleman's son is an instance of the life Jesus brings. The cure of the lame man displays the eschatological character of Christ's heavenly kingdom—this man walks as an anticipation of that arena where there are no lame, no sick, no helpless (cf. Rev. 21:4; 22:3). As noted above, the healing of the blind man and the resurrection of Lazarus are both exegetical of the new creation announced in the Prologue; they are also previews of the eschatological kingdom itself—in Christ Jesus, no more blindness, no more death!

In like manner, the dialogue with Peter in the Epilogue (chap. 21) is a reflex of the life/light motif of the Prologue. It is the risen Christ (who is the Light) who commissions Peter to "feed" his lambs. From out of the darkness of the tomb, the risen, glorious Christ directs the apostle (and the church through the apostle) to proclaim the light and life of a new creation. The struggle of the light in the darkness of the Prologue is taken up by the church. Peter will be crucified as his Lord was crucified. The church suffers through conflict with the darkness, as Christ, the incarnate Word, suffers. After the resurrection, in the Epilogue, that suffering comes to expression in the apostolate and in the church. The children of God will not escape the hour of darkness and the power thereof, even as their Lord did not. Will the church love her Shepherd-Lord even unto death? The Epilogue poses the question as an outworking of the content of the Farewell Discourses (14-17) and resolves the question with the same tender assurances.

Thus the integrity of this gospel is preserved in reflexive patterns—reciprocal patterns, supporting itself backwards and forwards from Prologue to Body to Epilogue. If any one chapter or section is abstracted from the overall purpose of the gospel, you may end up with a nice little lesson for Sunday Morning—you may have a nice moral for your congregation (you may even give them a shopping list of spiritual prescriptions to pick up for the coming week), but you haven't preached the text. You may have preached your agenda, but you haven't preached John's gospel. You may have preached your list, but you haven't preached the passage in terms of the intent of John and God's revelation through John. Christ Jesus is the center of John's gospel. If you haven't preached Christ, you haven't preached John. If you do not preach this gospel so as to place Christ at the center, you have gutted the book, despoiled it, used it for your own private purposes to advance your own private agenda.

Thus the biblical-theological preacher consistently relates his text to the plan of the book as a whole. And he also relates his text to the retrospective and prospective scope of the history of redemption.

Questions about the Text

Placing your text in its context means that some preliminary work must be done. Answers to the following preliminary questions must be formulated: what is the purpose of the book as a whole? What is the nature of the time in which it was written? To whom was it written and were their circumstances peculiar? What does the writer record that others do not? Why has he selected his particular focus if he is featuring a distinctive facet of God's revelation?

For example, why does John tell us about the miracle at the wedding at Cana and the synoptic writers do not? Or why does John describe the resurrection of Lazarus when Matthew, Mark and Luke do not even mention Lazarus? These are questions which you must ask because they put you on the trail of the unique focus of God's revelation through the various Biblical authors. John has a particular goal and purpose under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. His gospel is not a duplicate of the synoptics. He provides his own complementary (not contradictory) record of the person and work of our Savior. By the same token, Matthew, Mark and Luke have features and goals peculiar to each that are not found in John. Thus we begin by asking ourselves, "How does my text for this Lord's day relate to the purpose of the book on which I am working? What is the theological purpose, the distinctive style, the unique aspect of this book of the Bible?" Locate your text in terms of its (book) context Then ask yourself the broader, more far-ranging questions, "How does my text draw upon themes and images from the past and future history of redemption?" Locate your text in terms of the organic continuum of the history of redemption as it stretches from creation to consummation.

As you begin to integrate the text, immediate (book) context and broad redemptive-historical context, you will begin to understand why this revelation has been preserved in the written Word of God. Revelation is to draw us to God the Father, through the work of God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. John writes so that each pericope of his gospel will draw us to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. Text by text, we are brought to God; or, better, God brings us to himself Whether with the disciples we "come and see" the Lamb of God/Christ-Messiah/Son of God/King of Israel/Son of Man (Jn. 1); whether with the nobleman, we find Christ to be life for those on the brink of death (Jn. 4); whether with Mary, we find him the object of our lavish love and devotion (Jn. 12); or whether we stand at the foot of the cross and behold our dying Lord (Jn. 19)—each text of John's gospel draws us into itself, draws us into Christ Jesus, draws us into the life of the new creation. Each text applies itself—as with the incarnation, God comes to identify with us; so the application of John's gospel is in identification—our life in the text—our life in Christ.

The Text in its Context: Haggai

Let me reinforce and balance my remarks with some additional comments about an Old Testament book—Haggai. The theme of the book of Haggai is the rebuilding of the Temple. (It is often quite handy to have thumbnail summaries of each book of the Bible at the ready. Perhaps a sentence or two about the heart of each book: Genesis—beginnings and endings [protology and eschatology]; Exodus—redemption and sojourn [grace and law]; etc.) Now it seems to me that the minor prophets are particularly bothersome to us. Nobody pays much attention to them, for if we preach the minor prophets, we are going to have to do some work! We are going to have to study some history! And who knows? They may threaten our comfortable lifestyle! After all, they are talking about social justice. What are we going to do with our upper-middle class lifestyle. They are talking about the oppression of the poor. And so you see, the Reformed pulpit doesn't do well with the minor prophets as a rule.

Hence we begin by placing Haggai in historical context. Let's put Haggai on a time line. We will imagine it to be a linear as well as a redemptive-historical time line. On our time line, Haggai comes after 539 B.C. That is the date of the decree issued by Cyrus the Great. You remember, Cyrus had conquered the Babylonian (or Neo-Babylonian) empire. Following his conquest of Babylon, he issued a decree that the Jews (among others) could return to their homeland. Here is where we place Haggai. But let's move along our time line to the years before 539 B.C. Immediately before 539 we have the Babylonian captivity, don't we? The Babylonian captivity was underway by 586 B.C., but was in process from Nebuchadnezzar's initial invasion of Palestine in 605 B.C (cf. Dan. 1:1). What major event comes next as we move backwards? The division of the united kingdom (ca. 930 B.C.). Then comes Solomon's temple (ca. 967 B.C.) and then the Davidic monarchy (ca. 1000 B.C.). Before that is the magnalia Dei in the Old Testament. The mighty act of God in the Old Testament, the definitive mighty act of God's grace in the Old Testament is the Exodus from Egypt (ca. 1447 B.C.) together with the sojourn to Mt. Sinai. Summarizing the pattern of our time line, we have: Exodus, Sinai, Davidic monarchy, the temple, the exile and now Haggai.

The Text in its Redemptive-Historical Context

Now why have I suggested we think about these things? Because in the book of Haggai every one of those events is mentioned. In the book of Haggai, he talks about the book of Exodus (Hag. 2:5) and he links the exodus to the Babylonian exile and the return from exile. In fact, he describes the return from captivity in terms of a new exodus. He uses imagery reminiscent of the giving of the law at Sinai with its attendant theophanic display of glory and awe. He describes the destruction of that first temple (Hag. 2:3) and he links that temple to what is happening in his day—there is going to be the erection of a new temple (2:9). He describes the ruler of the eschatological people of God in terms reminiscent of the Davidic monarchy (cf. 2:22,23). Haggai has this retrospective dimension. He is casting his eye back over the history of God's mighty acts and reflecting upon them and their meaning. Then he positions his own message, his own proclamation of the word of the Lord, in relationship to what has gone before in the history of redemption. But that's not all he does; he doesn't stop there. It's not enough to look back. He indicates there is a new day coming. He says that we see in a sense the accomplishment of some of these past acts in our present moment. But those of you who have seen the glory of that first temple know that yet once more the Lord will shake the heavens and the earth and the latter glory of this house will be greater then its former glory. That little shed that was built in Jerusalem in the days of Haggai was in no way comparable to the glory of the first Solomonic temple. Here is what Haggai is saying, "There is a new temple coming more glorious than this, and there is a new David coming more glorious than the former, and there is a new exodus coming more glorious than that under Moses and there is a new Sinai coming more glorious than the former—I'm going to shake the heavens and the earth once more!" We, upon whom the end of the ages has come, we have the Christ-event, we have the cross, we have the resurrection, we have the eschaton. We have what Haggai projected.

Hence we see Haggai in relationship not only to the mighty acts of God in time past, but to the eschatological acts of God in time future. In fact, Haggai uses the images of the redemption of God in the past and transfers them into the future. He takes those former patterns and projects them into the eschatological future and he says, "Yes, once more God is going to shake the heavens and the earth—Yes, once more God is going to erect a tabernacle, a temple whose glory will be greater than the former glory—Yes, once more he's going to send a Davidic scion and that scion will be more glorious than David's son—Yes once more he's going to bring his people out and they will never be slaves again." Though he never saw it, yet Haggai projected it. Praise God that you and I have seen it! We have seen the fulfillment. Can you preach Haggai without preaching the fulfillment? Moralistic discussions about lavish homes and caretaking for the church simply do not begin to penetrate the dynamic meaning of Haggai's words, nor their organic connection with what God was about to do in the latter days. You need to go backwards and forwards so that the power and vitality of this little book may grasp you and the people of God of these last days.

Having drawn out the contextual and redemptive-historical patterns in Haggai, the people of God of these last days should be drawn into the dramatic pattern of fulfillment revealed in this prophet and in the eschatological prophet. The exodus picture is appropriate to those who have been drawn out of bondage into the liberty of the sons and daughters of the Most High. The people of God of the end of the ages have not come to a mountain smoking and burning with fire; rather they have come to a mountain-city whose builder and maker is God—a city alive with grace and righteousness and a new covenant. The lambs of the eschatological Shepherd are become the flock of the pastor-king of the end of the age—they are the sheep of a Davidide whose title is "Prince of Peace". The congregation of these last days has not come to a building of brick and stone, but to a living temple built upon the chief cornerstone—the Lord of Glory, the Resurrection-Temple of the end of the age. In him, they are free, they are made new, they are "living stones".

Helps, Tools, Books

Such preaching as we are suggesting cannot be accomplished without tools. The specific tools I have in mind for help with (book) context and redemptive-historical context are materials which provide an overview of a particular book of the Bible. As one understands the issues of background, audience, historical events, archaeological investigation, geography, literary genre, the matrix from which a particular biblical book has arisen begins to come alive. There are numerous tools to facilitate the process, but I will suggest a few which I think are helpful and should find a place on the pastor's or interested layperson's shelf.

The most current encyclopedia of the Bible is the newly revised International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979-1988) in four volumes. This massive revision of a familiar standard is still basically conservative, thorough and suggestive. Virtually every word, topic, person and book of the Bible is covered. Historical, archaeological and literary surveys are included as well as a complete discussion of all Biblical occurrences of a given topic. Maps, illustrations and bibliographies make the set even more valuable. It is at present the most exhaustive, up-to-date Bible encyclopedia in print.

For those who want something easier to handle as well as more succinct, the one-volume New Bible Dictionary (revised edition, Tyndale, 1982) is my choice. Based on the former conservative standard (which famed archaeologist William F. Albright hailed as the finest one-volume Bible dictionary), this revision combines some of the features of the larger, three-volume Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Tyndale, 1980). For pastors and laypersons wanting a handy summary of the relevant background information, this is an excellent choice.

Additional help with historical material will be found in: (for the Old Testament) Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel's History (revised edition, Zondervan, 1986)—a conservative treatment; and John Bright, History of Israel (third edition, John Knox/Westminster, 1981)—a more liberal point of view. For the New Testament, F.F. Bruce's, New Testament History (Doubleday, 1972) is still unsurpassed.

It should be noted that most modern commentaries contain excellent introductions to the particular book under discussion. Date, authorship, audience, historical context, theological point of view are all covered in summary fashion. A new feature in many commentaries is a section of excurses or specialized discussions of matters central to the development of each book. Thus, the preliminary portion of most new commentaries may provide a wealth of theological and historical background material.

With respect to the gospel of John, Raymond Brown's Anchor Bible commentary still deserves pride of place (two volumes, Doubleday, 1966-70). Although critical and liberal, when used by the discerning pastor and student, this commentary provides theological stimulation and insight. More recent tools supplement and, in certain areas, surpass Brown, but his volumes will unlock the biblical-theological dimension of John in a fresh and invigorating manner. For a brief and remarkable survey of John, see Robert Kysar, John's Story of Jesus (Fortress, 1984).

Turning now to the prophet Haggai, a fine overview is found in Stephen Winward's, Guide to the Prophets (John Knox/Westminster, 1976). H.L. Ellison's, Men Spake From God (1958) may be compared to Winward. Two fine conservative commentaries are available on this small prophet: Joyce Baldwin, Haggia, Zechariah, Malachi (Tyndale, 1972) and Pieter Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987). Both contain excellent surveys of the historical and theological content of the book From the liberal and critical point of view, the new Anchor Bible commentary by C.L. and E.M. Myers, Haggai, Zechariah 1-8 (Doubleday, 1987) and Hans Walter Wolff's, Haggai (Augsburg, 1988) may be consulted. Wolff always helps the Christian preacher with concrete suggestions, even though his critical position destroys the unity of the book.

In previous issues of Kerux, we have discussed the value of additional tools—Old Testament Abstracts and New Testament Abstracts (Kerux 2:3 [December 1987], 42-46), Kittel's, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (3:2 [September 1988], 36-45), Leon-Dufour's, Dictionary of Biblical Theology (2:2 [September 1987], 41-45).

Finally, every pastor interested in biblical theology must have language tools, especially concordances in order to trace themes through the Scriptures. An English concordance is essential. For the Greek New Testament, there is the superb Computer-Konkordanz (1980)—a state-of-the-art tool. The older Moulton and Geden (1897) and Wigram/Englishman's (1839) are now dated (due to newer manuscript discoveries). For the Hebrew Old Testament, there is Lisowsky (1958), Mandelkern (1925), Wigram/Englishman's (1843) and Evan-Shoshan (very difficult to use, 1985). For the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), there is Hatch and Redpath (1897) and Morrish (inadequate for thorough work). Our readers should be aware of the revolution in concordances being brought to Biblical studies by computers. Several English and Greek (New Testament) concordances are presently available with Hebrew Old Testament versions promised within a year.

The range and quality of resources has never been so great. It is an exciting time to be a student of the biblical-theology of the Scriptures, whether as a pastor or interested layperson. The materials are available for congregations to hear creative, lucid, dynamic and passionate biblical-theological preaching.

Westminster Theological Seminary in California
Escondido, California