Understanding what the Bible means begins with knowing what it says but it certainly doesn’t end there. Solid biblical interpretation involves a good bit of reading and a great deal of patient listening. The texts of Scriptures aren’t mystical but they are musical.
As we’ve noted, Biblical Theology reads the Bible as a unified narrative. One aspect of Biblical Theology is looking at how texts within the Scriptures interface with one another. The technical name for this is “intertextuality.” Intertextuality uses Scripture to interpret Scripture by listening for quotations, echoes, and allusions to other inter-canonical texts. It is inner-biblical exegesis.
We are all familiar with the practice in principle. We live with a “cultural canon” that informs and conforms how we speak and interpret speech. For instance, if a person says to you, “Go ahead. Make my day,” that should probably be interpreted as a threat rather than a kind invitation. But why would this be the case? Is there something about the particular grammatical structure of those two short sentences that would lead me to make such a wild, interpretive claim? Not at all. I am simply reading the text while listening to it in the context of its cultural canon. The words say something but the full meaning comes from listening to the voice of Dirty Harry.
Such echoes can either be on the micro or the macro level. That is, they can link the meaning with a particular word or phrase or they can stand in for an entire story as a form of metaphorical shorthand. Remember that Biblical Theology itself flows out a narratival, eschatological reading of Scripture. It is oriented towards “story” more then “system.”
To illustrate I have chosen two Pauline texts, in large part because many Reformed pastors have viewed Paul as a systematic theologian. While I do not doubt that Paul had a systematic theology, I do not think it is found in abstract form in any of his epistles (even Romans). In fact, Paul is more of a story theologian, rooting his theological convictions and arguments in several foundational narratives, and a pastoral theologian, applying the biblical story to the particularities of church life and community. Thus, his christotelic application is as practical as it is rich.
I. The first text is an example of a micro-echo: Romans 8:32.
The setting is legal; the language is judicial. He “spared not…” 1. The angels that sinned (2 Pet. 2:4). 2. The old world (2 Pet. 2:5). 3. Sodom (Gen. 18-19). 4. The natural branches (Rom. 11:21). 5. His own Son.
He “delivered him up…” This is an echo of Matthew’s passion narrative. At least three times Jesus is said to have been delivered up or handed over for judgment. Judas, Pilate, and the Jews were all culprits in the kangaroo court. But Jesus was ultimately delivered up to be judged by His own Father.
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2: 22-23).
Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews, for envy;-but the Father, for love!
“For us all…” This is an echo of Isaiah 53. I will leave it for you to trace out the details and other connections. At it’s core, this practice helps the reader learn to let Scripture interpret Scripture. It also helps to orient the reader toward a larger-than-this-text view of approaching and appropriating the Bible.
II. The second text is an example of macro-echo: Romans 1:1-5.
In these verses, Paul encapsulates his whole gospel and mission. Of course, it helps us to understand Paul’s calling if we understand something of his heritage. We must put the opening verses of Romans in their redemptive-historical context. Paul was called to an apostolic Gentile mission. But what was he called from? He was a Pharisee before he was an Apostle. As a Pharisee, he believed the Creator God had elected and covenanted with Israel. Through Israel, Adam’s fall would be undone and the world would be set right again. Of course, the Pharisees knew that Israel had not always been faithful to her calling and so she had been exiled. In some senses, second temple Jews in the first century were still living in exile, expecting God’s promised restoration. Just how that restoration would take place was a matter of debate, but all Jews were united in having a strong eschatological expectation and messianic hope. In a word, what they expected was a new exodus.
As we know from Acts, when Paul finally discovered how God had brought about the new exodus, he was shocked. The risen Christ met him on the road to Damascus, revealing that Israel’s promised climatic moment had come in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Remember, Moses even used that very word when he spoke with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration concerning his death). To his horror, Paul found out that all his zeal had been misdirected. He had played the part of one of pharaohs minions. He had been complicit in the persecution and murder of the people of the promised Messiah!
Paul was given a unique mission: Since Jesus’ death and resurrection had inaugurated the kingdom, Paul was to become Christ’s ambassador to the Gentiles. In becoming a Christian, Paul did not throw off his previous hope of Israel’s restoration. Rather, he came to understand that those hopes had been transformed in an entirely unexpected — and yet now strangely logical — way. Ironically, he was now “separated” (1:1) in a new way (“Pharisee” = “separatist”). Instead of being separated for exclusively Jewish purposes, as in Phariseeism, he became “separated” (“Phariseed”) to the gospel of God, which gospel includes all the families of the earth (Gal. 3:8). He was to be a “gospel Pharisee” in the new Israel!
Paul calls himself a “δοῦλος.” In other words, he had become a “household slave” of God (Ex. 21:5-6). His ear had now been circumcised in order to hear God’s word. He was a man under orders. As an “apostle,” he was an official spokesman for God. In terms of the OT background, apostleship was connected with a delegate who had the right of attorney. In the NT, the term takes on the nuance of having been sent on a mission. To be “apostled” is to be swept up into the Father’s sending of the Son and the Spirit (Jn. 20:21).
When Paul says that the “gospel of God” was “promised beforehand,” he’s giving us two loaded phrases. “Gospel of God” indicates that the gospel belongs to God, that is, it is his activity that has put the gospel into effect. The gospel reveals the righteousness of God precisely because it reveals how God has proved his covenant faithfulness by keeping his promises to his people.
With the words, “promised beforehand,” Paul introduces this gospel with both feet firmly rooted in the Law and the Prophets (“in the Holy Scriptures”), and indicates that they have now been fulfilled through God’s action in Jesus. The whole book of Romans – and in fact the entire Pauline corpus and the whole of the NT — show that Jesus is the “Yes and Amen” of the promises made in the Old Covenant Scriptures. As a Christian, Paul began to practice this christotelic hermeneutic, viewing Christ as the eschatological goal towards which all of Scripture pointed. All of God’s promises “concern Jesus Christ our Lord.” Paul’s point is that the entire package of OT prophetic material has now been activated and set in motion by the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Those prophecies find definitive fulfillment in him, and are grinding toward inexorable fulfillment in the world at large.
This name for the Messiah is also heavily freighted with biblical-theological weight. Note that “Christ” is an official title, not a proper name. It means “anointed (christened) one,” and is used in the OT of both priests and kings. Jesus, in other words, is the royal representative of Israel, who embodies the people in himself. Whatever he does, he does for them and even as them. Paul’s doctrine of union with Christ (all of that “in Christ” language) is rooted in the OT notion of corporate personhood, in which one man acts on behalf of those he represents. The label “Christ” also invokes a Davidic Christology, since David was the greatest known Christ-figure of the old age, and the one who was seen most clearly as a template for the promised king.
The priestly resonances and overtones of “Christ” may be overshadowed by the kingly associations, but they should not be overlooked altogether. As priest, Christ dies for us in order to free us from bondage, and as king he suffers for us in order to make us victorious. As priest, he fulfills and transforms the entire system of worship, sacrifice, and atonement that operated under the old covenant system.
The name “Jesus” is rooted in the OT name “Joshua” and means “Savior” (Mt. 1:21) or “Victor” or “Champion.” Other forms of the root indicate deliverance and triumph. Thus, “Jesus Christ” means, roughly, “Victorious Priest-King.”
“Lord” is a title of respect, but has a fluid range, so that it can also be used of deity. “Son” has the same kind of range. Most simply, Israel is God’s “Son.” But in Jesus, the concept of sonship is exploded so that we find he is not only the new Israel, but the eternally begotten one of the Father. “Sonship” has several levels of OT meaning, all of which are fulfilled in Jesus, and then some.
In verse 3, Paul picks up on a major strand of the OT’s broad tapestry of promises – namely, the promise concerning the seed of David given in 2 Sam 7. We need to note the full background here. David offered to build God a house; through the prophet Nathan, God rejected the offer and in fact reversed it. God promised to build David a house, which in turn would become a house for God. (“House” is used here in a double sense for temple as well as family line.) The house that God promised to build for David turns out to be the house that David’s Greater Son, Jesus, builds for God. David’s house and God’s house are now one and the same house: the Church. (Paul will deal with the status of the old Israel vis-à-vis the church in Rom. 9-11. For Paul, Israel’s unfaithfulness is a problem precisely because it calls into question God’s own covenant faithfulness. But Paul’s theodicy in those central chapters shows that Israel’s unbelief does not cancel out the overriding covenant loyalty of God. God’s Word has not failed in Israel’s rejection of Jesus; in fact their rejection serves his ultimate purpose of bringing salvation to the world. Paul indicates that Israel’s rejection is only partial and temporary. In terms of biblical theology, Romans can be seen as New Covenant Habakkuk, in which the Lord’s mysterious but trustworthy ways are defended in the face of judgment on Israel. Paul’s use of Hab. 2:4 in the earlier section of 1:16-17 makes this link all the more evident.)
In verse 4, Paul says that at his resurrection accomplished by the Spirit, Jesus was declared to be the Son of God. What the flesh could not accomplish, the Spirit has performed in the Messiah. Jesus entered into the old fallen fleshly order of the first Adam. He was born under the law and under the curse. But through his death and resurrection, he brought in the new creation, the age of the Spirit’s reign through life and righteousness. The resurrection is the hinge on which the door to a whole new world swings open.
All of this, then, is the driving force behind Paul’s apostolic mission, which he returns to in verse 5. In fact, Romans is ultimately a missionary fund raising letter, so explaining the rationale behind his Gentile mission is of supreme importance. His desire to garner support for a trip to Spain is the real goal in writing (Rom. 15-16).
In verse 5, Paul explains the scope of his mission: he is out to win the nations to the obedience of faith for the sake of Christ’s name. Paul knew this was not a fool’s errand. God had promised all along that the blessings of salvation would ultimately spill over into the Gentile world on a grand scale (Gen. 12; numerous texts from the Psalms and prophets). Those promises were clouded by his Pharisaical glasses earlier, but now that he looks at them through the eyes of Christ, they have come into sharp focus.
So, the gospel according to Paul is a cosmic message, embracing the whole sweep of God’s purposes, from creation to recreation. The very word “gospel” (1:1), understood in its canonical and historical contexts, reveals this. In the LXX, “gospel” was used in Isaiah to describe the time of comfort and return from exile for the people of God. It is used for the radical “inbreaking” of God’s reign into human history. But it was also used in a Greco-Roman context to describe a king’s enthronement and victory. Thus, “gospel” describes a message of fulfillment to Israel and of Christ’s imperial conquest to Rome. Jesus not only inaugurates a new Israel and a new exodus; he is also a new and true Caesar, establishing a kingdom which shows the Roman Empire to be but a pale parody.
Paul’s entire mission was simply an outworking of the gospel. God had enthroned Jesus as king of the nations and the world must be called to submit to and trust in him. We have been swept up into this mission as well. We too are resurrected into new life by the Spirit of holiness (Rom. 6-8) and must live accordingly. We may not be “big A” Apostles, like Paul, but we have been sent as a royal priesthood in union with Christ to win the nations to the obedience of faith for the sake of his name.
We know that these are the central themes in Romans because they are reiterated at the end of the book (Rom. 15-16) and because they make sense of the whole flow of the argument in the epistle (especially the function of Rom. 9-11). These five verses give both the fulfillment of all God’s OT promises in Christ as well as chart the program for the entire New Covenant era which follows. These 5 verses pick up on echoes, then become echoes for the rest of the letter. For the Church, that letter becomes the echo for world conquest through the gospel. Could anything be more practical than listening to such echoes?