This is part seven of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…“
One of the most obvious features of the Bible is the fact that it teaches us about God. This is the basic definition of theology – words, teaching, or study about God. The ways in which the Bible goes about this task are many: historical narrative, poetry, prophetic utterance or preaching, letters and messages and stories from God’s people. There are surprisingly few books in the Bible that specifically set out to teach us, straight up, without the use of these other writing styles and purposes. Three books, all of which are letters (or epistles) in the New Testament, stand out as perhaps the prime examples of the Bible as Theology: the Epistle of St. James, the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, and the Epistle to the Hebrews.
The Epistle of James is a brief letter written by St. James of Jerusalem, the first head bishop there who oversaw the council described in Acts 15. Of all the epistles it is perhaps the most saturated in the words of Christ, much of it quoting or paraphrasing the Sermon on the Mount and other sayings of Jesus. As such, this epistle has a great deal of ethical instruction – against greed and favoritism, about taming the tongue and enduring sufferings, and prayer and forgiveness. It’s a hammer against what is sometimes called cheap grace, the notion that repentance is a one-time thing and our life habits are irrelevant. In short, “faith without works is dead.”
The Epistle to the Romans is St. Paul’s longest epistle. It was written to a congregation he had not even met yet, which may account for the fact that it some of the most general big-picture teachings about sin and salvation. Its first few chapters form what some call the Romans Road, outlining the reality of sin, the helplessness of mankind as fallen creatures, the need for God’s grace, and the great gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. But Paul did know something about the churches in Rome: there was division between Jewish and Gentile Christians, so a great deal of attention is given to their unification throughout the book. The final chapters move from the earlier teachings on salvation and unity to Christian living, speaking to subjects such as worship, mercy, obedience, and service.
The Epistle to the Hebrews is anonymous; several unconfirmed theories exist as to its author. Saint Paul has been a common assumption for much of the church’s history, but there is no consensus. This epistle reads mostly like a sermon: it draws upon frequent quotations from the Old Testament to preach the supremacy of Christ as the completion and fulfillment of the Old Covenant, the old Priesthood and the Temple, and indeed all the expectations of the Old Testament writings. In particular the reader is brought before the image of Jesus as High Priest, which is alluded to in many other New Testament writings but only explored in detail here. We are shown how the seemingly-passive death on the Cross is also an active work of priestly sacrifice. In short, this book is the greatest key to unlocking the true meaning of the Old Testament in light of the new.
There are many other great theological writings to be found in the Bible, but these are three of the premier books. James shows us how we are to live; Romans shows us how people are saved; Hebrews shows us how Jesus saved us.