– What is Biblical Theology?
– What is a Biblical Theology of Heaven?
– How does this apply to practical ministry and counseling?
– The importance of strong biblical preaching
The following is a transcription of Truth in Love Podcast episode 229. It has been edited for readability.
Dale Johnson: I am delighted to have with us Dr. Jim Hamilton on the podcast. He is the teaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He also serves as a Professor of Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Many of you may know him from that ministry. He’s written a small book that I think would be helpful for you on the topic of biblical theology. I would encourage you to read that.
As I was talking with Dr. Hamilton, one of the key things that I think is so important in this topic of heaven’s hope (and taking all that the Bible has to bear on what we long for and look forward to) is that so often today in counseling we’re tempted to to look for immediate and imminent fixes for all the things that ail us. Dr. Hamilton, I think it’s so important for us to not forget the dominant theme in Scripture that we’re longing for a city that’s to come. We’re awaiting a time when all that has caused the suffering that we endure will be wiped away. Where Jesus, because of his overcoming death and resurrection, will wipe all of that curse away. We long for that.
Before we get into talking about heaven’s hope, I think it’s important as we wed these two things together to understand both concepts. Could you give us a brief definition of what we are talking about when we speak about biblical theology?
Jim Hamilton: I like to define biblical theology as the attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors. Another way to say that is we’re trying to understand the worldview of the biblical authors and then we’re trying to embrace that worldview as our own. And then of course the big worldview questions: What is this place? Where did it come from? Who are we? What’s gone wrong? What’s God done to fix what’s gone wrong? How is everything going to turn out in the end? Those are going to inform our understanding of the interpretive perspective (or the worldview) of the biblical author.
So we’re trying to get our arms around the Bible’s big story, and then the truth and the symbols and the patterns in that story.
Dale Johnson: Well, it’s so interesting that you would even construct it that way and I think that’s so important because oddly enough if you look at any counseling psychology, they’re trying to answer the same questions. They’re trying to describe a worldview of people: How did the world get here? Why does a person have a certain problem? And then they’re describing how to fix it. And really that is the narrative of biblical theology, as we think about people and what God has given us.
Now if we were to wed these two things together, biblical theology and heaven’s hope, describe a biblical theology of heaven’s hope and why we long for heaven—why that’s a glorious promise and thought.
Jim Hamilton: I think that someone said eschatology is protology. So, if eschatology is the study of end things, or last things, protology is the study of the beginnings. If eschatology is protology, then really what’s being said, is the way that things were at the beginning (the very good creation, the presence of God, no sin, no corruption in the human heart), we’re going to have all that but it’s going to be better now because of what God has brought us through. I think that’s one way to come at it.
Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s one way to come at it for sure. And as we think about heaven and the way we long for heaven, sometimes we think about heaven as just a place where I won’t cry anymore. It’s a place where I won’t have to endure being poor anymore. I won’t have to endure some of the difficulties that we experience in life. If we were to describe heaven, for the Christian what is the beauty of longing for something like what’s promised in terms of heaven?
Jim Hamilton: Well, I think what you just said is the key thing that we need to long for: what’s promised. And we need to retrain our hearts, so that what we desire is actually what God says he’s going to give us. Often, we find ourselves desiring things that God has not promised to us.
Yesterday we came down here to Memphis and we went to the Memphis Grizzlies preseason exhibition game. It was Ja Morant’s very first NBA game. My buddy and I were sitting in the stands watching him and he says to me, “I wonder what they’re paying him?” And I said, “Well, let’s look up his contract.” And so I look up his contract—the Memphis Grizzlies are paying this guy over $7 million a year. This kid just turned 20-years-old this past August. So, he’s barely 20-years-old, and he’s making almost a million dollars a month. I mean if you just divide 7 million by 12, you know, it’s almost $700,000 a month. And he’s living in Memphis, Tennessee. So often our flesh hears that, and I think, “Oh, I’d love to have $700,000 a month.” That’s what I think and then my mind can start to say, “What could I do to become a millionaire?” He’s already a millionaire at 20-years-old. Instinctively, we start thinking, “If I had all this money, and if I had all this access to luxury, and if I could do all of these things…” When in reality the truth about Ja Morant—and this is true about anybody—if he does not walk with God, if he does not have stable relationships with people that actually care about him (not for what his money can do for him or for them), if he doesn’t have what the Bible describes as the good life, he can have all the money in the world and he’s going to be singing that U2 song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It’s going to be this insatiable quest. So heaven’s hope is about what God actually said He’s going to do. And the key part of all of that is the dwelling of God will be with man, and they will see his face. That’s what will really satisfy us and nothing else will.
Dale Johnson: Even as you described that story, I think of Jesus’ prime question, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but he loses his own soul?” One of the things that I see happen in daily life is we experience the emptiness of pursuing hope in the world. And that’s a part of where many counseling problems arise, and so we need to take a step back to reorient ourselves to what the good life is in the Scriptures. I think that’s critical.
Now as a pastor you encounter all sorts of people. You shepherd people as they’re progressing in sanctification. They’re certainly not perfected yet. And we struggle in many ways—the Bible makes that very clear. How do we take the truths that you were talking about, the beautiful promises that God has given in what’s to come, and teach people through suffering to learn to be patient, to learn to wait, to learn to hope in the things that God has properly promised to us?
As a pastor, how do you approach people and take all the beauty that you know of the riches of the theological doctrine, and really bring that on a level to help them long for heaven appropriately?
Jim Hamilton: Well, there’s so many factors that go into that and a lot of it comes down to who is the person that you’re dealing with and what’s your relationship like with this person? But let’s just assume that that we’re dealing with someone who is part of my congregation, and who’s trying to walk with the Lord and they’re in some form of difficulty. I think it can be useful to go over what we know together, and to restate, assuming the circumstances are appropriate, that God created the world altogether good. When God made the Garden of Eden and put the man and the woman there, it was all good. There was no sorrow, and there was no deformity. There were no birth defects. There were no cancers. There were no wicked desires in people’s hearts. And then human sin opened Pandora’s Box and God has promised that he’s going to set all things right. We’re waiting on the day when He does. We’re longing for the day when He will indeed wipe away tears from all faces.
My friend Denny Burke preached at our church yesterday. He preached on 1 Corinthians 15:50-58. He was talking about how the sting of death is sin. And how God is going to swallow up death forever and he was talking about the way that the Bible says the Lord is going to wipe away tears. Tears will be no more when God is done with everything.
And Denny observed, you don’t typically let people get close enough to you that they can put their hands on your face to wipe away tears. He began to go through the kinds of people who actually have access to you to do this. He said, your mother could do this, and maybe your sister could do this, or maybe your wife. And then he said, “Or your father.” The Bible is telling us that God is our father and that He’s a good father, and that He’s going to take away all of the sources of pain, all of the things that cause tears, and then He is going to wipe away those tears. I love this line in the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, where her character John Ames (an aged pastor) says something to the effect of, “The Bible says that God is going to wipe away every tear and it’s a good thing that he does because nothing else will suffice.” That’s what we need. The Bible is telling us that the Lord is going to do for us what we want him and what we need him to do for us.
Dale Johnson: It’s an interesting statement that Jesus will wipe away every tear, but what that also means is that through this life there are going to be a lot of reasons to cry. There are going to be a lot of difficulties. I think that’s a part of the expectation that we build in churches. Part of the reason we minimize the hope of what’s to come, is we act like here we shouldn’t have much suffering. Life should be happy, things should be good. We shouldn’t be dealing with all this trouble and struggle and difficulty. But in reality, it’s a beautiful thing that Jesus will wipe away tears, and it tells us something about the world that we’re living in now—it’s broken. It needs to be redeemed in full, and so that’s a part of the beauty I think we’re getting at as we think about heaven’s hope.
Jim Hamilton: Often I think that we if we’re strong and healthy and maybe our circumstances are pretty good, it can be hard for us to relate to people who are doubting or who are cast down in soul. But then it really doesn’t take much for us to get to a place where we’re ready to call God into question ourselves. I’ve related very easily to a friend of mine. He recently fell off a ladder and he landed hard on his foot. He said when his foot hit the ground, he thought he had shattered all the bones from his foot up to his knee. It turned out it’s just a severe bruise. So, no broken bones, but he talked about how as the thought occurred to him, “I could be crippled for the rest of my life,” in his soul, he just felt revolt against what the Lord might be doing to him. If the Lord starts taking us through what Job went through, we’re going to be tempted pretty severely. And the Bible depicts those kinds of things, and then the Bible gives us resources for dealing with that kind of sorrow and questioning, and helping us to work through those issues.
Dale Johnson: I want to ask you one more question, Jim. I think in your role as a pastor, you’re preaching the Word trying to diligently and faithfully proclaim God’s Word. In counseling, so many times we think about dealing with the problem after the fact. In preaching ministry, you’re actually doing pre-counseling. You’re preparing the hearts of people that we know will endure difficulty and suffering. I would encourage our people as well; this is the importance of you sitting under strong biblical preaching week after week. It does something to prepare the heart for moments that need counseling, that need care, that need hope. And so talk about as a pastor the importance in preaching of preparing your people’s hearts, knowing that they’re going to walk through difficulty in this world.
Jim Hamilton: I think the best way is simply to preach the whole counsel of God. When I say preach the whole counsel of God, I’m really talking about preaching continuously verse-by-verse through books of the Bible. Because that’s going to make you deal with every statement in the text. I can remember a time when I was sitting under Tom Schreiner’s preaching and we were coming up on the Parables. I think it was the Gospel of Mark. It might have been Luke, but it’s one of these places where the disciples come to Jesus and their attitude is, “Why are you talking to them? They are not getting this. Why are you talking this way to them? Why are you teaching them in parables?” Like they know better than Jesus. Jesus says to them in response, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven. To them it has not been given.” I can remember thinking to myself, “How is Dr. Schreiner going to navigate these difficult issues?” And he just preached the text. He just boldly said God gives some things to some people that he does not give to other people. It was that way consistently, where if we come upon a statement that indicates that God is sovereign over all things, he states plainly that God is sovereign over all things.
That approach to preaching and that understanding of the Scriptures sets people up to have experiences like the one that John Piper described years and years ago. He talked about how he was visiting a couple from his church in the hospital. They had just had a baby and it was not clear whether or not the baby was going to live. And the father put his hand on John Piper and said, “John, would you pray that God will be glorified in our baby’s life?” And the mom put her hand on top of both their hands, and she looked at her husband, and she said, “God will be glorified either way.” It’s an understanding that God is God, and that everything that he does is right even though we don’t understand all of his purposes. There’s that great line in Cowper’s hymn that says, “Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.” It’s that whole counsel of God preaching that goes every verse-by-verse through every book of the Bible that really equips people to know the heart of God.
Dale Johnson: You don’t get outcomes like that through trite statements, through topical meandering through different issues of life, by giving ten steps to this and that. That’s something that happens as a heart encounters the beauty of the Word, the difficulty sometimes of the Word, but the beauty of the character and the nature of the God that we serve. An appropriate response in a difficult situation is, “We’re going to honor the Lord.” That’s the beauty of faithful preaching—it prepares your people to go through difficulty, which the Bible promises will happen. Jim, this has been a helpful conversation as we really try to utilize the beauty of what God’s given us to turn our hearts toward what’s to come—the promises that he has so faithfully given. And why would He not do them? He’s proven himself in ways in the past. What He has said, He will accomplish. What He has foretold will come to pass, and we long for that day. Thank you for sharing about biblical theology and heaven’s hope.