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Malyon Update March 2017

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John’s March Article:


Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: Some Thoughts
– John Sweetman

The issue

Jesus Christ is not mentioned in the Old Testament. He is clearly present in the work of the Trinity (e.g. Gen.1:26 “Let us make man”) and there are places where he may well be referred to obliquely e.g. the fourth person in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Dan. 3:25). There are certainly many prophecies of his future entry into the world e.g. the Messianic prophecies (Isa. 53, etc.). But he is never directly cited by name. So Judaism can base itself on the Scripture of the Old Testament and totally ignore Jesus.

Yet Christian faith completely revolves around the gospel of Jesus. While both Jews and Christians see the Old Testament as sacred text, they are worlds apart in their understanding of God and his relationship with us. Christians are not merely more enlightened Jews. They are sinners who have been transformed by the gospel of Jesus.

So Christians read the Old Testament very differently from Jews. They see it through the lens of the gospel as revealed in Jesus (as explained and demonstrated in the New Testament).

Without this Jesus lens, the Old Testament tends to become either the story of how a chosen nation lives (or doesn’t live) in covenant with God and the ramifications of their behaviour (how it is largely understood by the Jews), or how godly or ungodly individuals or groups obey or disobey God and the consequences of their actions. It becomes a Testament of godly wisdom and action.

For Christian preachers, the big problem with a gospel-absent Old Testament is the danger that much of it appears to be examples (especially the narratives), and so preaching easily becomes moralistic or legalistic. For example, a preacher may say, “Nehemiah was a godly and effective leader and so Christian leaders should lead in the same way.”

Such an approach is fraught with dangers. First, we often don’t know exactly what was of God and what was of a particular character (in this case, Nehemiah). The difference may not be of great significance in life, but it is vital in preaching. Second, it gives the impression that Christianity is a series of principles to follow or commands to obey (it’s about ethics) rather than a relationship to be savoured.

The solution

If Old Testament preachers are not to proclaim moralism, they must teach through the lens of New Testament gospel. In other words, they must preach Christ from the Old Testament.

This may not be necessary when just teaching from the Old Testament. But preachers are constantly asking how biblical passages are relevant to their hearers. Application is an essential part of preaching. The hearers are either Christians who need to be steeped in the grace of the gospel or non-Christians who need to primarily receive the gospel. They must not hear a mixed message from the Old Testament. They are not Jews nor are they dependent on constantly doing what is right to please God. They need to understand what the Old Testament is saying to Christ-followers. This demands interpreting the teaching of the Old Testament through the gospel of Jesus; understanding it as Christian Scripture.

We know that Jesus is present in the Old Testament. The symbols, the promises, the prophecies all point to Jesus. After Jesus had risen, Luke says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures [Old Testament] concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). A little later Jesus said to his disciples, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).

So Jesus is there in the Old Testament, but the challenge is for the preacher to find him, to discern the gospel lens. This has its difficulties, but it is an essential task of the preacher. I have tried to emphasise this in my designation of the main preaching idea as the gospel truth. The good news of Jesus must pervade all our preaching, including sermons based on Old Testament passages.

The cautions

As you can see, I fully support the contemporary push for gospel-saturated preaching from the Old Testament. However, I think that there are also significant hazards in this approach that need to be avoided. Here are a few cautions.

  1. The gospel = the cross.

I have seen a tendency for preachers who grasp the need to be gospel oriented to equate the gospel with the death of Jesus. So preaching involves saying something about the passage and then quickly rushing to our need for Jesus to save us and enable us to relate to God and live for God through his saving death. This type of preaching becomes predictable and boring (except to evangelists), and misses the richness and fullness of the gospel. As Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson entitled their 2012 book, “The Cross is Not Enough.”

Clearly, the death of Jesus forms a foundational part of the gospel, but I see the gospel as something much broader. It includes the whole of God’s story from creation to final judgement and beyond (the whole of salvation history). It has many important themes like the coming of God’s kingdom. It even includes the way we live in relationship with God. So gospel-saturated preaching doesn’t require explicit mention of the cross. It certainly didn’t for Jesus. We don’t need to preach the whole of the gospel in every sermon.

  1. Where’s Wally?

A second danger is to try to find Jesus in every passage. While some would disagree, I don’t think that the verses from Luke 24 quoted above imply that Jesus found reference to himself in every single passage in the Old Testament. Some preachers view their biggest challenge as finding Jesus in every Old Testament passage, whether that’s in an oblique reference, or a type/antitype, or an example, or a theme, etc. This is what I call a “Where’s Wally” approach to Old Testament preaching.

I believe that such an approach does not take Old Testament literature seriously enough. The Old Testament is not a puzzle book in which we have to find Jesus on every page. It’s carefully constructed literature that has been inspired by God to teach and grow his people. Jesus will be present in many places, but our first task is to discern what truth a passage is actually teaching in its context to its original hearers. What does the passage say? Having discovered the truth (which may include reference to Jesus), we then work out how we can preach it effectively to gospel-based listeners.

  1. An unreliable Old Testament

A third danger is to over-emphasise the discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is sometimes seen to be about trying to earn God’s favour through keeping the law, and the New Testament is seen to be about God’s saving through his grace. So from this paradigm, when preaching from the Old Testament, it becomes necessary to constantly refer to New Testament scriptures to correct (or at least re-interpret) the legalistic or incomplete themes of the Old Testament.

New Testament scriptures can be very helpful in understanding the Old Testament. Many Old Testament passages are quoted in the New Testament with fresh interpretations because of the gospel of Jesus. But God has always related to his people through grace, and faith has always been prized by God (Hebrews 11). So many Old Testament passages are pregnant with gospel and will require no correction. In my preaching classes, I teach that all Scripture (Old Testament and New Testament) is inspired and can stand on its own authority (2 Tim. 3:16). Preachers only need to refer to other Bible passages if they need to expand on or clarify or balance the teaching of a passage.

An example

I’m presently preparing a sermon based around Jonathan’s words to his armour-bearer, “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few” (1 Sam. 14:6).

The context brings out the downward slide of Saul and the impossible situation that faces him. As he prepares to fight a huge Philistine army, he is reprimanded by Samuel for making a sacrifice and told that his dynasty will not endure (1 Sam. 13:13-14). He then is seemingly deserted by Samuel who is replaced by Ahijah a descendent of the fallen priestly line of Eli (1 Sam. 14:2-3). He is also abandoned by many of his terrified soldiers some of whom are hiding and others who have joined the Philistines (1 Sam. 13:8; 14:21-22). And his few remaining troops don’t even have swords or spears because the dominant Philistines have not allowed them to develop the technology (1 Sam. 14:22).

Onto this scene bursts a young, faith-filled, though recently disinherited Jonathan who is not overwhelmed by the odds or the disappointments, but who is looking for the powerful hand of God and trusts God to save. Jonathan eventually starts a rout among the Philistines (1 Sam. 14:6-15) that God uses to give Israel an overwhelming victory (1 Sam. 14:16-23).

Understanding a little of the techniques of Hebrew narrative, we can work out a number of emphases of the narrator. First, he is clearly contrasting the Saul and Jonathan. Saul is making poor choices and moving away from God to God-less defeat, while Jonathan is trusting God and initiating great God-given victory. The contrast is so stark; it has to be an intentional part of the narrative. The narrator even emphasises how Saul was blind to what Jonathan was saying and doing. Second, the narrative really slows down (through the use of a lot of direct speech) as Jonathan approaches the Philistine outpost. Jonathan speaks a number of times to his armour-bearer and he also speaks to the Philistines. The narrator wants the hearers to know Jonathan’s attitude and motivation. It seems to culminate in Jonathan’s statement, “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving whether by many or by few” (1 Sam 14:6). This assertion is crucial to the story, and everything turns on it.

So how do we preach this passage? Here are some (over-simplified) approaches that illustrate the problems outlined above:

  1. Moralism. “In confronting the enemy, we need to be brave and courageous like Jonathan.” The biggest problem is that this approach focuses on our behaviour and easily leaves out mention of God’s work, leading to a non-gospel emphasis on human behaviour and effort (trying harder to muster up courage). Second, while in this passage, such an approach may be possible (because we have seen that the narrator is emphasising the character and behaviour of Jonathan in contrast to Saul), you would have big problems with this methodology in the next passage where Jonathan disobeys his father and eats some honey. Is this a good example for God’s people or is this Jonathan’s personal call?
  2. Hurry to the cross. “The only way we can act with courage like Jonathan is to receive Christ and rely on his freedom and hope.” This is certainly true, but it too quickly moves out of the passage and leaves every sermon sounding very similar.
  3. Where’s Wally? “Jonathan is a type of Jesus who bravely faced the cross and set us free from bondage.” While I know that allegorical interpretations of Old Testament narrative passages have had a long history in preaching, I’m still uncomfortable with them (unless the New Testament leads the way in interpreting a passage as an allegory). An allegorical approach just makes it too easy to lessen the authority of the biblical passage by imposing our own ideas and interpretations.
  4. An unreliable Old Testament. “Jonathan trusted God and acted with courage. The New Testament calls us as gospel people to live with courage (1 Cor. 16:13).” This is okay, but my concern is that too much of this approach lessens the trustworthiness of Old Testament Scriptures in the minds of listeners. This passage is pregnant with Jonathan’s faith and God’s grace. Do I need to race to the New Testament to locate this?

So how then can we preach this Old Testament passage to gospelised people?

  1. Find the original meaning.
    This is the principle that preachers use in studying any biblical passage. What was the narrator/writer saying to the original hearers? Using the narrative techniques I have described above, the narrator is emphasising that God can save no matter what the circumstances (1 Sam. 14:6) and that real people of faith (Jonathan, not Saul) will hold on to this. So my gospel truth could be, “Courageously follow the God who saves.”
  2. Check how the original meaning fits into the big story of the Bible.
    This narrative shows the decline of Saul (in contrast to Jonathan) and yet it also emphasises God’s faithfulness to his people in winning this battle for them and in preparing to appoint a “man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14) to lead Israel. David has not yet been mentioned by name but he is already in the wings. God will bring salvation through him to Israel and through his descendant Jesus to the whole world. My gospel truth fits well into this bigger picture. Perhaps I could use New Testament references to expand the meaning of salvation in my gospel truth. Some mention of the work of Christ would naturally fit this theme.
  3. Ask how to preach this gospel truth to gospelised hearers.
    If my gospel truth was, “Be courageous” or “Beef up your backbone,” then my preaching would need to make clear that God is the source of our courage and that God’s revelation is the reason for our courage. But my gospel truth already indicates this, so I will go with it as is.

I hope you have noticed that the method described above could be effectively used for any biblical passage (Old or New Testament).

 

Conclusion

So in summary, I would strongly advocate a gospel-oriented approach to all preaching because we are speaking to gospelised people. We must be so careful not to teach moralism.

However, often Old Testament passages will in themselves teach gospel elements (if the richness of the whole gospel is understood), and there will be no need to go beyond the passage itself.

Is there a need to speak of Christ in every sermon? On the one hand, I would ask, “Why not?” But while Jesus is central to the gospel, the person and work of Christ are not the whole of the gospel, so as far as I can see, there is no requirement for gospel-oriented preaching to always include specific mention of Jesus.