Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Some Thoughts on Preaching Christ from the Old Testament

When teaching or preaching the Old Testament as Christians, we have a responsibility to bring Christ into every sermon. Spurgeon explained his preaching method by saying, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.” Christian pastors or teachers often bring Christ into the OT in some rather strange ways (allegory, excessive typology, etc.) and not every OT passage is about Christ. Our job is not to make Christ magically appear in every OT text, but we also have not really done our job as preachers unless we explain how Christ relates to every message we preach from the OT. Bringing Christ into the passage is especially a challenge when we preach the OT prophets. It’s easy to see Christ in the “messianic prophecies” like Isaiah 9, 11, 53, 61, etc., but what about Isaiah’s judgment speeches, his calls for justice, or his oracles against the nations?

In exploring how we preach Christ-centered sermons from the OT, Bryan Chappell has explained that the OT points to Christ in four specific ways. First, the OT predicts about Christ (we could look at OT messianic prophecies, messianic psalms, etc). Second, the OT prepares for Christ. OT persons, events, and individuals provide a bridge to Christ (the sacrifices pointing to the need for an ultimate payment for sin and the temple system pointing to God’s ultimate presence with his people in the person of Jesus). The OT also points to dead-ends where Christ becomes the solution and ultimate answer (the failed leadership of Israel; Israel’s inability to keep the law and its other covenantal failures). Third, the OT is a reflection of Christ—God’s calls for love, justice, and his holiness find their perfect reflection in Christ. God’s redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt or the deliverance of Israel form the Babylonian exile reflect God’s deliverance of his people from sin in Christ. Fourth, the OT points to the results of Christ’s coming and work (the salvation portrayals and announcements of the OT in passages like Isaiah 2:2-4 and 4:2-5 would fit into this category—and thus are not just things that will be true in the future kingdom but are also things that have at least become partial realities in the present in light of the first coming of Christ).

Preaching and teaching Christ from the prophets is more than just throwing in a correlating NT passage as a footnote to your lesson. Many times in the prophets, the text will present a problem; our job is not just to diagnose how that problem infects our lives, churches, or culture but also to show how Christ is the answer to that problem. For example, Isaiah 5:8-30 documents the problems of Judah’s oppression, selfishness, pursuit of pleasure—teaching this passage requires more than just showing how we struggle with these same sins in the present; Christian preaching and teaching must also show how the cross and knowing Christ provide the antidote to this type of living. If we fail to do this, we really are doing nothing more than moralizing about the text. We’re like a doctor who diagnoses a disease but then offers to healing prescription for the malady. We are preaching the law but offering no grace.

Chappell made the point in his message that the only reason sin has any power in our lives is that we love it. Our job as Christian teachers and preachers then is to help people love Christ more than they love sin and to point to the grace of Christ that helps them to break sinful patterns in our lives. The people of the OT followed idols and so do we because we love those things more than we love the Lord. It’s easy to simply use the prophets to catalog and condemn the idols in our lives; the real task is to show people how much Christ has loved them and to produce love for Christ that will ultimately transform the human heart.


  1. What would you say about the apparent allegories towards Christ (i.e. Abraham/ Isaac going up to sacrifice; Joseph being sold by his brothers, Moses and the Rock, etc.) Are these pictures of the Servant Messiah in allegory? If not, what about when Paul mentions the Rock being Christ; clearly it is "OK" for Paul, since he would have been writing the NT (inspired), but do you see it as "ok" to read into some of the OT Books as representations of Christ (one more example-Ruth).
    I would appreciate your insight...

    His servant and yours,

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for your comment and question. I would prefer to view stories like Isaac and Joseph providing "typologies" that point forward to Jesus rather than to read them as "allegories." Typology recognizes parallels and patterns between OT persons, events, and institutions that prefigure Christ, while allegory is more an attempt to find hidden meanings in incidental details of the OT text. The biblical writers clearly have a typological view of history because they believe that how God has worked in the past reflects how God will act again in the future. Thus, the OT writers viewed Joshua's conquest and Israel's rlease from Babylonian exile as "a second exodus" repeating what God did when he brought his people out of Egypt. Typology is perhaps the most characteristic way that the NT writers view the OT because they see all of what God did in the OT through a Christological lens. Thus, I think it is legitimate to see Abraham's sacrifice of his only son or Joseph's rejection by his brothers as in some sense pointing forward to Christ. However, I think we have to be careful of the excesses that have often characterized Christian preaching of the OT--and I see a bit of that when pastors want to spend their time developing the 20 parallels between Joseph and Christ, rather than reflecting on the message of the OT text itself and the larger patterns that emerge when the OT is read in light of the NT.

  3. Thanks, and from your answer, I can see how typology would be a better "hermeneutic." It seems much of the early church fathers were allegorical, but I tend to think they might have thought it was good, since Paul himself stated that Hagar and Sarah were allegories (Gal 4).
    I like to teach the text and that is why I enjoy exegesis and expository more than topical teaching. Do you know if the Catholic tradition still teaches allegory today?

  4. The early church often engaged in allegorical readings of the OT because they wanted to see Christian doctrines fully revealed in the OT and often resorted to readings that did not regard the progress of doctrine or the historical context of the OT. Early Christians were also engaged in intense debates with Judaism regarding the validity of the Christian faith, and thus it was important to demontrate Christian beliefs from the OT. Even today, Christians from various traditions attempt to flatten out the Bible and see all of it teaching fully developed understandings of key points of Christian doctrine (e.g. the Trinity in the OT). Rather than reading the NT back into the OT, our first step in the hermeneutical process is to interpret the OT text from its own historical context and then to assess the canonical implications of the text in light of the fuller revelation of the NT. In Galatians 4, Paul appears to be engaging in an allegorical reading of the Sarah/Hagar story as a form of argument against his opponents rather than providing a model of how we should interpret/read the OT text.

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