Recently on The Exchange, Ed Stetzer started a blog series devoted to the issue of Christ-Centered Old Testament Preaching (see Part 1 and Part 2). He has invited several respected scholars including Daniel Block, David Murray, Walter Kaiser, and Brian Chapell to weigh in on the discussion.
But this is an issue that is so important to the life of the Church that he also invited others from around the blogosphere to also weigh in…
Here are my two cents:
I don’t by any stretch of imagination consider myself an OT scholar. I do dabble a bit in the Old Testament (being an OT substitute lecturer at Eternity Bible College), but I would primarily see my own area of expertise being in the NT (afterall it should be, I am an NT Prof.). I mainly teach through Pauline Literature and I am fascinated with the NT use of the OT. Richard Hays and G.K. Beale have been extremely helpful for me in understanding how the NT uses the Old. Yet, working the other way OT pointing to the NT is a lot more difficult. On top of that, many of us have to preach this way, so its vital for us who teach the Bible and who preach to figure out for ourselves what the relationship between the OT, NT, and Christ is.
Over the last few years Preaching Christ from the OT has been a hot button issue. With the growing prominence of Reformed blogs and the Gospel Coalition, this issue has come to the forefront of evangelicalism. The Evangelical Theological Society’s Far west Regional Meeting in 2012 even had this as its central theme. So Lets start out by clarifying the issue, or better yet problem…
In most people’s minds we are faced with a two pronged dilemma:
- We should take seriously what the authors themselves have to say.
- We should preach Christ and Christ crucified.
Problem 1 – We Should Take Seriously What the Authors Themselves Have to Say
Going through seminary, I took classes on “The Hebrew Bible.” It wasn’t the “Old Testament” it was the TaNaK. Torah, Prophets, Writtings. We read it as it was organized in the Masoretic Texts. We read it as though we were not Christians. Some professors brought it back to Christ as a side-note, but the emphasis was on reading the Old Testament as though we didn’t even possess the New Testament. This in and of itself is already a hermeneutical move, nevertheless we were taught that when studying the Old Testament we ought not quickly jump to the New Testament, to do so would not be to take the Old Testament and its writer’s intentions seriously. So at the end of the day, to take the text seriously meant not to read Christ into the Old Testament. This is understandable, because Christ-Centered OT preaching is often done very poorly. Have you ever heard anybody preach on how Rahab’s red scarf is a type of Christ? I have… its hard not to scoff at a sermon like that.
Problem 2 – We Should Preach Christ and Christ Crucified
Paul famously resolved to only preach Christ and Christ crucified. Many preachers I know have taken this up as their own mantra, and have taken it to be equivalent to “Gospel-Centered Preaching” or more accurately “justification-by-faith-centered preaching.” Others justify Christ-Centered OT preaching by pointing out what Jesus says about his own relation to the Old Testament. In John 5:39 Jesus says to his opponents, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.” In Luke 24 we are told about the story of Jesus’ encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. At dinner Jesus begins with Moses and all the Prophets, and he explains to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. So we have a Pauline injunction to always preach Christ, we have Jesus himself saying that all Scriptures concern him, but on top of that we have a deep rooted tradition of reading the OT typologically.
Jonathan Edwards is one of my theological heroes, I have devoted much of my studying in seminary to his theology, one thing that he does is point out how everything reveals Christ.
Check out what he says in his miscellanies:
“I expect by very ridicule and contempt to be called a man of a very fruitful brain and copious fancy but they are welcome to it. I am not ashamed to own that I believe that the whole universe, heaven and earth, air and seas, and divine constitution and history of the holy Scriptures, be full of images of divine things, as full as a language is of words; and that the multitude of those things that I have mentioned are but a very small part of what is really intended to be signified and typified by these things.”
He sees Christ everywhere! Why can Edwards say this and why does he risk ridicule and contempt in order to find God (and more specifically Christ) in things like storms, spiders, marriage, family, historical occurrences, and the Old Testament? The reason is quite simple. He believes that “God is a communicative being.” In fact in one of his Miscellanies Edwards says that “communication of himself to their (humans) understanding is his glory, and the communication of himself with respect to their wills, the enjoying faculty is their happiness.”
So it seems as though Paul, Jesus, and Edwards (and the Church broadly speaking) has always placed an emphasis on preaching Christ from all of Scripture. How shall we pass this two pronged dilemma? Well I’m not even sure it is a dilemma.
Why Preaching Christ from the Old Testament is Not a Problem
Daniel Block mentions three problems with preaching Christ from the OT:
- Christo-centric preaching often morphs into a Christo-centric hermeneutic, which demands that we find Christ in every text.
- Christ-centered preaching may obscure the intent of the original author and in so doing may actually reflect a low view of Scripture.
- Rather than clarifying many First Testament texts, Christ-centered preaching may rob them of both their literary quality and their spiritual force.
It would be worthwhile to respond to these objections, but I won’t, instead I will focus on laying out one way which we could preach Christ from the Old Testament, yet stay true to the original human author’s intentions….
The Old Testament authors wrote “directionally” so that the OT scriptures do in fact lead to Christ. Thus we can preach Christ in every Old Testament sermon.
Notice what I am not saying… I am not saying that the cross or our justification is found in every text. I am not saying that every text contains the gospel. I am not saying that Jesus the 1st century citizen of Palestine is in every text. Rather I am saying that all the Old Testament leads to Christ. I believe that it does this in at least three ways:
- The OT anticipates a Messianic figure of some sort
- The OT anticipates a time when the promise to Abraham would be fulfilled
- The OT anticipates YHWH dwelling with his people forever
These three “anticipations” run throughout all the Old Testament as a thread would weave its way through an intricate tapestry. Sometimes a single thread will be on the front side of the tapestry, in full display, but at other times it will be on the back side, hidden from view; nevertheless it is always a part of the tapestry. These three themes or anticipations run through the entire Old Testament, and each of these three themes are fulfilled in Christ.
Four Examples (Three Easy and a Hard One)
Consider any part of the Law and Writings. Within these writings there are is a central theme that runs throughout, namely “the expectation of a future anointed king or priest figure who brings salvation to the people of God” (Stanley Porter, The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments, 4). If you want proof of this take a look at Genesis 3:15, 14:17-20, Numbers 24:17-19, Pslams 2 and 100, Daniel 9:24-26. Although messianic concepts are not fully fleshed out at this point, they are certainly there.
Consider the prophetic literature. Within the prophets there are numerous retelling of Israel’s history through the lens of Israel’s unfaithfulness. But even within these re-telling there is almost always references to past or present Hebrew leaders and their successes or failures. These leaders often serve as figures that the authors use to create anticipation (or stir the audience’s imagination) for a future anointed leader who will not fail.
Also within the prophetic literature, there is a strong anticipation for the day when Israel will posses its land and live in Shalom. This is all an out working of the Abrahamic Covenant. Interestingly enough though, Abrahamic Covenant language is picked up even when they are in exile. Jeremiah 29, encourages the exiles to “produce offspring,” “settle down and cultive gardens,” and “bless the city.” It parallels God’s words to Abraham which promise “offspring,” “land,” and “blessing.
YHWH’s Dwelling Place
The Torah anticipates YHWH’s dwelling with his people, in fact this is the central theme of Genesis and much of the law, namely that God wants a people to dwell among. This is especially expressed in a “temple” theme that runs throughout the Torah but also in the Writings and Prophets. Genesis is a cosmic temple. The Tabernacle is a proto-temple modeled after the eschatological temple. Chronicles emphasizes why YHWH’s presence will leave the people. Ezekiel explains, from a priestly standpoint, why YHWH’s kabod left, and promises that YHWH’s kabod will return to his people and dwell with them forever. Even the minor prophets anticipate the day when YHWH will return in all his glory to the temple.
My point in illustrating all of this is that the OT is built around these three themes, and anywhere you turn to in the OT you will find these themes. You will even find them in the book of Proverbs. Some people are quick to point out that you don’t find Christ in the Proverbs. But step back for a second, who is the book written to? Its written to the son of a King, so that the son might rule wisely. Much of the OT anticipates a messianic (or proto-messianic) king who rules with perfect wisdom. This truly wise king is sometimes talked about as YHWH himself or some Davidic descendant. So even the book of proverbs points to Jesus because it illustrates what a truly wise king lives like. If you keep bringing any individual proverb back to the purpose of the book as a whole, you see a kingly messianic theme.
Now Get to Christ!
I think its relatively undisputed that these three themes run throughout all of the Old Testament. They might not be found in each passage, but they are certainly found in entire books and collections of scripture (Torah, Writings, Prophets). Now we can get to Christ… How? Christ is the anticipated Messiah. Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (land, offspring, blessing). Christ is YHWH coming to dwell among his people. If Christ is the fulfillment of these three themes or anticipations, and all of the Old Testament authors intentionally wrote in anticipation of the fulfillment of these themes, then we have warrant to preach Christ from the Old Testament. Doing that might not be an easy task, and it will involve immersing ourselves into the Hebrew worldview that desperately anticipated these things. But if we do this, then we will be that much better for it, because we will come to appreciate Christ as the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.
“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.” – 2 Corinthians 1:20
Let us say “Amen!” to the fact that Christ is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises in the Old Testament!