Many men approach preaching Christ from the Old Testament with a sense that it is difficult, unnatural, complicated, and a matter of learning and applying very rigid, technical rules. The results are predictably disappointing. But why do men feel like this? Perhaps, in our day of biblical ignorance, it is a matter of unfamiliarity with the Old Testament. Perhaps it’s an overreaction against excessive spirtualising; it may be a defective theology which produces sub-conscious Marcionites. A common reason in our Reformed circles is an exegetical training which is too rigidly technical: there are too many seminaries from which men come out less able to preach than when they went in.
Such awkwardness would have astounded the preachers of the early church. Preach Christ from the Old Testament? They never thought of preaching him from anywhere else – they didn’t have anywhere else. Uninhibitedly, naturally, and with tremendous power they preached Christ from the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter’s texts on the Day of Pentecost were drawn from Joel, Psalm 16, and Psalm 110, and after he healed the lame beggar he preached from Deuteronomy. Stephen, on trial for his life, took his hearers on an extensive Old Testament history tour. Philip told the good news about Jesus from Isaiah. Paul, in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, ranged in his message from the Torah, to the Psalms, to the Prophets.
If we have lost this facility, we need to recapture a pervasive, Christ-centred understanding of what is over seventy-five percent of the Word that God has entrusted to us.
Six general principles may be suggested in order to help us preach Christ from the Old Testament, acknowledging that they provide the merest overview of a vast subject:
Cultivate the Perspective
It is vital that we become convinced that the Old Testament, above all, is about Jesus Christ. He is its presupposition; the very word for testament – diatheke – links it with God’s covenant, with the Son agreeing before the foundation of the world to come and redeem those given to him by the Father. Christ is the oxygen of the Old Testament, he is the atmosphere without which it could not exist. Without Christ not one letter of the Old Testament could have been written down. Edmund Clowney states that ‘the history of redemption and of revelation exists because of Christ’s coming; had Jesus Christ not been chosen in God’s eternal plan there would have been no human history: Adam and Eve would have fallen dead at the foot of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’
We can say, then, of Christ and the Old Testament writings that he is before them all, and in him they all hold together. Christ could say of the Scriptures, ‘they bear witness of me,’ ‘Moses wrote of me.’ It was so obvious, that the disciples on the Emmaus road were held to be blameworthy for not seeing this. Christ’s exposition of the Scriptures to them pointedly included the three great divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures: everything written in the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. The Old Testament shaped the self-understanding of our Lord, as fulfiller, as servant, as Son of Man.
Paul sees the Old Testament as designed to produce faith in Christ. He writes to Timothy of ‘the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation, through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3:15). When he wants to illustrate the gospel in Romans 4, he first turns to Abraham and then to David, demonstrating how the Christian gospel works. He describes those who were to read the Old Testament without seeing Christ in it as having a veil over their hearts (2 Cor. 3:15). It is no accident that both the Bible and the Son are referred to by the same title: both are the Word of God, thus linking Christ inextricably with the Scriptures. He is everywhere in the pages of the Bible, and this is the perspective from which we should approach them. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics affirmed in its article 3: ‘we affirm that the person and work of Jesus Christ are the central focus of the entire Bible.’