“Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).
There are probably many reasons for the lack of preaching Christ from the Old Testament, ranging from the difficulty of doing so to a lack of interest. We shall analyze three sets of possible reasons: (1) the temptation of human-centered preaching, (2) the concern about forced interpretation, and (3) the separation of the Old Testament from the New.
The Temptation of Human-Centered Preaching
A textbook on preaching states unequivocally: “The first and most vivid value of the Old Testament for the preacher may be in the figures it portrays.”1 The colorful characters roaming the Old Testament are a powerful attraction for preachers. Especially for busy pastors, the temptation is great simply to retell the story of one of these characters and relate it to the lives of their parishioners.
William Willimon asserts, “Most of the preaching I hear and too much that I do attempts to build upon ‘common human experience.’ ‘Are you depressed? Everyone has been depressed at one time or another. Down in the dumps? There is a story of someone who was down in the dumps, in the pit, so to speak. His name was Joseph. He was thrown into a pit ….'”2 The result of such biblical character preaching is tragic: “Unable to preach Christ and Him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved.”3
Much of human-centered preaching is promoted by what is called “biographical preaching” or “character preaching.” Since I have dealt extensively with this topic elsewhere,4 we shall here examine only a recent text entitled Guide to Biographical Preaching (1988).
In this book, Roy De Brand advocates preaching biographical sermons not only because they are “easy to prepare and preach” but especially “because they have tremendous preaching value.” He promotes the value of biographical sermons as follows: “They carry the automatic bonus of example …. We learn from others. Sometimes the lessons are positive and we emulate them. Other times we learn what not to do, think, or say from the example of others.
“Often both positive and negative lessons can be learned from the same Bible character. For example, we could benefit by learning from King David’s noble deeds, high aspirations, and deep worship of God. We can also learn much about what to avoid from the examples of his terrible sins against Uriah and Bathsheba Hold forth the virtues to be imitated and expose the vices to be eliminated by preaching the tremendous examples found in lives of Bible characters.”5
De Brand continues by illustrating his method. Suppose one preaches on Genesis 32:22-32. A typical biographical sermon might look like this:
Title: “When Jacob Wrestled with the Angel.”
1. Jacob struggled (32:22-25).
2. Jacob was changed (32:26-28).
3. Jacob was blessed (32:29-32).
De Brand rightly senses that this development leaves the message in the past. In order to relate the message to the present hearers, he suggests the following improvement:
Title: “When God Confronts Us.”
1. When God confronts us it some times causes struggle (32:22-5).
2. God’s confrontation calls us to change (32:26-28).
3. We receive God’s blessing when He confronts us (32:29-32).6
The new outline is a vast improvement over the old one. Instead of being human-centered, the new outline is more God-centered. Moreover, it is relevant. But at what cost? Notice that in point 1 Jacob’s unique struggle is turned into every person’s struggle — that is the error of generalizing or universalizing.7 Notice further that Jacob’s physical struggle is turned into our spiritual struggle with God — that is the error of spiritualizing.
Notice that in point 2 Jacob’s change becomes our call to change — that is the error of moralizing.8 It is also a “genre mistake” in turning a narrative description into a prescription for us, as if this were the legal genre.
Finally, notice that in point 3 Jacob being blessed is turned into an assurance that all of us will be blessed — generalizing again.
Problems of Biographical Preaching
The problems of this kind of preaching are evident in the attempt at application: generalizing, spiritualizing, and moralizing. But these problems in application are only indicative of underlying problems, problems in hermeneutical approach and exposition. For it is evident that biographical preaching does not interpret each story in the context of the one underlying story of the coming kingdom of God. Instead, it tends to isolate each story from its redemptive-historical and literary contexts.
Biographical preaching also fails to inquire after the intention of the author: What was the author’s message for Israel?9 Instead, it imposes an interpretative grid on the story that equates biblical characters with the people in the pew and then inquires how we ought to imitate or learn from their examples. Because biographical preaching shortchanges the contexts of the biblical story and the biblical author’s intention, it is unable to produce genuine Christ-centered sermons.
The Concern about Forced Interpretation
For many years I have personally been ambivalent about the necessity of preaching Christ from every text. My main concern was that such a strict requirement would lead to forced interpretation, as one finds in allegorizing and typologizing. Consequently, I thought and taught that with some texts preachers may have to be satisfied with the broader category of God-centered preaching, noting that God-centered preaching is implicitly Christ-centered since Christ is God.
I imagine that many other preachers have the same fear of forced interpretation and therefore do not always preach Christ explicitly when preaching from the Old Testament.
On the basis of the evidence of the New Testament, however, I am arguing not merely for the general category of God-centered preaching but for the more specific category of explicitly Christ-centered preaching. But we must still be watchful that we do not force the text and make it say things it does not say.
A popular radio preacher, for example, presented the following interpretation of Genesis 2:18-25: “While Adam slept, God created from his wounded side a wife, who was part of himself, and he paid for her by the shedding of his blood …. Now all is clear. Adam is a picture of the Lord Jesus, who left His Father’s house to gain His bride at the price of His own life. Jesus, the last Adam, like the first, must be put to sleep to purchase His Bride, the Church, and Jesus died on the cross and slept in the tomb for three days and three nights. His side too was opened after He had fallen asleep, and from that wounded side redemption flowed.”10
The message is ingenious, interesting, and Christ-centered. But it preaches Christ at the cost of misusing the Old Testament text. This, clearly, is a case of allegorizing, for this message about Christ has no basis in the text itself. The preacher simply reads Christ, as we know Him from the New Testament, back into the Old Testament text. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the author’s intended message; not even a “fuller sense” can arrive at this kind of interpretation. And, sadly, in the process of allegorizing the text, its real message is left behind.
For the text is about God in the beginning making a partner for the lonely man. The author’s message for Israel is about God’s wonderful gift of marriage. Since Israel lived in a culture where polygamy was normal and where women were not valued as true partners, this message of God’s original design for marriage taught Israel about God’s norm for marriage. That message should have been preached, for it is still good news for women and men today. And it could have been reinforced by Jesus’ own teaching based on this passage: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9).
The Separation of the Old Testament from the New
For other preachers, the failure to preach Christ from the Old Testament derives from their view of the Old Testament. Simply put, many preachers separate the Old Testament from the New and view the Old Testament as a non-Christian book. Consequently, they are opposed to any kind of “christological interpretation” from the outset.
R. N. Whybray, for example, argues that “the Old Testament can only be properly understood if it is studied independently.”11 He asserts that “it is necessary to rule out the traditional christological principle of interpretation, whereby the Old Testament is understood as looking forward to, or as in some way foreshadowing, the Christian dispensation. That this was the way in which the New Testament writers understood it … is irrelevant for the interpretation of the Old Testament ….” He urges us “to admit frankly that the New Testament interpretation of the Old is not acceptable to modern scholarship.”12 Clearly, Whybray argues for understanding the Old Testament as a non-Christian book. The combination of separating the Old Testament from the New and employing a rigid historical-critical method which focusses at best only on the original message for Israel undermines the very possibility of preaching Christ from the Old Testament.
James Barr, though more moderate, also ends up opposed to “christological interpretation” of the Old Testament: “Our decision against a ‘Christological’ kind of interpretation here is not primarily founded on historical-critical method, though this is not without importance. Theologically, it rests upon the fact that, though the God of the Old Testament is the Father of our Lord, the Old Testament is the time in which our Lord is not yet come. It is as the time in which He is not yet come that we ought to understand it.”13
It seems to me that Barr’s reason is not so much theological as it is chronological. However that may be, if the term “Christ” refers specifically to the incarnate Christ, we must agree with Barr that “the Old Testament is the time in which our Lord is not yet come.” To think otherwise is anachronistic. Yet this important sensitivity to the uniqueness of historical development does not preclude preaching Christ from the Old Testament.
One of the main clues, I think, lies in the way we view the relation of the Old Testament and the New Testament.14
The Unique Character of the Old Testament
A person’s view of the Old Testament is so decisive hermeneutically that it governs all subsequent interpretation. In contemporary views, we can distinguish at least four different positions on the character of the Old Testament: (1) the Old Testament is sub-Christian, (2) the Old Testament is non-Christian, (3) the Old Testament is pre-Christian, and (4) the Old Testament is Christian.
The Old Testament Is Sub-Christian
In North America one can think of some social gospel preachers who produced their messages within the framework of liberal theology and used the Old Testament selectively. They rejected much of the Old Testament as sub-Christian, but they did find some worthwhile nuggets here and there, especially the call for social justice by the prophets.
The Old Testament Is Non-Christian
The position that the Old Testament is non-Christian is represented by biblical scholars (Jews and Christians) who read the Old Testament independently of the New Testament (see Whybray, Gunneweg, and Barr above). They wish to be objective and will generally see the Old Testament as Tanakh (an acronym for the Jewish Scriptures Torah-Prophets-Writings). One of its representatives, Leonard Thompson, argues that in teaching the Hebrew Scriptures, one should emphasize “that Hebrew Scriptures are a complete work and do not need the New Testament to complete them.”15
The resulting interpretation deliberately ignores the New Testament. Commenting on the Immanuel passage, he writes, “When Isaiah is read in the context of Tanakh …, the connection with Jesus is inconceivable. Within the immediate context, the message in Isaiah 7:14 is given as a sign to Ahaz, the reigning king of Judah, that he should not be afraid of a military coalition between Syria and northern Israel that threatens him …. From a historical perspective the Christian [Matthew’s] reading becomes impossible, for Jesus was born several centuries after Ahaz was king, whereas the sign is directed at a particular situation in his reign.”16 The outcome of this position is an exclusively non-Christian Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament.
It should be clear that the question is not, Whose book is the Old Testament? The Jews claim Tanakh as their holy Scriptures; Christians claim the Old Testament as part of their canon; Mormons claim the Old Testament alongside their Book of Mormon;17 Muslims claim parts of the Old Testament for their Koran. In the course of history, this sacred book has been accepted as Scripture by a wide variety of faiths. However, the question is not whose book it is. The question is rather, In which context does it find its final interpretation?
For Christians, that context cannot be anything but the New Testament. In his day already Paul had to deal with the issue of non-Christian Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. He writes in 2 Corinthians 3:15-16, “Indeed, to this very day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” Surely Christian preachers do not desire to interpret the Old Testament with “a veil over their minds.” A better option is to see the Old Testament as pre-Christian.
The Old Testament Is Pre-Christian
We can best illustrate the position that the Old Testament is pre-Christian by summarizing the views of two well-known biblical scholars.
The Old Testament Is B.C.
In his thorough book The Authority of the Old Testament, John Bright struggles earnestly with the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and the hermeneutical significance of this relationship for preaching from the Old Testament. On the one hand, he rightly posits that “we can preach no sermons save Christian sermons.”18 On the other hand, he holds that the message of the Old Testament “is not of and by itself a Christian message.”19 And therein lies the dilemma. Bright sees the Old Testament as a pre-Christian book, or, as he likes to put it, a “B.C.” book. “The Old Testament… stands in discontinuity with the New because it speaks a B.C. word, not an A.D. word.”20 Again, “The basic problem with the Old Testament is that, in all its texts, it occupies a perspective that is not, and cannot be, our own. It stands on the other side of Christ ….”21
Hermeneutically this position puts Bright in a real bind. On the one hand, he asserts, “We must proclaim it from an A.D. perspective, in its Christian significance, or the Old Testament will, quite frankly, be of little use to us in the pulpit.” On the other hand, he rightly posits as a first principle of hermeneutics that “we may not impose Christian meanings on its texts either through exegetical skulduggery or homiletical irresponsibility: honest and sound method forbids it.”22
Bright has a difficult time working his way out of this dilemma. He does offer a good suggestion (coming close to what is known as a “fuller sense”): “One can very well see retrospectively in past events a deeper significance than was apparent at the time, and that without in the least attributing to the actors in those events insights that they did not have.”23
But this promising suggestion is scuttled by a disappointing solution: “Precisely because it has this B.C. perspective, the Old Testament can address us with an unusual immediacy, for we live — all of us — to some degree in B.C.” — B.C. now meaning “not fully subject to the messianic kingdom of Christ.”24 Since Bright has posited too much of a qualitative difference between the Old Testament and the New, his difficulty in finding a solution is partly of his own making.
The Old Testament Is Directed to Israel
Another person whom we should hear briefly is Elizabeth Achtemeier. Achtemeier has written a helpful book for preachers: Preaching from the Old Testament. But, like Bright, she takes the position that the Old Testament is pre-Christian. She writes, “The fact is … that apart from the New Testament, the Old Testament does not belong to the Christian church and is not its book. The Old Testament is the word of God to Israel ….”25 Or, as she puts it elsewhere, “The … basic presupposition that we must hold as we preach from the Old Testament is that the Old Testament is directed to Israel …. Unless we therefore have some connection with Israel, the Old Testament is not our book, and it is not revelation spoken to us.”26
Happily, there is such a connection with Israel through Christ. “As Ephesians 2 states, Christ ‘has made us both one’ and the Church now has become a member of the ‘commonwealth of Israel.’ Or, as in Romans 11, we wild gentile branches have been grafted into the root of Israel.”27
Yet this connection with Israel alone is not sufficient for us to receive a Christian message from the Old Testament. Achtemeier states, “It must be emphasized that no sermon can become the Word of God for the Christian church if it deals only with the Old Testament apart from the New. In every sermon rising out of an Old Testament text there must be reference to the New Testament outcome of the Old Testament’s word.”28 So how can we preach a Christian message from the Old Testament? In contrast to Bright’s hermeneutical struggles with this issue, Achtemeier has a simple homiletical solution: “If the preacher chooses an Old Testament text first, then he must also choose a New Testament text to go with it.”29 Elsewhere she reiterates, “We must never preach only from an Old Testament text, without pairing that text with one from the New Testament.”30
The Requirement of “Pairing”
Homiletically, “pairing” is a valid option, of course. Although there are many good reasons for “textual preaching” (that is, preaching on a single text), there is no law that restricts preachers to only one text. Yet “pairing,” in my opinion, is not a good option. For one, it adds several complications to the preacher’s task: preachers will have to do justice to expositing not one but two texts in two entirely different historical cultural settings.31 Also, sermons will tend to be dualistic, with an Old Testament part and a New Testament part.
What is more, the significance of the Old Testament text is presented through the lens of a single New Testament text instead of the entire New Testament. If the New Testament text is not well chosen, this procedure can distort the message of the Old Testament text.
For example, for Epiphany 4B the lectionary pairs the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-14) with Jesus’ healing of a leper (Mark 1:40-45) — a rather superficial parallel at the level of two lepers being healed. But the message of 2 Kings 5:1-27 (the whole story) has to do with God’s free healing (grace) of a Gentile being hindered by an Israelite (Gehazi). This specific message is not carried through in Mark 1:40-45. A more supportive New Testament passage would be Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth in which He recalls this incident of God’s grace for Gentiles, and “all in the synagogue were filled with rage” (Luke 4:27-30).
As the last example shows, one can often confirm or reinforce or deepen the Old Testament message by referring to one or more New Testament passages, but that is quite different from requiring “pairing” the Old Testament text with one from the New Testament in order that thereby the sermon “become the Word of God for the Christian church.” This requirement degrades the Old Testament, for the Old Testament is God’s word in its own right.
It is true, of course, that we must read the Old Testament in the light of God’s later revelation in the New Testament. But this context will bring to light many Old Testament teachings which the New Testament reiterates or simply assumes. Where the teaching of an Old Testament text is in full agreement with New Testament teaching, there is no need for “pairing.”
To establish a link with the present, or to confirm that this is also the teaching of the New Testament, the preacher may still refer to a New Testament incident or quote one or more New Testament texts, but this move is not required to make the message “Christian.”
For example, one can preach on Psalm 23, the Lord is my shepherd, and have a Christian message without “pairing” the Psalm with a New Testament text. In the sermon, one should point out, of course, that this Lord is our shepherd only through Christ, but “pairing” is not required to make the message Christian.
Consequently, I conclude that “pairing” is superfluous where there is strong continuity between the message of the Old Testament and the teaching of the New Testament. In cases where the Old Testament passage contains a promise which is fulfilled in the New Testament, the preacher should naturally move on in the sermon to the fulfillment. But this move to the New Testament can be done by statement, quotation, or allusion, and does not require “pairing.” The only time some kind of “pairing” may be required is when there is strong discontinuity between the message of the Old Testament text and the New Testament. For example, when preaching on Genesis 17:9-14, “Circumcise every male among you as a sign of God’s covenant,” one must necessarily move on in the sermon to an exposition of Acts, where the first Christian assembly dealt with the issue of circumcision. But as a rule, “pairing” is not necessary because the Old Testament, understood in the context of the New Testament, is also the word of God for His people today.
The Old Testament Is Christian
There is a sense in which we can call the Old Testament “pre-Christian,” but then we are speaking chronologically; that is, we are saying that the Old Testament existed before Christianity. But this description does not say anything about its character. We could also call the foundations of a house “pre-house,” but all along we know that these foundations are an integral part of the house. In like manner, we could say that the Old Testament is “pre-Christian,” but all along we know that its essence is not “pre-Christian” but “Christian.” “Christian” describes the character of the Old Testament, its nature.
If we have any doubts about the Old Testament being Christian, we should recall that the Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus Christ Himself, It was also the Bible of Paul and the other apostles. Paul had the Old Testament in mind when he wrote, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). The Old Testament was the Bible of the authors of the New Testament.
The (Jewish) Christian church accepted the Old Testament as its Bible as a matter of course: it had been theirs all along. There never was any doubt about the Old Testament being (part of) the Christian Bible32 — until Marcion came along. Then the church made it official (A.D. 382).33 Later creeds reiterated this position. For example, one creed of the Reformation reads: “We include in the Holy Scriptures the two volumes of the Old and New Testaments …. We receive all these  books and these only as holy and canonical, for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith.”34 And Vatican Council II declared, “The plan of salvation, foretold by the sacred authors, recounted and explained by them, is found as the true word of God in the books of the Old Testament: these books, therefore written under divine inspiration, remain permanently valuable.”35
Consequently, the dilemma of how to get a Christian message out of a “non-Christian” or “pre-Christian” book is a predicament of our own making, for it does not arise out of the Scriptures themselves. Of course, as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament, we notice progression in redemptive history as well as in revelation. But progression does not make the Old Testament non-Christian or pre-Christian.
The headwaters of a river are not “non-river” or “pre-river”; they are an essential part of the river as it flows downstream. Moreover, as a river moves forward even while remaining where it has always been, so the progression in redemptive history and revelation takes place without disqualifying the past. For progression takes place within the larger framework of continuity. Jesus, the person who moved redemptive history and revelation forward as no one else, said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets [that is, the Old Testament]; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill” — that is, to reveal its full meaning and bring it to its consummation.
The point is that we ought not to create a breach between the Old Testament and the New and then scurry about to find some kind of continuity in order to bring a Christian message. Instead, we ought to start with the continuity of a unified history of redemption which progresses from the old covenant to the new, and a single Scripture consisting of two Testaments.
The Old Testament and the New are both parts of the Christian Bible; both reveal the same covenant-making God; both reveal the gospel of God’s grace; both show God reaching out to His disobedient children with the promise, “I will be your God, and you will be My people”; both reveal God’s acts of redemption.
With this foundation of continuity firmly in mind, we are prepared to detect discontinuities, for we know that the God of the Bible is not a static God but a God who moves along with His people through history, meeting them where they are, revealing ever more of His plan of redemption even as He moves history forward to the perfection of His kingdom.
From Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, (C) 1999 by Sidney Greidanus, published by Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Used by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved. To order this title, contact the publisher at 800-253-7521 or at email@example.com
1Walter Russell Bowie, Preaching: Why Preach, What to Preach, how to Preach (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954), 99.
2Willimon, Peculiar Speech, 13.
4See my Sola Scriptura, 56-120, and Modern Preacher, 116-18, 161-66, 216-17. Regarding “identification” with biblical characters, see my Modern Preacher, 175-81.
5Roy E. De Brand, Guide to Biographical Preaching (Nashville: Broadman, 1988), 23-24. For a similar approach, see, e.g., Paul R. House, “Ancient Allies in the Culture Wars: Preaching the Former Prophets Today,” Faith & Mission 13/1 (Fall 1995) 24-36. On p. 30, e.g., House asserts, “It is the preacher’s task to make these positive and negative role models seem real to people who live thousands of years later.”
7On the error of universalizing, see Ernest Best, From Text to Sermon, 86-89.
8On the error of spiritualizing, see my Modern Preacher, 160-61; on moralizing, see pp. 116-19, and 163-66.
9See John Bright, Authority, 153-54, “If all we can do is to salvage a few stray morals from the story … we have succeeded only in drawing from it something its author had no intention of giving, for it was simply not his aim to present either David or Nathan as an example to follow.”
10Martin R. DeHaan, Portraits of Christ in Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), 32-33.
11R. N. Whybray, “Old Testament Theology — A Non-existent Beast,” in Scripture: Meaning and Method, ed. Barry P. Thompson (Hull: Hull University Press, 1987), 172. Cf. Gunneweg, Understanding, 222, “It is impossible to give a Christian interpretation of something that is not Christian; Christian interpretation of something that is not Christian is pseudo-interpretation. Proper interpretation is concerned, rather, to let the OT have its own say and to interpret it and understand it in the light of the present.”
12Whybray, “Old Testament Theology,” 170, 171.
13Barr, Old and New, 152.
14Cf. Merrill Unger, Principles, 156, “Perhaps no single factor is more detrimental to Biblical exposition in our day than a widespread failure to recognize that the Bible is a unity, and in order to be adequately interpreted must be treated as such. In many circles this unity is lost sight of in a tendency to emphasize the diversity of the content of the Bible.”
15Leonard L. Thompson, “From Tanakh to Old Testament,” in Approaches to Teaching Hebrew Bible as Literature in Translation (New York: Modern Language Association, 1983), 52.
17As well as sections of Isaiah within the Book of Mormon.
18Bright, Authority, 197.
23Ibid., 203. Cf. p. 200.
24Ibid., 206. For a similar solution, see Rudolf Bultmann, “Prophecy and Fulfillment,” in Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics, ed. Claus Westermann (Richmond: John Knox, 1963), 50-75, and in the same volume, Friedrich Baumgartel, “The Hermeneutical Problem of the Old Testament,” 134-59.
25Achtemeier, Preaching, 56. Cf. Reu, Homiletics, 57, “To preach the Old Testament alone would be a deplorable relapse to the stage of pre-Christian preparation.”
26Achtemeier, “From Exegesis to Proclamation,” 50.
27Ibid. Cf. Preaching, 56.
28Achtemeier, Old Testament, 142.
29Ibid. Cf. Preaching, 56-59.
30Achtemeier, RevExp 72/4 (1975) 474.
31Cf. Achtemeier, Old Testament, 146, “Not until he fully understands the Old Testament lesson can he join a New Testament passage to it. And obviously he is going to have to bring the same study to the chosen New Testament pericope that he did to the Old.”
32Cf. Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time, 132, who, referring to the Epistle of Barnabas, makes the point that “the first Christians in their services of worship read the Old Testament and regard it as the canon of the Christian community; they thus treat it in practice as a Christian book.”
33See p. 19 above, n. 47.
34The Belgic Confession, arts. 4 and 5. Cf. Berkouwer, Person of Christ, 117, “One can boil down the church’s credo regarding the Scriptures into the statement that it is no anachronism to say that the Old Testament is Christian.”
35Constitution on Divine Revelation, 4.14, as cited in Bruce, New Testament Development, 12.
“Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).