It can probably be said with no hesitation that all preachers think their sermons are biblical. If this means that their sermons are centered in the Word, then the assertion has some merit. Still, we need to ask ourselves how much of the Word is in this center? Do we regularly preach from both the Old and New Testaments, thus giving our congregations a balanced meal every Sunday, or do we mainly preach from one Testament? Some preliminary research into the matter indicates that our church people may be quite malnourished.
For example, the contributors’ guidelines for a yearly manual for preaching and worship planning explain that 60% of sermons preached every Sunday are from the gospel lessons in the lectionary.1 If you take into account that many other sermons come from Paul’s writings, then that does not leave much room for the Old Testament. If the contents of two popular preaching journals are examined, the results are just as surprising. Of the sermons listing only one biblical text,2 Preaching, a conservative-evangelical publication, contained nearly 75% New Testament-centered sermons. The figure for Pulpit Digest, which is more moderate-liberal in scope, was slightly higher at 77%.
This, of course, is not an exhaustive scientific study, but it does show that, in the way sermons are presented to us, the major emphasis is on the New Testament. The implication is that the Old Testament, while a revered part of our tradition, is not a necessary ingredient in the weekly servings to our congregations. These statistics are quite shocking, however, when you take into account that 75% of the Bible consists of the Old Testament. If we tout ourselves as “biblical” preachers, clearly our sermons do not contain as much Bible as we thought!
There are several possible explanations for this tremendous disparity between Old and New Testament sermons. First, Christians are a New Covenant people; thus the majority of our doctrine and beliefs come from the teachings of Jesus and the letters of His followers. Second, sermons in churches will naturally focus on New Testament texts during the seasons of Advent/Christmas, Lent/Easter, and Pentecost. The percentage will be even higher if they emphasize the lectionary calendar.
Third, many seminaries stress Greek and New Testament studies, usually requiring Greek but not necessarily Hebrew for graduation. Thus, pastors may feel more adequately prepared for preaching from the New Testament. Fourth, the Old Testament is an intimidating collection of texts covering many centuries and cultures. Fifth, the Old Testament is often seen by pastors (incorrectly) as irrelevant for Christians.
Still, the disproportion between Old and New Testament sermons is striking and disheartening. Are we really biblical preachers? With the current emphasis on lectionary preaching and the concomitant belief that such an emphasis will lead preachers to preach from the whole Bible and not just their pet passages, we would think that more sermons would be preached from the Old Testament. The evidence is clearly against us.
A Model for Preachers
As preachers we try to model Christ, and thus we try to preach the way Jesus did. Numerous books and articles inform us of how Jesus preached. Narrative, inductive, liberation, social, and even exegetical methods are deduced from Jesus’ “sermons.” What we tend to miss in these important discussions is what Jesus preached from: the collection of books we now call the Old Testament.
That’s right. It may come as a shock but Jesus never preached from the New Testament. Likewise, the writers of the New Testament relied mainly upon the “scriptures” — that is, what we term the Old Testament — for their guidance and inspiration. As preachers, we know this but rarely ponder its ramifications. Our Lord and Mentor as well as the authors of the New Testament used the texts from the Jewish scriptures and interpreted them from a new angle.3
In many instances Jesus preached one text over against another in order to arrive at the new interpretation.4 It is this particular angle or slant that we term the Gospel. There are other ways and reasons that the Old was incorporated into the New. These ancient writings were deemed relevant for the early believers as they struggled to make sense of both Jesus’ life and their own tribulations. For them, the scriptures were the Words of God.
Jesus and the later writers and readers also interpreted the Old from the present context of the New, thus allowing for more precise interpretations of these often confusing ancient prophecies. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament, as well as the early churches, had no problems using the Old Testament for their faith development.
It seems to me, then, that if we are to truly preach the Good News, we should rekindle the old flame of the “scriptures.” We can do this by emulating our Master and following His example in two ways: preach scripture over against scripture, and interpret the Old Testament from a New Testament perspective.
Still, we may be reluctant. “Why should I do this? Doesn’t the New Testament adequately cover the problems of faith?” My answer comes in the form of a story.
I was asked to preach a sermon on tithing. The requester was convinced that, if our congregation gave according to the Bible’s standards, then our church’s debts would end and we could do better things for Christ. “Preach a good biblical sermon on tithing,” she told me.
So I did. But it did not fit her description of tithing. Why? Because I searched the whole Bible for references to giving and tithing rather than turning quickly and simply to Malachi 3. I found that, in the Bible, there are actually three ways to give to God’s work. We can tithe (Old Testament idea), we can give everything we have (Jesus’ teaching), or we can give according to our means (Paul). Based on Deuteronomy 14, it was clear to me that the key to tithing was celebration, not the passive commitment to rules and regulations embodied by many in churches today.5
Thus, I interpreted scripture over against scripture and I also interpreted the Old in the light of the New. Had I preached a traditional sermon on tithing, then I would have only preached part of the Gospel. That is the reason for trying our best to preach from all of the Bible, not just one of the testaments.
Preaching the Whole Bible
The New Testament preacher may ask, “Where do I start?”
First, we begin with the basics. A competent study Bible or the various notes in the commentaries will help us to find Old Testament allusions or uses in New Testament texts. Instead of ignoring these passages, why not look them up and try to make the connection between them and the New Testament passage you are preaching from this week? Passages were obviously alluded to or employed directly by the New Testament writer for a reason.
Various sermon construction possibilities exist. You can set up the context of the New Testament passage, shift to the Old Testament selection and expound its meaning, then return to the New Testament text and provide further illumination. Or, begin with the Old Testament passage and explore its setting and meaning, then move to the New Testament portion of the sermon. Another way is to begin with the New Testament passage and finish with the Old Testament text. Depending upon the Holy Spirit, you can surely put the two passages together to form a whole sermon. This is truly the Gospel message in complete form.6
Another way is to pull out the old standby, the trusty concordance. If you are focusing on the word “build” in a New Testament passage, for instance, then check the Old Testament passages that also use the word. There are many creative sermons just waiting to be discovered with the help of the concordance. Themes, topics, and ideas throughout the Bible can be explored with vitality by simply using a concordance. The result is that the scriptural basis for the idea will be from the whole Bible, not just part. The parishioner will be better informed about what the Bible says concerning a topic rather than half-informed.
These are the simplest ways to unite once again the Old and New Testaments. Another way is to put together compatible topics. Let’s consider two frequent subjects in our morning worship: communion and creation. For communion we normally read and exposit the traditional texts for communion services such as 1 Corinthians 11 and the Gospel passages. We often forget, however, that the Last Supper was really the celebration of the Passover.
With this in mind, include in the sermon Exodus 12 (and also Deut. 16:1-8) where Moses receives the regulations regarding the Passover meal. Notice the emphasis on strict adherence to the regulations, the note of urgency, the simple meal that must be meticulously prepared. Do we approach the communion table with similar reverence or do we just sit, eat, and then run out the door?
Couple this passage with 1 Corinthians 11 and suddenly Paul’s anger at the Corinthians for making the communion nothing more than a big party is quite justified. If you place Exodus 12 alongside the gospel passages relating the last supper, then you can better grasp the mood that Jesus and the disciples were experiencing.
Similarly, in preparing a series on creation we usually examine the Genesis 1:1-2:4 passage. Instead of preaching just this text, why not include all the other creation texts of the Bible? Examine Genesis 2-3, Job 38ff., Psalm 104 — along with other verses from the Psalms — Proverbs 8:22-31, plus selected texts from Isaiah 40-55 for the re-creation of the world. Couple these with John 1, Romans 1:19-20, Ephesians 1:4; 2:10; 4:24, Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 11:3, and the recreation imagery throughout Revelation, and you can preach the Old creation stories as interpreted through the New ones. Once again, your congregation will know the whole biblical story of creation, not just one part.
Another way is to look for similar ideas in the biblical passages. In 2 Kings 2 we read the story of Elisha as he is about to receive the mantle of prophecy from Elijah. Three times Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind (perhaps because Elijah knows he is about to be taken to heaven), and three times Elisha says “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you” (vv. 2, 4 and 6, NRSV). No matter what, Elisha will remain faithful to Elijah so that he can receive the power to continue the prophetic office of Elijah.
There are two possibilities here. First, this text is coupled with Luke 9:51-62 and Galatians 5:1, 13-25 in the Common Lectionary. These New Testament passages focus on freedom and following, which are also the themes for the 2 Kings text (freedom from the mentor and freedom to follow his teachings). In Luke, there are several incidents of people trying to follow Jesus and also one scene about the abuse by the disciples of the power given to them by Jesus. In Galatians, Paul addresses the abuse of freedom and the concomitant lack of discipline to follow Christ. Thus you have three texts — Old Testament, Gospel, and Letter — providing many examples, good and bad, for following and serving, two very important themes in Christian service.
On the other hand, you can explore the repetition theme. There are two similar stories in the New Testament with which we can couple the repetition theme in the 2 Kings passage. In Matthew 26 we find both instances. When Jesus left the upper room and headed for the Mount of Olives for His betrayal, Peter declares he will remain faithful to Jesus no matter what. Jesus tells Peter that he will actually deny Him three times (pp. 30-35).
Then, as if a prelude to Peter’s triune denial, he and James and John accompany Jesus to Gethsemane for prayer. Jesus goes off to pray and comes back three times to find the disciples fast asleep (vv. 36-46). If this is a sign of their faithfulness, then they have displayed anything but determined faith. We can couple these Old and New Testament stories about faithfulness to arrive at several examples, both good and bad, of consistent and persistent faith. Here the Old Testament actually provides the better example of faith and loyalty.
As with similar ideas, you can also link similar types of stories. Consider the passage in John 4 where Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. My study Bible lists three passages in the Old Testament which concern this place; none of the passages are helpful for the sermon. But what about other wells in the Old Testament? Abraham’s servant discovered Rebekah at a well (Gen. 24), and Moses met Zipporah at a well (Exod. 2). Indeed, a little research shows that a well was a popular place to find a wife in Hebrew lore.7
If we take this concept of the woman at the well and apply it to the dynamics in John 4, then we see that the readers of John — a book steeped in Old Testament traditions — may have initially expected a “marriage” between Jesus and the woman. With all the other marriage imagery throughout the Gospel of John, this would be a fair deduction. Instead, the woman finds something greater, a “marriage” that is truly heavenly. Thus, the use of Old Testament parallel passages helps greatly in the interpretation and understanding of John 4.
A series on the people of the Bible will provide role models for all members of the church. After you have studied the characters, contrast the women and men of the Old and New Testaments and see what you come up with. For example, my wife suggested that I compare Sarah laughing at God with Elizabeth’s response to God after each had heard she was pregnant. Similarly, look at Hannah and her song in 1 Samuel 1-2 and then examine Mary and her song in Luke 1. Compare the spunk of Deborah or the faith of Ruth with “the women,” especially Mary Magdalene, who faithfully followed Jesus throughout His ministry.
Many scholars teach that Matthew patterned his characterization of Jesus to the life of Moses. Compare Moses’ birth, call, and Sinai experience with Jesus’ birth, call, and mountain experiences. In this same vein, examine the faith of the patriarchs with that of the disciples.
While looking at these people, try to examine them from a totally different angle. For example, many sermons and Sunday School lessons lift up Abraham as a man of faith. Why not approach your sermon study by asking a very important question: was he really a man of faith? If you read the texts very critically from this perspective, you begin to see that the only time he really exhibited true faith was when he took Isaac up to the mountain to be sacrificed (Gen. 22). Still, the New Testament extolls Abraham as a man of faith. A series that covers Abraham and his many miscues could climax with this dramatic turn towards faith in God’s message. Couple this text with the famous roll call of faith in Hebrews 11 and see if a new, more graceful understanding of faith does not arise in your studies.
A twist on this approach is to examine the New Testament’s interpretation of an Old Testament character or episode. Paul is forever allegorizing or reinterpreting Old Testament stories. Examine the story of Adam and Eve in the light of what Paul says about husbands and wives or the origination of sin. In Galatians 4, Paul writes about Hagar and Sarah. Hagar, according to Paul, represents the old covenant from Sinai that results in slavery to sin; Sarah is the new covenant, the Jerusalem above (in heaven). But is this how the Old Testament interprets these stories? The question for the preacher is,, “why did Paul reinterpret this passage this way?” An exploration of the difference in interpretations will make for a very interesting and enlightening sermon.
For another example, in Mark 2:23-27 Jesus is picking grain in the fields on the Sabbath. When criticized for this action, Jesus recalls the story of David in 1 Samuel 21, where David receives holy bread from Ahimelech the priest. The point is that if David can do this and not be taken to task, then why can’t Jesus? Interestingly, in the Samuel passage, there is a different reason that David utilized the bread that day; David is running for his life whereas Jesus is not. Since all scripture is inspired, there must be a reason for writing the story this way. What is it? Why did the gospel writer not acknowledge the difference? 8 You can figure it out when you preach from the story. When you do, don’t forget to check out the legal regulations regarding the bread in both Exodus and Leviticus!
Speaking of regulations, you could examine the Ten Commandments alongside the Beatitudes. Examine in detail the Old Testament allusions found in Matthew 5. See how Isaiah 66:1-2 relates to Matthew 5:3. For every “you have heard that it was said …” there are plenty of Pentateuchal passages to investigate. Notice also that there are many ways to compare New Testament passages with other New Testament passages in this series in Matthew. Such an approach will illuminate exactly how and why Jesus reinterpreted the Law.
Similarly, look at Leviticus and its Code of Holiness in chapters 17-26 and then examine James with its emphasis on works. Need a different slant? Insert Paul and his struggles to interpret the law into the sermon and you get a whole new perspective on the relations of the Law of the Old and New Testaments.
But what about the seasons of Advent or Lent; aren’t these supposed to have an exclusively New Testament emphasis? Try preaching four Advent sermons from the four Servant Songs in Isaiah. When the birth of Jesus is seen in this light, the real meaning of Christmas shines brightly. During the fall season, you can preach a series either from one or many of the prophets. See how they lead into the expectation of the Advent Season. Once Advent arrives, use these same prophetic passages alongside the Gospel lessons for a new twist on the Christmas story.
There is simply no excuse for not preaching from both the Old and New Testaments. If Jesus could preach from the Old and relate the New, then so should we. Interpreting the Old from the New, or the New from the Old, examining how the scriptures are reinterpreted throughout the Bible, and asking new questions concerning the texts, are just some of the ways to increase the use of the Old Testament in New Testament preaching. Creatively looking for new ways to read, study, and interpret the Old Testament will lead to new life for the Old Testament in your pulpit.
1. The guidelines were from Logos Productions which publishes The Minister’s Annual Manual. There was no bibliographical reference given.
2. Those listing an Old Testament and New Testament passage were not counted since they would not have affected the percentages anyway.
3. Of course Peter knew of Paul’s writings (2 Pet. 3:15-16) but it is clear that these letters were just achieving “scriptural” status.
4. Raymond Bailey, Jesus the Preacher (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), p. 62.
5. See J. Timothy Allen, “Tithes, Stewardship, and the Kingdom” in The Christian Ministry, vol. 23:5 (Sept.-Oct., 1992), pp. 29-31.
6. See also Robert G. Bratcher, ed., Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament (New York: United Bible Societies, 1961, 1984) for another resource for finding Old Testament passages in the New Testament.
7. For instance, see Robert Alter, The Art of Hebrew Narrative (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1981), pp. 52ff.
8. Interestingly, Mark also uses Abiathar the high priest instead of Ahimelech the priest in his story. Matthew and Luke do not mention the priest’s name or the distinctions. Is Mark trying to tell us something with this change in name and credentials.

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