Many years ago, I came to an important realization. You might call it an epiphany. I had gone to church for years, I had heard hundreds of sermons, I had even read every single word of the Bible. I knew what the Bible said. I could tell you where to find many Bible verses. But I did not know what the Bible was about.
Oh, I knew tons of Bible stories. I knew about the faith of Abraham, about Jonah and the big fish, about David slaying the giant and his subsequent moral failure, the wisdom of Solomon, about God’s love, about Jesus’s miracles, and the crucifixion and resurrection. But to me, the Bible had no real unity. Then, as I read the Bible, each text became a to-do or not-to-do list. Have faith like Abraham. Slay your giants like David. Don’t commit adultery as David did. Don’t compromise your faith like Solomon. The imperatives were always my focus when reading the gospels and the epistles.
While I was in seminary, I began to see the error of my ways. Then after getting some experience preaching and teaching, and conversing with parishioners, I had another epiphany. I realized churches were full of people who are just like I had been. They knew the Bible. But they did not know what the Bible was about. I don’t fault them. They did not have the luxury of a seminary education and their churches were not teaching them how to properly read the Bible. In this vacuum of hermeneutical instruction, they were left to themselves to figure it out.
Not knowing what the Bible is about is a problem. But the bigger problem is when you don’t, but think you do. If people don’t recognize the interpretive key for understanding the Bible, I submit that they will substitute their own interpretive key, and that key will often be moralism. And they will think they understand what the Bible is about. A perceived lack of unity in Scripture will be resolved in people’s minds, even unconsciously, through moralism. The Bible then becomes a rule book, little more than a list of do’s and don’ts, and the unwitting adherents become 21st-century Pharisees. But without guidance otherwise, people are often convinced that this is what the Bible is about. Christian Smith’s 2005 book, Soul Searching, confirmed the prevalence of this moralistic view of God in the pews.
Our preaching can either help or hurt in this matter. It all begins in the study. As preachers, we need to do two things. First, let Christ be your interpretive key as you approach the biblical text and let your preaching reflect it so that you help dismantle moralism in the minds of your people. Second, be cognizant of, and avoid the pitfalls of, the approach that you take.
Let Christ be Your Interpretive Key
Is the Bible really about Jesus? Should Christ be our interpretive key for the Old Testament? I submit the answers to these questions are “Yes.” Consider the following:
- Jesus believed the Old Testament was about him (Luke 24:25–27; 44–47; John 5:39–40).
- The gospel writers repeatedly reference some aspect of Jesus’ life or ministry as a fulfillment of an Old Testament text, revealing that the text cited ultimately pointed to him.
- The Apostles believed many Old Testament texts were about Christ (Acts 2:14–36; 3:17–26; 4:8–12; 8:26–35; 13:23, 33–39; 1 Cor 15:3–4; 2 Cor 3:15–16; Gal 3:15–16; 2 Tim 3:14–15).
- Hebrews is a sermon about Jesus Christ, primarily on the text of Psalm 110:1, 4.
Thus, we can agree with Alistair Begg who once summarized the Bible in this way:
In the Old Testament Christ is predicted. In the gospels, Christ is revealed. In the Acts, Christ is preached. In the epistles, Christ is explained. And in the book of Revelation Christ is expected.
Be Cognizant of the Potential Landmines in Your Approach
There are three main approaches to preaching Christ, particularly from the Old Testament that posit Christ as our interpretive key for understanding the Bible: Christocentric, Christotelic, and Christiconic. There are whole posts devoted to each of these here on Preaching Source, so I won’t explain these in detail, but I will briefly point out some of the potential issues associated with each perspective.
A Christocentric approach to Scripture proceeds from an assumption that there is a road to Christ in every biblical text, based on upon passages like Luke 24:25–27, 44–47 and John 5:39–40. There are two great pitfalls to avoid if you find yourself in this camp. First, don’t leapfrog the Old Testament author’s intended meaning for the original audience in order to get to Christ. The major theorists of this approach do not advocate this practice, but its practitioners sometimes end up there. Second, don’t get fanciful or overly inventive in making your connection to Christ. Christocentric preaching may avoid moralism, but it can sometimes sound like a return to the days of Origen when an allegorical interpretation of the Bible ruled the day. Some have said that this is not characteristic of Christocentric preaching per se, but only bad Christocentric preaching. Fair enough. In that case, avoid doing bad Christocentric preaching.
A Christotelic hermeneutic views Christ as the end or goal of Scripture. It is very similar to the Christocentric perspective but emphasizes preserving the meaning intended for the original audience. A potential danger here lies in a hesitance to connect a text to Christ without a specific reference to him. The result may be a sermon on an Old Testament text that ends up being more Jewish than it is Christian or perhaps advocating for adherence to laws as part of a covenant that has long been expired.
Abraham Kuruvilla is the inventor of Christiconic hermeneutics. Kuruvilla argues in his book Privilege the Text! that there is a divine demand embedded in every text, an ideal world that has been inhabited only by Christ, and therefore an image of Christ in every text. This approach has two risks. First, without an explicit connection to Christ in the sermon, focusing on divine demand may result in the moralism that I am arguing in this post we avoid. Second, while this hermeneutic dovetails nicely with Old Testament narrative, I believe it can present a significant issue with interpreting New Testament epistles. Holding that every pericope contains a divine imperative, even when actual imperatives are absent, does damage to the semantic structure of the text by devaluing the imperatives that are present by divine inspiration. The semantic weight of inspired imperatives is thereby diminished.
Avoid moralizing in your preaching! As you study the text to prepare to preach, let Christ be your interpretive key. But exercise care with your approach, whichever it may be.
Jeff Hampton is a Ph.D. student in Preaching in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s School of Preaching.