Any preacher studying preaching has seen the rise in discussion on the need to preach from the Old Testament. Between the increased plea to preach the Old Testament and the off-handed remarks by some that we should find ways to separate the modern Christian experience from the Old Testament text, pastors and Bible teachers need to think seriously about preaching from passages or entire books from the Old Testament as a regular part of the annual preaching plan. It is easy in zeal for the gospel, missions, and evangelism in the life of local churches to marginalize the place of preaching and teaching from the Old Testament.
Some dangers exist to simply pick up the Old Testament and start preaching. We need to include the Old Testament in our preaching program, but we cannot approach the text in exactly the same way as we would the New Testament. Nor, do we want to read an Old Testament passage and then jump directly to the cross and explain to people how to be saved. We want to preach Jesus from every passage, but let’s consider some things to avoid that might make this a perilous task for the preacher and the people in the pews. Here are a few things to consider in order to prevent some common errors in preaching from the Bible Jesus knew and taught from.
First, start in your heart. Settle your convictions and make your convictions plain to others that all of Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching (2 Tim 3:16–17). We know this passage and we probably tell our members to believe in the inspiration of Scripture doctrinally. But functionally if all we have done is preach from the New Testament, we are teaching that the Old Testament is not all that profitable, and 2 Timothy only refers to the New Testament. So, settle your conviction that the Old Testament is more than a place to go for sermon illustration, and begin to show the congregation the profitability of Old Testament texts as you refer or illustrate from them.
Train yourself to read and use the Old Testament to gain a better picture of Jesus as Messiah. Read your Old Testament as Jesus intended, to point to Himself in all things. In David Murray’s Book, Jesus on Every Page, he quotes from John 5:39, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me…For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me.” Then Murray says, “What’s the Old Testament all about? Jesus’ emphatic answer is ‘Me! Me! Me!’”
Second, watch the allegory trap. The Bible uses allegory, but not every Old Testament passage is an allegory. Sometimes this is called spiritualizing. Goliath was a giant killed by David with a stone he used in a slingshot. It is a real story. It is not an allegory for how Christians kill their giants. The stones are not five key spiritual disciplines every Christian needs. Preaching Christ in the Old Testament is not spiritualizing everything so that it is a hidden picture of Jesus, the cross, or the tomb. Follow the Emmaus road. Jesus showed those two disciples how the Old Testament spoke of Him. Not in hidden meanings, but in its plain reading and understanding.
Third, do not forget the original audience. This means learning some of the history, culture, background, and geography of the author and audience. A common error is to skip past the original reason for the writing, and the original readers of the book. Before we start trying to apply the cross and resurrection to the text there must be some education given to the modern listener.
Fourth, avoid a history lesson. While it is important to help our listeners know the original context of the Old Testament text, we want to do that with as much brevity as possible. Summarize where possible, and modernize the places, people, or ideas so that your listeners today can connect the past to today. Help the listener understand the past without drowning in the details.
Last, preach Jesus and salvation by grace through faith. There is one way of salvation. Make it clear that the Old Testament believers were believers, just as we are. Do not confuse the church member today into thinking God had two plans of salvation. Old Testament messages can moralize salvation. It becomes easy to start pointing to heroes to emulate, or scoundrels to avoid, with nothing but a sermon on trying to be like Moses or Isaiah. The Bible makes moral demands on the believer, but becoming a moral person is not the way to salvation, it is the way a saved person pursues to live by the power of the Holy Spirit. Show how Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection, were necessary for the salvation of the Old Testament saints, and for us today.
Preaching the Old Testament can be a little more difficult. We spend our time reading, thinking, and meditating on the New Testament and its principles much more than we do the Old Testament. But the entire Bible has been given for us to teach and disciple our churches. The effort will bear fruit from the pulpit and in the personal lives of our church members. Which Old Testament text will you preach next in order to proclaim the name of Jesus?
Here are some helpful resources:
Clowney, Edmund P. Preaching Christ in All of Scripture. Wheaton: Crossway, 2003.
Goldsworthy, Grame. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
Murray, David. Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013.
Mark DeMoss is the Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.