Challenges to Preaching the OT

I would like to have begun my series on Preaching the Old Testament with the assumption that there was no need to persuade our readers about the importance of preaching the First Testament. That way, I could have jumped directly to chapter two and brought the convicting message that to preach from the Hebrew Bible demands (of all things) that we know Hebrew.

However, while I was rereading Scott Gibson’s first chapter, “Challenges to Preaching the Old Testament,” I began to realize that many out there may be thinking the same thoughts as the preachers he quotes. Without going into detail, here are the barriers he identifies that are often cited for failing to preach the OT:

  • Hebrew is harder than Greek. (I’ll let the hearty “Amen” die down before preceding.) This will be the subject of our next post.
  • OT culture is foreign.
  • The OT is irrelevant. We may never actually say this, but I bet we’ve thought about it.
  • The NT is more familiar. Thus, preparation for preaching is much easier. I must admit that I often still find it easier to preach a three-point sermon from a Pauline epistle than to take a congregation through an OT narrative. However, part of that is because most congregations are so uneducated in the OT that it is difficult to “bring them up to speed” effectively. More on this later.
  • There is no need for the OT because of Christ.

So, in a nutshell, that’s the first chapter. As a fitting beginning for this series, how about some interaction…

  • Do you see yourself in any of these?
  • How have you wrestled through these issues?
  • Are there other challenges that you can think of?
  • Finally (in preparation for the next post), do you think one can preach the OT without a working knowledge of Hebrew? Why or why not?
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10 responses to this post.

  1. * Do you see yourself in any of these?
    —Yes, especially the Hebrew being harder than Greek. I also think that it can be more difficult to have a Christ-centered sermon with some of the OT passages. Some are not as obvious as how it relates to us today.

    * How have you wrestled through these issues?
    —More study, more prayer.

    * Are there other challenges that you can think of?
    — As in the first answer…ability to apply some OT passages to the work of Christ or our modern day life.

    * Finally (in preparation for the next post), do you think one can preach the OT without a working knowledge of Hebrew? Why or why not?
    — Yes, there is no biblical requirement of knowing the languages. However, somebody who does not know the languages would not be able to preach as if they did. So anybody serious about preaching should want to learn at least the basics of the languages. If there is no interest in improving your preaching by learning the languages, then there seems to be a deeper issue at stake.

  2. Sorry, i meant to say “somebody who does not know the languages would not be able to preach as well as if they did.”

  3. Do you see yourself in any of these?
    I believe just the ease of practical application in the NT make me drift there more often

    How have you wrestled through these issues? Studying my brains out whne it comes to OT preaching. (Not that I don’t or shouldn’t with the NT)

    Finally (in preparation for the next post), do you think one can preach the OT without a working knowledge of Hebrew? Why or why not?
    I think it is possible, and obviously learning the basics, as the previous commentor said, would be helpful, and certainly a working knowledge would be the best.

  4. I love Mark Dever’s approach of alternating between the testaments. He will preach through a NT book and then an OT book and so on. This is a healthy way to force oneself to preach through OT books.

  5. I think I would have to disagree with Hebrew being more difficult than Greek. It depends on the sort of mind one has. If one is really good at memorization, then Hebrew is a walk in the park. The grammar is far, far simpler than Greek, and there are fewer verb-forms by a factor of two or so. One does have to get past the alphabet, of course. Greek only seems easier because it looks a bit more like English. But the grammar is a real bear. And the endless verb forms! I used to say, when studying Greek in college, that Greek would be so much easier if the Greeks hadn’t had the audacity to do things. Then there wouldn’t need to be any verbs!

  6. “Do you see yourself in any of these?” Yes, and I agree with Greenbaggins about which language is harder, I’ve had far more Greek than Hebrew (in college and seminary) and still feel that Hebrew is easier for me to get my arms around for some of the same reasons he pointed out. I also have changed in my thinking that the NT is “more familiar.” Can I truly say I know it (i.e. NT) better if I don’t understand from “whence it came”? Trying to understand Romans, Hebrews, the genealogy in Matthew 1, NT atonement (just to name a few) without an “older testament” is really shortsighted.

    “How have you wrestled through these issues?” I challenge myself and the congregation by preaching the OT on a regular basis. I was weakest in the Minor Prophets so I started a series on the Minor Prophets. Narrative and historical portions are difficult so I preached a series on Ruth. Everyone in my neck of the woods was talking about the “Ten Commandments” so I preached them in a series on the Law of God. I also read everything (good, bad and ugly) that refers to preaching the OT.

    “Are there other challenges that you can think of?” A lot of preachers I know get hung up on some of the hyper critical issues in their reading (Documentary Hypothesis, “evolution” of Israel’s religion, etc.) which makes the big picture all the more confusing. The solution in short is to preach the text before you, nothing more nothing less. However there are just difficult sections in the OT that we will never get our arms around but the NT tells us that every drop is “profitable” so I have no excuse to ignore it.

    “Do you think one can preach the OT without a working knowledge of Hebrew?” I don’t know what do you think? (My tribute to Dr. Pettegrew).

  7. Posted by Chris Pixley on January 25, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    * Do you see yourself in any of these?

    Yes–I do not find Hebrew to be harder than Greek, but I am by far and away more familiar with and experienced in Greek. This is owing to several influences: (1) Like Lamey, I’ve had more Greek throughout my studies. (2) My Hebrew coursework came at the beginning of my 4-year MDiv track while Greek classes were concentrated during the middle and end of my course of study. Thus, concentrated Hebrew study is less fresh than Greek, although I have endeavored to correct this in pastoral ministry. (3) Finally, as you alluded to, a tendency to gravitate more to the NT in teaching and preaching has only exacerbated the problem for me.

    * How have you wrestled through these issues?

    Again, like Lamey, I’ve made a concerted effort to preach the OT. For me this has taken the form of alternating between preaching OT books and NT books. For example, during my 2+ -year pulpit ministry in Florida I have preached through Habakkuk, Colossians, will this weekend complete a series through the life of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), and will next commence a study through 1 John (anticipating this will take the entirety of 2007). Additionally, I hope to preach some spot expositions on OT texts throughout this year on special occassions (i.e., Communion services, etc.). This approach has helped to force me to wrestle with all of the issues associated with preaching the OT and has driven me to read much on the topic. It has also provided a platform for me to talk through the issue with my fellow-elders and we are currently studying through Kaiser’s Toward and Exegetical Theology together. Also, exposure to the OT has proven to be a rich blessing to our congregation.

    * Are there other challenges that you can think of?

    Yes, of course. Namely these fall into the category of how to preach the OT in such a way as to draw out its practical import to the Christian community. I assume you will be dealing with this issue in detail later.

    * Finally (in preparation for the next post), do you think one can preach the OT without a working knowledge of Hebrew? Why or why not?

    Yes, in the same way that one can preach the NT without a working knowledge of the Greek. Many do this very effectively today. However, I think the preacher is seriously short-changing his own ability to study the text at a deep level without adding to his toolbox familiarity and facility in the languages. This renders him dependent on others to do the serious textual work required in exegesis when he could, in fact, do this for himself, deepening his own understanding of the text and strengthening his own convictions arising from that deepened understanding. Moreover, there is little excuse for the average American pastor today not having acquired some basic knowledge of the language that can be supplemented by the many excellent tools available today (Bibleworks, Logos, etc.).

  8. Posted by Chris Pixley on January 25, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    BTW, I agree with you, Randy, that NT didactic passages are much more given to western models of persuasion–which drives most of our preaching today–than the genres we find in the OT (and NT narrative, for that matter). Therefore, I find the homiletical portion of my sermon prep for such passages to be frequently far less painful than it is when I’m preaching the OT.

  9. While I also find preaching from the NT “easier” in that the sermon almost writes itself, I in many ways find preaching from the OT more fulfilling precisely because I have to study and pray harder. I just finished preaching through the book of Galatians and I sometimes felt lazy. Additionally many of the folks at our church have rarely heard preaching that applies the Gospel to the OT, so when I see them “get it” when I apply an OT book to the NT, it brings me a great deal of joy.

  10. […] (HT: Justin Taylor) * A super post by a new member of the Expository Thoughts team, Randy McKinion: Challenges to Preaching the Old Testament * The Thirsty Theologian gives a list of recommended sermons. * Read about some of the best NT […]

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