Preaching the OT

How should we preach the OT? This is a question that is often pondered by pastors and theologians alike. First, we need to drink deeply from Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Tim 3:16-17. When the Apostle penned those words, he was speaking directly about the Hebrew Scriptures (our OT). This should at least give the expositor some pause before he utters statements like, “we need to make the OT relevant.” I’m not trying to split hairs but the Scripture is alive and relevant well before we get to any application in our sermon.

Secondly, it is unnecessary and wrong-headed to make Christ appear in OT passages where the authorial intent or progressive revelation (also intertextualities) does not lead us to such conclusions. Beware of those who can make Jesus appear with any mention of blood or wood (i.e., the cross). The fact is, the Messiah is fully anticipated in the OT so we do not have to make Him appear by being clever but by faithfully expositing the text and that in the context of redemptive history. For specific help on this read this and this.

Thirdly, I am somewhat questioning of the constant pleas for Christ-centered preaching if that means excluding Jesus’ own emphasis on glorifying the Father (see John 17) or downplaying the activity of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. I think it is important that our preaching not be Christless but for that matter it should not be deficient in any aspect or person of the holy Trinity.

There has been some helpful articles on this subject lately and what follows is a sample:

23 responses to this post.

  1. One rule of thumb that I have heard is that I never want to preach a sermon that a Jew could hear and say, “I agree with that 100%.” We certainly do not want to force meaning into an OT text, but shouldn’t we make sure that any OT preaching we do is distinctly Christian? I really am asking as I’m curious as to what folks think about this.

  2. Jason,

    I too have heard that statement and now think it should be turned around (e.g., on the Jewish rabbi). How can someone interpret the OT, paying careful attention to its context and authorial intent and not come to the conclusion that a Jewish Messiah is expected? I know many do miss this and that is because of a number of factors (being unregenerate, traditional layers of interpretation imposed on the text, etc.). Preaching the meaning of the text (OT or NT) is distinctively Christian. It is also Christian to show the hearer where the meaning of the passage leads us to and how it used by other authors in Scripture. I hope this answers your question. Be sure to read the Paul House interview where he takes up some of your questions. Thanks for dropping by.


  3. Paul,

    Thanks for the response. I did read the House interview yesterday and have been following this leadup to TGC with some interest.

    I think what I’m getting at is that OT preaching should connect the dots for the listeners. If we’re preaching on the passages about the Tabernacle or the Temple we should connect the readers to Christ as the true temple, for example. Perhaps the link is only as much as the pericope is part of overall redemptive history. For example, I certainly would not want to say that the floating axhead was an image of baptism because I don’t think that is what the author intended. But the story is part of our inspired text, it is profitable, and is part of the story of redemptive history.

    My point is that I think any OT sermon should at least briefly hold up the box top of the puzzle. We may be describing one piece of the puzzle, but we need to keep showing them the whole picture with “we are here” on it. That may just take 2 minutes and not be explicitly part of the text. To me at least, that’s what Christ-centered preaching is all about. I’m interested to hear more about what the folks at TGC say.

    • I agree with you Jason. For example, if we’re preaching the narrative account in Genesis 49 and do not show “where this is all going” in relation to Judah then we have plugged our ears to how Scripture develops and applies the meaning of the original text under examination. My thing is that we not discard the original intent of a passage even if progressive revelation expands the scope of a passage. I have watched guys take a NT interpretation and say the meaning of the OT text has now changed. I think this is as unnecessary as it is wrong. Thanks again for the interaction.

      • Paul,

        Thank you for your responses.

        I think what will make TGC interesting is that this discussion really hinges on where you find yourself on the Dispensational>Progressive>Covenantal spectrum in your hermeneutics. Since TGC will have speakers all over that spectrum I will be interested to see how they address this.

      • Yes, I have thought the same but along the lines of OT vs. NT priority. I part ways with those who believe the NT “corrects” or completely reinterprets OT texts. The problem with casting it upon the disp>prog>cov spectrum is that there are many who do not easily fit into such distinctions (e.g., Kaiser, House, Moo, Sailhamer).

  4. Posted by Caleb Kolstad on February 19, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Thanks for this!

  5. Thanks for this, Paul. This topic is at the forefront of my mind as there was some discussion about Keller’s approach to Jonah over at Between Two Worlds. Also, we’ve been talking about this topic in Rick Holland’s preaching class at TMS.

    I think some sound bytes that have been helpful for me, Jason, are: (1) Jesus is not in every text, but He should be in every sermon. Similarly, (2) Jesus is not always in the interpretation of a passage, but should always be in the application of a passage. So, I can preach the original intent of the widow’s oil (2 Kgs 4) as the writer of Kings intended, in its original context. But from that text, I will get to God as Provider, and then to preach it as Christian sermon — so that a Jewish man wouldn’t agree 100% — I’d get to God’s greatest provision for us in His Son Jesus Christ. So I still get to be Christ-centered while letting the text breathe and honoring the divinely-ordained authorial intent on the part of the human author.

    Also, I agree with Paul that we should cast this debate on the Disp/Prog/NCT/CT frame, because that makes it too easy for people to stop thinking about the issue. The hermeneutical approach of one of those systems is correct. It’s not like we can just agree to disagree and have no error. If we keep this as a discussion of hermeneutics, we won’t poison the well by making this a theological camp issue. Then, if a challenging point is made, somebody won’t run to say, “Well, I’m a covenantalist, so I can’t believe that.” They might think twice about their hermeneutics and really evaluate what presuppositions and preunderstandings they bring to the text.

    Good discussion.

    • Mike,

      Your description pretty well sums up what I was thinking too.

      The reason I thought of this in terms of the theological spectrum is that one’s theological system is pretty much a shorthand for his hermeneutic. I realize that there are exceptions as noted above. Everyone who is conservative takes some texts literally and some figuratively, despite what the polemics on both sides of the debate may assert. I think it comes down to how you see the priority of the testaments.

      In short, I agree that this is primarily a hermeneutical question and that’s where we should focus the debate. That then comes down to testing our presuppositions, right?

      • That then comes down to testing our presuppositions, right?

        Yup, I’d say so.

        By the way, in my comment above, there are some typos. They should read:

        – “…to preach it as a Christian sermon…”
        – “I agree with Paul that we should not cast this debate on the Disp/Prog/NCT/CT frame…”

  6. Mike and Jason,

    Thanks for the interaction guys. I think we all agree that this is a hermeneutical issue and a big one at that. I remember reading John Sailhamer’s ETS Presidential address which was entitled something like “The Messiah and the Hebrew Bible.” He absolutely nails the issue as does Kaiser et al. Until there is a reformation in the way many understand the impact of hermeneutics on preaching I do not see this issue going away anytime soon.


  7. As I am working through 1 Samuel right now, this question is weighing on me a LOT. I feel at times like I’m going against my “training” in my sermons but I’m coming to these passages, that are not commanding anything per se, and giving these monumental examples of faith – Samuel, Jonathan, David, etc., asking what do I do with this? What’s the point for the people? And I’ve heard sermon after sermon on being like these men. But I am hard pressed to do that. Is that really the point? After all, they were not like this regularly (Jonathan had great faith in 14 but failed to step up to Goliath. David had great faith in 17 but ran from the king of Gath in 21). If you are going to be like them, then colossal lack of faith has to come into the application (kidding – sort of).

    What I have been noticing is the repetitive redemptive work of God, for a rebellious people, who have rejected him almost completely in picking Saul and finding themselves in positions where rescue or deliverance is impossible – then God brings a rescuer to them. It happens time and time again in the book. But in every case God sends a deliverer with a progression of traits.

    In Samuel, a prophet-priest-deliverer(judge) who is given to a corrupt priesthood. In Jonathan, a son of a king who rescues the entire nation against all odds – by himself. Worst, he is given a death sentence from the leadership of the nation – his dad. In David, a new, unexpected, unconventional king, who is a shepherd, fights an unwinnable battle against an perceptively undefeatable foe with unconventional means and in so doing, provides national deliverance.

    In each of these cases it is God who is the center of the story – His unmerited redemptive power for them. So that’s what I am preaching. In application I keep coming back to the fact that the parallels (though not 1:1) of these men and God’s use of them point unmistakably (to me) to the coming prophet-priest-deliverer-king who would defeat the greatest foe any man fights – sin!

    So in that sense I “think” I am preaching Christ, not in some mystical way but to say that these stories are not primarily about you/me being a biblical hero from the text. Rather they show us that God is the great rescuer who was working in all of redemptive history to bring about our ultimate redemption. They all point to Christ and he is the fulfillment of that in its ultimate sense.

    If that does not make sense, or I’m missing the point, I would ask, what do we do with stories of Jonathan or David? What’s the point for a modern congregation? Having “some” faith seems to sell those passages short. It was nation saving faith. Is that the application? Going to be a lot of failures on the back end of that.

    Your comments are most welcome.

    • Dear Hermeneutical Hokie (Rich),

      I think you’re money (that’s a good thing BTW). I would add that Daniel Block has a brief but helpful grid to think through (as given in his commentary on Judges/Ruth (pg. 604).

      “The authoritative meaning of the author is not found in the event described but in the author’s interpretation of the event, that is, his understanding of their causes, nature, and consequences. But that interpretation must be deduced from the telling.How is this achieved? By asking the right questions of the text: (1) What does this account tell us about God? (2) What does it tell us about the human condition? (3) What does it tell us of the world? (4) What does it tell us of the people of God–their collective relationship with him? (5) What does it tell us of the individual believer’s life of faith? These questions may be answered by careful attention to the words employed and the syntax exploited to tell the story.”

      All of this can only be considered “if” the authorial intent is nailed down otherwise we’re doing nothing more than putting words into the writer’s mouth. Another question I find helpful to understanding the meaning is to ask, “why is this pericope here?” Why is the writer telling us this and why is he telling us this now? How does this bolster his overall message?

      Along these lines, I’m looking forward to seeing Abner Chou’s work get published. There’s a lot to be said about the issue of intertextuality in the OT. Abner, if you’re reading this, feel free to weigh in.

      • You’re absolutely right, Paul. Intertextuality is extremely important in these discussions. But I would clarify, that I primarily have intertextuality within the Hebrew Bible itself in view, not necessarily between the testaments.

  8. Posted by Caleb Kolstad on February 22, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    This interaction, though quite helpful, does not spur me on towards wanting to preach the O.T. in fear of doing it wrong. How would you counsel those feeling this way?

    • I would say to those who fear preaching the OT because they might get it wrong should have the same fear of the NT. In other words, it is healthy to want to get the text right when we preach, however it is unhealthy to avoid something that is intended to be life for our congregations.

      The struggles for most seems to be in making the application from an OT passage. First, I would note that applications should not be applied without a root in the meaning of the text. Therefore a text will have numerous applications but I do believe they should be limited by the text under consideration. Secondly, turn 2 Tim 3:16-17 around into application questions. How is this passage profitable? In what ways does it reprove us, correct our thinking, theology, perceptions? How does it train us to pursue righteousness? What does it reveal about our righteous Lord? How can this ancient text contribute to the equipping of New Covenant saints today? This is what Paul is saying about the OT to Timothy in 2 Tim 3. We would be wise to listen.

      I hope this helps.

  9. Don’t be afraid Caleb, be strong like David and wise like Solomon.

  10. Caleb,

    I think one of the biggest issues I face in preaching the O.T. is the repetitive nature of the application – or so it seems. Things like, Sin is bad! See what it does here? You could preach that over and over and over. And it would all be right. I’ve been trying, with the help of conversations with Randy M., to discover the “point” of the author. Albeit, it is MUCH harder in O.T. narrative, it is attainable.

    As I noted above, the final words of Judges articulate that there was “no king in Israel” while everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes. That’s important in the context of the coming king (Saul, David and ultimately Christ). As you see that theme unfolding in the book you see that Israel rejected God as king, for a facsimile, only to see the treason of their idolatry. So there is lots of application about the idols of the heart and God giving you what you ask for to show you its bankruptcy. But at the same time, there is this constant theme of God reestablishing his rightful place as “king” (though he never abdicated it truly). The difference is, he needed to come as a human king to deal with the perpetual rebellion of people because of sin.

    So those who be examples of drawing out application from the transitional text that sets up the book (no king – everyone is sinfully selfish). A king was needed, but a king who would make an end to their selfish rebellion.

    It took me a while to get there and I “think” I’m correct in that interpretation, but it was slow slogging, especially when people are so accustomed to “moralistic messages” from the O.T. books.

    When I told our people that they/we were not David in the story of Goliath but the terrified army who could never defeat the enemy before them – I got a lot of crooked heads and blank stares. The same is true earlier in the account of Jonathan in chapter 14. I say that because this faith is clearly a unique, divine work. Both Jonathan and David fail to apply that faith in lesser circumstances (in terms of severity) in the following chapters.

    So the point is, I think, to make God’s grace magnificent in sending an unexpected, unable and uncommon rescuer (the meaning of a judge) through both Jonathan and David. Using Paul’s example above I like these three questions.

    What does it say about God? In this case, He is a merciful, rescuing king in the face of rebellion. What does it say about us? We are desperately needy people that fall into these trials because of sinful choices. What bridges the gap between what it says about God and what it says about me? Christ is the faithful high priest that applies God’s mercy to us in our need through the Gospel.

    So I’m always coming back to that. If we just need to do more and try harder (as much O.T. preaching conveys), then what’s the purpose of the cross? That thought(s) has helped me tremendously in my journey back into the O.T.

  11. Great to see this conversation, guys. I appreciate the hard work you guys are obviously putting into your thinking and preaching the Hebrew Bible. I also appreciate that you’re not willing to make narratives simply moral examples.

    I appreciate your careful thinking through Samuel. We are preaching 1 Samuel at our church right now, and I had the privilege of preaching on David & Goliath and the aftermath (chs. 17 & 18). Although I freely recognized and taught that there are examples of faith here, I also wanted to make sure that the church saw the messianic implications that I believe the author wants us to see. (I would add that the last phrase is what would set my reading apart from a typical “typical” reading of the text.) In thinking through that, I felt that the author wanted us to read the text more through the eyes of Israel’s response to their king than in wanting us to ask, “What Would David Do?”

    Good stuff, gentlemen. Keep it coming!

    • Randy,

      Assuming a text like 1 Samuel is written pre-Christ (think we can all agree on that!), what do you mean by, “messianic implications that I believe the author wants us to see.” Is that a matter of inspiration or do you think the author simply understood things that his contemporaries didn’t? I ask that because like the argument for using the NT quotation of the OT as a hermeneutic, I get squishy on the messianic implications. I feel like I could go all AW Pink on the text and find implications that are not there.

      So can you clarify what you think the author really understood and how much we can take away? While you’re at it, can you offer some guardrails?

      • “Is that a matter…?” No, I would make the claim that the author of Samuel intentionally frames the story of Samuel, Saul, and David with messianic implications. My proof would come not from a placing of a NT lens over the text but rather from a careful reading of the text in which it seems that the author is viewing the life of David through the lens of Hannah’s song, the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7), and 2Sam 22-23 (the song of David at the end). In other words, I think the text is already pushing the author toward an “anointed one” interpretation.
        Just some quick thoughts. Have to run for now, but I will come back and fill in some more thoughts about this.

  12. Thanks Randy. I too see Hannah’s song as very messianic and important on the context of a rescuer, in whatever form that would actually take in the future. We’ll have to take this up in more depth over coffee at the next 360.

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