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Thoughts on Preaching Old Testament Narrative

Last Sunday I finished my part in preaching through the book of Exodus. My philosophy in developing a preaching calendar for a Bible book is to work through the large literary units of thought. With that in mind, our teaching team spent 15 weeks on the story of God redeeming his people Israel from Egypt. It was both challenging and encouraging to me as a preacher. I hadn’t taught Old Testament narrative in a while and, in finishing Exodus, was reminded of a few things in preaching it.

#1: Get behind the story

Far too often I hear preachers work through a text like a commentary. They read a few verses, then proceed to interpret, illustrate, and apply those verses. After, they take the next few verses and do the same. This isn’t a wrong method to preaching. However, it can lead to preaching a message with disjointed ideas and miss the main idea of the text. I tried to discipline myself to get behind the story of Exodus in each of my sermons. In other words, I didn’t do any substantive sermonizing (illustration, application, etc.) until I had walked the congregation through the entire text in question. I had to trust the story was appealing enough to stand on its own. However, in doing it this way it allowed me to treat the entire text as having one truth to preach instead of several different ideas in which I might lose my listeners or at least work ten times as hard to consolidate into a unified message.

#2: Make it about God

I think the temptation in preaching Old Testament narratives is to cheapen the texts by letting the characters become mere touchstones for living or normalizing stories to parallel them with our own life situations. But these make the main aim of the author something less (and frankly trivial) than intended. The Bible is ultimately the story of God and his plan to redeem his people through the work of the gospel. That’s why a question I kept asking myself about each Exodus text I was assigned was, What does this text tell me about who God is and what he wants to do for his people? This God-focused analytic helped guard me from the errors of moralizing, generalizing, or spiritualizing, and allowed the text to speak with the appropriate gravitas it was given by the writer.

#3: Preach a New Testament sermon

Simply put, if you preach an Old Testament text like a Jewish rabbi would, you aren’t giving your congregation Christian preaching. We must preach the Old Testament as those who have the fuller revelation of the New Testament. This is where understanding biblical theology is critical. Our teaching team constantly reviewed where Exodus not only fit within the bigger story of redemptive history but made sure to take our people from Sinai to Calvary – showing that these things of Moses and Israel were a “copy and shadow” of the gift of God in Christ (Heb. 8:5). Also, if your Old Testament text is also preached in the New Testament, use it in your sermon! I felt I worked through half of the book of Hebrews in preaching Exodus because it so frequently interprets Exodus. Let the writers of the New Testament do the heavy lifting for you! It will also ensure that your feet will be firmly planted on this side of the Cross while faithfully preaching a text which precedes it.

#4: Give them Jesus

I thought about making this a part of #3 but I want to highlight it with its own point. Dr. Tim Keller says preaching is doxological. It should lead us to worship. Why? Because, as we’ve noted, the Bible is ultimately about Jesus. I can’t tell you how encouraged I was to worship Jesus through the study of Exodus. It was incredible! Indeed, I visited one of our campuses and listened to my own sermon (of all things) on the tabernacle. At the end of the message, all I could do is respond in tearful worship, grateful for our “true tent” in Jesus (Heb. 8:2). Seeing how the different strands woven through Exodus tie up in the Person and Work of Jesus is not only the task of the preacher but his joy as well! Better yet, it will also be the joy of his congregation! When you preach the stories of the Old Testament make sure they find their conclusion in the Savior of the New.

Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

1 thought on “Thoughts on Preaching Old Testament Narrative”

  1. Well said. The title of my Old Testament survey text was “HE loves forever.” And my prof said essentially the same thing as you did above. The book is about god, told through a set of stories of his people. He loves them, they sin, he disciplines, they repent,

    ….. repeat

    No matter how many times we mess up,
    He loves forever

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