In college I heard a preacher I highly esteemed, when asked why he spent little to no time preaching verse-by-verse from the Old Testament, reply it was because he was a New Covenant preacher. Now, I don’t believe he was trying to denigrate the Old Testament as his nationally known ministry has demonstrated the contrary over the years. However, his answer was shortsighted at best and misleading at worst because God has given his church the entirety of the Scripture, including the Old Testament, to demonstrate the glory and goodness of Jesus Christ. Because that is true, I want to encourage pastors to be intentional about having a healthy dose of Old Testament texts in their homiletical calendar.
I want you to do so because, ironically, you are a New Covenant preacher. It’s darn near impossible to proclaim the New Covenant and not preach the Old Testament. Don’t take my word for it. Jesus himself thought so.
- When Christ publicly announced his ministry in Luke 4, he did so by reading a selection of Isaiah 61 saying afterward, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (21) Jesus believed this passage could only be truly understood and consummated with his bringing the New Covenant.
- In John 5:39, Christ also told the religious elite of his day, “You search the [books of the Old Testament] because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” Jesus, speaking to the Bible experts of his day, believed that he was the sum and substance of the entire Old Testament. He expected people to read it and see how it pointed to him.
- Jesus even made this point clear with two disciples. They struggled to believe he had been resurrected that Easter morn, and Luke 24:17 records Jesus’ response to their unbelief, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Amazing! Instead of simply revealing himself to these men and saying, “Here I am!” Jesus prefers to take the time to open up the Old Testament in order to tell them, “Here I am!”
There’s no question that Jesus understood the Old Testament to be foundational to gospel proclamation. The apostles definitely embraced this reality.
Isn’t it interesting that the text we correctly cite for the inspiration of the entire Bible is 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work,” and yet, contextually, the “Scripture” referenced is the Old Testament. Paul believed Genesis through Malachi was more than enough for Christians to grow in the gospel. In fact, in the prior verse, 2 Tim. 3:15, the apostle tells Timothy to continue in his discipleship that began with the teachings of his faithful mother and grandmother who have made him “acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make [him] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Again, the “sacred writings” here are clear. It’s not Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but the Old Testament. And Paul, who will go on to write thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, believed that merely using the Old Testament alone will make one “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Think about this: while New Testament letters were being written and sporadically circulated throughout the churches in the first and second centuries, the primary text of apostolic preaching during that time was the Old Testament canon. In other words, knowing that the inspired letters of Paul, Peter, James, and others would be read to local churches, when these apostles stepped into the pulpit on Sunday, they did so by and large only carrying Old Testaments.1 And it was this gospel preaching of the Old Testament that was part and parcel of arguably the greatest evangelistic explosion the church has ever witnessed.
They didn’t need to wait for the New Testament to be written to preach to the New Covenant church and the world in which it was situated. On the contrary, the Old Testament and the oral testimony about Jesus and his resurrection were all they needed to turn the world on its head!2
Listen my friends, preaching the Old Testament isn’t equal to preaching the Old Covenant. As Jesus and the apostles have demonstrated, it’s near impossible to proclaim the New Covenant and not preach the Old Testament in some form or fashion. In fact, preaching the gospel through the Old Testament better colors the New Testament with the rich and vibrant hues it deserves. To omit the Old Testament from the preaching calendar is to risk giving congregants an abridged picture of the New that actually lessens the depth of honor and glory God deserves in the person and work of Jesus. Dr. Bruce Waltke, in his magisterial An Old Testament Theology, counsels,
Only those who have journeyed through the Old Testament can appreciate the full splendor and glory of the New Testament and fully digest its fruit, and those who have not cannot. The consequence of a general ignorance about the Old Testament among the people of God is a pervasive reduction of the full message of the New Testament to a basic gospel of atonement and individual ethics.3
Waltke reminds us that so much of the language, ideas, and images of the New Covenant are fashioned from and fastened to the foundation of the Old Covenant. The truth is we handicap our understanding of the New Testament if we have an anemic grasp of the Old. That’s true for both pastor and parishioner. The result is a sad deficiency not only in handling our Bibles but in growing our hearts, where “many Christians feel spiritually undernourished because they live out their lives on the basis of about ten biblical texts.”4 May this not be so.
Preaching the Old Testament isn’t equal to preaching the Old Covenant.
Frankly, some pastors struggle with the Old Testament because they don’t know how to handle it in light of the New. They don’t want to fall into the trap of merely relegating the Old Testament to illustrations, character studies, or unfortunately, moralizing and normalizing these unique tales in redemptive history in the name of “practical” preaching.
However, the answer isn’t avoiding the Old Testament but to grow in handling it well in the pulpit. It’s not enough to basically steal series on Old Testament books from pastors you admire and essentially preach the same thing. Own it for yourself. Take classes, read books, and watch sermons on how to preach the Old Testament with a New Covenant (i.e., gospel-centered) perspective. 2 Timothy 2:15 is clear, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Neither willful ignorance nor shallow mimicry is an option for those called to preach God’s Word when there are ample avenues to grow in responsibly handling both testaments to show your congregants the glory of the gospel.
Pastors, let’s preach the Old Testament not in spite of being New Covenant preachers but because we are New Covenant preachers.
Some resources to consider:
- The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text by Sidney Greidanus
- Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method by Sidney Greidanus
- Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures by Dennis E. Johnson
- How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology by Jason DeRouchie
- Preaching Christ in All of Scripture by Edmund P. Clowney
- Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament by David Murray
- Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell
- Any good books to help you develop a sound biblical theology
- And these Bibles weren’t even in the original language but a translation (i.e., Septuagint). Imagine that. Having to use a translation to preach from!
- This doesn’t mean the apostles didn’t have an oral tradition of Jesus’ teachings written down for them (cf., 1 Tim. 5:18 and 1 Cor. 9:14 reference a direct quotation of Jesus in Lk 10:7). Additionally, New Testament passages reveal that the apostles regarded their writing as equivalent to Scripture (cf., 1 Cor. 14:37, 2 Pt. 3:15-16).
- Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, Zondervan, 2007, 16.