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Preaching Christ from the Old Testament


Article by Wade Jackson

The way modern day Christians often think about the Old Testament is that it is outdated and irrelevant. However, if we look at Jesus’ own words on the road to Emmaus, we find Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27). Later in Chapter 24 Luke records Jesus saying: “And he said unto them, these are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk. 24:44). Jesus explained truths about himself from the Old Testament. In other words, Jesus preached Himself from the Old Testament. Alec Motyer says it like this: 

Suppose we went to the Lord Jesus Christ and said to him, ‘Please tell me why do you keep quoting from the Old Testament?’ He would say, ‘The old what? I don’t know what you mean. What do you mean the “Old Testament”’ And in our poor flustered way, because we didn’t expect that answer, we would begin to try to explain what we meant by our question, ‘Why do you keep quoting from the Old Testament?’ And in the long run, the Lord Jesus would say to us, ‘Oh I see! You mean the Holy Scriptures.’


We also find the Apostles following this example and preaching Christ from the Old Testament. In Acts 2:25-35, Peter preached Christ from Psalms 16 and 110, in Acts 4 Peter and John claim Christ from Psalm 2, in Acts 8 Phillip preached Christ from Isaiah 53, in Acts 17 Paul proclaims from the scriptures that Jesus is the Christ, in Acts 26:22 Paul explained that he is only testifying “nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass” about Christ. To say that the Old Testament is outdated and irrelevant is to impugn Jesus and the Apostles’ teaching and preaching Christ from the Old Testament. There are different views of Christ in the Old Testament, however it is still relevant for us today. As Sam Waldron says, “the Old Testament as an organic whole and in detail is God-breathed, the product of direct, divine origination and determination, permanent and unbreakable in its every assertion, and as written is perfectly authoritative.”


Various Views

As stated before, the Old Testament is still relevant for us today, and it is God-breathed and perfectly authoritative. We also know Jesus and His Apostles preached Jesus Christ from the Old Testament. C.H Spurgeon said, “I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one.” Scholars today agree that the content of the Old Testament is “about Jesus and the kingdom of God.” So, that ignites the question of how should Christians today preach Christ from the Old Testament? There are various views among scholars on how we should approach this. Four of the most common views are the First Testament Approach, Christotelic Approach, Reception-Centered Intertextual Approach, and the Redemptive-Historical Christocentric Approach.


The First Testament Approach seeks to have the Old Testament be read and understood like it was during the time it was written. Or simply put, how it was read before we had the New Testament. This approach seeks to have the Old Testament stand on its own. Tabb and King state that John Goldingay, First Testament adherent, “urges readers to take seriously the First Testament (his preferred term for the Old Testament) on its own terms rather than immediately looking for the nearest road to Christ.” Goldingay says when talking about this approach:

A focus on reading Jesus back into the First Testament means we don’t get to hear what it has to say. We learn what we already knew (because we knew it from the New Testament), and we miss the First Testament’s own insight. We narrow down the Scriptures to our own narrow interests.


One worthy tool about this approach is that we seek to find the original authorial intent of the scripture of the Old Testament. However, one caution would be that we could easily dismiss Jesus Christ from the Old Testament altogether.


The Christotelic Approach notes that Jesus is God, however many of the passages that we consider to be Messianic do not directly point to Jesus. This approach seeks to affirm both the original authorial intent, while also noting that the Old Testament canon (when read as a whole) anticipates Jesus. Adherents to this approach support a second reading style in which the first reading of the Old Testament text is for the original authorial intent, where the text is read apart from the New Testament. While the second reading would be considering what we know of the New Testament. One benefit about this approach is that it provides the original authorial intent while keeping us from reading too much into the text. One drawback, similar to the First Testament Approach, would be how easily we could miss clear references to the Messiah in the Old Testament.


The Reception-Centered Intertextual approach “focuses on the effect of texts on readers.” The reader of the Old Testament gains the main theme of the text through reading, sermons, hymns, etc. and then places that against the backdrop of another text that features the same theme. Then the reader can study both intertexts and decide if the Old Testament text has Christological meaning. This theme based reading can be a useful tool, however the reader, or person receiving the text, is in control of the meaning. This becomes an issue in regard to understanding the original authorial intent of the text.

The Redemptive-Historical Christocentric Approach understands that “Christ Jesus stands as both the climax and the center of God’s saving purposes.” This approach makes Jesus Christ the lens through which we can fully understand the Old Testament. This is a multi-faceted approach that realizes that Christ is in the Old Testament text, but allows for the task of figuring out how Christ is in the text. Critics of this approach feel as if it allows for reading Jesus into the Old Testament too often. The advantage is it follows strictly what Jesus said in Luke 24:27 “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”


Biblical Defense

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:2 “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This follows what he said in 1 Corinthians 1:23 “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” This follows the pattern explained earlier that Jesus himself preached and taught “to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27). It is worth noting again the Scriptures Jesus and the Apostles preached from was the Old Testament. We must follow Jesus and the Apostles’ example in our own preaching of the Old Testament. John MacArthur says, “There is no greater theme in preaching and teaching. There is no greater person. There is no one who ascends to the level of Jesus Christ. There is no subject that can match Him. And He is the theme of all Scripture, both Old and New Testament.” It is key to remember that the Old Testament goes deeper than simple stories about historical figures. These stories in the Old Testament “have the important function of carrying forward the ongoing salvation-history from its first announcement in Genesis 3:15.” If we are to have a full picture of the overarching covenant of redemption unfolding, we must see how the New Testament brings out what the Old Testament revealed. When we understand this, we see the lines that point from the Old Testament to Christ become clearer.


Motyer goes on to say, “Without the Old Testament we would not understand our New Testament properly.” 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” If all scripture is God-breathed, profitable, and inerrant, and the main theme of all scripture is Jesus Christ, then we must preach Jesus Christ from all scripture. Jesus was present at the beginning of the story of creation (Col. 1:15-20), He is the rock in the wilderness, “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4), He came into this world to bear witness to the truth “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (Jn. 18:37), and he is present in the last book, Revelation: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10). Christ is the thread that weaves all of scripture together. We must be diligent to preach Him not only from the New Testament, but also from the Old Testament.


Practical Guidelines

It is one thing to say that we must preach Christ from the Old Testament, and it is another thing to actually do it. There are certain formulas that scholars have come up with in order to preach Christ from the Old Testament. However, I am in agreement with Sinclair Ferguson in that when we use a certain formula for preaching Christ in the Old Testament, our preaching can become “wooden and insensitive to the rich contours of biblical theology. Its artificiality would lie in our going through the motions of exegeting and expounding the Old Testament and then, remembering the formula, tidying our notes in order to align them with it.” 


The first thing we must do in order to properly preach Christ from the Old Testament is to be in deep prayer for our own understanding of the text. John Owen famously said, “A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.” This leads seamlessly into what Steven Lawson says, “The more you love God, the better you will preach His word.” In other words, if we are to accurately and clearly preach Jesus Christ from the Old Testament, we must have a prayer-soaked zeal for God’s word.


The next practical guideline would be the overarching understanding that Christ did not come to abolish the Old Testament, but rather to fulfill it. In Luke 16:17 Jesus declares, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.” In Matthew 5:17 Jesus states, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Living as Christians today we have the privilege to be able to look back on the Old Testament with the New Testament as our spotlight to illumine how the Old Testament points forward to Jesus. This helps us understand that the context of the scripture is not complete without Jesus Christ.


Another practical guideline would be refraining from allegorically imposing Christ in every single text. We understand the overarching theme of the Old Testament is Jesus Christ, and every paragraph of scripture advances the canonical center that is Jesus, “however, to dig underneath the text for a deeper, Christocentric meaning is allegory.” With the New Testament being our light, the clear meaning of the Old Testament text is there. However, to seek a deeper meaning would be to impugn the actual meaning of the text. We agree with Spurgeon in finding the road to Christ, but there is a difference in finding the overarching road to Christ, and making a new road to Christ from the text.


Lastly, a practical guideline for preaching Christ from the Old Testament would be to have our presuppositions in mind when we read the Old Testament. We believe there will be no new revelation, or in other words that the canon of scripture is closed. As Beeke states, "God has laid the theological foundation of the church through his holy ‘apostles and prophets’ (Eph. 2:20), and we are not to add to that foundation, but build on it.” We live in a time where we are gifted with the blessings of New Testament revelation, but we must also understand that no new revelation is being given. This helps us proclaim Christ from the Old Testament without compromising the integrity of the word. Jesus is the overarching narrative of the Bible, but there are also many sub-narratives. Michael Horton is helpful when he explains, “If our preaching does not center on Christ from Genesis to Revelation, no matter how good or helpful, it is not a proclamation of God's Word.” We can only do this if we read and preach the Old Testament with the presupposition that it is a redemptive-historical progression focusing on “The plan of God…that he would form a nation and out of that nation he would bring the one through whom salvation would come to all the nations.”


Case Study: Genesis 22:1-19

To interpret an Old Testament passage and defend preaching Christ from the Old Testament, we will look at Genesis 22:1-19. This a well-known text that has clear connections with Jesus Christ. We will take our guidelines and apply them to this text by understanding the overarching theme of the entire Old Testament being Jesus Christ. While also being diligent not to impose Jesus, through allegory, into the text where He is not, and by keeping our presuppositions in mind in a redemptive-historical progression of the Word of God.


The main theme of the text is that God provides a ram so that Isaac may live. Genesis 22:7 shows us that Isaac in wondering where the lamb for the burnt offering is, he says, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham is aware of what God said in verse 2 “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2).  It is good to point out the promise that God made Abraham in Genesis 15:4, “your very own son shall be your heir.” Now in Genesis 22, God has given Abraham the ultimate test, to sacrifice the very son that God promised would be his heir. Moreover, God promised Abraham that through Isaac “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him” (Gen. 17:19). So how could this be, if God was to be faithful to His covenant with Abraham, how could Abraham sacrifice the very child that the promise would be through? 


Notice how much Abraham trusted God, “Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you’” (Gen. 22:5). I believe this points to Abraham’s trust that God is going to work this out, that God would fulfill His promise to Abraham. “Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood” (Gen. 22:9). The scene is set, can you imagine what must have been going through Abraham’s mind at this point? Imagine what must have been going through Abraham’s mind at this point. What about God’s promise to him? This all comes to climax with verse 10-11 of Genesis 22 “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” This seems to be an urgent message from the Lord, saying “Abraham, Abraham!.” This message wasn’t a second too late, but it also wasn’t a second too early.

He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son (Gen. 22:12-13).


Can you imagine the sigh of relief that came from both Abraham and Isaac? God provided a ram caught in a thicket so that the ram could be sacrificed in the place of Abraham’s son, so that Isaac and Israel may live. This ram sacrificed in place of Isaac ensures that the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) would continue on. John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Notice who else was willing to give his only son in the narrative of Genesis 22. God gave Abraham the sacrifice he needed so that his son may live. God gave His only son in order to save the world so that we may live. This ram points to Jesus. Just as the ram was the provided sacrifice, so too is Jesus, so that His people may live. “So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (Gen. 22:14). This brings us back to when Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8). The Lord provided. He not only provided for Abraham, but he provided for us too. “The God who forbade child sacrifice, the God who stopped Abraham from offering his only son, is the God who loved us so much that he offered up his one and only Son.”


Conclusion

The example from Genesis helps us to see how we preach Christ from the Old Testament. We could have attempted to insert Christ in other places in the narrative or tried to make a deeper meaning of the text, however, it is important that we found the clear road to Christ and stayed on that road. Let us be diligent to pray over our wisdom of the word, bring our presuppositions, use our knowledge of the New Testament, and never impose Christ allegorically on a text that He is not in. I believe this is the way Jesus and the Apostles preached Christ from the Old Testament. “I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes” (Ps. 119:46-48)


*The article was previously published as a scholarly work for Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary on January 18, 2024.


Wade and Kaylee Jackson live in Lebanon, VA with their two lovely children. Wade faithfully serves the Lord as a deacon of Calvary Bible Church as well as his preaching ministry. He is currently enrolled at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary in Owensboro, KY.


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