Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How to Read and Preach the Old Testament

The Old Testament is not about you--it is about Jesus. Few things get me wound up quite as much as listening to a sermon preached on the Old Testament that is primarily viewed through the lens of self.

If the sermon you heard (or preached) this past Sunday could have been preached in a Synagogue or a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, odds are the person preaching mishandled the text. We are Christians because we make much of Christ; even when studying out of the Old Testament, seeing how the passage points to Jesus is of primary importance!

Believe it or not, there is a right and wrong way to preach a sermon out of the Old Testament--or for that matter how read it for your own personal devotions. Here are a few general ground rules to consider:

Rule 1. The Bible has a historical context. Much of the Old Testament is narrative--and as such, is not directly applicable to our contemporary (or personal) lives. One book that helped me to learn this was How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. We can learn some themes and ideas from narrative, but it is dangerous to use narrative to make too many applications! The first obligation of a preacher or pastor when giving exposition from the Old Testament is to explain the historic context of the passages being studied or preached from.

Pastors, show your work!
When answering a mathematical equation in primary school, one always had to show the work with which one solved the problem. Many pastors can preach eloquently from the Old Testament, but fail to show  their work. If church were just a spectator sport this would probably be OK, but we want to reproduce disciples, so one of the main jobs of a pastor is to help their congregations ask appropriate questions (who, what, where, why, when, how) of the text and help them discover them discover the answers themselves.

Our Christian faith has its roots in the Judaism, and a proper understanding of the history of the Old Testament and the lives of the people that we read about is paramount to the rest of these rules.

However, I would like to make one addendum--Pastors, keep your Greek and Hebrew to yourself! If you want your disciples to grow in their faith, don't explain the meaning of every word. Most of the members of your church will never learn Greek or Hebrew, and if you want them to make disciples of others, show them how to come to the same theological conclusions without having to understand a dead language! Following the same math-problem illustration, to be a good teacher, you must make sure that those you are teaching are able to understand the equations you use!

P.P.S. There is a difference between preaching and leading a bible study. It is important to establish context while preaching, but the purpose of preaching is to exhort the hearer to worship. Therefore, establishing context should only take at max twenty-five percent of your sermon's length!

Rule 2. All passages in the Old Testament have a context within redemptive history. The second duty of a pastor or preacher is to show how the passage related to God's story of redemption, that is, fall, redemption and new creation! Simply put, the Old Testament points towards Jesus.

The Creation, the Fall, the Patriarchs, the promises, the Covenants, the Law, the Promised Land, the Judges, the Kingdom of Israel, the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices and the Prophets all point towards Jesus. These are all necessary for establishing the foundation on which the Good News is really good. The duty of a preacher is to show how each of the different elements of the Old Testament is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, the New Covenant and New Creation.

God worked through the men and women of the Old Testament, through the nation of Israel to bring about our salvation--we are the olive branches that have been grafted in. We need to become big picture people!  The Old Testament teaches us a lot about God, and through it we can learn how God had set about to bring us salvation through his own Son.

Rule 3. The Old Testament should create a hunger for the New. While we can learn some general lessons from the men and women of faith in the Old Testament, there is a sense in which we can learn more from their failures and shortcomings than from their successes. The duty of any person teaching from the Old Testament is to show the futility with which men and women attempted to serve God out of their own strength.

The heroes of faith from the Old Testament are in some senses tragic heroes, they were looking forward to God's redemption, but did not have the indwelling Holy Spirit giving them the power to live according to the high standard that God had set for them. For example, Paul states that the Law was given to show that we could not obey it. In this sense, one of the greatest lessons that can be taught from the Old Testament is the futility of trying to follow God apart from the Holy Spirit and the necessity of faith.

The Baptism of Jesus by He Qi
Rule 4. Make much of Jesus! Even when preaching from the Old Testament, our duty to our congregations and disciples is to help them fall more and more in love with Jesus. We are called Christians because we see the Old Testament not through the lens of self, but through the person of Jesus! The Gospel changed everything, especially how we read the Old Testament. As Augustine famously said, "Grace, Concealed in the Old Testament, is Revealed in the New.

A good sermon, whether from the New Testament or the Old will be one that helps us not just to gain information and understand the bible or ourselves better, but one that makes us fall more deeply in love with Jesus! I never realized that this was the mark of good preaching until I began reading the sermons of Robert Murray M'cheyne--as my eyes welled with tears, and my heart rejoiced in my Lord and savior I came to recognize what preaching was really supposed to do!

Rule 5. Only if all of the other rules have been followed can you then make general or specific applications to yourself or your church. Once again, the bible isn't about us, but it is for us. Timothy 3:16-17 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 competent, equipped for every good work."

First, we need to be taught by scripture--that is why I believe understanding the context and place in redemptive history are so important. Secondly I believe that we need to be confronted by the Word, that is why we must see it with Jesus as the lens, and let the Holy Spirit convict us of sin and spur us on towards holiness through it.

Finally it is for training in righteousness--any personal application from the Old Testament that we apply to ourselves shouldn't be general, but should be specific. If our desire is to be equipped for every good work, we need to apply the scripture to our lives--I believe this means speaking the Gospel to ourselves. We're called to put on the Lord Jesus Christ--to imitate be imitators of Jesus, and only as men and women in the Old Testament reflect Christ are we to emulate them.

Pastors, here's my last word on sermon applications: at max, only have one of them! Your job as a preacher of the Gospel is to bring the hearer into the presence of the Lord. He's the one that does heart surgery. Keep your do's and don't to yourself. If you must give an application, be specific and keep it simple. If your sermon has six or more applications, you're doing something wrong.


Don't settle for Gospel-less preaching! Even if your pastor is preaching out of the Old Testament, it is not an excuse to preach a Christless sermon! Preaching is a great responsibility--the bible warns that teachers will be held to a higher standard at the judgement. It is therefore of utmost importance that we are clear on this point. A preacher who takes a passage of scripture from the Old Testament and doesn't use it to preach the Gospel is like a major league baseball player striking out while at bat. A single strike-out doesn't seem that important, but it is quite important if that strike-out happens in the last at-bat of the playoffs. Every opportunity that we have to open up the Word to others may be our last, it may be the last for one of our hearers, it may be the only opportunity someone has to hear the Gospel--therefore, make much of Jesus!

1 comment:

jchollar said...

We played this video that goes right with it in church this Sunday: (Tim Keller, the Bible is NOT about YOU!)