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Preaching Christ from the Old Testament

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Date February 26, 2008

On Tuesday and Wednesday February 19 & 20, 2008, Ted Donnelly of Ulster visited Wales and gave the identical two addresses on the above theme to gatherings of ministers in Bala and in Bridgend. These are my notes taken at the first conference in Bala in North Wales. About 35 ministers were present – as many as in the South Wales conference. It speaks well of the growth of gospel churches in the last forty years in what was once the most unevangelical part of Wales. – GT

I don’t hear much good preaching from the Old Testament. There are the classic passages and from them Christ is preached, but such occasions are the exception. Golf is a useful metaphor – the glorious ideal and our pitiable failure to attain it. Many theological students preaching Christ from the Old Testament make it complicated because they are afraid of getting it wrong. Others are more comfortable, but with them it is a matter of muddling through. Such awkwardness would have astounded the preachers of the New Testament. They never thought of preaching Christ from anywhere else and they had nothing else. They preached with such power the Old Testament Scriptures – Peter on the day of Pentecost preaching Joel and Psalms 16 and 110. When Stephen is on trial for his life he takes his hearers on an extensive tour of the Old Testament. At Pisidian Antioch, Paul goes through the Old Testament. Philip opened up Isaiah 53 to the eunuch.

We need to recapture this Christ-centred understanding of Scripture. It is an enormous subject and here is my sketchy view. This is a work in progress and I share in your subsequent discussions. Surely we can all help and sharpen one another.

1. Facing up to the predispositions

sic] Scripture.’ The reformers went for the grammar and syntax and parallels of the Scripture within its context. What does the text say and what did it originally mean? This is still the foundation for all true preaching. But it has been too rigidly implemented; it has become a strait-jacket imprisoning the preacher in a set of rules.

There is something altogether bigger than the Bible and a set of rules. Critics are hesitant about seeing Christ in the Old Testament where the apostles saw him. They suggest that you must understand Scripture from the light of preceding Scriptures, not the following revelation. So it would be very ironic and enormously sad that the better trained a man is in classical exegesis the less capable he becomes of preaching Christ, that college training can be hindering men from preaching Christ. Also, many of us evangelicals are better at conceptual thinking – linear and logical fitting in with Paul – rather than with the Old Testament’s stories, types and symbols. We have become imbalanced, preaching the epistles almost exclusively rather than the Old Testament.

2. Following the pattern

How did the New Testament deal with the Old Testament? It gives us an inspired and infallible pattern. The apostles don’t always follow the norms. What do we do with their strange approach? We say, ‘The apostle were inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit; they did things we do not and cannot do.’ That is true to a certain extent, but it is a limited extent. They change the wording of Old Testament texts to make different applications. Romans 11:26 quotes Isaiah 59:20 and there we notice that ‘to Zion’ becomes ‘from Zion’. In Ephesians the quotation referring to receiving gifts from men becomes giving gifts to men. There are a few unique apostolic exceptions like that, but generally we are bound to what Jesus did, how he quotes from the Scriptures and applies them to himself, especially in Luke 24 as he opens the Scripture to them and open their minds to understand as they walk to Emmaus. If the New Testament writers discerned patterns of Christ in all of Scripture so should we. They were the inspired men and therefore we should follow them. Their infallibility compels us to follow them, but that in tandem with historical grammatical exegesis. Today seeing Christ in a text is being understood too narrowly, always within a brief context, not as it should be within the whole canon fulfilled in our Lord. We should be following the pattern of the apostles. What is that? It is not a set of rules but a way of thinking and a mindset.

3. Cultivating the perspective

The whole Bible is a book about Christ and we must be convinced of that. In Ephesians 1:9, 10 we are taught that God is uniting all things in Christ. This purpose governs everything. No event in history can be excluded from this agenda of God, and that must include the Bible which is the revelation of God’s will to mankind. If the Bible is in that context then our interpretation of each text is to be searched. We ask how does it fit in with God’s redemptive purpose for the world? The ‘testament’ links it with the covenant of grace, the Son agreeing to come to earth and do God’s will.

Christ is the oxygen of the Old Testament. Apart from him there would have been no Old Testament. The history of redemption exists because of Christ’s coming; Adam and Eve would have fallen dead at the foot of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He is before all and in him all things hold together. ‘The Scriptures bear witness to me,’ he says. Jesus thinks Cleopas blameworthy for not seeing this. ‘You should have perceived this; you slow of heart,’ and Christ proceeds to teach them from all three divisions of Scripture. His self-understanding is from the Old Testament. It is designed to lead to faith in Christ. In Romans 4 when Paul illustrates how the gospel works he turns to Abraham and David. The people who don’t understand have a veil over their hearts. The Son and the Scripture are both referred to as ‘the Word of God.’ The purpose of preaching is to bring people to salvation through faith in Christ. The whole of this book is about Christ.

4. Grasping the plot

Consider ‘redemptive history.’ There is a plot with a beginning, middle and end; it is a history and story and the outworking of a divine purpose.

Grasp the big picture; what is happening? There is a story and we have the incomparable advantage of knowing how it all works out. Christ is the completion of the story. In the opening scenes of the New Testament Matthew is taking five scenes from the birth of Jesus and he links them to the Old Testament with the words, ‘that it might be fulfilled.’ The destination of a journey is its reason and explanation. Bala today was the reason for us all being on our journeys. The destination casts light on every step of the journey. Christ is the end of the journey and so every right and wrong step has light cast on it. We need to grasp the plot. It is claimed that there is only one story in history and all the stories that have ever been told are part of that story – happiness, tragedy, restoration and happiness. The stories of detective mysteries are this one elemental story down from the fall.

Vaughan Roberts in God’s Big Picture simplifies and elaborates Goldsworthy’s summary of redemptive history: ‘God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule,’ says Goldsworthy, adding ‘Experiencing God’s blessing.’ He divides it into 8 alliterations.

i] The pattern of the Kingdom – in Eden with the people, place, pattern and blessing.
ii] The perished Kingdom – no longer the people in the place and no longer under the blessing.
iii] The promised Kingdom – made to Abraham that he will be the head of new kingdom. Thus God will bless them.
iv] The partial Kingdom as he forms a people for himself in Eden. It is there, but then at times it is not there, however, the line is upwards, positive and the people are being built up. They have a King and in David they are very, very close. The Kingdom is coming nearer all the time, but it is always partial and there are always the seeds of decay in it. Moses sins, there are deserts, enemies and corruption. The partial Kingdom is epitomized in Solomon who is the perfector of Israel’s glory and the architect of their destruction. Disaster, disobedience and judgment come.God casts them out of the promised land and they are not under his blessing.
v] The prophesied Kingdom. Another line starts to be drawn with the writing prophets and they start to look to a new people and a righteous king shall rule over them with a new covenant in a richer way than before. Some of its terms are written in terms of cosmic blessing. Yet the language is all couched in terms of the old covenant. However, none of the weaknesses of the past will be present – sin and its baneful consequences. Then there is the return to Jerusalem ending the exile, but there was disappointment; it was a poor and heart-breaking return, and for three centuries there was no word from the Lord.
vi] The present Kingdom is the Kingdom of heaven ‘at hand.’ Christ in himself is the kingdom and so it is among men, because he is there. He is the King and so he is the kingdom; he is God’s people, the last Adam, the faithful servant, Emmanuel, God with us. He is the giver of the blessings of salvation. God’s people are there.
vii] The proclaimed Kingdom as the people, multi-nationally, preach him everywhere and God dwells in his people. They are experiencing the rich blessing of his salvation. But isn’t there the ‘not yet’? It is still partial and incomplete. We still cry, ‘O wretched man that I am.’
viii] The perfect, completed Kingdom in fulfillment is in a new heavens and earth.

Every Old Testament text is part of this story, the narrative of this coming salvation. We then ask, where is this text in what period of redemptive history? It will prefigure in some way the realities of the gospel.

5. Looking for the promise

The promise is for God to be the God of the children of Abraham but it is fulfilled in different ways and circumstances. We make a distinct promise in marriage, and then in the marriage we find out what the promise involves. There are joys and sorrows and we discover the marriage vows work out quite differently, but they are the same promise. The literalist makes his mistake and he does not understand that God’s promise is fulfilled in different ways.

Think of the father who promises a horse and buggy to his 5 year old son at 21, but in the intervening years the motor car is invented and the buggy is redundant, and so at 21 he gets a car. The promise has been kept gloriously, but it is not the exact literal promise of many years earlier. So the demand for a literal temple yet to be built in Jerusalem is a longing for an outdated superseded fulfillment of God’s promise. It is part of the problem in the Old Testament that the structures of the Old Testament are not strong enough to bear the glorious majesty of the promise. No David, no mere priest of the order of Levi, could be the king-priest we need. The land could never be the land which fulfills such promises. The only fulfilling answer is God himself. The light of Israel is so desperate that only God could be the fulfillment of the promise and thus only Christ could be the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Abraham. Moses and David are fulfilled by Christ. It is in him that all the blessings of the covenant are fulfilled. The claims and demands of the covenant point to Christ and can only be applied by him.

6. Exploring the parallels

Many of us have a shiver of anticipation when we hear the word ‘typology.’ It has encouraged a Platonic view of the Old Testament. They are ‘shadows’ pointing to ‘reality.’ They are not reality themselves. The institutions seem to have no value in themselves but point forward to Christ. C. H. Spurgeon in his chapter on ‘Spiritualizing’ in Lectures to My Students1 is still valuable. It gives typology a bad name, as someone said, ‘Surely some of the ropes and pegs in the Tabernacle were meant to hold the tent up.’

A type is based on the consistency of God. He is ever the same; he always acts in accordance with his own being. It will have his own stamp on it. It is inherently reasonable. The same God is redeeming and he gives us this visual aid. A type is an event, a series of circumstances which find their final realization in the incarnate life of our Lord. You will find correspondences with the New Testament; there is the resemblance but the fulfillment can go beyond them.

The word tupos is actually used in the New Testament; Adam is called a tupos of Christ. The trials in the wilderness are a type; baptism is an antitype of the flood of Noah, said Peter. But in Hebrews 9:4 the earthly tabernacle points both back and forward.

Then there are the Old Testament quotations applied to Christ. There are actually 1600 direct quotes in the New Testament of the Old Testament even to the act of gambling over Christ’s garments, and in them you have solid ground. There are also Old Testament allusions which are applied to Christ. In fact it is estimated that there are over 2000 allusions which apply to him, like the lifting up of the serpent, and the provision of manna. Hebrews is full of such allusions and some New Testament allusions are quite subtle. Let’s not be over-clever but let’s not miss the many allusions.

There are the general patterns of macro-typology; the exodus is full of this redemption, and the types of the tabernacle and temple. The key is a ‘greater than . . .’ This is also a two-way process; not only the New Testament illuminating the Old Testament; doesn’t the Old Testament illuminate the New Testament? We would lose so much without it. Exodus shows us not only individual salvation but a people delivered from political pressure and social bondage. Identifying these parallels is an art.

7. Applying the precedents

Is it legitimate to use the events and characters of the Old Testament and apply them to us today to follow their example or learn from their falls? The danger is that the person and work of Christ is not present in the message, but only the examples and falls. Could that be Christian preaching if it would be acceptable in a mosque or a synagogue? It is moralizing. However, abuse does not destroy use. Because people have moralized wrongly does not mean that we can abandon it entirely. In redemptive historical preaching there is a dangerous omission of application. Frequently there is just an exhortation to ‘rejoice in what Christ has done for us and to live the Christ-centred life.’

Surely there is an instinct in every real preacher to apply the Word. We are to apply it because we meet application again and again in the Old Testament. Paul says that we should not desire evil things ‘as they did.’ Do not be idolaters as some of them were. We should not indulge in such practices as they did. Remember Lot’s wife. There is Hebrews 11 and the cloud of witnesses. We are watching them and learning from their example. James says, You have heard of the steadfastness of Job. Elijah prayed fervently and you should. Peter is looking for an example of the rough and tumble of daily life in the Roman Empire and he went to Christ who left an example, who when he was reviled he did not revile in return.

We must always preach Christ, but we are not like passengers sitting in a Boeing 707 looking down at the desert and mountain ranges. We are on the ground and trekking through the landscape. Again, the psalmists are giants and I feel a pygmy when I read the Psalms; I don’t look down on them.

8. Watching the pendulum

The pendulum has been swinging towards biblical theology and it has become locked into some quarters. Systematic theology needs to be rediscovered and re-emphasised. There is almost a naivety concerning the forces of church history and all that the people of God have learned and confessed through the centuries. Who is the God who redeems?

9. Loving the person

When we are in love with someone we speak often of him. We have to talk of Jesus. Preach Jesus Christ everywhere in every sermon. There is a road from every text to Christ, like the roads that lead to London from every village in Britain. We will find our way to him. We will develop an instinct for him.

Amongst the books on the reading list recommended by Ted Donnelly was John Carrick’s The Imperative of Preaching2 published by the Trust.


    • Lectures to My Students by Charles Spurgeon
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      On Tuesday and Wednesday February 19 & 20, 2008, Ted Donnelly of Ulster visited Wales and gave the identical two addresses on the above theme to gatherings of ministers in Bala and in Bridgend. These are my notes taken at the first conference in Bala in North Wales. About 35 ministers were present – as […]

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