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Six Principles for Preaching Christ from the Old Testament

Category Articles
Date October 20, 2014

An edited transcript of Pastor Edward Donnelly’s message at the 2005 Banner of Truth USA Ministers’ Conference in Grantham, Pennsylvania.

Many men approach preaching Christ from the Old Testament with a sense that it is difficult, unnatural, complicated, and a matter of learning and applying very rigid, technical rules. The results are predictably disappointing. But why do men feel like this? Perhaps, in our day of biblical ignorance, it is a matter of unfamiliarity with the Old Testament. Perhaps it’s an overreaction against excessive spirtualising; it may be a defective theology which produces sub-conscious Marcionites. A common reason in our Reformed circles is an exegetical training which is too rigidly technical: there are too many seminaries from which men come out less able to preach than when they went in.

Such awkwardness would have astounded the preachers of the early church. Preach Christ from the Old Testament? They never thought of preaching him from anywhere else – they didn’t have anywhere else. Uninhibitedly, naturally, and with tremendous power they preached Christ from the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter’s texts on the Day of Pentecost were drawn from Joel, Psalm 16, and Psalm 110, and after he healed the lame beggar he preached from Deuteronomy. Stephen, on trial for his life, took his hearers on an extensive Old Testament history tour. Philip told the good news about Jesus from Isaiah. Paul, in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, ranged in his message from the Torah, to the Psalms, to the Prophets.

If we have lost this facility, we need to recapture a pervasive, Christ-centred understanding of what is over seventy-five percent of the Word that God has entrusted to us.

Six general principles may be suggested in order to help us preach Christ from the Old Testament, acknowledging that they provide the merest overview of a vast subject:

Cultivate the Perspective

It is vital that we become convinced that the Old Testament, above all, is about Jesus Christ. He is its presupposition; the very word for testament – diatheke – links it with God’s covenant, with the Son agreeing before the foundation of the world to come and redeem those given to him by the Father. Christ is the oxygen of the Old Testament, he is the atmosphere without which it could not exist. Without Christ not one letter of the Old Testament could have been written down. Edmund Clowney states that ‘the history of redemption and of revelation exists because of Christ’s coming; had Jesus Christ not been chosen in God’s eternal plan there would have been no human history: Adam and Eve would have fallen dead at the foot of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’

We can say, then, of Christ and the Old Testament writings that he is before them all, and in him they all hold together. Christ could say of the Scriptures, ‘they bear witness of me,’ ‘Moses wrote of me.’ It was so obvious, that the disciples on the Emmaus road were held to be blameworthy for not seeing this. Christ’s exposition of the Scriptures to them pointedly included the three great divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures: everything written in the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. The Old Testament shaped the self-understanding of our Lord, as fulfiller, as servant, as Son of Man.

Paul sees the Old Testament as designed to produce faith in Christ. He writes to Timothy of ‘the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation, through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3:15). When he wants to illustrate the gospel in Romans 4, he first turns to Abraham and then to David, demonstrating how the Christian gospel works. He describes those who were to read the Old Testament without seeing Christ in it as having a veil over their hearts (2 Cor. 3:15). It is no accident that both the Bible and the Son are referred to by the same title: both are the Word of God, thus linking Christ inextricably with the Scriptures. He is everywhere in the pages of the Bible, and this is the perspective from which we should approach them. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics affirmed in its article 3: ‘we affirm that the person and work of Jesus Christ are the central focus of the entire Bible.’

Grasp the Plot

There is a plot to the Bible, comprising a connected story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It is not a ragbag of disconnected events, sermon illustrations and pious thoughts. It is a history that tells of the outworking of a mighty, redeeming, divine story in a coherent and interconnected narrative. It makes sense, then, to grasp the big picture, the storyline of Scripture. We wouldn’t dream of reading a novel by the promise box method. We want to know the story, the line, what the book is about.

When it comes to the Bible we have the incomparable advantage of knowing the end of the story. We know how it will all work out, and so we can understand the earlier parts of Scripture as we look back. In other words we should read the Old Testament from a New Testament perspective. Some exegetical textbooks sternly warn us not to do this, but they are wrong. Our Lord interpreted in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself; his own person was his starting point.

Many of God’s people have no grasp of the plotline of the Bible, viewing it in a fragmented way. If we are to speak meaningfully into our postmodern world, we must increasingly realise that the people to whom we speak have not the vestige of an idea of the great story that has shaped Western civilisation for centuries. The little bits of the Bible that they hear from us do not make coherent sense, and as a consequence as preachers we need to grasp the plot.

Christ, of course, is the end of the story. Matthew makes that clear in the first two chapters of the New Testament, selecting five scenes from the childhood of the Lord Jesus. He ties each of these episodes to the Old Testament, insisting that these occurred and are recorded in order that ‘it might be fulfilled.’ We only understand the details of Scripture in the light of the ending, but the destination is not just the end of the journey, it is its very reason, its great governing factor.

The plot of every human story from the Odyssey onwards shares the same components: the happy beginning, the disaster, the period of struggle, the resolution, and the happy ending. God has imprinted that story on the imagination of human beings. It is the story of the kingdom of God. The Old Testament events are real history, and we need to give the Old Testament events and persons their real weight and value. God was really saving , he was really redeeming; these accounts are not just misty shadows.

We can fine-tune the plot a little more into epochs of redemptive history. The first verse of the New Testament seems to do that. ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham,’ seems to be pointing to three main figures, or three main epochs in the history of redemption. In the first, we move from Abraham to David, and it is a period in which the kingdom of God is gradually revealed, step-by-step in the history of Israel. Progress in this epoch is generally positive, with a sense that the graph is upwards: we are getting nearer to the kingdom all the time. In the second epoch from David to the exile and beyond the picture is generally negative. The line now points downwards, the kingdom becomes less and less visible in Israel’s history. This epoch is marked by disobedience, apostasy, judgment, exile, hopes dashed. But at the same time, another line begins to be drawn in the great prophets. The prophets now start looking to a richer, fuller, more glorious, permanent manifestation of the kingdom of God. In the first epoch the kingdom is revealed in history, whereas in the second it is now revealed in prophetic eschatology. The fascinating thing is that the prophets are still using the old terms: the adjective is fresh but the nouns are old. There will be a new exodus, a new entry into the promised land, a new covenant, a new Jerusalem, a new temple, a new king, a new heavens, and a new earth. We can thus observe continuity and development. With the return from exile there is an improvement, but one which is partial, temporary and unsatisfying, pointing to the fact that there must be more.

Look for the Promise

The Old Testament is a passionately forward-looking book, throbbing with joyful expectation. This is because of God’s covenant promise, that mighty, gracious, unswerving purpose of God to save and to bless. That is who he is, Yahweh, the God who is faithful to his promise. This generates a tremendous atmosphere of hope.

A promise is much more than a prediction. It is one thing to predict that a certain young lady will be married, and it is quite another thing to promise to marry her. God’s promise is relational: ‘I will be your God and you will be my people.’

It is in the nature of a promise that it is fulfilled on different levels as things change. Christopher Wright uses the helpful illustration of a father at the end of the nineteenth century making a promise to his five year old son, that he will buy him a horse on his twenty-first birthday. By the time his birthday arrives the world has changed in terms of transportation, and so the father presents the son with a motor car. Has the father broken his promise? Most sons would say that the father had kept his promise in a richer, fuller, better way than he had previously understood. It is the same promise, but on a different level. This is the mistake made by those who insist on strict literalism in terms of biblical prophecy. They are like a twenty-one year old who having been given not only a car, but a speedboat and private plane, insists that unless there is a literal horse outside the door the father has not kept his promise.

Part of the problem in the Old Testament was that the promise was so huge and weighty that the individuals and structures of the Old Testament couldn’t carry it. David couldn’t be the king that God had promised. No high priest could be the high priest that was needed. The temple couldn’t be the dwelling place of God, nor could Canaan be the land permanently flowing with milk and honey. They all fall short, and in their falling short they are all shouting ‘Christ!’, they are all saying ‘Salvation is of the Lord!’ The plight of Israel is so desperate that the Old Testament tells us that only God can save these people; the promises are so huge that only God can deliver them, and, as Hebrews makes clear, God did.

So in Christ, all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ – the past promises as well as the future promises. Because his covenant was sure and his decrees certain, God brought the men and women of the Old Testament into a saving relationship with himself by Christ, through the future work of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.

Explore the parallels

We are referring here to typology, the mere mention of which can prompt a shiver of suspicion. It sounds mysterious and esoteric, and often it has been very unsound. Often it has encouraged a platonic view of the Old Testament, giving the impression that it is merely a collection of shadows or forms which point to reality.

Typology is not a complicated thing, but rather a very everyday manner of teaching and learning. We look for parallels or patterns, and this is based on the consistency of God, the fact that he always acts in accordance with his own being. Consequently there will be a predictability and pattern in what the unchanging God does. It is based also on the concept of actual Old Testament redemption. Since God was actually redeeming in the Old Testament, and since redemption is only in Christ, it is to be expected that the incidents of redemption will be Christ-shaped and Christ-like. It is based also on the need for faith, by which all salvation comes. God provides models of salvation, drawings, pictures, visual aids, and symbols that look like salvation so that people can grasp a reality that is not yet fully revealed.

The New Testament identifies various parallels or types: Adam, the tabernacle, the brazen serpent and so on. But we are not limited in any way to those which are specifically mentioned in the New Testament. Analogy is structurally embedded in the Old Testament. Exodus is the great type of redemption: God’s people are under the power of a hostile lord, with no deliverance humanly possible. God himself redeems them, not only from death, but through death so that they might be free to worship and serve him. We would pity the man who could preach on the Exodus without preaching Christ! The whole worship of the tabernacle, the sacrifices, the ceremonies are all redolent of Christ. The Old Testament offices of Prophet, Priest and King point us to Christ. These analogies are everywhere to be found, but they are always incomplete, ineffective and limited, pointing forwards.

This is a two way process. It is not just that the New Testament will illuminate the Old, but that the Old Testament will illuminate the New. Our understanding of Christ is far richer and more vivid and more nuanced than if we had the New Testament alone. We would be so incomprehensibly poorer even in our understanding of the New Testament if we didn’t have the Old.

Identifying these parallels is more art than science, and we ought to seek wisdom through prayer to engage in it, acknowledging that it is an ability that develops with time. It could be argued that we have scarcely begun to explore the influence of the Old Testament. The more the New Testament is studied, the clearer it becomes that it is impregnated with Old Testament thought patterns, ideas, and parallels. We are still like children on the edge of a vast ocean, realising that the Old Testament has still so much more to give us in our understanding of the Christ of the New Testament. We are, perhaps, in far greater danger of missing analogies than of finding analogies where they don’t exist, and we risk guarding against the wrong danger. We are terrified of seeing Christ where he is not, whereas our greater danger might be of not seeing him where he is!

Apply the Parallels

We are thinking here of examples. Is it legitimate for a Christian preacher to use the events, characters and experiences of the Old Testament as examples for believers today, positive or negative? Moralising is a travesty of Christian preaching, but the Church Fathers had a saying, ‘the fact that a thing is abused does not mean that it cannot be properly used.’

The word moralising can be used like a flame-thrower to intimidate people, and it can be used as damagingly. In every real preacher there is an instinct to use the Old Testament in an exemplary way, and I would encourage you to follow this instinct uninhibitedly and unapologetically – in the context, of course, of the history of redemption, linking it to Christ (his life, his cross, his resurrection, his ascension, his Lordship, the coming of his Spirit). This exemplary preaching, for want of a better word, has always been a mark of relevant, searching, applied preaching, and we need not be intimidated away from it as there is ample New Testament warrant for it. The sixth chapter of John Carrick’s book The Imperative of Preaching1 is highly informative on this theme for those wishing to trace the logic of what is shared in this regard.

The classic passage for this is 1 Corinthians 10 where Paul states that ‘these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.’ One of the messages of that passage is don’t desire evil things, do not be idolaters, we must not indulge in sexual immorality. These could be termed as exercises in moralising, but Paul did precisely that with the examples from Israel’s history. Hebrews 11 on the other hand gives us examples to imitate, and James 5 points to the prophets and Job as examples of patience, as well as highlighting Elijah as an example of fervent prayer. The Apostle Peter is bold enough to reach into the very heart of the greatest redemptive event of all time and find in it a moral example for us to follow: ‘because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly’ (1 Pet. 2:21-23). That brings it down to the rough and tumble of the office, of the factory floor, of the neighbourhood in the twenty-first century.

We must always preach Christ, but we can also preach Christ from the lives and experiences of Old Testament believers, given that they are our brothers and sisters, and that we have far more in common with them than what distinguishes us. From childhood the most powerful stimulus to Christian experience in my life is the example of the relationship with God enjoyed by the writers of the Psalms. When I look at them I feel inferior and childish, and they manifest a love and devotion for God so far from, and above, anything I have ever known.

Love the Person

Surely here is the ultimate secret to preaching Christ from the Old Testament: to fall in love more intensely and overwhelmingly with our Saviour; to be obsessed with him, to be dominated by him. He is our sun, our atmosphere, our everything. We must say with Spurgeon that ‘whenever I get hold of a text I say to myself, there’s a road from here to Jesus Christ, and I mean to keep on his track until I get at him. I will go over hedge and ditch, but what I will get at him’.

Accurate interpretation is absolutely vital, but God have mercy on the church if we produce a generation of hyper-critical, academic, exegetical technicians with withered hearts. I want Christ in the sermon. Sinclair Ferguson fittingly frames all that we have considered here:

we should develop an instinctive mindset and . . . such a passion for Jesus Christ himself that we will find our way to him in a natural and realistic way . . . As we come to know the Scriptures more intimately, as we see these patterns deeply embedded in the Bible, and – just as crucially – as we come to know Christ himself more intimately and to love him better, we shall surely develop the instinct to reason, explain and prove from all the Scriptures the riches of grace which are proclaimed in Jesus, the Christ, the Saviour of the world.2


  1. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, PT Media Paper No. 2, pp. 5, 18. Available for download at See also Sinclair B. Ferguson, From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014), particularly Chapter 5: ‘Keys.’

We are grateful to Andrew Roycroft, pastor of Millisle Baptist Church, Co. Down, Northern Ireland, who transcribed the audio of this message, and to Ted Donnelly for his kind permission to reproduce it here.

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