I wonder how many pastors have felt overwhelmingly discouraged in the midst of preaching through an Old Testament book. You’ve been preaching through Paul’s letters for years, and you decide to spend the summer in Judges. Your first sermon began with a splash! Israel conquers Canaan by the power and might of the Lord. You skillfully point to Christ’s conquest over our enemies at the cross, referring back to the promise to crush the head of the Serpent and then to the promise of Christ’s return to destroy all those who afflict his people. You wonder why so many people complain about the difficulties of preaching the gospel from the Old Testament.
But let’s face it. It’s only easy if we preach the same sermon every week. What do you do with Othneil, Ehud, and Shamgar in Judges 3? And then we’re faced with Deborah’s song in Judges 5! You try commentaries. They give great background information and help with the literary form. You even find out there are seven different chiasms in Deborah’s song. But you want to preach Christ and him crucified, and the experts offer little to no help. Why are they of no help?
Maybe you’ve noticed that many Old Testament commentators are hesitant to look forward to Christ, while many New Testament commentators feel free to point out Old Testament themes, types, and allusions to Christ and his gospel. While we watch and pray for more Old Testament scholars to help us see Christ in the Old Testament (thankfully, there are some), we can make use of the resources that may not be obvious to us.
I’m not the first person to lament the hesitancy of Old Testament commentators to look forward to Christ. Tim Keller and Edmund Clowney brought up the problem in their lecture series “Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World” (2001). In the second session, they asked, “What commentaries are helpful in preaching Christ throughout the whole Bible?” Both Keller and Clowney recognized that Old Testament commentaries are generally not a great help for seeing Christ. But they gave some great advice: Use the Scripture indexes of New Testament commentaries and biblical theologies.
You might profitably start with commentaries on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. A commentary like D. A. Carson’s The Gospel According to John labors to display how the person, work, and teachings of Christ fulfill the hopes and expectations of the Old Testament (see his commentary on John 3:5, for example). Exploring the Scripture index will show you how the commentator has dealt with the Old Testament text. You may also find leads on commentaries, books, or articles that the writer found helpful. Tim Keller made the remark that “My sermon-breaking moment is often when I see how a New Testament scholar deals with my obscure 2 Chronicles passage.” See, also, Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey for more guidance on which NT commentaries are more helpful for historical redemptive purposes.
2. Bible Theologies
Edmund Clowney makes the point that you don’t get the full meaning of the passage until you see how it relates to the rest of the Bible. There are books like G. K. Beale’s We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry or T. Desmond Alexander and Simon Gathercole’s Heaven on Earth: The Temple in Biblical Theology that develop a particular theme through the Bible in order to show how Christ is the hope or expectation of an Old Testament figure, promise, or institution. The Scripture indexes to these books can often bring out the “big picture” context to your Old Testament text. Thankfully, many publishing houses have started entire biblical theology series, and usually they come as affordable paperbacks. Here are a few good ones:
• New Studies in Biblical Theology (IVP), series editor, D. A. Carson
• Exploration of Biblical Theology (P&R), series editor, Robert A. Peterson
• Biblical Theology for Life (Zondervan), series editor, Jonathan Lunde
This certainly doesn’t solve all the difficulties of preaching Christ in the Old Testament. The challenges seem different for every book and genre. But as we labor to show the promises of God kept in Christ, every little bit helps.
In the comments below, Tim Keller made a few suggestions that are worth including:
G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament
Lealand Ryken and Tremper Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery
John Starke is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.