Christ-Centered Zeal: Some Concerns from an OT Scholar
Note from TGC's editorial director, Collin Hansen: Preachers and New Testament scholars monopolize much of the discussion about Christ-centered preaching. Meanwhile, many Old Testament experts are less than enthused by what they see from zealous young preachers and teachers striving to find Jesus Christ and the gospel in the Hebrew Bible. We can blame modern academia for fragmenting these departments and sending mixed messages. We can blame inexperienced teachers for wandering dangerously close to the pitfall of allegory. In light of The Gospel Coalition's upcoming conference featuring plenary addresses on "Preaching Jesus and the Gospel from the Old Testament," I turned to expert biblical theologian Paul House, professor of divinity at Beeson Divnity School in Birmingham, Alabama, and asked him to offer perspective from his study of the Old Testament. You can learn much more on this subject at The Gospel Coalition's new site on Preaching Christ in the Old Testament.
Old Testament teachers always seem to have to defend the need for the OT beyond serving as background for the NT, the “real Bible.” This can include preaching Christ from the OT. They believe there are many messianic texts in the OT, but they think that the OT has a lot to say on other matters of faith and practice. They often cite Matthew 5:17-20 and 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2 as evidence of Jesus and Paul’s agreement with this assertion. Thus, they often become sensitive to conferences with titles that imply the question, “How can we make the OT relevant [not help believers and unbelievers understand that it is relevant] by preaching Christ from the OT?” It also feels to them that such conferences become dedicated to answering the following question: “How can we put Christ in [not show how messianic passages work or how all scripture leads to or looks back or forward to Christ] every passage?” Topics like “Preaching Christ from the OT” may sound to them like doing something foreign to the text, or at least something the conference-goers think is different than what the Bible does.
Second, like John Calvin (see his comments on Isa 6:3) they worry that some overzealous readings of NT views into the OT look silly to outsiders (such as Jewish readers, in Calvin’s comments) and strip the passage of its intended point. We thus lose the teaching value by trying to do the wrong thing with a text.
Third, they are concerned that the OT be taken into consideration when teaching doctrine the NT develops based on OT concepts. They can feel that such teaching often goes from NT to OT, not the reverse, and often even really goes from our understanding/definition of a systematic theology category [or even our own concerns and definitions defined culturally separate from any theological thought], to the NT, to the OT.
Fourth, they have heard some really bad allegorical and typological sermons based on the OT.
Fifth, they may feel that highlighting the Son, as important as that is, may mean the Father and Spirit are not mentioned very often.
Sixth, as I have already implied, they have been victims of anti-OT talk in the church and the academy. Liberal theology has influenced the evangelical church on the OT more than on the NT. At times it feels like Adolf von Harnack is on the elder board asking us, “Why do we need the OT anymore?” This gets old, and if one is not very careful it can make one defensive.
Seventh, they often feel the need to protect academic “turf” (jobs, curriculum, etc). Such is our fallen world.
Now, OT folks have other problems as well. We can preach the OT in a way that sounds like a bad ancient history lecture. We can try to show ourselves the smartest person in the room on our subject matter. We can act as if Christ has not yet come, and that Christ was not an important OT issue. We can fail in many other ways. We need to be part of the solution and less a part of the problem.
Clearing the Ground: Some Basic Concepts
To me, pastors [as opposed to evangelists—this is a key distinction in the NT] need to keep some basic things in mind when planning to preach.
First, pastors’ main job is to address the people of God to equip them for ministry. They are first and foremost teachers of God’s people. If they fail here, they have failed. They are not addressing lost people primarily. This may not be true when one is in a church that has not had biblical teaching for some time or a church that has brought in a large number of lost people to hear the word. One must discern the situation. Most people face believers trying to live for the Lord, evangelize their children and neighbors, teach themselves, their families, and their neighbors, and serve in their vocations. I think one has to know the difference between, say, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, which may have a lot of visitors and short-term attendees due to their location in a fast-changing city, and a typical medium-sized suburban or rural congregation. A pastor may need to act like an evangelist more often in one place than in another, though all must preach texts that will explain the basics of Christian faith (see below).
This means to me that the people who preach and hear must always be asking, “How do I respond in obedience to what I am saying or hearing?” Preaching is always goal-oriented in this scheme. Christians will wish to live for Christ. Anything they learn to do must be for him, even when the passage is not about his life or work specifically.
This sort of atmosphere will lead lost people to ask how they can serve Christ as well. They will wish to become disciples as they see obedient people around them, or they may reject the whole thing. Regardless, the atmosphere is one of expectancy and decision rather than one of complacency based on the feeling that “I am already a Christian.” Of course, believers can be complacent, yet hopefully not when the preaching calls for commitment and obedience to the text preached. Some people consider such emphasis and expectancy the difference between a sermon and a lecture, but I do not. It is not good teaching (in any subject) to convey information with no intention to change the people in front of you. Indeed, I do not think it is possible to take in information and not be changed at all. Thus, one needs to be purposeful regardless of the audience.
As for Christological preaching, this means that we have as our focus the desire to serve Christ. We are always Christoletic—our goal is to serve Christ.
Second, we preach the whole Bible as a unified book, hopefully in book-by-book fashion based on the sort of planning William Still outlines in his autobiography (Dying to Live) and the sort of execution one finds in John Calvin, Kent Hughes, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, William Still, and others. We confirm that the whole Bible is our book.
We do not have to work out some way to make the OT our book, a Christian book. The OT people are our people. The OT believer was as much “in Christ” as we are. We know that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, and that is a huge advantage for us, yet we are all “in” the same promise and person. They learned to look for and live for Christ before he came, and we do the same now that he has come.
Understanding that the Bible is a unified canonical gospel story taking us from creation to new creation through the redeeming mission of God through his people helps preachers relax. We can keep the big picture before our people and state how the individual parts (say, on parenting, evangelism, or ethics at work) fit this picture. We do not have to do everything in every sermon. I think pastors must help their people see what this framework is and remind them of it from time to time. It would not hurt to keep a summary on the church’s website either.
As for Christological preaching, this means that we understand that Christ is a structuring theme in every segment of the Bible (Law, Prophets, Writings, Gospels, Epistles), a central theme in the canon (note the location of the Gospels), and an eschatological theme in the Bible (note the epistles and Revelation). It is part of the whole, yet not part of every passage. Again, this is why I prefer “Christotelic” as my term. We know the goal is to serve Christ. We can look forward to him, at him, back at him, or again forward to him. We can learn how to see and serve him by looking at OT narratives, commands, etc. We can see how each text fits the whole picture. Of course, hermeneutics books help here as well.
Evangelistic, theological, ethical, and other types of texts come up as we preach whole books. What we need is in the books. We do not have to determine what is best for our people and scurry for topics. The topics we need are in the books.
Third, we preach within a liturgical context that supports and supplements our preaching. This means our sacraments/ordinances, prayers, confessions, songs, and scripture readings are part of the whole. They help congregants have a whole cloth view of things. A sermon does not have to carry the whole weight of teaching, even though it has the most important role in my opinion. We should tell people how all this fits together from time to time or have written or web material on this fact. Otherwise the people will continue to pit worship vs. preaching, and so forth. Christology and all other doctrines will come through many media.
Fourth, we preach to the same people often. Also, there are other good ministries out there, at least in most sections of the United States. In my view forgetting this means that we feel like we must say everything every time, or preach as if this is the only chance these people have to hear how to be saved. Most pastors must teach more than once a week. Thus, they need to plan how to build up these people over time. Too often we treat preaching as a once-off event rather than as the building of a house. Failing to realize this often means 95 percent of the church hears the same message over and over again from different passages. They do not grow from the preaching. We can relax and build people up rather than trying to do everything in one sermon. Planning to stay longer than a few months may help pastors be patient.
Fifth, others help us teach the people. There are staff members and laypeople and strangers teaching Sunday classes, and home groups. There are books, DVDs, conferences, etc., to aid good local teaching. It is important to recommend good ones to the people. Again, if I know that certain things are being taught throughout the church I do not need to cover an issue in every sermon. This includes Christology for the purpose of explaining the basics of the gospel.
This means we need planning of teaching topics, books, and content in the church. Sadly, there is rarely any such whole-cloth planning in a church. We can often organize a multi-million dollar fundraising campaign and not be able to work on what to teach and when. This is bad. It shows that we think teaching the Bible is either less important than fundraising or that somehow it will take care of itself. We can do better. Again, the plan should be to teach the church the big picture (creation to new creation through God’s redemptive mission through his Son and his people) as seen in the small picture (books of the Bible, themes of the Bible, etc). This curriculum will always lead us to the goal of knowing and serving Jesus. It will always be, if planned correctly, Christotelic.
A Few Conclusions
To conclude this personal ramble, we should accept and preach the whole Bible as our book to believers. Jesus, Paul, and Peter did. We should realize that we usually preach often, to the same core group, with help from our liturgy and friends, and with [if we would just do so] proper planning.
This will lead to preaching that keeps Christology as a structuring, central, eschatological concept. It will lead to preaching that keeps growth in and obedience to Christ constantly before people. It will keep us moving from our text to Christ and to obedience for him without forcing Christology into contexts where it does not properly fit. It will keep us preaching books, and thus bringing all the topics the Bible has for life before the people.
Once these principles are in place, it can become much easier to preach individual texts within this framework. We are more relaxed, more focused, more connected to our audience and our helpers, and more able to build whole believers. We will still wrestle with how to do this, but we will be asking how to do something that fits rather than asking how we make the OT into something it is not.