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Christian Preaching from the Old Testament #3

[This is the second in a serialisation and slight revision of an old essay of mine, in the hope of getting some interaction from others and also making it more accessible. (Part 1 here, Part 2 here)]

Four Evangelical Approaches to Preaching from the Old Testament

John Bright rightly states, ‘as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so the proof of hermeneutical principles must be in the preaching.’[1]  The focus of this series is therefore not the cutting edge of academic debate but present homiletical practice.  I have chosen four works which are written by recognised evangelicals who teach in evangelical institutions and whose works on Old Testament Preaching are recommended by other evangelical homileticians.  I will briefly summarise each work before bringing them into conversation with each other on specific issues in the following posts.

Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture[2]

[T]he central thesis of this book: all texts in the whole Bible bear a discernible relationship to Christ and are primarily intended as a testimony to Christ.[3]

Goldsworthy lectures at Moore Theological College, Sydney, and has published a number of books on Biblical Theology.  His Biblical Theology is concerned with the unity of the Biblical message, the Christological focus of the whole Bible, and the progressive nature of Biblical revelation.  In this book, Goldsworthy argues powerfully that all Christian sermons should refer to Jesus, and that this can be done with any text in scripture.[4]  Goldsworthy’s understanding of Biblical revelation as progressive provides three hermeneutical devices: Typology, Promise-Fulfilment and Salvation History-Eschatological Goal.[5]  He then gives examples of this method at work from all the major literary forms of scripture (including the NT).

Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermenuetical Method [6]

In preaching any part of scripture, one must understand its message in the light of that centre, Jesus Christ.[7]

Sidney Greidanus is professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Michigan and he has written three other books on preaching.  Like Goldsworthy, Greidanus first establishes why we should preach Christ from the OT.  Although he argues that the OT is Christian, the force of his argument is actually that Christianity is of the OT.[8]  The middle section of his book is a survey of the historical approaches to OT interpretation, which he critiques and then draws from to create his own hermeneutic.  The result is seven different hermeneutical devices including the three suggested by Goldsworthy and adding Analogy, Longitudinal Themes, Contrast and New Testament References.  Unfortunately his short final section demonstrating his hermeneutic on Biblical texts is restricted to OT Narrative which means his hermeneutic is not demonstrated within the spectrum of OT literature.[9]

Walter Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: a guide for the church[10]  

The tendency to interpret the Bible backward is a serious procedural problem, for it will leave a large vacuum in our teachings and provide seedbeds for tomorrow’s heresies.  It is reductionistic to level out the Bible to say only what the New Testament has said![11]

Walter Kaiser is an Old Testament Scholar and president of Gordon-Conwell Seminary.  Having written over thirty books he is the most prolific of our four authors.  The first part of the book argues for preaching the OT and includes a clear description of the Bridge Paradigm and argues for it to be the only acceptable method for expository preaching.[12]  Within his hermeneutic the only way the OT can speak of Christ is if in its ‘plain meaning’ it is messianic.  Although he refers to 1st century Christian and Jewish exegesis to make his point he fails to wrestle with the fact that these interpreters were not themselves card-carrying Bridge paradigm users.[13]  Perhaps out of his desire to read the Bible ‘forward not backward’[14] he does not take into account the NT use of OT scripture or even how the OT interprets earlier passages and events.  This is a significant weakness of his book.  The second part moves through the different literary genres of the OT giving a full sermonic example of his method applied to each one.  Inexplicably, none of his sermon examples include the ‘call for decisive action’ which his method insists we must always end with.[15]
Steven D. Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old testament Narrative, [16]

One of the most challenging stages in the interpretive process is identifying the story’s exegetical idea.  While you may find several ideas in a story, you must ask: What is the unifying centre? What message is the writer conveying through the story?[17]

Although Mathewson is less established, having not published other works, and although this book is not a general OT homiletic but specifically for OT narrative, it has been included here because it is often mentioned alongside the other three works[18]  Mathewson is a pastor and also instructor of preaching and Old testament at Montana Bible College.  Mathewson leans heavily on Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching using his ten stages of sermon preparation as the outline for the two methodological sections of his book.[19]  Like Kaiser, Mathewson does not reflect on NT use of the OT.  Neither does he discuss Christological, or even messianic, readings of OT narrative.  The third section provides five sample sermons only the first of which is his.  Interestingly two of the five sermons are actually Christological in application, a fact which Mathewson notes with approval.[20]  It is strange therefore that he did not think this was significant methodologically.  However, Mathewson does rightly desire to train the preacher to treat OT narrative theologically and provides useful advice for doing this.[21]

[1] Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, 8
[2] Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000
[3] Goldsworthy, Preaching The Whole Bible as Christian Scripture,  113
[4] Goldsworthy, Preaching The Whole Bible as Christian Scripture,  115-134
[5] Goldsworthy, Preaching The Whole Bible as Christian Scripture,  77-80
[6] Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1999
[7] Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament 227
[8] Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament 44-6
[9] Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament 319-344.  With the possible exception of Numbers 19 (322-336) which is a ceremonial instruction about the sacrifice of a red heifer, but given its dramatic nature it functions more as a narrative than a legal stipulation and this is how Greidanus treats it. 
[10] Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003
[11] Kaiser, Preaching and teaching from the Old Testament, 28
[12] Kaiser, Preaching and teaching from the Old Testament, 49-62
[13] Kaiser, Preaching and teaching from the Old Testament, 22
[14] Kaiser, Preaching and teaching from the Old Testament, 51
[15] Kaiser, Preaching and teaching from the Old Testament, 58-9
[16] Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002
[17] Mathewson, The art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative,  81
[18] See for example Kenton C. Anderson’s endorsement on the inside front cover of Kaiser, preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament.
[19] Mathewson, The art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative,  26
[20] Donald Sunukjan ‘The Cripples Story (2 Samuel 9)’ 176-188, and Alice Mathews ‘What do you do when the roof caves in? (Isaiah 7:1-14) 215-226 in Mathewson, The art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative
[21] Mathewson, The art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative,  83-90


  1. IMHO, Jonathan, I must admit that I consider the hermeneutic of Greidanus and Goldsworthy to be about three clicks this side of the Bible Code. Sure, Christ can be "read into" anything in the OT (or for that matter any story with a decent hero), but the Christians of the NT were much more restrained than those guys sound. It seems that if we really want to take Christianity's Jewish heritage seriously, we will not retroactively preempt their Scriptures any more than we should discard them. I'm sure they wouldn't think of it as overpowering but recognizing an always present strand of meaning, but that's when things start getting Bible Code-ish for me. :-)

    I definitely find the Heilsgeschichte, trajectory reading more compelling. The NT writers saw Jesus as the culmination and satisfaction of many OT expectations and hopes, leading them to talk of OT texts as "about" Jesus, when properly speaking, Jesus was "about" them in the sense that he at times consciously stood up and took up the responsibility of meeting Israel's hopes (as in Luke 4.18-21).

    But I guess you probably already knew my views on this, didn't you? :-D

  2. I do, I hope this series helps explain why such readings don't have to be Bible-code-ish, but I agree it is an ever present temptation. It does also demand that the interpretive process involves more than just a technique, if it was only that it really would be a code, but it requires an imagination and a spirit emersed in the biblical story and amazed by the reality of Christ. It is also worth bearing in mind that this is interpretation for preaching, not for the purpose of giving a one time authoritative explanation of the passage, but for the purpose of a moment in time meeting of God's people with Christ in his word.

  3. ...not for the purpose of giving a one time authoritative explanation of the passage, but for the purpose of a moment in time meeting of God's people with Christ in his word.

    The possibility that this was your target occurred to me after writing this comment. There is certainly a difference in saying that the biblical text means whatever we pull out of it and saying that we can glean things beyond what it means; I may not be saying this clearly. Bottom line, I am definitely open to being instructed here!

  4. This is good stuff though, because it is these kind of confusions that I need to get better at being clear about. the two arguments have similarities but they are not the same issue, if I was writing a critical hebrew commentary (unlikely, but if i did) it would be totally rooted in the "what it meant", but if I were to write a devotional book on an OT book I would be compelled to try and explicate "what it means (for us)in the light of Christ."

    Thanks Steve :-)

  5. I am going to suggest a thought that opens up further possibilities - what if the Christ in the NT is not meant to mean exclusively Jesus? What if the anointing of say Psalm 23 points to a knowledge of God that is every bit the same as the knowledge and anointing in the Holy Spirit that is written of in the NT? What if we recognize the ambiguity of words like Messiah, servant, etc and apply them in preaching - to Israel, the the king of Israel, to the individual who fears God, to the New Testament believer, to Jesus as having this Spirit without measure?

    There is analytical work to do (and I am thinking about it) - but I have to say as one to whom our Lord has been kind, that the kindness I find in the Psalms is completely the same as the end of kindness that is pointed to in the NT and is the substance of the Mercy Seat.

    Sure 'Christ' is in the OT - but not just as a pointer to the completeness that is in Jesus, also as a recognition of the work of the referee implied in Job, and the anointed king / Israel in the Psalms (e.g. 89) and also as a recognition of the work of the Spirit (hidden in the OT but still there) that moves and trains the individual as one of those under the mercy in hearing, obedience, love, and the confidence of completeness that we find in the individual psalms, whether this anticipates the completeness in Jesus, or acts on behalf of the people, or the individual.

    That last sentence is based on my observation that the individual in Psalm 1 has become the multiplicity of the chasidim in psalm 149. It is the role of the Chasid to bind their kings in chains - the very thing that the Anointed of Psalm 2 is tasked to do - but also that the willing people of psalm 110 do on behalf of the king.

  6. Some fascinating thoughts there Bob, thankyou, I think it might take me a while to get my head round them, i guess regarding the NT's use of Christ i'd want to think about specific texts that you feel lend themsleves to that.

  7. The texts that immediately come to mind are those where Paul uses Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, Christ alone, and Jesus alone - yet sometimes I expect he is just writing quickly. I do not diminish the work of Creation and Redemption which is worked and completed in the man Jesus - declared Lord and Christ by his resurrection from the dead through the glory of the Father. - E.g. here's a text to consider - I make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ - what do you make of Col 1:24?

    But I do with this recognition of a wider scope for 'Anointing' emphasize that we must really hear and follow just as the psalmist does.

  8. Thanks Bob, Thought I'd move this conversation to a new post!

  9. Thanks - I will continue to consider the issues - as you say, the question raises many, but our reading of TNK is critical to faith - not just a rubber stamp. I am on holiday in Israel for the next two weeks - so will limit further interaction on this important topic till later.

  10. "he argues that the OT is Christian, the force of his argument is actually that Christianity is of the OT" but, unless his argument is smarter than you make it sound (a) the OT is not Christian and never was and (b) of course "Christianity is in the OT" (at least as an embryo that is "fulfilled" in Jesus) but that does not establish at all the previous dubious point!

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