My usual practice at Grace OPC is to preach through individual books of the Bible, one passage at a time. I recently finished preaching through Matthew’s Gospel in the Sunday morning services, and Romans in the evenings. Now, I’m working my way through 1 Samuel in the morning service and Isaiah at night. This return to the Old Testament in my studying and preaching has made me consider again the question, “As a Christian preacher, how am I to expound the Old Testament?”
The answer is easy enough, in principle. Christian preachers should preach from the OT Scriptures in the same way the apostle Paul did, by proclaiming the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:2, 3). And this is how Jesus himself preached from the Old Testament: on the Emmaus road with two of his disciples, Jesus, “…beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,…interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; cf. Lk. 24:44-47). Above all else, the Old Testament is about Christ and his work, and therefore it is Christ who must be proclaimed from these Scriptures.
I say the answer is “easy enough, in principle,” however, because I have found that preparing Christ-centered sermons from the Old Testament is actually very difficult in practice (this may say more about me than anything else, but that has been my experience). The challenge is not just exegetical, but spiritual – because grace is a supernatural gift, and because the gospel is absolutely foreign to our human way of thinking, it just comes more naturally to preach the law. It is even easier to preach against sin, than to expound the riches of the glory of Christ and the wonder of his death and resurrection.
But one of the ideas that my professors drilled into me at seminary, perhaps the one idea above all else that was drilled into me, is that faithful preaching proclaims Christ from both the Old and New Testaments. I was taught that a good rule of thumb to evaluate whether this has been accomplished is to ask, “could this sermon from the OT be preached in a synagogue?”. If so, then there was a problem!
One obvious reason why preaching Christ and the gospel from the OT is absolutely vital is because salvation comes only by faith in Christ. Another less obvious, but no less important, reason why sermons from the OT must be centered upon the gospel is because the law is powerless to bring about real change in the life of believers. The law commands, but it cannot empower or enable us to live faithfully as Christians. Obedience and growth in grace is a fruit of the Spirit, and the gift of the Spirit is ours only by faith in the person and work of Christ (Gal. 3:2, 5, 14). I love the way John Bunyan put it:
Run, John, run the law commands,
But gives me neither feet nor hands;
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids me fly; it gives me wings.
With all this mind, I was helped and encouraged, then, when I recently listened to this lecture by one of my favorite preachers, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, on preaching Christ from the OT. He is speaking to preachers, but what he says applies to all believers who want to understand their Bibles better. In it he gives seven principles for seeing how Christ is in the OT, all them derived from Genesis 3:15. I’ll just list them here and let you listen to Dr. Ferguson himself for explanation. It is worthwhile listening for any Christian, but especially for preachers.
1. The conqueror principle.
2. The seed principle.
3. The sacrifice principle.
4. The covenant principle.
5. The truth principle.
6. The rest principle.
7. The participation principle.