10. New Testament practice (cont.)
‘Then Philip opened his mouth and beginning at this Scripture preached Jesus to him’ (Acts 8:35)
Last month we considered New Testament practice in preaching Christ from the Old Testament. I identified three ways in which NT writers and preachers ‘found’ Christ in the OT — in direct Messianic references, in types and pictures, and in what I called ‘obscure references’.
In this article I want to illustrate this approach from the preaching in Acts.
Arriving at Christ
We begin with the verse that heads this page. Philip, sent by the Spirit to the Gaza road, meets an Ethiopian eunuch ‘of great authority’ returning from Jerusalem in his chariot. The man is reading Isaiah 53:7-8: ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter’. He asks Philip, ‘Of whom does the prophet say this?’
In reply, Philip ‘opened his mouth and beginning at this Scripture preached Jesus to him’. The actual sermon is not recorded, of course, but enough is said to demonstrate Philip’s method.
Here was a Messianic passage in which, however, Christ is identified only as the ‘righteous servant’ of the Lord who ‘shall justify many’. So while Philip could begin at this Scripture he could not finish there! It was necessary for him to link the messianic promise to the one who had come in the flesh — Jesus of Nazareth.
Clearly, the link was not just with Jesus as a man. Philip had to explain in what sense Jesus was ‘righteous’ — and to what effect. He would have told the Ethiopian how Jesus had secured the justification of many by his death and resurrection (Romans 4:25). He must even have explained the significance of baptism, for otherwise the man would not have asked to be baptised!
We see here the basic elements of New Testament method. The OT prophecy was used as a starting point — a spring-board — from which to preach specifically about Jesus of Nazareth and his atoning work.
The messianic promise was spelled out, leaving no room for misunderstanding what it meant — both objectively and for the Ethiopian personally. Regardless of where we start, we must arrive at ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’.
Joel and Jesus
Our second example is also a case of ‘direct reference’ — Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-39). Peter begins with an explanation. The amazing things that were happening before their eyes were, he said, the fulfilment of OT prophecy (‘This is what was spoken by the prophet…’).
In this way he links his audience’s personal experience to Scripture. This is important. In preaching Christ from the OT we need to relate the Scriptures to our hearers’ own circumstances. Peter wasn’t giving a history lesson and neither should we!
Even more important is the fact that he immediately links Joel’s prophecy to Jesus Christ. Had Joel predicted ‘wonders’ and ‘signs’ from God? Then also ‘Jesus [was] a man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs’. In other words, Peter draws from the prophecy not just an explanation of some puzzling events but a testimony to the deity and power of Christ.
Plan of salvation
Having introduced Christ as the man ‘attested by God’, Peter moves swiftly to the crucifixion — which he attributes firstly to the sovereign, redeeming purpose of God and only secondly to the lawlessness of the Jews. The death of Christ is central to the plan of salvation — and thus to New Testament preaching (1 Corinthians 2:2).
As proof of all this, continues Peter, God has raised Jesus from the dead. He then launches into another OT passage, namely Psalm 16:8-11, where David’s words are put into the mouth of Christ.
Peter justifies ‘finding Christ’ in the psalm by pointing out that the words could not possibly apply to David himself. Rather, he says, David ‘foreseeing … the resurrection of the Christ’ spoke of ‘this Jesus [whom] God raised up’.
Next, citing a third Scripture (Psalm 110:1), Peter speaks of Christ’s victorious exaltation to the throne of God — he is both Lord and King (Acts 2:30-31). Finally, returning to Joel, Peter presents the outpouring of God’s Spirit as the gift of Christ — fulfilling the ancient promise and opening the way of salvation to all peoples.
The importance of links
We can learn much from the way Peter uses the OT in preaching Christ. He employs three apparently unrelated OT passages like steps on a ladder. He quotes one Scripture, draws out its Messianic content, and then builds on it by linking it to Jesus of Nazareth — before repeating the process with a second Scripture and then a third.
Each new Scripture moves his hearers on — from God’s attestation of a man, to Christ’s atoning death, to his vindicating resurrection, to his enthronement in heaven, and finally (reverting to Joel) to the promise of salvation through the gift of the Spirit.
An essential part of this process is the way Peter links each OT passage firmly to Jesus Christ — that is, to NT revelation. Such linkages are vital, for OT passages as they stand seldom display the fulness of the new covenant in Christ — they require the added light of the NT if they are to illuminate our hearts and minds concerning him.
So in our own preaching we should always link our chosen OT verses to NT Scriptures — making explicit what might otherwise remain obscure. Then, in turn, the OT passage will help to fill out and enrich the NT truth that it foreshadows.
An excellent example is the way the death of Christ fulfils the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, while the animal sacrifices prepare us to understand the forensic and substitutionary nature of Christ’s death as an atonement for sin.
Types and pictures
The second way that the sermons in Acts ‘find Christ’ in the OT is in types and pictures. Such usage is actually less frequent in Acts than in Jesus’ own sermons — for example, the serpent in the wilderness, the sign of the prophet Jonah, the temple rebuilt in three days, and so on. The NT epistles (especially Hebrews) also make extensive use of OT typology.
Nevertheless, there are examples in the messages in Acts. In Acts 4:5-12, Peter defends himself before the rulers and elders by citing Psalm 118:22: ‘This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief corner stone’.
This quotation actually contains three ‘types’. Firstly, Christ typified as the ‘chief corner stone’ of God’s spiritual temple. Secondly, the temple itself (implied) is used to picture the church of Christ. Thirdly, the Jews, are typified as the ‘builders’ — who should have constructed God’s kingdom on earth but failed miserably to do so.
But see how Peter uses this typology to underline the uniqueness and supremacy of Christ. Having quoted the psalm he continues, ‘nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).
A second example is found in James’ address to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21). Referring to the conversion of the Gentiles, he quotes Amos 9:11-12: ‘After this I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen down … so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord’.
It matters little whether the ‘tabernacle’ refers to the actual tabernacle which disappeared from the OT record following David’s death, or whether it refers to David’s ‘house’ or dynasty. Either way, it is a picture of Christ who ‘tabernacled’ among us and was ‘raised up to sit on David’s throne’ — and who draws to himself ‘the rest of mankind’, Gentiles as well as Jews.
The typology is crucial to James’ case. At the Council of Jerusalem, the whole future of the Christian church was at stake. Were believing Gentiles indeed fellow heirs of Abraham along with believing Jews? Was Christianity simply an extension of the law of Moses, or had a new covenant been inaugurated?
As James interprets ‘the tabernacle of David’ as a reference to Christ, and applies the type powerfully to the dispute in hand, he guides the Council firmly to a right conclusion and pushes the door of faith wide open to all the peoples of the earth.
Next month we shall consider the use in Acts of ‘obscure references’ — that is, OT Scriptures from which Christ is preached but which are not self-evidently either Messianic predictions or types and pictures. We shall also enquire how far we today are entitled to use such OT Scriptures in the same way.