Preaching Christ from the Old Testament
‘Then Paul… reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ”‘ (Acts 17:2-3).
Preachers seldom have difficulty preaching from the Old Testament – but preaching Christ from the Old Testament can be a different matter. Nevertheless this is exactly what Paul did when he arrived in Thessalonica, as the verse printed above makes clear.
Of course, the OT contains many passages that are explicitly ‘messianic’ – that is, they make unmistakable reference to the coming Christ. Isaiah 53 is probably the best-known example, but there are many others. No one has a problem preaching Christ from such OT Scriptures.
The difficulty lies in achieving a consistent and general Christological interpretation of the OT – one in which all OT Scripture is viewed as a testimony to Christ and interpreted accordingly. There are two issues.
Firstly, and fundamentally, ought we to be looking for such an interpretation anyway? Secondly, if we should, how can we in practice find Christ ‘in all the Scriptures’?
Icebergs or islands?
An analogy might help us address the first of these questions. Consider an iceberg floating in the ocean. It is a thing of beauty but it floats freely, having no root in its watery environment. It is incidental, isolated and without enduring significance.
By contrast, an island is a visible manifestation of the ocean’s hidden geography – perhaps betraying the existence of an extinct volcano. It is an integral part of the ocean floor, even though that floor is mostly concealed until we take trouble to explore the depths.
Similarly, the messianic passages may be ‘icebergs’, beautiful in themselves but incidental, having no root in OT Scripture – disconnected oddities that in no way reflect the intrinsic nature of those Scriptures.
On the other hand, these passages may be ‘islands’ – visible outcrops of a profound hidden reality that underpins the OT Scriptures from Genesis to Malachi. This, I believe, is the view of the Old Testament revealed by the New. The hidden reality, of course, is Christ.
Let us consider what evidence there is to support this contention.
Firstly, the NT epistles contain several statements which assert that the purpose of all OT Scripture is to instruct and edify new-covenant believers. Furthermore, in each case this assertion has a bearing on the OT’s testimony to Christ.
In effect they say, ‘the OT was written for our benefit, and that benefit resides in Christ’.
One example is Romans 15:1-4. This passage begins with a simple moral injunction; ‘we who are strong ought to bear with … the weak, and not to please ourselves’.
But Paul does not leave it there. Such moral behaviour, he insists, flows from Christ’s example: ‘For even Christ did not please himself, but as it is written [Psalm 69:9], “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me”.’
He continues: ‘For whatsoever things were written beforehand were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope…’ The Greek word rendered ‘whatsoever things’ is emphatic, implying ‘everything’.
This tells us not only that the obscure citation from Psalm 69 refers to Christ but also that all OT Scripture was written specifically for our benefit. This benefit, says Paul, comes to us in the form of learning, patience, comfort and, above all, hope in Christ (there is no other hope).
A second statement is found in 1 Corinthians 10:8-12 where Paul warns: ‘let us not tempt Christ as some of them also tempted and were destroyed by serpents … Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come’.
As in Romans 15, Paul says two things and links them together. Firstly, the very purpose of the OT – even its historical sections – is to instruct and admonish those who live under the new covenant (‘on whom the ends of the ages have come’).
But additionally, it is Christ we must not tempt – meaning that these Scriptures admonish us not just in general terms but in regard to our relationship with Christ. He himself applies ‘the serpent in the wilderness’ to his crucifixion in John 3:14.
A third statement is found in 1 Corinthians 9:9: ‘For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain”. Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does he say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes no doubt this is written, that he who ploughs should plough in hope…’.
Read on and you will see that the ‘ploughing’ here is the work of the gospel. Once again, then, we find twin assertions: OT Scripture was written for our benefit and that benefit relates to Christ and his gospel.
Not to themselves
Peter concurs (1 Peter 1:8-12). He writes: ‘Of this salvation [through Christ] the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you … the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating … beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.
‘To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.’
This could hardly be clearer. The OT prophets (a term which embraces all the OT writers) were moved by the Holy Spirit to testify of Christ’s suffering and glory – and in doing so were not ministering primarily to their own generation but to those who would hear the New Testament gospel of salvation through grace.
The OT testifies of Christ
We come next to several definitive statements concerning the OT’s testimony to Christ.
The first is found in John 5:39 where Jesus tells the Jews: ‘You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life: and these are they which testify of me’.
This is not a ‘throw-away’ statement, but part of an extended argument. For Jesus continues: ‘if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?’ (John 5:46-47).
Notice the choice of words. Christ does not simply say, ‘[the Scriptures] testify of me’, which could mean that they did so incidentally. Rather he says, ‘These are they which testify’ – implying that the very purpose of the OT is to testify of him.
Again, he states unambiguously that it is Moses’ writings (that is, the whole Pentateuch) that bear witness to the Christ, not just occasional references therein.
This is significant since there is a common tendency today to preach on such subjects as creation, the patriarchs, and the law of Moses, in a manner that neglects Christ. Yet according to Jesus, Moses was writing about him throughout the first five books of the Bible.
In all the Scriptures
A second significant passage is Luke 24:25-27, the familiar Emmaus Road story. The risen Christ chides his shattered disciples: ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! … and beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself’.
Note the threefold use of ‘all’. Luke is clearly concerned that we should understand the comprehensive nature of Jesus’ claims – namely, that all OT Scripture, not just some of it, is prophetical of Christ.
‘Moses and the prophets’ was shorthand for the whole Old Testament – and Jesus tells us elsewhere that he came to fulfil every ‘jot and tittle’ of those Scriptures (Matthew 5:17-18). If Christ is their fulfilment, they must necessarily point to him.
Wise for salvation
Our final ‘proof text’ is 2 Timothy 3:15-17: ‘From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.’
We often quote these words when speaking of the nature and use of Scripture – that it is inspired (literally ‘God-breathed’) and instructive. But we easily overlook the statement that leads Paul to describe the Old Testament in this way.
What is that statement? That these OT Scriptures enlighten us regardingsalvation by faith in Christ! Again Paul refers comprehensively to OT Scripture as that which reveals Christ in saving power.
It is in this Christological context that the Apostle further commends the Old Testament as a source-book for instruction and good works.
These Scriptures compel me to believe that the Old Testament in its entirety testifies of Christ and was written specifically for the benefit of New Testament believers – and all who desire to become ‘wise for salvation’ in him.
The ‘messianic passages’ in OT Scripture are ‘islands’ not ‘icebergs’, revealing the underlying, all-embracing Christology of the Old Testament.