Perspectives on Preaching the Old Testament as Christian Scripture (3)

In our first article of this series on preaching the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, we worked to get a big perspective on the task of understanding the Bible as Christian readers and preachers. In the second, we looked at some specific teaching by Jesus in John 5:39–40 and Matthew 13:52. Here we will continue in the gospels by examining the the resurrection account where Jesus interacts with disciples on and after the road to Emmaus.

Luke 24

The Broad Context

The Emmaus narrative is well-known and straightforward enough in its broad outline. The boundaries of it are framed by the exit from and the return to Jerusalem (24:13, 33). In the early part, two disciples are journeying toward Emmaus when Jesus comes among them. They fail recognise him (16) and recount critical elements of what had recently happened in relation to Jesus, including the startling news that had come from some women of their company who observed the absence of his body from the tomb and received vision from angels who had said that he was alive (19–22). His absence was endorsed by subsequent visits by some of ‘those who were with us’ (24).

At this point Jesus responds to the men by telling them that the prophets had made clear that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and then enter into his glory and that they were ‘foolish’ and ‘slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken’ (25). He asks them, ‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ (26). Then, ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself’ (27).

After they have travelled a bit further with them he is finally recognised by then through his taking bread, blessing, and breaking it, at which point he disappears from their sight (28–31) and they reflect upon the fact that their hearts had burned within them while he opened the OT Scriptures to them, at which point Jesus appears again to them and the eleven and again opens their minds to understand the Scriptures.

Digging a Bit Deeper

The narrative is intriguing for a number of reasons.

For example, scattered throughout there are the references hearts, eyes and minds and their states. For example…

  • In verse 25 the disciples are said to be ‘slow of heart’.
  • In verse 31 their eyes are opened and they recognise him.
  • In verse 32 they explain how their hearts burned when he opened the scriptures to them.
  • In verse 45 he opens their minds to understand the scriptures.

The language of being hard of heart, dull in understanding, stiffnecked or unable to see or hear is quite common in the Old Testament, occurring for the first time at the first great sin of Israel after the exodus (see Exodus 32:9), but recurring repeatedly after that (e.g. Deuteronomy 10:17; 29:4; 31:27; 2 Kings 17:14; Psalm 95:8; Isaiah 6:9–10; Ezekiel 3:7; 12:2; 36:26). It is often linked with not hearing or heeding God’s word  (e.g. Jeremiah 17:23; 19:15; Nehemiah 9:16, 29; cf. Acts 7:51–53, which is addressed to Israel’s leaders). These and other Scriptures (e.g. Psalm 95; Isaiah 6:9–10; 48:4; Ezekiel 2:3–5) indicate that there is a fundamental problem affecting the heart and sensibility of God’s people (seen in the mission to Israel in Matthew 10–11 but also even in the disciples themselves as they react to Jesus in the Gospel accounts).

However, and remarkably, here as Jesus walks and talks with these disciples such hardness of heart, blindness, and dullness of understanding, dissipates in relation to the Old Testament scriptures. Eyes are opened. Hearts burn as he opens the Scriptures and closed minds. These Israelites become people who recognise, whose minds are opened, and whose hearts are deeply affected.

What Luke indicates in recounting the encounter of Jesus with these disciples is that that knowledge of Jesus and being taught by him leads to a revelation of the whole content and true meaning of the Scriptures as those Scriptures relate to him (note the parallel occurrences of eyes being opened in verses 31–32: in verse 31 to him and in verse 32 to the Scriptures).

In the words of Romans 16:25-27, the mystery hidden for long past is revealed, and this happens with the knowledge of Christ and God’s purposes in him.

Some Implications

The implication is that the key to understanding what the Old Testament is really about is to see it in the light of God’s purposes in Jesus and in his work (it’s important to note the focus on his suffering throughout the passage). We who have heard the gospel concerning Jesus will therefore be able to understand and receive the message of the Old Testament scriptures and we will find it to be a message full of Jesus.

None of this means that we need some special experience of Jesus and that once you have this all the secrets of the Bible will be revealed. On the contrary, the Bible’s message can be read by anyone.

However, what is being said here is the same as that which is said in numerous other places in the New Testament, that is, that true interpretation of the Bible can’t be divorced from relating to the one to whom it points (e.g. John 5:39–40).

Digging Deeper Again

Having said this, it is important to take a closer look at Luke 24:27 and note what is not said. What is not explicitly said is that Christ is the subject of all Old Testament Scripture or even every Old Testament Scripture. Rather, we are told that Jesus explained to them the things concerning himself in those Scriptures. In other words, he knew that there were things concerning himself in the Scriptures and he explained them to his disciples.

It’s worth stressing the point. While it may be appropriate to say that the whole of the Old Testament is about Jesus and/or that Jesus is even the subject of the Old Testament, we need to be careful that we don’t load the verse with more than it can bear (or that the careful preacher can bear!).

The statement by Luke that ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets’ (in all probability, a reference to all the Old Testament Scriptures), Jesus ‘interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself’ means that every part the Scriptures contain things concerning the Christ. In itself the passage does not convey the idea that ‘every passage’ within every part of the Scriptures contains things concerning Christ or that ‘all biblical passages’ somehow testify to Jesus Christ. What is said in verse 27 is therefore similar in thrust to verse 44 where we read that ‘everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.’

This point is illustrated by the whole the two volume work of Luke-Acts. It does convey the impression that the Old Testament contains Scriptures which speak about the Messiah and his suffering, resurrection, and entering into his glory and regularly goes to them to point that out.

Pulling Things Together

So, what can be draw from Luke 24 as we Christian preachers come to preach on the Old Testament as Christian Scripture?

First, as we preach on the Old Testament it is right to have a particular focus on the atonement and on the glorification of the Messiah who is Jesus. It is right to look out for and highlight the necessity for the Christ to suffer and enter his glory and to point these things out to the people of God.

Second, it is entirely right to point people toward the things in the Old Testament that concern God’s Messiah. Further, even if there are not things ‘concerning Christ’ in the passage we are preaching from, it is right for us to point out how they fit into God’s plan that has it focus, centre, and end in Christ (remember Part 1 of this series and Ephesians 1:9–10).

Third, true apprehension of Jesus can come only through the work of God in people and the opening of their minds and hearts to Jesus and God’s purposes in him. For this reason, the preacher of the Old Testament ought to be spending time on their knees seeking that God might turn hard hearts into receptive hearts as Jesus is proclaimed from those texts that concern him. Listening to the Old (and New) Testament rightly requires the work of God and faith in Jesus Christ to rightly hear it.

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