Perspectives on Preaching the Old Testament as Christian Scripture (4)

We now reach the fourth and final reflection in our short series on preaching from the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. Having primarily focused on the Gospels, it will be helpful to briefly reflect on two more passages, this time from the Pauline epistles (along with some sideways reflections on Hebrews and James).

2 Timothy 3:14–17

2 Timothy 3:14–17

Our first passage contains Paul’s explicit teaching on the use of Scripture in the church as he teaches Timothy. As with previous passages, we don’t have much time to delve into the details. Nevertheless, there are some larger observations will help us understand what he says.

  • The terms ‘holy Scriptures’ (verse 15) and ‘all Scripture’ (verse 16) appear to be talking about the same thing—the Old Testament Scriptures—although the latter term probably has the sense of ‘every (text of) Scripture’.
  • Verse 15 indicates that these Old Testament Scriptures instruct in the way of salvation and that without knowledge of Christ and faith in him those Scriptures cannot be properly understood. 
  • Verse 16 indicates that these Scriptures have their source in God, being so much his words that it is as though God himself were speaking them with his own breath.
  • The statement by Paul about the inspiration of Scripture is made on the way to stating that, having their source in God, they are ‘useful’.

Additionally, the four words or phrases describing the usefulness of Scripture in verse 16 are in broad design chiastic. The first and the last (‘teaching’ and ‘training in righteousness’) have to do with education and the second and third (‘rebuking’ and ‘correcting’) have to do with identifying and correcting sin. When combined, the four give the sense that Scripture’s usefulness has to do with both positively educating in terms of doctrine and behaviour as well as correcting aberrant doctrine and behaviour.

In the language of verse 17, Timothy and all Christians (particularly those in Christian ministry) can therefore find in the Old Testament Scriptures everything that will fully outfit them for good works.

The encouragement for us as readers, interpreters, teachers, and preachers of the Old Testament is therefore that (1) the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole are able to make people wise for salvation through faith in the Messiah Jesus (verse 15) but that they are also (2) useful for keeping people straight in terms of doctrine and godliness (verses 16 and 17) and (3) for helping pastor-teachers such as Timothy (and us as preachers) to keep their people straight in the same.

The thrust of the whole in terms of our preaching from the Old Testament is therefore that as we do so we will not be embarrassed to point people to Christ but also to draw out for our hearers the doctrinal and ethical implications of it. Such is entirely in accord with the purpose for which God caused it to be written as explained by Paul here. It is also entirely in line with what we see both Jesus and the writers of the New Testament doing. 

My own personal observation is that in different countries and in different times, the emphasis has fallen in different places (often to their detriment as well as their good). For example, when I first started ministry the weight in evangelical preaching often fell on moral exhortation (i.e. part of the thrust of verses 16 and 17). Now, in various sections of the evangelical world, the weight has fallen on verse 15 (sometimes in reaction decrying any use for moral exhortation). Also, I've observed that in some continents there is more reflection on doctrine than in others. We need to take Paul's exhortation about the inspired nature of Old Testament Scripture seriously and read and proclaim it with the balance advocated by Paul here.

1 Corinthians 10:1–14 and James

1 Corinthians 10:1–14 and James

Probably because of widespread abuse, it has become fashionable in some quarters to play down the exemplary use of the Old Testament. Again, there are passages from the New Testament that can give us some balance. Two passages that come to mind are 1 Corinthians 10:1–14 and James 5.

In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul is instructing the somewhat over-confident Corinthians and in doing so he focuses on one story from the Old Testament which has echoes of the situation of the Corinthians—the wilderness wanderings. While Paul does give a very Christocentric application of the ‘rock,’ he also appears to indicate that in the wilderness experience the Corinthians should recognise themselves and their own circumstances as well. He then indicates that God’s attitudes and actions toward Israel should teach, rebuke, correct and train the Corinthians in righteousness.

The implication of his usage appears to be that God’s attitude and matching acts of judgment toward his ancient people in the past point towards his attitude now where his Christian people are sinning in similar ways. Hence, God judged the worship of idols, fornication, testing, and grumbling then will do so when such attitudes are replicated in the Corinthians. Such exhortation indicates that Paul is not averse to using the Old Testament as a record of God’s dealings with him people that provides us with concrete positive and negative examples of what it means to live before God (see particularly verse 6).

Similarly, James uses a number of Old Testament figures as examples of various attitudes and actions, some illustrative and others to be modelled. These include Rahab, Abraham, ‘the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord’, Elijah, and Job (James 2:14–26; 5:10–11, 17–18). It is worth noting that when he does so he is often not using these figures Christologically or even in a redemptive-historically oriented manner (e.g. Job, along with ‘the prophets of the Lord’ are explicitly labelled an ‘example’ that should spur others on to imitation–James 5:10-12).

We find similar things elsewhere in the New Testament where examples from the Old Testament scriptures are given of both a negative and positive sort (e.g. Hebrews 11–12; Jude 7–11). Such encouragement from the New Testament can guide our preaching and teaching from the Old Testament. If we observe the New Testament authors and their use of the Old Testament then it will not be out of the question for us to see things in the lives of Old Testament people that we might rightly urge our people to either follow or shun (so the author of Hebrews might use the positive example of Jacob in chapter 11 and subsequently contrast it with the negative example of Esau in chapter 12). 

Having said that, because the Old Testament narrators do not always make clear their views (or even the attitude of God) on the actions of the characters portrayed, it may not always be easy for us to rightly ascertain when God thinks a particular action is right or wrong, to be followed or to be shunned (e.g. a survey of commentaries and articles on the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34 will show a diversity of views as to who is to be condemned or commended). Nevertheless, the difficulty that we face with such narrative and the example of the New Testament writers should not close us to such application as a possibility.

Summing up

Summing up

In this short series on preaching the Old Testament as Christian Scripture there has been an attempt to summarise some of the things we must make sure we get right on the basis of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. Such would include the following:

  • We should read all parts of the Bible in the light of God's purposes in Christ. Sometimes this purpose will be blatantly evident in a single verse. At other times, this purpose will be more complicated and might only be evident as a whole book is viewed within the Bible in its entirety.
  • Christian preachers are not Old Testament scribes. They have seen God's promises fulfilled in the person and work of Christ and have been transformed in their understanding by the genuinely new reality of the kingdom of God as seen in Jesus. Hence, although they bring out of the treasure of the Scriptures not just the things that a Jewish reader would understand (the 'old') but first and foremost that which has been revealed and accomplished in Christ ('the new'; Matthew 13:52).
  • From Luke 24, it is clear that as we examine the Old Testament scriptures it is right to (1) have a particular focus on the atonement and on the glorification of the Messiah who is Jesus; and (2) to point people toward the things in the Old Testament that concern God's Messiah. Moreover, we should be aware that as it was true with the disciples of Jesus in Luke 24, so it still is, that 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. We will therefore preach prayerfully dependent upon God to turn hard hearts to receptive ones.
  • Finally, in this article we have learnt that as we preach from Old Testament inspired Scripture we should be guided by Paul in 2 Timothy 3:15–17. We should use them (1) to make people wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus but also (2) to draw out the doctrinal and ethical implications. From Paul, James, and the author of Hebrews we learn that such might sometimes include the use of examples of good and right conduct evident in the pages of the Old Testament. Using 2 Timothy along the guidelines suggested by the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3 will help equip God's people in every age for every good work. 

image: Esau selling his birthright by Hendrick ter Brugghen; Web Gallery of Art:…