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 the shape of leadership

How NOT to Preach the Old Testament

A plain reading of the text may be more difficult but is always better than spiritualizing or allegorizing.

Chris Colvin on January 8, 2019

A few weeks ago I got a text from an old friend and mentor. I had asked him about a passage I was struggling with. It was tricky, and I wanted to take liberties with some portion of it to make it fit the point I was driving home.

My mentor brought me back to reality. “The text is plain, don’t mess it up.”

He was right, of course! But some times we want to go beyond the plain reading of the Bible to get it to say what we want it to say, to make a splash or to support our own agenda. That’s never a good thing.

More often than not, I see this type of preaching when it comes to the Old Testament. There are many ways to preach from the Old Testament, but one clear way not to is spiritualizing the content. Instead of taking the Bible as it is, we reshape it into what we think it should be. And that could lead us down a dangerous path.

Allegorize This

Spiritualizing is a form of allegorizing. I’m going to use the terms interchangeably when speaking about biblical teaching. In one sense, they’re two separate things. But in preaching, we allegorize for the sake of finding a deeper spiritual meaning.

Allegory is a means of storytelling where elements of a story – the characters, setting and even action – represent something else. The most famous allegory in Christian literature is the classic Pilgrim’s Progress. Within the Bible, there are allegories. But not everything can be an allegory.

There are many ways to preach from the Old Testament, but one clear way not to is spiritualizing the content.

The Bible does use language to represent ideas in a metaphorical way. For instance, oil can often mean the Holy Spirit. So when you come to 2 Kings 4 and read how Elisha encouraged a widow to fill up every available jar with oil, it’s easy to spiritualize it. “We should make sure every vessel in our home is overrunning with the Holy Spirit!”

Of course then you get to verse 7 and find out Elisha instructed her to sell the oil. Oops. We’ve inadvertently made the Holy Spirit a commodity that we can cash in. That’s just one danger of allegorizing the Bible.

The main problem with spiritualizing the Bible is that it assumes there is a deeper spiritual meaning beyond the obvious story. If we could just unlock the hidden meaning of the text, we could grasp what the Holy Spirit wants us to learn! But a plain reading of the text should give you all you need.

For instance, 1 Samuel 17’s telling of David and Goliath is often spiritualized for the Christian who wants to “slay their giants.” The five smooth stones are often stand-ins for something else, like faith, prayer, etc. But if you just read the text, you see that David explains in verse 45 that he is not relying on skill or strength but on the name of the Lord. In other words, we should only rely on God, not our own strength. David later put this concept into song when penning Psalm 20:7:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

By Whose Authority?

When we preach from the Bible, we are standing on its authority. Not our own. Not someone other person’s. But spiritualizing the text actually takes authority away from the Bible.

When we offer a different interpretation than the plain reading of the text, we are saying that we have found some hidden meaning. The intent many times is to wow the audience. It results in hushed “oohs” and “ahhs” as little light bulbs go on above their heads. We get to make them think we have some special knowledge or communication with the divine.

But the reality is anyone who has the witness of the Holy Spirit in their life has access to God’s truth. Any believer in our churches can read the Word for themselves and find the plain meaning. We should too!

Isn’t It Obvious?

Isn’t the Bible obvious? Well, not always.

It’s easy to hear the command to “Just preach the plain teaching of the Old Testament.” It’s a lot harder to actually do it. What is pretty obvious in the text is often hidden by layers of time and culture. We live a few millennia after the words of the Bible were written. And our culture, at least here in America, is widely different than many aspects of the society it speaks directly to.

It’s not just time and culture, but a layer of theology covering the text. In the Old Testament, we reach back to a time prior to the cross and empty grave, a time before the historical act of redemption. Maybe it looks forward to Christ in some way, or maybe it has no direct impact on the life of a Christian. It can be confusing or even contentious.

I think that’s why a spiritualized or allegorical reading of the Old Testament is so attractive. It’s easier. It doesn’t take as much work or effort. You can read a passage and decide for yourself what it really has to say. No need to go any further in your study.

Paul warned Timothy not to cut corners in ministry. In 2 Timothy 2:15 he stressed that the preacher who “correctly handles the word of truth” is the one who is approved by God. That takes some studying, reading deeper, finding the context and culture of the passage. It takes effort on our part.

Cutting corners in life is never a good idea. You wouldn’t want a mechanic or a doctor to cut corners. Why should preaching be any different? First of all, we need humility. Instead of trying to look good or sound smart we need to point people to Christ. And second, we need to commit to doing the hard work of ministry. Instead of avoiding tough texts or difficult tasks, we should dig in and do the heavy lifting of biblical studies. Trust the firm foundation of Scripture over the easy spiritualized allegory you think sounds better. If you do, you will never go wrong.

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