How to Preach From the Old Testament
Addressing difficult texts, Part 2
I have never done an official count, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I found out half the sermons I’ve heard come from the Old Testament. In writing sermons, I try to maintain a healthy balance between using New and Old Testament texts.
Admittedly, some Old Testament passages can be difficult to preach, but that doesn’t mean we should skip over them. Maybe you’ve been avoiding certain parts of the Bible because you’re not sure exactly how to approach them. Or maybe you haven’t given it much thought at all. But as preachers, we need to handle the “word of truth” correctly (2 Timothy 2:15). That means coming to each passage with the right mindset and motivation.
Christians are obviously the target audience of the New Testament. We should be able to take up any passage from the Gospels to the Epistles and dig right in. With a few exceptions, Old Testament writers were talking primarily to the people of Israel. As a Jewish religious text, the Old Testament certainly has similarities to the New Testament, but we must also be aware of important differences in language, culture, purpose, setting, etc.
How do we relate the truths of the Old Testament to our present, Christ-centered scenario? There are many different ways to approach — and preach — the Old Testament. I want to look at four important ones.
Morals of the Story
First, we can look at the Old Testament texts for lessons in how to behave in a godly way. These books provide not only theological truths but moral principles that teach us about God’s will for humanity and the ways we’ve fallen short.
When you preach the Old Testament from a moral perspective, you find ways to apply the narrative directly to your audience’s lives. This can be spiritual or practical. What does the story of Jonah teach us about sharing Jesus with our neighbors? How can we use Esther’s tale of courage to inspire us to stand up for what’s right?
Of course, this approach can fall apart at times. As I pointed out in a previous article, many of the characters in Scripture have a bad side to them. When we place them on a pedestal as examples of good behavior, we almost immediately face their moral failures as well.
Types of Christ
Throughout the Old Testament, you can encounter Christ between the lines. We call these “types,” drawing from Paul’s connection of Adam with Jesus (Romans 5:14, ESV). Jonah is another example of a type of Christ, as Jesus himself taught (Luke 11:29-32).
What a great way to show God’s revelation and supremacy over history. Knowing in advance all the things Jesus would say and do, the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Old Testament to pen their words in a way that looked forward to Christ’s coming.
How can you point people to their own role in God’s story, through personal repentance and redemption?
Preaching on types can be tricky, however. We may start to see things that aren’t really there. It’s best to stick with the types of Christ the writers of Scripture explicitly revealed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Christ as Fulfillment
The Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament that mainly focus on Law, can be difficult to preach. Which parts are still applicable today, and which requirements no longer apply? The answer is that Christ fulfilled the entire Law (Matthew 5:17).
Preaching Christ as fulfillment means we focus not on the letter of the Law, but on the way Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the Law. Don’t give your audience another list of rules, but instruct them to walk in the Spirit and fulfill His desires for righteousness (Romans 8:4).
A Page From Redemptive History
A final way to preach from the Old Testament is to connect it to the overall story of redemption. From Genesis to Revelation, God shows us how He intends to bring His people back to himself. It begins with creation, takes a turn with the Fall, continues through cycles of sin and repentance until Jesus redeems us through the Cross, and looks ahead to the day when God will ultimately make everything new (Revelation 21:5).
Take a look at the text you’re studying. How does it fit into this grand scheme of redemption? What parts of the story highlight other parts of God’s greater story? How can you point people to their own role in God’s story, through personal repentance and redemption?
Putting It Together
Instead of just talking about it, let’s find some practical ways to preach from the Old Testament using these classic approaches. The ideas are endless, but here are a few examples:
- David has always stood out as a moral enigma. For every right decision, there seems to be some big, bad mistake. For every act of bravery, we may discover an act of cowardice. Embrace this tension with a series called “The Dos and Don’ts of David” where you match up successes and failures in his life.
- The story of Abraham's potential sacrifice of Isaac is a very difficult text. What may make it clearer is finding the type of Christ within. Jesus is, after all, the sacrificial Lamb God provided.
- It’s easy to preach on the Ten Commandments as a 10-week series. But when you think through how Jesus fulfills all the Law, your messages may take a different turn. “Count to Ten” could be a series that shows how we don’t count our sins but count on Jesus for our righteousness.
- Nehemiah is a great text for leadership and vision. But have you thought about his unique position in redemptive history? Appearing toward the end of the Old Testament, following the exile and at a time of national restoration, this story is ripe for going deep into the history of Israel and the world itself.
Maybe you’ve felt intimidated by the Old Testament in the past. Or perhaps you just need to take a fresh look at it. When you look for the ways each book connects to the big picture of God’s plan, the Old Testament is not too difficult. In fact, it’s a rich source of great inspiration and insight.