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Finding Jesus in the Old Testament

Three ways to see the gospel through the ancient text

Robert M Eby on November 29, 2021

In nearly every family, there is someone who is awkward, occasionally entertaining, and never predictable. This person’s antics elicit uncomfortable glances between family members and bewildered silence from visiting outsiders.

What are we to do? Should we move the Christmas gathering without telling the weird relative, or ignore him or her and hope for the best?

Many of today’s sermons treat the Old Testament almost like an eccentric family member — present but frequently a source of discomfort and confusion. At some level, this is understandable.

After all, the Old Testament goes on and on about circumcision, relates breathtaking episodes of divine judgment, and tells of heroes who cavort with prostitutes, commit adultery, murder innocent victims, and walk naked through town prophesying.

Because of the awkwardness, some preachers opt to leave the Old Testament out of their gatherings. Is this the only solution, or is there a way to connect the ancient text to the current age?

The answer lies in Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament. These 39 books are not just a religious history of primitive forerunners. They represent the raw power of God confronting the hopelessness of humanity with the promise of a Savior.

Jesus himself characterized the Scriptures this way (Luke 24:44; John 5:39). Preaching the entire Old Testament compels us to see Jesus on every page. He is there. The preacher’s task is to find Him.

A Christ-centered perspective enables us to welcome the Old Testament back to the table without fear. Three complementary lenses can help us see the gospel message in any Old Testament passage: prophecy, typology, and the progressive history of redemption.

Fulfillment of Prophecy

A defining mark of Christian witness has always been the link between Israel’s prophets and the striking fulfillment of their words in Jesus. The New Testament authors have already interpreted many prophetic passages in light of Jesus, revealing God’s plan of redemption embodied in His Son.

On our side of the Crucifixion, it is easy to recognize the hope-filled anticipation of the Savior in the suffering servant oracle of Isaiah 53. Who could miss the messianic reverberations as Nathan relates God’s promise to David about his everlasting throne (2 Samuel 7:13), especially after Nebuchadnezzar saw to it that there was no earthly dynasty?

Opportunities abound for preachers to demonstrate the unmistakable providence of God by proclaiming Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy.

Realization of Testimony

Not every passage in the Old Testament is a forward-looking prophecy. However, typology is another trusted approach that unlocks the Christ-centered nature of the Old Testament in some texts. In every instance of typology, there are two elements. The first is the type, which is an Old Testament person, event, object or system. The second is the New Testament reality it underscores.

In other words, elements of Old Testament history foreshadow the person, life and ministry of Jesus. For example, Hebrews 7 makes clear that Melchizedek is a type of Christ, the greatest high priest. And in Hebrews 9, it is apparent that the sacrificial offerings of the first covenant anticipate what Jesus accomplished on the cross as the mediator of a new covenant.

Similarly, Jonah spent three days in the great fish, foreshadowing Jesus spending three days in the grave (Matthew 12:39–41). Typology takes seriously the historical nature of the Old Testament but also sees it as a divinely guided pattern that testifies of Jesus.

Every story, psalm, prophecy, genealogy
or promise is located somewhere on the grand plotline of redemption.

For all the biblical and historical significance of typology, it has a dysfunctional interpretive cousin, allegorization. Where typology values historical setting, allegorization wrenches it from its context and contorts it to serve the interpreter’s agenda.

It is typology to see something of Jesus in David’s willingness to stand in the place of the entire Israelite nation before the fearsome giant to fulfill God’s covenant promises to Israel. Even though others perceived David as weak and unfit, his faith and obedience made the victory a victory for all. This is a foreshadowing of Jesus taking our place and conquering our great foe.

Allegorization, on the other hand, might assign a name to each of the stones David placed in his bag before engaging the battle. A sermon titled “The Five Stones of Spiritual Warfare: Prayer, Worship, Fasting, Thanksgiving and Courage” might be encouraging, but it would fail to show how the story relates to Jesus in any meaningful sense.

A primary difference between typology and allegorization is that the former recognizes the history and context of the Old Testament type, where the latter detaches it as a poorly employed proof text.

Focus of History

Of course, some passages seem more Christ-centered than others. What do we do, for instance, with the annals of the kings of Judah or with Achan’s sin at Ai? A helpful theological concept is the progressively revealed plan of redemption.

Every story, psalm, prophecy, genealogy or promise is located somewhere on the grand plotline of redemption. The Bible is a continuous and cohesive narrative that never veers far from the central story. That is, God created all things good, including humanity. Sin twisted this goodness.

History is the ongoing conflict between the redemptive plan of God and the devastating expansion of sin’s effects until the dramatic reversal of the Cross. Now humanity and creation move toward the completion of the victory Jesus already won.

God did not reveal the fullness of every part of His plan in one moment. Rather, He met people where they were and led them, one step at a time, toward His plan to make right what was wrong. Every addition to the story points a little more directly to Jesus.

Christ-centered preaching demonstrates how every development deepened humanity’s understanding of God’s grace, righteousness, love, faithfulness and holiness. This is not about manipulating the Scripture or using it out of context. It is about recognizing the signposts along the path to redemption that led to God’s plan in Christ.

Rather than distancing themselves from the challenges of the Old Testament, preachers have an amazing opportunity to connect its ancient stories, prophecies and poems to the current work of Jesus in our world. Good interpretive lenses (e.g., prophecy, typology, and progressive revelation) and sincere dependence on the guidance of the Holy Spirit yield a nearly limitless source of connection to contemporary listeners.

The Old Testament becomes difficult to preach when we view it primarily as a rule book, a manual for success, or a textbook for social etiquette. But when we see it as a Spirit-inspired invitation to encounter Jesus, it is life-giving.

In Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, author Timothy Keller sums it up well: “Every time you expound a Bible text, you are not finished unless you demonstrate how it shows us that we cannot save ourselves and that only Jesus can. That means we must preach Christ from every text, which is the same as saying we must preach the gospel every time and not just settle for general inspiration or moralizing.”

By welcoming the Old Testament back to the table, preachers may find that it is Jesus who is joining them.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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