"We preach Christ crucified ..., Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."—Paul, 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 (NIV)
This book deals with preaching Christ from the Old Testament. Before we turn our attention specifically to this topic, we need to lay the foundations on which to build subsequently. In this opening chapter, we shall discuss two distinct topics: (1) the necessity of preaching Christ, and (2) the necessity of preaching from the Old Testament. In Chapter 2 we shall merge the results of our discoveries as we discuss the necessity of preaching Christ from the Old Testament.
Homileticians from a wide variety of Christian traditions advocate the preaching of Christ. For example, the Roman Catholic author Domenico Grasso states, "The object and content of preaching is Christ, the Word in which the Father expresses Himself and communicates His will to man." The Eastern Orthodox Georges Florovsky asserts, "Ministers are commissioned and ordained in the church precisely to preach the Word of God.
They are given some fixed terms of reference—namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ and they are committed to this sole and perennial message." The Lutheran homiletician M. Reu contends, "It is necessary that the sermon be Christocentric, have no one and nothing else for its centre and content than Christ Jesus." The Reformed homiletician T. Hoekstra maintains, "In expositing Scripture for the congregation, the preacher... must show that there is a way to the center even from the farthest point on the periphery. For a sermon without Christ is no sermon." And the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon says, "Preach Christ, always and everywhere. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme." Authors from a broad spectrum of traditions, therefore, testify to the necessity of preaching Christ.
Unfortunately, one could make a similar list of people complaining that the actual practice of preaching Christ falls far short of the ideal. One reason for this failure may be the difficulty of preaching Christ from the Old Testament. This problem is compounded by the lack of concrete directions in textbooks on Old Testament interpretation and preaching. Horror stories abound of preachers twisting an Old Testament text in order to land miraculously at Calvary. But subverting the Scriptures in order to preach Christ only undermines the authority of the message.
To some, the notion of "preaching Christ" also seems rather narrow and confining, far removed from that other ideal of Christian preachers, namely, preaching "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). Does one preach Christ, for example, at the expense of preaching other Christian doctrines, Christian living, or social justice concerns?
But there are other reasons as well for the general failure to preach Christ. Strange as it may seem, we are not at all clear on what it means to "preach Christ." Although the meaning seems simple on the surface, it is complicated by several factors, not the least of which is that Christ is both the eternal Logos, who is present from the beginning (John 1:1), and Christ incarnate, who is present only after Old Testament times (John 1:14). This complexity reveals itself in the wide variety of meanings that have attached themselves to the phrase "preaching Christ." For some, preaching Christ means preaching "Christ crucified" in the sense of linking every text to Calvary and Christ's atoning work on the cross. Others broaden the meaning to preaching "Christ's death and resurrection." Still others seek to link the text to the work of the eternal Logos, who is active in Old Testament times especially as the Angel of Yahweh, the Commander of the Lord's army, and the Wisdom of God. Others broaden the meaning even further to preaching sermons that center on God, for, it is argued, since Christ is the second person of the Trinity and fully God, a God-centered sermon is Christ-centered. Still others argue that "the Lord Jesus Christ is recognized as Jehovah," and therefore we can substitute the name of Christ wherever we see "Jehovah" in the Old Testament.
At the beginning of this book on preaching Christ from the Old Testament, it would be well to come to clarity on what we mean by "preaching Christ." But instead of adding another definition to a long list, we will find it far more valuable to examine the New Testament regarding the meaning of "preaching Christ." After all, the apostles first coined the phrase.
The heart of apostolic preaching is Jesus Christ. Richard Lischer notes, "A cursory review of the objects of the New Testament verbs for 'preach' shows how saturated with Christ that early proclamation was. Some of the objects are: Jesus, Lord Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ as Lord, Christ crucified, Christ as raised from the dead, Jesus and the resurrection, good news about the Kingdom, Jesus as the Son of God, the gospel of God, Word of the Lord, the forgiveness of sins, and Christ in you the hope of glory." As the objects of the verbs for preaching demonstrate, there can be no doubt that Christ is the heart of apostolic preaching. Yet this result does not resolve our predicament. Does "Christ" refer to Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity? Or to Christ as the eternal Logos? Or to Christ crucified? Or to the risen and exalted Lord? Or to all of the above? To find the answer, we will have to explore the New Testament further. In his book The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development, C. H. Dodd concludes that the first four speeches of Peter in Acts provide "a comprehensive view of the content of the early kerygma." He summarizes the contents of this preaching under six heads: First, "the age of fulfillment has dawned." Second, "this has taken place through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, of which a brief account is given." Third, "by virtue of the resurrection, Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God, as Messianic head of the new Israel." Fourth, "the Holy Spirit in the Church is the sign of Christ's present power and glory." Fifth, "the Messianic Age will shortly reach its consummation in the return of Christ." And finally, "the kerygma always closes with an appeal for repentance, the offer of forgiveness and of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of 'salvation.'"
A quick scrutiny of these six elements indicates that preaching in the New Testament church indeed centered on Jesus Christ but not in the narrow sense of focussing only on Christ crucified, nor in the broadest sense of focussing only on the Second Person of the Trinity or the eternal Logos. The New Testament church preached the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of God's old covenant promises, his presence today in the Spirit, and his imminent return. In short, "preaching Christ" meant preaching Christ incarnate in the context of the full sweep of redemptive history.
We can observe the tremendous breadth of the concept "preaching Christ" by following the apostles from preaching Christ crucified, to preaching Christ risen, to preaching the kingdom of God.
Defenders of the narrow view that "preaching Christ" means only preaching the cross often appeal to the explicit statements of the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 1:23 Paul reminds the church in Corinth, "We preach Christ crucified..." (NIV); and again in the next chapter, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). However, Reu rightly cautions that the preacher should not "divorce the cross of Christ from His life, teaching and works, as preachers of the 'old faith' were accused of doing." For Paul, preaching "Christ crucified" has a much broader meaning than focussing every sermon on Jesus' suffering on the cross. The cross of Christ is indeed the focal point for Paul's preaching, but, as Paul's sermons and letters demonstrate, the cross of Christ reveals much more than the suffering of Jesus. It also provides a viewpoint on the perfect justice of God (Rom 3:25-26) and the dreadful catastrophe of human sin. "The cross... signifies as nothing else could possibly do the awful seriousness of our sin, and therefore the depth and quality of the penitence that is required of us and that only the remembrance of it and the appropriation of its meaning can create in us."
But much more than the depth of sin and penitence is seen in the light of the cross. The cross of Christ also provides a view of the wondrous love of God for his creatures and creation (Rom 5:9-10; 8:32-34). "What the first Christians came to see was this that God was there as nowhere else. This thing occurred, declared Peter in the first Christian sermon,... 'by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.' They never preached the Cross without saying, 'This is God's deed, God's purpose in action, God's way of bringing a mad and ruined world back to health and sanity and peace.'"
On a time line, the cross is but a point in the sweep of redemptive history from creation to the new creation. But exactly in the sweep of redemptive history, the cross is such a pivotal point that its impact echoes all the way back to the fall of humanity and God's penalty of death (Gen 3:19), even while it thrusts kingdom history forward to its full perfection when all the nations will come in, there will be no more death and tears, and God will be all and in all (Rev 21:1-4). For, says Paul, "In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Cor 5:19).
In addition to bringing to view the vast vistas provided by the cross of Christ, Paul's preaching focusses equally on the resurrection of Christ. Even the seemingly limited focus found in 1 Corinthians 2:2 of Paul knowing "nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" may contain a much broader perspective. John Knox helpfully explains, "At first sight this last phrase ['and him crucified'] seems to leave out the Resurrection entirely. But it seems to do so only because we suppose Paul's thought was moving, as ours customarily does, in a forward direction.... But when Paul wrote the phrase, he was thinking first of all of the risen, exalted Christ, and his thought moved backward to the cross.... Thus, far from omitting reference to the Resurrection, Paul's phrase takes its start from it; the word Christ means primarily the one now known as living and present Lord."
Other passages state more directly that Paul focusses equally on the resurrection of Christ. For example, when Paul and Barnabas preached in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia, Paul proclaimed, "God raised him from the dead.... And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus..." (Acts 13:30, 32; cf. Acts 17:31). Again, "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David that is my gospel" (2 Tim 2:8). Consequently, James Stewart advises preachers, "I would urge you to preach the Resurrection as the one fact above all others which vitally concerns, not only the life of the individual Christian but the entire human scene and the destiny of the race. It is the breakthrough of the eternal order into this world of suffering and confusion and sin and death.... It is the vindication of eternal righteousness, the declaration that the heart of the universe is spiritual. It is the Kingdom of God made visible."
But we ought not to play the crucifixion and the resurrection off against each other. "The death and resurrection of Jesus are from the very beginning inseparably interconnected in the kerygma. They are the two aspects of one salvatory happening, continually calling each other to mind." In fact, in the very letter in which Paul states that he preaches "Christ crucified" (1 Cor 1:23; 2:2), he reminds the Corinthians "of the good news that I proclaimed to you.... For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures..." (1 Cor 15:1-4; cf. 15:12).
Preaching the death and resurrection of Christ, we have seen, was more than recounting the facts concerning Jesus of Nazareth. These two events provided remarkably profound insights into God's justice, love, and final victory and into human sin, punishment, and salvation. But they also provided viewpoints for perceiving the grand sweep of God's plan of salvation as it unfolded in redemptive history. The early Christian preachers proclaimed that "in these two shattering events, now seen to be one, the Kingdom of God had broken in with power.... What had formerly been pure eschatology was there before their eyes: the supernatural made visible, the Word made flesh. No longer were they dreaming of the Kingdom age: they were living in it. It had arrived."
Accordingly, preaching Christ was intimately related to preaching the kingdom of God. Paul acknowledged that he also preached "Jesus Christ as Lord" (2 Cor 4:5), that is, as the Ruler who has received "all authority" (Matt 28:18). In Jesus Christ the kingdom of God had come. The book of Acts ends with the stirring picture of Paul in custody in Rome—the kingdom of God has not yet arrived in perfection. But the great Apostle is in Rome, the center of the world, "proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 28:31; cf. Acts 20:25).
On the basis of this New Testament testimony, we can sketch the contours of what "preaching Christ" means. To clear the deck, it may be well to state first what it is not. Preaching Christ is not, of course, merely mentioning the name of Jesus or Christ in the sermon. It is not identifying Christ with Yahweh in the Old Testament, or the Angel of Yahweh, or the Commander of the Lord's army, or the Wisdom of God. It is not simply pointing to Christ from a distance or "drawing lines to Christ" by way of typology.
Positively, preaching Christ is as broad as preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. One has only to look at a concordance to see how often the New Testament speaks of "the gospel of the kingdom," "the gospel of Christ," "the gospel of Jesus Christ," "the gospel of the grace of God,"and "the gospel of peace." In these terms two characteristics stand out. Preaching Christ is good news for people, and preaching Christ is as broad as preaching the gospel of the kingdom—as long as this kingdom is related to its King, Jesus.
More specifically, to preach Christ is to proclaim some facet of the person, work, or teaching of Jesus of Nazareth so that people may believe him, trust him, love him, and obey him. We shall take a closer look at each of these aspects.
The distinction between the person and the work of Christ is fairly common (and controversial) in systematic theology and in the literature about preaching Christ. The distinction should never lead to a separation between the person and the work of Christ, of course, for the two are inseparably intertwined. Still, the distinction has merit in highlighting certain facets of the Messiah. Jesus himself asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter's answer, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God," was a revelation from God himself, Jesus said (Matt 16:16-17). Knowing who Jesus was (Messiah, Son of God) helped the disciples understand somewhat the profound significance of his work of preaching and healing and dying and rising.
In fact, John begins his Gospel with the identity of the person of Christ. He writes, "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John 1:18). The person of Jesus Christ, God's only Son, is the climax of God's revelation about himself. In Jesus we see God. He has made God known. Similarly, the letter to the Hebrews begins with the identity of the person of Christ: "He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being" (1:3). In preaching Christ from the Old Testament, we can often link the Old Testament message to some facet of the person of Christ: the Son of God, the Messiah, our Prophet, Priest, and King.
In preaching Christ, we can also focus on a facet of the work of Christ. The Gospel writer John moves from the person of Jesus to some of the "signs" (works) he did, "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31).
Usually the work of Christ is associated with his work of reconciling us to God (atonement) through his suffering and death. But we can also think of his miracles of healing (signs of the presence of the kingdom), his resurrection (victory over death), his ascension (the enthronement of the King), and his coming again (the coming kingdom). In preaching Christ from the Old Testament, we can often link the message of the text with the redeeming work of our Savior and the just rule of our Lord.
Although the teaching of Christ could be considered part of the work of Christ, Jesus' teaching is often overlooked in discussions on preaching Christ from the Old Testament. Because of its significance for our topic, we shall consider the teaching of Christ separately.
The importance of Jesus' teaching rises to the surface with Jesus' own statement, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32, NIV). The crucial importance of the teaching of Christ shows up especially in Christ's mandate to his disciples to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them..., and teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you" (Matt 28:19-20). The teaching of Jesus is an indispensable component for preaching Christ from the Old Testament, for the Old Testament was Jesus' Bible, and he based his teaching on it. Jesus' teaching includes not only teachings about himself (Son of Man, Messiah), his mission, and his coming again but also teachings about God, God's kingdom, God's covenant, God's law (e.g., Matt 5-7), and the like.
Summing up this section, we can define "preaching Christ" as preaching sermons which authentically integrate the message of the text with the climax of God's revelation in the person, work, and/or teaching of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament.
In response to the question why we should preach Christ today, many might respond by pointing to the example of the apostles: If Peter and Paul preached Christ, then preachers today must preach Christ. But this argument from imitation is rather superficial and flawed. To imitate Paul in preaching Christ is rather selective imitation, for most of us do not imitate Paul in going on missionary journeys to do our preaching. Nor do we imitate Paul in going first to the synagogues to do our preaching. Nor do we imitate Paul in literally making tents to support a "tentmaking ministry." In all these and other instances we realize that biblical description of what Paul was doing does not necessarily translate into biblical prescription for us today. So we must dig deeper to make the case for preaching Christ today. We must ask ourselves: What were the underlying reasons for Paul and the other apostles to preach Christ? And do these reasons still hold for preachers today?
A frequently overlooked but obvious reason why the apostles preached Christ was Jesus' parting command: "Go... and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt 28:19-20). Although the baptismal formula is trinitarian, the command to make "disciples [of Jesus]" and to "teach... them to obey everything that I have commanded you," and the promise of Jesus' presence all focus specifically on Jesus Christ. The apostle Peter later recalls, "He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead" (Acts 10:42).
Even the apostle Paul, who did not receive the original mandate, would later receive the specific command to preach Christ. While he was on the way to Damascus to persecute Christians, the living Lord intercepted him: "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." Then Jesus told Ananias to meet Paul, "for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel" (Acts 9:5-6, 15).
The apostles, then, were commanded by their risen Lord to preach his "name" (the revelation concerning Jesus) among the nations, and they responded by preaching Jesus Christ. A few decades later, the Gospel writers accepted this original mandate as their mandate. For example, in writing his Gospel, Mark reveals his central concern in his opening verse: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Christian preachers today also live under the command to preach the "name" of Jesus Christ, for the command to preach Christ reaches far beyond the first apostles and Gospel writers it reaches "to the end of the age."
In addition to obedience to Jesus' mandate, another major reason for preaching Christ lies in the message itself. Even today when a President or a Queen visits a city, the arrival itself is a newsworthy event. No one needs to command broadcasters to tell the story, for the story itself begs to be told. If this is true for the arrival of a President or a Queen, how much more for the arrival of "the King of Kings." After centuries of waiting for God's promised Messiah, after many high expectations and more dashed hopes, the story of his arrival simply has to be proclaimed.
For example, when Peter's brother Andrew met Jesus, he found a natural outlet for his excitement: "The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, 'We have found the Messiah'.... And he brought him to Jesus" (John 1:41-42, NIV). Andrew's need to tell was but a small foretaste of the church's missionary zeal after Jesus' resurrection. This story simply has to be told: God has fulfilled his promises; his salvation has become a reality; the kingdom of God has broken into this world in a wonderful new way; the King has come!
Another major reason for preaching Christ lies in the life-saving character of the message. When there was an outbreak of polio in British Columbia, Canada, in the 1970s, the government wasted no time getting out the message to all parents to have their children inoculated against polio. It was a vital message; it needed to be broadcast immediately. The need to tell was obvious in the light of the disease and the availability of an antidote.
Ever since the fall into sin, humanity has been alienated from God and under the penalty of death. Everyone with discernment can recognize the disease, but not all know the cure. People need to be told about the cure. When the Philippian jailer cried out, "What must I do to be saved?" Paul answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:30-31). As Paul put it a few years later, "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom 10:9). Faith in Jesus Christ is the antidote for eternal death. In a world dead in sin, alienated from God, headed for death, the life-giving message of Jesus Christ is so urgent that it simply must be told. For it is a message of hope, of reconciliation, of peace with God, of healing, of restoration, of salvation, of eternal life.
A further stimulus for preaching Christ is that Christ is the only way of salvation. As Peter puts it, "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Peter's hopeful but exclusive message echoes the message of Jesus himself, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Eternal life is to be found only in Jesus Christ.
If Jesus were one of many ways of salvation, the church could relax a bit, hoping that people might find some other way to be saved from death. But now that Christ is the only way, the urgency of preaching Christ is all the more pressing. There is salvation in no one else but Jesus.
All of the above reasons for preaching Christ hold today as much as they did in the times of the New Testament church, for Jesus' command is valid "till the end of the age." In a century which counts more Christian martyrs than in all of church history, the good news that the King has come is as significant and encouraging as ever; in a materialistic age in which people despair of the meaning of human life, the vital news that there is salvation from death through faith in Christ is as crucial as ever; and in our relativistic, pluralistic society with its many socalled saviors, the exclusive news that there is salvation in no one else but Jesus Christ is as essential as ever.
The final reason for preaching Christ is that our hearers are living in a non-Christian culture. The early church, in the nature of the case, addressed people living in a non-Christian culture. People needed to hear about Christ and the difference he makes. But contemporary preachers equally address people living in a non-Christian or post-Christian culture. If contemporary hearers were living in a culture saturated with Christian thinking and action, one might perhaps take for granted that people hearing a sermon would sense how it is related to Christ. For all of life is related to Christ. As Paul writes, "He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God... ; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created... all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col 1:15-17). But preachers today cannot assume that their hearers will see these connections; they cannot even assume that their hearers will know the meaning of words like "gospel" and "God" and "Christ."
Europe and North America have become mission fields. People have lost their way and are searching for the Ultimate, for meaning to their brief existence on earth. Church services are fast moving from Christian wor ship to "seeker services." Today, both in Christian worship (seeker sensitive, one would hope) and in seeker services, Christ needs to be preached. "One of the most fascinating of all the preacher's tasks," John Stott writes, "is to explore both the emptiness of fallen man and the fullness of Jesus Christ, in order then to demonstrate how he can fill our emptiness, lighten our darkness, enrich our poverty, and bring our human aspirations to fulfillment." For "to encounter Christ is to touch reality and experience transcendence. He gives us a sense of self-worth or personal significance, because he assures us of God's love for us. He sets us free from guilt because he died for us, from the prison of our own self-centredness by the power of his resurrection, and from paralyzing fear because he reigns.... He gives meaning to marriage and home, work and leisure, personhood and citizenship."
Committed Christians as well as non-Christians will benefit from explicitly Christ-centered preaching today. In a post-Christian culture such preaching will enable Christians to sense the centrality of Christ in their lives and in the world. It will help them to distinguish their specific faith from that of Judaism, Eastern religions, the new age movement, the health-and-wealth gospel, and other competing faiths. It will continually build their faith in Jesus, their Savior and Lord. Preaching Christ in a non-Christian culture sustains Christians as water sustains nomads in the desert. Reu claims, "Genuine Christian faith and life can exist only so long as it remains a daily appropriation of Christ." Even those committed to Christ must continually learn and relearn what it means to serve Jesus their Savior as Lord of their life.
Preaching in a post-Christian culture places a tremendous responsibility on contemporary preachers to preach Christ plainly, genuinely, and perceptively. Preachers can no longer assume that their hearers will discern the connections of the message with Christ in the context of a Christian mindset and in the context of Christian worship. These connections need to be intentionally exposed for all to see. John Stott brings the goal into focus for contemporary preachers: "The main objective of preaching is to expound Scripture so faithfully and relevantly that Jesus Christ is perceived in all his adequacy to meet human need." William Hull adds this sound advice, "Let us not mount the pulpit to debate peripheral questions or to speculate on esoteric curiosities.... We are there to preach Jesus Christ as Lord.... That is our awesome assignment: to put into words, in such a way that our hearers will put into deeds, the new day that is ours in Jesus Christ our Lord."