Why the Old Testament Matters

In this excerpt from his book, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, Walter Kaiser explains why the Old Testament should be emphasized more in local churches:1

Let it be affirmed right away that the central theme of both the Old and New Testaments is Christ. Did not our Lord rebuke the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on that first Easter Sunday afternoon for their failure to understand that he was the one to whom all the Law, Prophets, and Writings pointed (Luke 24:25–27)?

Indeed, while the prophets were ignorant of the time and the circumstances surrounding the coming of the Messiah (1 Pet. 1:10–12), they were clear about five things: (1) they were writing about the Messiah; (2) they knew Messiah would suffer; (3) they knew Messiah would also be glorified and that he would triumph; (4) they knew the suffering would precede the glory; and (5) they knew that they were speaking not only to their own generation but to all of us who would come later, such as those in the church in Peter’s day.

Therefore, the prophets’ bewilderment about their lack of knowledge as to the precise date of the appearing of Messiah should not be taken as proof that the prophets spoke “better than they knew,” or that they often spoke in ignorance of what they wrote.

There are more reasons why the church should listen to the Old Testament. One could cite its sheer size, for some 77 percent of the Bible is found in the first thirty-nine books of the canon. Moreover, the content of the Old Testament is not basically one of law, as so many incorrectly think. Rather, it too is focused on the good news, the gospel, of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This claim can be sustained by turning to Romans 1:1–2. In that text Paul argued that he had been “set apart for the gospel of God—the gospel [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures.” The “Holy Scripture” in Paul’s day was none other than the Old Testament. And in that Old Testament the gospel was set forth long before Paul ever began to announce it!

The same argument is set forth in Hebrews 3:17–4:2. There the writer tells how the generation that perished in the wilderness did not enter into the Promised Land of Canaan because of their unbelief. That is why all of us should also be careful lest that same promise left to us of entering into God’s place of rest should likewise be wasted. When the gospel is preached to us, just as the gospel was preached to those who died in the wilderness, we are in the same danger if we too do not believe that gospel. What is clear is that the same gospel preached in Moses’ day is now being preached in our day!

One last reason must be listed here. Notice how many times the pronoun is changed from the third person, “he,” “she,” or “they,” to “us,” “we,” or “our” when a citation is reiterated later in the Old Testament or in the New Testament. For example, God talked to Jacob in Genesis sometime around 1800 B.C. This same text is later used by the prophet Hosea in 700 B.C. He cited many of the same episodes and words from 1800 B.C. for that eighth century B.C. audience. In fact, the prophet Hosea argued that “[God] found [Jacob] at Bethel and there he talked with us” (Hosea 12:4, based on the Hebrew text; emphasis added). So God still was talking to later generations from the Genesis text written some 1,100 years earlier!

This same phenomenon occurs a dozen or more times in the New Testament. For example, Hebrews 6:18 argues that God affirmed his promise to Abraham by two unchangeable things: his word in Genesis 12 and his oath in Genesis 22. But he did this not only to give a strong assurance to Abraham but also to encourage us who live in New Testament times, “we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us” (emphasis added). Therefore, that Old Testament text is addressed to us as much as it was addressed to Israel.

Reasons Why the Church Lost the Old Testament in Its Preaching

Few things will discourage the proper use of something more than abuse. That is what happened early in the history of the church. The attacks on the Old Testament by the heretic Marcion turned many away from the Old Testament. Prior to that Philo had begun a program of allegorical interpretation, just as some of the classical interpreters had done in order to retain the respectability of the gods and goddesses of the Greek and Roman religions by treating their religious texts of the Olympian pantheon allegorically. It was thought that everything on earth formed an analogy to something similar in heaven. Therefore, some scholars and pastors ceased trying to explain the difficult moral, ethical, and doctrinal issues raised by the Old Testament.

These issues were quickly bypassed and exchanged for what were assumed to be their heavenly and spiritual counterparts. No one, however, was able to give divine authority for this doctrine of analogy or theory of correspondences that was said to exist between the earthly copy and the heavenly prototype.

Another practice in medieval and early reformation times was to assume that many, if not most, things in the Old Testament were types of something else in the New Testament. Now there are real types in the Bible, but all true biblical types have clear divine designations shown in the same contexts with the alleged type from the Old Testament. Consequently, a person, an institution, an act, or an event that can claim by divine designation in the Old Testament that it is a partial picture of a greater reality to come can be recognized by all true interpreters as a type.

But the problem arises when everything in detail, such as all that is in the tabernacle, is made a type of something else. Surely, as one of my professors wisely remarked one day in class, some of the ropes and pegs in the tabernacle were meant to hold it up and to help it stand up erect! The problem with typology is that many take it far beyond what we have biblical authorization to do. Of course, there are more types in the Bible than what the New Testament claims to be types, but that is a long way from making most things in the Old Testament a type, especially by reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament.

In a later move to demonstrate how the Old Testament can be made useful for contemporary believers, the Enlightenment declared that a biblical text was more important for how it was composed than for what it said. Supernatural words and events were also denied as a new rationalism took over where faith had once reigned. Moreover, the Word was atomized, fragmented, and generally lost for the preaching ministry of the church.

More recently the effects of postmodernity have been seen in systems of “reader response” hermeneutics. The meaning of a text has now shifted for many from the assertions of the human authors of Scripture, who stood in the council of God and received this revelation, to the meanings that the readers wish to attach to that text. This is little more than a modern form of eisegesis, “reading into” the text what the reader wishes to see there. This makes the Bible into a waxen nose that can be pushed in whichever direction one wishes it to go. It makes a mockery out of divine authority!

Notes

1 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 41-42.

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There are 4 Comments

T Howard's picture

The reason the OT is less frequently (or rarely) taught/preached is that many are confused about its applicability and significance to NT (and 21st Century) believers. That is why many preachers today allegorize or spiritualize the OT (e.g. https://vimeo.com/34692625).

Two weeks ago I preached from 2 Chronicles 16. I began my sermon by detailing why OT narratives are important to believers today. I referred to what Paul writes in 1 Cor 10 and 2 Tim 3. Personally, I like to preach from the OT because it's more challenging for me than preaching from a NT book. It forces me to find the universal principles being taught in the passage and apply them to my congregation. Whereas, many NT passages are directly applicable.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I'm about 70% decided that, when I wrap up the Gospel of Mark in March-ish, I'm going to do a short series through Song of Solomon. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

TylerR wrote:

I'm about 70% decided that, when I wrap up the Gospel of Mark in March-ish, I'm going to do a short series through Song of Solomon. 

One of the most spiritualized and allegorized books of the OT. In a former IFB church I attended, the pastor preached through the Song of Solomon and insisted it was describing the relationship between Christ and the church.

Bert Perry's picture

Kudos to the mere attempt to bring in portions of the Scriptures that we don't usually read, Tyler, and I wish you well.  In personal reading, I'm in Hebrews, and am struck by how little we hear of the book except for 10:24-25.

Regarding the claim of allegory T. Howard references, there is probably something to that, but not at the cost of pushing out the primary message of exuberance in wedlock.  And that's the real argument against the allegorical interpretation; not that there are no parallels between a man's love for his wife and Christ's for the Church, but rather that the argument is usually wielded to deflect attention from the "shameful fact" that Scripture does, in fact, describe a man's delight in his becoming-unclad bride, and vice versa.  

Back to the subject, it strikes me that the simple fact that God put the Old Testament into Scripture ought to result in it being preached from time to time, and no other reason is needed.  As T. Howard notes, it's not done a lot because many do not understand it and its relationship to grace (there's Hebrews again), and a big part of that is that too often, pastors have used the Torah as a bludgeon instead of in its proper context.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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