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Handling the Old Testament Faithfully

What the New Testament use of the Old teaches preachers today
Handling the Old Testament Faithfully
Image: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

Do the writers of the New Testament tell us how they are using their Bible? That is, are there discrete texts that not only cite Old Testament passages but also describe the hermeneutic underlying those citations? Yes, there are such texts. The number of them is limited, and therefore the task is focused. In this study I will confine myself to thirteen of them, seven from Paul, two from Luke, two from the writer to the Hebrews, one from Peter, and one from James.

1 Timothy 3:16–17

Perhaps the most basic text and therefore most easily overlooked is 1 Timothy 3:16-17. "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (all texts cited are in ESV). This description of the Bible not only documents the source of all of it (God himself) but also details four immediate purposes (teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness) that together equip the person of God for a more intermediate purpose, namely, doing every good work.

The fact that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable is not unrelated to its role in making God's people competent for all good works. This text reminds us that it is not only permissible, not merely appropriate, but is indeed required to use the text of Scripture pastorally since that is the reason for which God breathed it out, the profit that it was meant to engender.

These words remove the wedge between so-called "head knowledge" and "heart knowledge" by subsuming both doctrine and the three other immediate uses under the same purpose. All of these profitable uses assume that the Scripture itself is active to achieve these things, just as in the context it is said to make us wise for salvation through Jesus Christ (see 2 Timothy 3:15). So when we come to any text of the Old Testament, we are to read and study it expectantly believing with biblical warrant that it will be profitable. When we joke about getting bogged down in Leviticus or in the first nine chapters from the Chronicles, we reveal, perhaps, that we are not reading those texts with the eyes of faith, trusting the Word of God to go to work in us who believe (see 1 Thessalonians 2:13).

Romans 15:4

A second cluster of texts moves us from the general to the specific. Among these is Romans 15:4: "For whatever was written in former days was written for your instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." The pastoral purpose of this paragraph is to drive home the point made in the previous chapter of Romans, that the strong should bear with the weak, which entails not pleasing ourselves.

The chief example of this behavior is the Lord Jesus himself and the biblical evidence for that is drawn from the messianic Psalm 69. The statement cited ("The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.") is taken to refer to Christ especially since it is adjacent to the words, "For zeal for your house has consumed me," that are recalled by the disciples who witnessed Jesus' cleansing of the temple as recorded in John 2.

How are these words meant to instruct and grant the endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures? God himself is rightly described by those two words (Rom 15:5). And Christ manifested those qualities perfectly in the face of the ultimate persecution and rejection. The Scriptures encourage us to the obedience of faith and enable us to persevere by means of theology, and often, as here, by means of Christology. The example of Jesus encourages us, and Scripture points us to him. His example is not a bare example—do as Jesus did—but is an example of walking by faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is why reading biblical examples properly gives us hope and not despair.

This, by the way, is a valuable homiletical test. Does my handling of the Word ultimately give hope, or does it place upon my listeners an impossible standard and crush them into ever-finer dust beneath the weight of impossible examples? Even Jesus in his perfection is an encouraging example. The very fact that he suffered puts our sufferings in context. Notice that, once again, Paul casts the net widely: "Whatever was written in former days." He expects those relatively young believers to interpret the Hebrew Bible Christologically as the Lord's discourse recorded in Luke 24 modeled and Paul now reinforces.

Notice further that this application has both an individual and a corporate dimension. Individual believers are to forgo pleasing themselves (Romans 15:2-3) so that there may be harmony within the church (Rom 15:6), so that God may be glorified by a unified voice.

Romans 4:23–24

A third text that reinforces this specific use of Old Testament texts comes in Romans 4:23-24. Paul is arguing that righteousness comes by faith. In Romans 4, Paul anticipates and answers the objection that Abraham is an exception to this rule, an exception of such magnitude that Paul's argument falls to the ground if indeed Abraham was justified by works. Paul sets forth a detailed and carefully reasoned case to prove that Abraham was justified by faith. A key phrase, "counted to him as righteousness" (22), from Genesis 15:6 clinches the argument. Immediately, Paul tells us how he understands these words to apply. "But the words, 'it was counted to him' were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification" (23-24).

It would seem to be untenable to hold that what we have in Genesis 15:6 was written for the benefit of Abraham. He lived it, but he did not read it. But the dia phrase in Romans 4:23 could be translated, "And it was written not on his account alone," as Young's Literal Translation does. That is, it was written because it describes Abraham's case, but also because it describes ours if we believe in Jesus.

So, here we have an example of an Old Testament text about a historical personage mentions whom the biblical text not just to record how God treated him, but also to describe how righteousness will be attributed to us who believe in Jesus.

The question naturally arises: is this a unique or rare case, or is it common? To put it otherwise, are we justified in extrapolating from this individual instance and concluding that many texts were written for us? The answer suggested by the first two texts we have considered is yes. This is not an isolated case but a case in point. In my judgment, it would be an example designed to teach us not so much of God's nature, though that is implied, as it is designed to teach us his ways: how God acts. Paul is arguing that God deals with people in the same way, reckoning righteousness to them when they believe.

To be sure, we need to exercise caution when we interpret texts lest we generalize inappropriately from an individual instance. For example, to conclude from God's dealings with Gideon that God will always grant foolproof, miraculous, unambiguous signs to hesitant leaders would be going too far. But to say that God reassures those he calls to ministry in ways that help them obey is probably not overstating God's ways. In the present case, it is significant that the editorial comment in Genesis 15:6 is picked up not only here but also in Galatians 3:6 and James 2:23, as well as in Psalm 106:31. This is the way God has chosen to act. It is the way he shows mercy without compromising his own righteousness. It fits within the larger pattern of his character.

1 Corinthians 9:8–10

In the context of 1 Corinthians 9:8–10, Paul is defending his right to receive some maintenance from those among whom he ministers. Although this is a right which Paul is willing to forgo, he is eager to maintain the right in principle and argues for it in several ways, including the cases of the soldier, the vinedresser, and the shepherd, a command of the Lord, and the example of priests who are allowed to share in the sacrificial offerings in the temple. One part of his case is stated as follows:

Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain." Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? (1 Corinthians 9:8–12a)

The words Paul cites from Deuteronomy 25:4 seem to be related to other commands in that context only by the diversity of subjects they address. Although one could infer from texts such as Jonah 4:11 that God cares for livestock, Paul asserts that it is not concern for oxen that put this text in the canon but entirely, "by all means" (YLT), his concern for us who sow spiritual things. As the ox should be unmuzzled, free to graze as he treads, so the Christian minister who is sowing spiritual things should be free to receive material things. Paul is unashamed to take a text from its original context and apply it to church life, and to say that this is its primary, perhaps only, application.

His willingness to read the Old Testament text this way seems to hinge upon the assumption that this picture provides a valid illustration of God's care for those who labor in the gospel. He takes it as a snapshot of the mind of God and implicitly engages in a how-much-more argument, moving from the images in the text of the plowman and thresher who plow and thresh in hope of sharing the crop to his coworkers and himself.

Moreover, the fact that Paul cites the Law of Moses elevates his argument from the plane of the merely human—"Do I say these things on human authority?" (v. 8)—to that of the divinely authorized. This, in my judgment, is perhaps the most daring use of the Old Testament of our thirteen texts and the one with the least demonstrable control. Nevertheless, it is consistent with Paul's normal approach, which is to use the Bible in the service of proclamation. He states that the Bible speaks of us and to us. From passages we might not expect, it tells us how to order our corporate and individual life.

As Richard Hays reminds us: "Exegesis gives us critical distance from the text; preaching thrusts the text's word directly into our faces. The word is near us and it demands a response. This strategy is risky, because it strips away critical controls, exposing us to the danger of arbitrary or manipulative interpretations. On the other hand, unless we learn from Paul to read Scripture as a word addressed directly to us, we will never proclaim the word of God with power."[i]

1 Corinthians 10:1–13

1 Corinthians 10:1–13 is the fifth passage where Paul claims that the Old Testament speaks directly to us. The events mentioned all relate to the Exodus and wilderness wanderings. Some of them are easy to document from the Old Testament; others are not. In verses 6 and 11, he calls them all "types" (NIV, ESV, "examples"), and further states that they were written down as instruction for us on whom the end of the ages has come.

Paul deliberately contrasts "all" who enjoyed privileges of being delivered from bondage (five times in verses 1–4) and "some" (four times in verses 7–10) who were idolaters, indulged in sexual immorality, put Christ to the test, or grumbled. And that "some" was a majority—those with whom God was not pleased as evidenced by his overthrowing them in the wilderness (5). The slight asymmetry between the five "all's" and the four "some's" almost has us wanting to make sure we do not complete the pattern by being among the "some" who are meant to be warned by the negative examples. The warning is especially aimed at those who are tempted to presume upon what God has already done for us as a class of people, those who in the words of verse 12 think they stand.

Significantly, the events themselves are said to have happened, or taken place, for didactic purposes. It is not just that God inspired a word for our warning; he sovereignly allowed—perhaps we can even say orchestrated—events from which we can learn. These events happened not merely to teach us about God's nature or ways, but also about ourselves, our temptations. They were recorded purposefully. The events themselves served as contemporary examples to the Israelites who lived through them, but the recording of them was for our instruction who live between the first and second comings.

Ironically, such examples encourage us, and remind us that temptation has always been the human lot. We cannot excuse our disobedience with the thought that our temptations are unique and therefore more powerful and irresistible than the temptations others face. By describing the Israelite rebellion as being against Christ (4, 9), Paul uses their sins as pictures of the temptation to idolatry that Christians face. Historical events happened and were recorded for the express benefit of those who may see the negative example and avoid the sin it depicts. The relevance is specifically said to include those who live in the overlap of the ages. That is, the usefulness is not restricted to the apostolic era.

Underlying the contemporary applicability is theology. God is faithful (13) and jealous (22). We are not stronger than he is. Paul invites his readers to consider Israel (18) in order to learn from their mistakes. This invitation is one that we who preach are surely justified in copying.

Jonathan Edwards famously extends this sort of thinking. As Nelson D. Kloosterman notes, "Typology was the language of Edwards' world view, 'a way of looking at persons and events in the light of a theology of history which postulates the presence and relevance of an eternal God at every individual moment of time.'"[ii] In other words, affirming that events in biblical history speak to us today rests on a strong view of God's sovereignty as one who intentionally weaves pictures into history that those indwelt by the Spirit and guided by the Scriptures can legitimately see as instructive in the present.

Romans 16:25-27 and Galatians 4:24

The two remaining Pauline texts are less clear but worth mentioning. Romans 16:25–27 tells us the kerugma of Jesus Christ (a mystery once hidden) has been made known through the prophetic writings to bring about the obedience of faith. Once again we see that God's intention for prophetic texts is both revelation and formation. The Scriptures are informative and purposeful, and their proper use in making disciples reflects both characteristics.

Galatians 4:24 contains the phrase, "Now this may be interpreted allegorically" (atina estin allhgoroumena). Paul is putting a name to an interpretive strategy. He explains that the two women and their sons stand for two covenants, two ways of relating to God, one according to the flesh, the other according to the promise. Certain individual Old Testament characters, apparently, may be taken as representative of God's dealings with people and illustrative of valid and invalid ways of relating to God. The introductory challenge to listen to the law (4:21) reinforces the idea that what follows is a valid way of handling the law that Paul's listeners claim to value.

1 Peter 1:12

First Peter 1:12 says, "It was revealed to them [that is, "the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours"(10)] that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look."

Working backwards in this verse, we see that Peter is saying that Spirit-filled preachers announced a message that angels longed to see. That Spirit-given message was preached to Peter's initial readers. Of what did it consist? It included "the grace that was to be yours," and "the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories." The prophets did not know the details, but the Spirit of Christ within them gave them a message. That message was not merely for their contemporaries. It was for those to whom the gospel itself has now been preached. The prophets who heard it from Christ gave it for us.

The only way for the Spirit's revelation to the prophets to make sense in this text is for the New-Testament-era preachers to have used the prophetic texts in proclaiming the gospel. Otherwise it is not the prophets who are serving the church. Old Testament texts serve New Testament believers when those texts are allowed to announce the gospel of grace and to lay out the pattern of suffering as the way to glory.

Peter is describing how Spirit-moved evangelists used the Hebrew Bible to speak to their contemporaries. First Peter 1:24–25 reinforces this view of Scripture. The gospel may and should be preached from the Old Testament! As John Bright put it long ago, "The Christian gospel cannot be preached only from Act II of the drama of redemption without misunderstanding and distortion."[iii]

The remaining five texts from Luke, the author of the Book of Hebrews, and James are little more than glimpses into the thinking of these authors (or the speakers whose words they report) and are added here as a reminder that Paul and Peter were not alone in their professed use of the Old Testament.

Acts 7:38 records a line concerning Moses from Stephen's final message: "He received living oracles [iv] (1) to give to us." Assuming that this translation reflects the better reading and that the last word is indeed "us" and not "you" as some manuscripts have, Stephen, even if he was maximizing his solidarity with his Jewish brothers and fathers, was affirming that the Bible was revealed not merely for its initial recipients or for their contemporaries, but for those in subsequent generations. These words are living oracles that continue to speak.

Acts 13:47 reflects what Paul and Barnabas said in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. "For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, 'I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'" [Emphasis added]. The words from Isaiah 49:6 that refer there to the servant of the Lord are taken by Paul and Barnabas as a command addressed to them. These Christian preachers are reporting how they interpret an Old Testament text as a word from God to them.

The writer to the Hebrews in Hebrews 11:4 says of Abel, "though he died, he still speaks." That is to say, Abel's example still speaks.

Hebrews 12:5–6 introduces a citation of Proverbs 3:11–12 with this question: "Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?" The clear implication is that this Old Testament text addresses contemporary Christians.

James 5:10–11 says, "Take as a pattern, brothers, of those who suffer evils and of those who patiently endure, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Indeed we count as blessed those who endure. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the purpose of the Lord, that the Lord is compassionate and merciful." James invites his readers to look to the examples supplied by the endurance of the prophets and Job. Once again, behavior of an Old Testament personage is set forth as an example to follow, a model (deigma) to imitate.

Conclusions and Applications

I summarize my conclusions as follows:

  1. Preachers should expect all biblical texts to speak to us and to our listeners since they were written for us and for our benefit, but not expect them all to speak in the same way.
  2. The enduring contemporary usefulness of the Bible is rooted in the sovereignty of God. He orchestrated events and moved prophets and apostles to record them for those of us living in the overlap of the ages.
  3. We should expect to learn from individual Old Testament characters, the people of God in general, God's expressed concerns for his creatures, historical events, God's ways of dealing with his people (individually and corporately), and even from phrases in the text that describe the principles by which he operates.
  4. We should expect examples to be both positive and negative, encouraging and warning us. Texts do not have to aim at the heart of the gospel to be useful to our listeners.[v]
  5. We should interpret Old Testament texts Christologically, discerning how what they describe relates to Christ as a pointer to how it relates to us.
  6. We should interpret texts eschatologically, taking into account where we are in the flow of biblical history.

I offer the following specific applications:

  1. Use Old Testament texts as illustrations and amplifications of New Testament ones and of explicitly Christian themes. For instance, Psalm 110 reinforces the doctrine of the lordship of Christ. It makes the case that the Father is committed to the lordship of Christ.
  2. Don't rule out any Old Testament text as unfruitful to preach. Character studies, for instance, need not be preached in the "dare to be a Daniel" mode. Daniel 1, for instance, speaks volumes about God's sovereignty in raising up Daniel and his friends for the purpose of preserving the remnant and therefore keeping the covenant promises. On the other hand, Ezekiel 14:14, 20 indicate that, already, Daniel (and for that matter Job and Noah) were looked to as examples. We should not hesitate to see them as such. When confronted with a text that describes a negative example such as Nabal, we will want to ask how he functions in the narrative. Then, instead of merely warning our listeners not to be like Nabal, we will see his secondary role as creating the occasion for Abigail to act redemptively, and once again for God to keep his word. Other common heroes such as Samuel, Hezekiah, and David should be shown in their weaknesses as well as strengths, not as those we are to mimic but as those with and through whom God worked to fulfill—ultimately—his plan of redemption.
  3. See God's dealings as typical if not typological. He remains longsuffering. He is unalterably angry at sin. He calls people to himself for his own glory as well as their benefit and that of others (for example, Genesis 12:1–3).
  4. When preaching books, consider expounding biblical books that address settings that discernibly reflect contemporary challenges. That is, think in terms of the situation into which the text was a word of encouragement and hope or censure and warning. At the outset, help your listeners see the similarities between the circumstances of the first hearers to their own. So, for instance, Habakkuk's joyful waiting arose not from what he knew was going to happen next—God's judgment—but from what he knew about God's character and what he came to see about God's plan. Christians who live in a violent world where terrorist attacks are commonplace can identify with his circumstances and learn from what he learned.
  5. Expect God to speak to your listeners. Humble yourself and pray for the wisdom and perspective necessary to hear what God is saying to your listeners through the text. As you preach in faith, learn from trustworthy guides as you seek to discern what God is saying to the church in the present. To quote Kloosterman again (referring to Jonathan Edwards):

Edwards erected clearly-marked guard rails for interpreting God's word and deed in nature and providence. Preeminent among them is the primacy of Scripture for teaching this divine language and identifying God's hand. Another safeguard is that only spiritual persons—those regenerated by the Holy Spirit into faith—can apprehend the typology of nature and history. A third protection is the conviction that God's speech in Scripture, creation, and providence is univocal, Christocentric, and therefore harmonious. A fourth guard is the distinction he maintained between salvation events (including special revelation) that are constitutive and determinative, and those events that are derivative and applicatory.


I recently received the following email (edited slightly):

I have a speaking opportunity here at the church on New Year's weekend. I wanted to seek your advice on an approach to my passage: Deuteronomy 1:26–36. It recaps how Moses sent in the spies to the Promised Land, but only Caleb spoke up for what God would want to do. My thoughts right now are to contrast godly optimism with deadly pessimism. My hope is that people will want to move forward with God in 2006 and trust him to do that. I'm leery, though, of people taking away thoughts of just being positive—a kind of self-help, positive-mental-attitude thing. I'd love to get your feedback on how to avoid that, but teach the truth of moving forward with faith in God.

I phoned my former student, and we had a good chat. Here are some of the things I told him or have thought of since then that would inform my own preaching of this text.

  1. Beware of having an idea in search of a text. The first Sunday of the year is a sitting duck for this error. This pastor had no constraints upon him and admitted that he had chosen the text with an idea already in mind. My clue that he had done this was that the text involved does have a paragraph break after verse 36, but in this narrative portion, it makes more sense to go on to the end of the chapter. He wanted to go only as far as verse 36 to pick up the positive example of Caleb.
  2. It is possible to preach a negative example in a positive way. We don't have to gloss over what is negative to make a positive point. This text (1:19–46) is in the context of a recitation of the faithfulness of God to his promises despite Israel's rebellion. Since the text predominantly describes Israel's rebellion and unrepentant condition, I recommended that he major on their failure, using Scripture as a mirror, held up before the congregation so that they could see their hearts. I encouraged the pastor to notice the Israelites' failure to recall how God had worked in the past and how he had promised to go before them in the future, as well as how they thought behavioral obedience to a former command would please God against whom they were still in arrogant rebellion. The proof of this is that they still did not listen to God's voice. Consequently God did not listen to them. In this text, the positive emphasis comes not from giving Caleb equal time in the sermon, but from allowing his obedience to be the foil that helps clarify where most of the Israelites went wrong. They rebelled; he followed the Lord wholeheartedly (1:36). The good news of this text is that God will be faithful to himself and merciful to those he has called, but always for the purposes of exalting his Name.
  3. Let the context dictate the application. It is not until chapter 4 that we hear the summation of this section. There, Moses applies his own recitation of Israel's history. In addition to a straightforward charge to obey all the laws that Moses will shortly reaffirm, he challenges them to recall the uniqueness of their national history and of the God behind that uniqueness (4:7–8; 32–35). At the heart of the sought-for obedience is a purpose: "so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land" (4:10). To put it another way, we get to discipleship via theology. The text itself will always tell us how it wants to be applied if we will patiently read the context.
  4. The application is contextualized for New Year's Day by helping listeners think about how to look to the past (as evidence of God's sovereign faithfulness) and instruction concerning how to face the future (with God's promise to go before them and fight their battles). It provides the further caution against knee-jerk obedience that assumes that capitulating to a practice that God formerly required is sufficient from those who are still in rebellion against the Lord.

I took the challenge and preached this text myself on January 8th in a setting where my time was severely limited to about 16 minutes. I simply asked permission to read a story God had given specifically for their benefit and read Deuteronomy 1:19–46. It took four minutes and twenty seconds. Then I invited them to observe that rebellion against God has two faces: direct disobedience to the command of God (1:21, 26, 29, 32) and misplaced "obedience" which is arrogance. Both are labeled "rebellion" (26, 43).

Next, I encouraged them to take seriously the grave consequences of rebellion against God: his righteous anger (34, 37), our forfeited promises (35), and most frightening, his deaf ear (34, 45). Finally, I challenged them to do what Israel failed to do: look back to see God's faithfulness (30–31), and move forward in obedience, trusting God to go before you and guide you (30, 33).

I had the confidence to preach this text at least in part because the New Testament writers tell me in their inspired words how they are using other Old Testament texts.

[i] Hays, 184–5.

[ii] Nelson D. Kloosterman, "The Use of Typology in Post-Canonical Salvation History: An Orientation to Jonathan Edwards' A History of the Work of Redemption," MJT 14 (2003): 83. The words he cites are from Joseph A. Galdon, "Typology and Seventeenth Century Literature" cited in Mason I Lowance, Jr. with David H. Watters, "Introduction to 'Types of the Messiah,'" 162, note 5.

[iii] John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), 204.

[iv] Logia is used here as in 1 Peter 4:11, where it is a description of how those who speak in the church are to speak—as oracles of God.

[v] Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, 249.

Greg Scharf is the professor emeritus of Homiletics and Pastoral Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of Prepared to Preach (Christian Focus).

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