Preaching Christ from the Old Testament
By Nicholas J. Mattei
The risen Christ declares, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last” (Rev. 22:13). If this is so, a student of the Scriptures ought to be able to see Christ throughout the whole canon of the Bible, whether in the Old or New Testament. Following after this, the preacher ought to be able to proclaim Christ from Genesis to Revelation. Seeing and preaching Christ from the Old Testament, however, is sadly overlooked, deemphasized, or flat out denied in our modern evangelical context. This should not be. Certainly, the Scriptures do not give us warrant to take such positions and dispositions that we find in modern evangelicalism, but why are those there in the first place? And how do we faithfully exalt and proclaim Christ from not only the New Testament, but also the Old?
We can trace the seeds of the denial of the continuity of the Old and New Testament and hence the denial of seeing Christ in the OT back to the 2nd Century B.C to a man named Marcion. Marcion was an infamous early church heretic. He was the founder and leader of a sect of Gnosticism which eventually took on his namesake: Marcionism. Nick Needham gives a succinct summary of the core belief of Marcion by stating:
“In his more sober form of Gnosticism, Marcion taught that the Old Testament God was the Demiurge, a cruel and unloving Being, and Judaism was an evil religion, a religion of law and works and self-righteousness. The New Testament, by contrast, was the book of the supreme God, the heavenly Father revealed by Jesus Christ, and it taught a totally different religion of grace and faith and freedom… Marcion also produced his own version of the New Testament. He threw out everything that had a Jewish element, accepting only Luke’s Gospel and most of Paul’s letters. According to Marcion, Paul was the only apostle who had really understood Jesus.”
It was not long until the early church swiftly and publicly condemned such views. Irenaeus was one of the chief early church leaders who denounced Marcion and severely critiqued his erroneous view of God and the Scriptures. Many other theologians followed suit in writing treatises refuting Marcion and Marcionism. Yet, Marcionism became a worldwide movement that lasted until the 6th century.
Today, sadly, we still see the effects of Marcionism. With the rise of the Enlightenment, forms of Marcionism reemerged and once again challenged the continuity of the OT and NT and even pitted them against one another. Two examples of modern theologians taking these views would be Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). Schleiermacher stated, “The relations of Christianity to Judaism and Heathenism are the same, inasmuch as the transition from either of these to Christianity is a transition to another religion.” He also suggested that it might be better “if the Old Testament were put after the New as an appendix.” Bultmann adds further separation between the OT and the NT and Israel and the church by saying,
“For the person who stands within the Church, the history of Israel is a closed chapter…. Israel’s history is not our history, and in so far as God has shown his grace in that history, such grace is not meant for us…. To us the history of Israel is not history of revelation. The events which meant something for Israel, which were God’s Word, mean nothing more to us.”
Bultmann’s view also seems to carry over into, and has similarities with, the thinking of Evangelicals in the from of Dispensationalism.
Dispensationalism is view that became popular within American Evangelicalism during the 19th and 20th centuries. Its basic tenants are that God has dealt and continues to deal with humanity in terms of different administrations or dispensations throughout time. There are seven dispensations in which God is working in and throughout history, and they are that of Innocence, Conscience, Government, Promise, Law, Grace, and Kingdom. According to Dispensationalism, right now, we are in the 6th dispensation of grace and awaiting the 7th dispensation of the millennial kingdom of Christ. Furthermore, because we are in the dispensation of grace, the other dispensations are over with and don’t have anything more to say to us. With this comes the separation of the nation of Israel and the Church. Dispensationalism teaches that God has two peoples: the church and Israel, and God has two different plans for each group. So, when the dispensation of grace is over and the church is raptured away, God will continue his plan for the nation of Israel that was put on hold back in the 5th dispensation. In dispensationalism the Church was just an afterthought or parentheses because the Jews rejected the kingdom offered by Christ. So only in the 7th dispensation of the Millennial kingdom will the promises that are foretold in the Old Testament be fulfilled for the Jews. What effect then does Marcionism and dispensationalism have on preaching Christ from the OT? Well, they leave many pressing issues such as how can Christ be proclaimed from the OT if He is different and even opposed to the God of the OT? How do we preach Christ from the OT when most of what is prophesied in the OT is for the earthly Jewish millennial kingdom only? How can we preach the Triune God’s promises in the OT to His people when we the Church are just a parenthesis? In general, the OT is mostly just a record of what happened in a completed dispensation without much bearing on our lives as Christians here and now. So how should we view the Old Testament? Can and should Christ be proclaimed from the OT to the Church? And if so, how?
We must begin to interpret and understand the OT by way of examining our presuppositions. Unless we begin with the reality of the infinite, personal, triune, creator God, we cannot make sense of the OT, or even our human reason. As Cornelius Van Til has taught, one cannot make sense of science, reason, or morality without the God of the Scriptures, and to even begin to argue against His existence is to steal from the Christian worldview to even have a sufficient base to do so. This is because Christian Theism provides the preconditions for intelligibility, whereas all non-Christian forms of philosophy do not. So, when beginning our look at the OT we must acknowledge that God has declared in the OT that He is revealing Himself to His creatures by way of natural revelation in the creation around us and our conscience and the special revelation of His inspired Word, the Scriptures. As the authors of Let the Reader Understand have put it:
“The Christian ... affirms the validity of human reason, but maintains that it can have a proper ground only if we acknowledge first that God the Creator exists, and that he has communicated with humanity, and that he constituted our reason as an effective tool to comprehend language and everything else in the created world. This Christian starting point is not a groundless assumption. According to Romans 1:19-21, all human beings are constituted such that they know the essential attributes of God, because the creation screams at them that it, and they themselves, have been made by God. That is, everyone has a built-in ability to recognize the plain, self- evident God by the created universe.” 
We must therefore begin with what the OT says about itself and then move forward from there. When one looks at the OT, we see multiple verses about God speaking directly or commanding and inspiring His prophets to write and speak the words that He is giving them (Gen. 1:3, Exod. 17:14, Exod. 32:15-16, Dt. 4:1-2, 2 Sam. 23:1-2). Not only that, but the phrases “Thus says the LORD” or “The word of the LORD” or “The commandments of God” appear over one thousand times in the OT itself. It is clear that the OT is declaring itself to be the revelation of the infinite, personal, creator God. Not only that but the New Testament also includes its own witness to the inspiration of the OT (Matt. 22:31-32, Jn. 10:34-36, Rom. 3:1-2, Acts 1:16, 2 Tm. 3:15-17).
After establishing that the OT is the self-revelation of God, we need to understand what some of the themes are that will help us in understanding and interpreting it and how Christ is revealed through it. The first theme is that of storyline. As G.K Beale has said, a storyline “reflects a unified story yet contains multiple themes that are incased in a narrative canonical plotline.” We see this storyline take shape more fully when we consider the ordering of the books of the OT in its original Hebrew order. This order is referred to as the Tanakh, or Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim which refers to the Law, Prophets and Writings. As Stephen G. Dempster states:
“The Tanakh is not a random concatenation of texts, but a Text with a discernible structure, a clear beginning, a middle and an ending. Genesis and Chronicles are the beginning and ending, and the middle is carried with a narrative storyline into which many and various poems, much legislation, lists, building instructions, tribal boundary records, reports of visions and prophecies and many small stories have been appropriately placed. The narrative continues until it is interrupted by a substantial block of poetic commentary from the prophet Jeremiah through to the book of Lamentations, after which it resumes with Daniel and concludes with Chronicles.”
In this storyline we see the creation of the world; the fall of man; God promising redemption through the ‘seed of the woman;’ the call of Abraham and the establishment of God’s covenant with him and the promise of a seed, land, and nation and the promise of being a blessing to all nations; the formation of that nation and its receiving the name Israel; the redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt; the establishment of Israel as a theocratic nation through the covenant of Moses, giving it moral, ceremonial and civil laws. We then see the conquering of the promised land, the division and settlement within that land, the establishment of a royal line of kings through the covenant with David and a promise of a future seed who will rule forever, the apostacy and disobedience of Israel and its eventual exile out of the land, the promise of a new covenant, the return to the land after exile and the wait for Messiah who will bring in everlasting righteousness and the kingdom of heaven. From Genesis to Chronicles this storyline is developed, and as Dempster states, “these two books, which function to introduce and conclude the cannon and which have such strikingly similar endings, keep the main storyline in view with the two of its important themes - dynasty and dominion - being realized through the Davidic house.”
A few more themes that help in interpreting the OT and that reveal Christ through it are typology, covenant and kingdom. Typology is the study of types and these types “reveal something greater, and other, than themselves.” They point to greater and fuller meaning in a final antitype, and these types terminate in their antitypes. Covenant and kingdom are the other themes, and convent means “a guaranteed commitment or an oath bound-commitment” with sanctions and threats being put in place to guarantee the fulfillment of the commitments. We see God entering into covenants throughout the OT and making promises to Adam and Abraham and then to the nation of Israel through Moses and then to David. Covenants function closely to the theme of kingdom, as Sam Renihan says:
“Covenants function as the legal basis upon which God interacts with man in a given kingdom. Covenants establish the boundaries of a kingdom, appoint federal heads, grant promises, impose laws, define the offspring of the federal head, and specify all other pertinent and necessary details of how God will exercise His dominion through the federal head and his offspring. By way of covenant, every party involved in a kingdom can know how to act and what to expect. Kingdoms manifest themselves in visible forms through the terms of their covenant. The kingdom is the covenant realized, implemented, or actualized.”
Though all of these themes are established in the OT, they do not find completion in the OT. There is an anticipation for the fulfilment and completion of the story, and the types and the covenants and kingdoms. The completion and fulfilment are found in the New Testament, as the NT is the continuation of the single strand of redemptive history that began in the OT. As Sidney Greidanus states:
“Although the New Testament shows many discontinuities with the Old Testament, it reveals even more continuities, and these continuities are more fundamental. The New Testament authors repeat over and over the connections: Old Testament promises come to fulfillment in the New Testament; Old Testament types find their fulfillment in New Testament antitypes; and old Testament themes, such as the kingdom of God, covenant and redemption, even while undergoing dramatic transformation, are continued into the New Testament. All of these links demonstrate the unity of the Old and New Testament.”
Ultimately this fulfillment, completion and connection is founded in a person, the Lord Jesus Christ.
How does Jesus Christ fulfil all these things? To start Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matt. 5:17). This means, “to reveal its full meaning and bring it to its consummation.” Jesus explained the law and then carried out its demands in perfect obedience. In his active obedience he obeyed all that was required of a man under the Law of Moses. He was circumcised on the eighth day (Lk. 2:21), He was dedicated to God as the firstborn in his family (Lk. 2:23), He kept the commandments of God and observed the Sabbath and the feasts. He did not sin when He was tempted but obeyed God perfectly in His wilderness temptation of 40 days as the true Israel (Matt. 4). In His passive obedience He submitted to death, ‘even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). He acted as the sacrificial substitute for the sins of His people by being the Passover male lamb, without blemish (Exod. 12:1-11). We see this in Israel’s sacrificial system, and its use of a spotless lamb for a sin offering. That is the type, and the antitype is Jesus, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). We see the Gospel writers trace Jesus’ genealogy records back to Abraham, Judah and David in Matthew 1, Adam in Luke 1, and eternity past in John 1. Jesus is the promised “seed of the woman.” He is son of David and the Shiloh that comes out of Judah (Gen. 49:10). Jesus is the final revelation and the One who created the world (Heb. 1:1-3). Jesus himself identifies with Yahweh in His “I Am” sayings in John 8. Jesus declares that He is the fulfillment of OT scriptures by saying, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness of me” (Jn. 5:39). Jesus again declares this same truth in John 5:46 when he says, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” And finally, in the Gospel of Luke, after His resurrection Jesus upbraids his unbelieving disciples by saying,
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
And just a little while after making these statements, Jesus says to the rest of His disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk. 24:44). Jesus interestingly enough actually here uses the Hebrew three-fold division of the Law, Prophets and Writings of the OT to make his point! Jesus is identifying Himself as the suffering servant. During His earthly life He referred to Himself many times as the “Son of Man,” pointing to the prophecies in Daniel chapter 7. He is also identified as the messianic king through the genealogies connecting Him to the line of David and His riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. “Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). Much more could be said to show how Jesus fulfills and completes the OT, but time and space prevents me. All in all,
“After examining the concepts of messianic king, Son of Man, and Suffering Servant, William Lasor concludes, To the best of my knowledge, no one prior to the time of Jesus ever attempted to bring these three concepts together in our person. Jesus did.”
We come now to how Christ should be preached from the OT seeing that He is its fulfillment and essence. The principle for preaching Christ from the OT is that as the preacher interprets the OT text he is working with; he must interpret it from the perspective of the NT. Sidney Greidanus expounds on this point by saying,
“The necessity to read the Old Testament from the perspective of the New also follows from the progressive nature of redemptive history. The arrival of Jesus in the ‘fullness of time’ and God’s final revelation in him calls for reading the Old Testament from the perspective of this final revelation. John Stek clarifies this point: “The fact of progression in salvation history demands an ever new hearing of the word of the Lord spoken at an earlier movement in salvation history.”
One of the ways hermeneutically to go about this “new hearing” is to think about revelation in a circle. Greidanus illustrates this point in his book by showing one part of the circle being the OT passages, and this then connects to another part on the circle which is the NT passages, and this part connects to Jesus Christ Himself who then is connected to the OT passages, thus completing the circle. You cannot fully understand any point of the circle apart from the others. You cannot understand the NT apart from the OT and you cannot understand Christ without the NT and you cannot understand the OT without Christ. So, how does this look in the practice of preaching? One way to do this is when preaching from an OT text, you flow from it to Christ in the NT. This is done by linking the OT text to the NT by a feature or hint or clue within the text that allows you to make the connection to the NT. I will use an example from a sermon I preached that shows this method. My text was Ecclesiastes 1:18 “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” I connected this to the NT and to Christ by contrasting the characteristics of true wisdom and knowledge and the suffering that they bring, with the false and vain worldly wisdom and knowledge. The true wisdom and knowledge and sorrow find their representation in the suffering servant Jesus Christ. In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). His ministry portrayed His immense wisdom and knowledge and the great grief and sorrow which He dealt with. All this ultimately culminated in the cross where the wisdom of God was manifested supremely. God solves the problem of fallen humanity “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Through double imputation Christ imputes His perfect righteousness to us and our guilt is imputed to Him on the cross as He suffers and dies, thus reconciling us to God. As you can see, there are two main ways within this example of how to link the OT to the NT. You can link OT passages to the different aspects of Christ’s person and different aspects of Christ’s work. Some texts from the OT can be used to exemplify Christ as a king or Christ as a priest or Christ as a prophet. Others can point to different elements of Christ’s work, like that of the great battle and victory He won on the cross, or the wrath He bore as a substitute for his people, or the great influence that comes as He draws all men to Himself by being lifted up. The combinations of the different aspects of His person and work are many. And this is one of the great benefits of preaching Christ from the OT. One is able to see more fully the different aspects of His person and work though the different types and themes from the OT. Another benefit of preaching Christ from the OT is that it acquaints Christians more with the OT itself. As Greidanus says,
“Specific benefits accrue to the preacher as well as the congregation from a fuller understanding of God’s revelation: the Old Testament discloses the history of redemption leading to Christ; it proclaims truth not found in the New Testament; it helps us understand the New Testament; and it prevents misunderstand of the New Testament.”
The benefits are broad and deep to the Church of Jesus Christ when Christ is proclaimed faithfully and rightly from the OT.
As we have seen, the OT is the word of the living God. It is structured in such a way as to anticipate and perfectly lead up to the watershed moment of human history: the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. It should be the desire of all true Christians to want to know Christ more and be conformed to His image, and one great way to achieve this is to know the OT better. As Christopher Wright so succinctly put it, “the more you understand the Old Testament, the closer you will come to the heart of Jesus.” Amen.
 N.R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power Part One: The Age of the Early Church Fathers (London, England: Grace Publications Trust, 2002), 97.
 Ibid, 98.
 Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 20.
 Ibid, 2.
 Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2002), 8. (Quoted in class lectures).
 G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology (Ada, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2011), 15. (Quoted in class lectures).
 Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2003), 46. (Quoted in class lectures).
 Ibid, 49.
 Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, His Kingdom (Cape Coral, Florida: Founders Press, 2019), 31. (Quoted in class Lectures).
 Ibid, 34.
 Ibid, 40.
 Ibid, 41.
 Ibid, 54.
 Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 48.
 Ibid, 45.
 Ibid, 65.
 Ibid, 52.
 Ibid, 53.
 Ibid, 63.
 Ibid, 67.
Beale, G. K. A New Testament Biblical Theology. Ada, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2011.
Dempster, Stephen G. Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2003.
Greidanus, Sidney. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.
McCartney, Dan and Clayton, Charles. Let the Reader Understand. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2002.
Needham, N.R. 2000 Years of Christ’s Power Part One: The Age of the Early Church Fathers. London, England: Grace Publications Trust, 2002.
Renihan, Samuel. The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, His Kingdom. Cape Coral, Florida: Founders Press, 2019.