The Challenge of Preaching Christ in Genesis

Preaching Christ in Genesis can feel a bit like a guessing game. Is this or that a type? What do we do with all the genealogies? The world of Genesis can seem so foreign that just getting a sense of the context is hard enough. Scholars like T. Desmond Alexander help teachers by clearing away the fog and putting together the hopes and expectations of Genesis fulfilled by Jesus in his life, death, resurrection, and eternal reign. (For many more book, sermon, article, and workshop recommendations, check out TGC’s new page dedicated to helping you preach Christ from Genesis.)

I corresponded with Alexander, senior lecturer in biblical studies and director of postgraduate studies at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on common challenges when preachers consider preaching Christ in Genesis. He discusses issues such as whether or not individuals like Joseph are types and what common themes every pastor should keep in mind when preaching through the Bible’s opening narrative.

What would you say to a pastor for whom the concept of Christ in Genesis is pretty new? Where might he begin in his quest to discover Christ in the Bible’s first book?

I can easily understand how some people struggle to find Christ in Genesis; it might seem like looking for a needle in a haystack. The problem is not that Christ is hidden beneath lots of other things. Rather, it’s recognizing how Genesis points forward to him, anticipating his coming and revealing his importance.

At the heart of the NT understanding of Jesus as the Messiah is the idea that he is the legitimate heir to the Davidic throne. For this reason Matthew’s Gospel begins by emphasizing how Jesus is the Son of David. While this is commonly acknowledged, we do not always appreciate that the roots of the Davidic dynasty are found in the book of Genesis. What begins in Genesis leads to David and from David to Jesus Christ. For this reason Matthew starts his royal genealogy of Jesus with Abraham and not David.

Through a careful use of genealogies, Genesis traces a remarkable family line that begins with Adam and ends with the 12 sons of Jacob. While occasionally other siblings are introduced into the story, they are merely branches in the family tree. The main trunk is what matters, and it eventually leads us beyond Genesis to David and then to Jesus Christ.

All importantly, this unique family line in Genesis is closely associated with royal expectations. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Joseph story where his dreams are interpreted by his brothers as signifying kingship: “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” (Genesis 37:8) By itself this might not seem significant, but Joseph’s dreams come in the light of a family tradition that has regal expectations running through it. Abraham, who rubbed shoulders with kings (e.g., Pharaoh, Melchizedek, Abimelech), was promised by God that kings would come from him (Genesis 17:6). When Isaac blesses Jacob his words resound with royal hopes:Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you” (Genesis 27:29). Later, Jacob blesses Judah using royal language: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:10).

For me, this royal expectation, more than anything else, provides the basis for understanding how Genesis relates to Jesus Christ.

A significant portion of Genesis is devoted to the story of Joseph. Is Joseph a type of Christ?

This is a good question to ask, but not an easy one to answer briefly in a fully satisfactory way. Two things need to be noted. Firstly, those who are core members of the family line that runs throughout Genesis sometimes display positive characteristics that will be found in the future king. Abraham’s faith is one example. I would tentatively suggest that Joseph’s integrity is another. Later, in the royal line, Solomon’s wisdom will be another important hallmark of the future king. Viewed in this way Joseph may be thought to be a type of Christ. Furthermore, the pattern of his life, which results in people being saved from death during a time of severe famine, might be considered to resemble that of Jesus. Joseph’s actions foreshadow a much greater salvation. However, this may only be evident with hindsight.

Second, and this point is rarely noted, in Genesis the future royal line is traced most strongly from Jacob to Joseph and then onward through Joseph’s younger son, Ephraim. We see this occurring when Jacob unexpectedly given the blessing of the firstborn to Ephraim (Genesis 48). Later, Joshua, as an Ephraimite, leads the Israelites into the promised land; Joshua is a king in all but name. However, back in Genesis, after Joseph’s departure to Egypt in chapter 37, Genesis 38 unexpectedly focuses on Judah’s offspring. The chapter concludes with a brief report of twins being born to Tamar, with the younger brother Perez pushing aside his older brother Zerah in order to become the firstborn. We later discover in the book of Ruth that from Perez comes the royal line of David. Key to understanding the significance of these observations is Psalm 78. According to Psalm 78:56-72, in the time of Samuel the royal line of Joseph was rejected by God due to its sinfulness, and at that stage David was appointed by God to continue the family line that begins in Genesis. This shift from the tribe of Ephraim to the tribe of Judah accounts for the importance of both Joseph and Judah in Genesis, and why the tribes of Ephraim and Judah are to the fore in the books of Joshua and Judges. These developments help me to understand how Joseph may be viewed as foreshadowing Jesus Christ.

Is it appropriate to speak of a messianic figure in Genesis even though the term “messiah” isn’t used in the book?

Strictly speaking there is no “messianic figure in Genesis,” not just because the term “messiah” is missing, but because Genesis merely anticipates his coming in the future. Although he is not actually present in Genesis, this book provides clues as to what he will be like and what he will achieve. The entire book anticipates that through a future descendant of Eve the evil one will be defeated and God’s blessing will come to the nations of the earth. All importantly, this divinely promised offspring takes us from Adam to Abraham to David and on to Jesus Christ.

How is messianic typology developed throughout Genesis? What key junctures in the story should every pastor be familiar with?

I personally would prefer to speak of “messianic ideology” being developed in Genesis, rather than “messianic typology.” Building on my earlier observations about the family line that runs throughout Genesis, let me highlight what might, with a little stretch of the imagination, be called “key junctures.” The first concerns the defeat of the serpent, mentioned in Genesis 3:15; traditionally this has been known as the protevangelium (the first announcement of the Gospel). The second is God’s promise to bless the nations of the earth through Abraham and one of his offspring.

As regards the first of these, in Genesis 3 we read about how the serpent persuades Eve and Adam to betray God. The full tragedy of their action becomes apparent when we realize that God has delegated to them responsibility for ruling over other creatures. By obeying a creature rather than the Creator, they make the serpent ruler of this world, becoming themselves his subjects. In response God not only punishes the human couple by removing their royal status, but, in an act of profound grace, also promises that the serpent will eventually be overcome by an offspring of the woman (Genesis 3:15). From Adam and Eve, the offspring is traced to Seth—-see especially Genesis 4:25—-and then to the family line that runs throughout Genesis.

Building on this expectation, the patriarchal stories in Genesis introduce the idea that the nations of the earth will be blessed through Abraham and one of his offspring. This hope lies at the heart of the covenant of circumcision in Genesis 17, where God promises to make Abraham the father of many nations. It is also prominent in Genesis 22:17-18, when God swears to Abraham: “And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” While some interpreters take Abraham’s offspring to refer to the whole nation of Israel, in this quotation the offspring is an individual. From this point on, the mediation of divine blessing is linked to the birthright of the “firstborn” descendants of Abraham. The link between birthright (in Hebrew bekorah) and blessing (in Hebrew berakah) provides an interesting wordplay that is developed most fully in the Jacob-Esau story, where the motifs of birthright and blessing are important. The theme of blessing continues to play an important part in the Joseph story, with Joseph bringing blessing to many nations, a picture that prefigures the much greater blessing that comes through Jesus Christ.

What are some significant canonical themes that appear first in Genesis? How do such themes relate to the growing messianic expectation throughout the OT?

Of the many themes that could be mentioned, those that have struck me most in recent years center on God’s creation plan to make the earth his dwelling place. In line with this, human beings are instructed to fill the earth and exercise dominion over all other creatures as God’s vice-regents. Behind these instructions lies the creation of a garden-city, where God will dwell in harmony with people. Unfortunately, after Adam and Eve’s betrayal of God, the earth becomes defiled by human violence, as sinful people become city-kingdom builders, Babel (or Babylon) typifying their aspiration to be autonomous. Against this background the process of divine redemption unfolds. As God reclaims the earth for himself and redeems humanity from the powers of evil and death, there is a progressive movement from Eden, to the tabernacle, to the temple, to Jerusalem (the temple-city), to the church, to the New Jerusalem. Central to this is the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who as the perfect human vice-regent establishes God’s kingdom on the earth, and who through his sacrificial death atones for sin and makes holy those who trust in him.

For a fuller presentation of the ideas outlined here, see T.D. Alexander, From Paradise to the Promised Land (third edition, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012) and From Eden to the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010).