What Do You Mean When You Talk about Christ in the Old Testament?

A couple of weeks ago I was preparing to speak to a small women’s group about seeing Christ in the Old Testament. I intended to set the scene with Jesus’ words on the road to Emmaus found in Luke 24, and to illustrate what I meant using numerous examples in the Old Testament. But as I prepared, I envisioned a sea of perplexed expressions on the faces staring back at me trying to make sense of what I was talking about, and more importantly, wondering how to incorporate it into their own study of the Scripture.

Only a few years ago my own understanding of how Christ is seen in the Old Testament was mostly limited to prophecies of Christ's coming and a few of the more obvious types and symbols that point to Christ. But I experienced a real breakthrough as I began to listen to Christ-centered preachers who presented Christ from every part of the Scripture. And a real light came on for me when I heard Bryan Chapell's message “Communicating the Gospel Through Preaching,” given at the Advance09 Conference. He explains that the Old Testament points to the need for Christ by repeatedly leading us to dead ends.

He suggests that we need to read the Old Testament as a Hebrew book that uses eastern, oriental thinking, working its way though the law, which the people could not obey; the time of the judges, when the people did what is right in their own eyes; the kings, who did not rule with righteousness; and the prophets, to whom the people did not listen. Chapell concludes that there is a sense of “not this . . . not this . . .not this,” and then, in the coming of Christ, “but this.” Only in the New Testament do we find resolution to the unresolved tensions of the Old Testament.

But how would I concisely and clearly communicate this to the group in only 40 minutes?

As I went through my list of examples of how the Old Testament points to and prepares us for Christ, I realized what was needed was every note-taker’s dream: a numbered list. So I went to the experts—those practitioners who have taught me the most about seeing Christ in the Old Testament—and looked over their lists.

According to Sidney Griedanus, author of Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, there are seven ways of preaching Christ from the Old Testament, including:

  1. Redemptive-historical progression
  2. Promise-fulfillment
  3. Typology
  4. Analogy
  5. Longitudinal themes
  6. New Testament reference
  7. Contrast

In his seminar taught with Edmund Clowney, “Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World,” Tim Keller presents four ways of getting to Christ from the Old Testament:

  1. Theme resolution (i.e. image of God, kingdom, Sabbath rest, judgment, and justice themes that only resolve in Christ)
  2. Law reception (focusing on the impossibility of keeping the law apart from Christ)
  3. Story completion (not just stories of individual people but also the story of the people of God, i.e. life through death, triumph through weakness)
  4. Symbol fulfillment (i.e. Passover, bronze snake, prophets, priests, kings, sacrifices, temple, cleanliness laws)

In his paper “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament,” Sinclair Ferguson writes that while we want to develop an instinct to preach Christ, it can be broken down into four subordinate principles:

  1. The relationship between promise and fulfillment
  2. The relationship between type and antitype
  3. The relationship between the covenant and Christ
  4. Proleptic participation and subsequent realization

All of these have been profoundly helpful to me, and I’m sure to many others who seek to present Christ from all the Scriptures. But I also knew that while these lists may be preacher-friendly, they would likely not be lay-person friendly, especially for those for whom the idea of seeing Christ in the Old Testament is a new concept. I needed a lay-friendly list of ways that the Old Testament points to and prepares us for Christ. Here’s the list I came up with, and I welcome your suggestions for refining and improving upon it:

  1. A problem that only Christ can solve (the curse, our inability to keep the law, our alienation from God)
  2. A promise only Christ can fulfill (blessing, presence of God with us)
  3. A need that only Christ can meet (salvation from judgment, life beyond death)
  4. A pattern or theme that only comes to resolution in Christ (kingdom, rest)
  5. A story that only comes to its conclusion through Christ (the people of God, creation/fall/redemption/consummation)
  6. A person who prefigures an aspect of who Christ will be or what he will do by analogy and/or contrast (Joseph, Moses, David)
  7. An event or symbol that pictures an aspect of who Christ will be or what he will do (ark, exodus, sacrifices)
  8. A revelation of the pre-incarnate Christ (wrestling with Jacob, commander of the Lord’s army)

The reality is that we need biblical theology not only preached from the pulpit on Sundays, but also taught and embraced in the men’s and women’s Bible studies that meet throughout the week. So we have to learn not only how to present Christ from all the Scriptures, but also how to help our listeners to develop an instinct for seeing Christ throughout the whole of the Bible as they read and study on their own.

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