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Never Stop Preaching the Old Testament!

by Prof. Cory M. Marsh, Th.M. (Ph.D candidate)
Preaching from the Old Testament is not too popular these days. Some well-known, influential pastors have even discouraged the practice.[1] To call such efforts tragic would be an understatement—especially when one considers the theological richness of the narrative, prophetic, and wisdom literature of the First Testament (aka, Old Testament). Moreover, bearing in mind the apostle Paul’s own reverence for “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), how dishonoring it must be to God, His holy Word, and even the office of the pastorate that a man leading a multitude of souls (Heb 13:17) would ever counsel other Christians against preaching and teaching the First Testament. Such irresponsibility underscores a notable problem in American evangelicalism: too many Christians are ignorant of the left side of their Bibles though it comprises 75% of the book they carry to church on Sunday mornings. Therefore, in what follows, I offer a mere three-point apologetic for the relevance of the Old Testament (OT) and its rightful place in Christian ministry.
The OT is “God-breathed.” “All Scripture,” Paul wrote, “is God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16a). [2] For Christians so familiar with the New Testament doctrine of inspiration, it may sound strange to hear that what Paul had in mind when he wrote his famous “inspiration” passage was what Christians today call the “Old Testament.” By conservative estimates, Paul wrote his final letter to Timothy in the mid-to-late A.D. 60s. By this time, only a portion of the New Testament (NT) was written, and it would take several centuries before the Church officially recognized the closed canon of Scripture. As such, Paul, a Jewish rabbi, had written his “God-breathed” passage to his protégé Timothy, a Jew by birth (Acts 16:1), and made clear that the entirety of the OT was the product of God’s very breath.[3] It is also the OT that Paul had in mind one verse earlier when he explained that these ἱερὰ γράμματα, (sacred writings) are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v.15).[4] For modern day Christians, it may seem unbelievable that a person can legitimately come to saving faith in Christ solely through the OT, but that was precisely Paul’s point. Moreover, because the OT is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that the man of God may be complete, equipped every good work” (v.17) every Christian pastor has a duty to include it in their teaching and preaching. Indeed, Paul would again have the OT in mind when he commanded Timothy to “preach the Word!” (4:2). Thus, a pastor who willfully neglects to preach or teach the OT to his church, or encourages its dismissal in any way, is willfully neglecting a clear commandment of God.
The OT contains the origin of the world, humans, and the gospel. While other religious books merely assume the existence of earth and human beings, it is OT that records the actual origin of the created cosmos. This, of course, includes the creation of all living things. In the book of “Genesis” (from a Greek word meaning “origin,” “source” or “beginning”), the formation of the world, heaven, animals, and human beings are laid out in detailed order (Gen 1–2). Further, it is in Genesis where we read of the origin of diverse languages, nations, and cultures (Gen 10). It is also in this first OT book where the birth of human sin is disclosed and where readers are first introduced to the coming Messiah, often referred to by scholars as the protoevangelium or “first gospel” (Gen 3:15). It is indeed the OT—not the NT—where we learn of the first Jew, Abraham, the very father of the nation Israel, and the unconditional covenant God made with him that guarantees blessings to the entire world (Gen 12:1-3; 15:1–21; cf. Gal 3:7–9). Thus, without a knowledge of the OT, Christians are left in the dark regarding their own origin, identity (both biological and spiritual), and promised inheritance as well as the reason for their need of redemption. Therefore, any Christian leader who willfully neglects the OT is willfully committing a severe derelict of pastoral duty.
Jesus appealed only to the OT, never the NT. Though this final point should seem obvious enough (since the NT was written after Jesus’ earthly ministry) it nonetheless warrants serious reflection. This is especially so in light of influential leaders who charge their audience to “tone down” preaching or “unhitch” themselves from the OT. It is important to recall that Jesus was a first century Jew living in Israel immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures. During His 40-day harassment from Satan, it was portions of the OT that Jesus quoted as a weapon in His defense (Matt 4:1-11). When asked what one must do to obtain eternal life, Jesus’ response was to appeal directly to the OT (Mark 10:19). As He was being interrogated concerning the greatest of all God’s commands, Jesus’s only response was to quote from and synthesize the OT (Matt 22:34-40). While teaching on the thorny issue of divorce, Jesus appealed directly to the OT and confirmed the truth of both the creation account as well as the institution of marriage (Matt 19:4-6). Indeed, it was the OT to which Jesus appealed when proving that He was the promised Messiah as well as the very embodiment of Scripture’s redemptive theme (Luke 4:16-21; 24:25-27; John 5:39). When a Christian pastor or author today decides to dismiss the Old Testament as God’s authoritative—and always relevant—Word, he should know he is in direct conflict with the preaching method of Jesus Himself.
These three points are but a mere sampling of reasons why Christians should never stop reading, learning, and preaching the First or Old Testament. Besides these three, more reasons can easily be given.[5] Though certainly there are vital distinctions a pastor must make concerning primary and secondary audiences in the OT (e.g., Israel or Gentiles) and applications drawn need to be carefully exegeted and justified by the text, the OT is forever relevant—serving as the foundation of God’s revelatory witness to the world. Perhaps this is the very reason the NT witness is clear as crystal that church leaders are to preach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, emphasis added).[6] To suggest this charge did not include what’s on the left side of the Bible seems ludicrous. For that reason, and contrary to instructing ministers of Jesus’ church to refrain from preaching and teaching the Old Testament, a faithful pastor who is bound by conscience and trust in the entirety of God’s authoritative Word should unequivocally declare: “Never stop preaching the Old Testament!”
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[1] For example, Andy Stanley’s recent best seller Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed from the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018) promotes “unhitching” the OT from Christianity; and, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa’s senior pastor Brian Brodersen  highly suggested not preaching from the Old Testament on Sunday mornings. The audio clip of Broderson’s comments can be found http://bereanresearch.org/calvary-chapels-brian-brodersen-instructs-pastors-tone-youth/. Note: the current blog is not an endorsement for this online ministry.
[2] While many English Bibles have translated the word θεόπνευστος (theópneustos) as “inspired by God,” the Greek word is technically a compound stemming two separate words: the noun “God,” and the verb “breathe.” As a result, the original word (used only this one time in the Bible), literally means “God-breathed,” a word far more profound than what comes to mind when Americans think of “inspiration.”
[3]  That Paul also had in mind whatever NT Scriptures were completed by the time he wrote to Timothy is of course entirely plausible. Cf. George W. Knight, New International Greek Testament Commentary: Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids, Mi: Eerdmans, 1992), 448.
[4] Thus, Knight, Ibid.,443: “ἱερὰ γράμματα (holy scriptures) is not used elsewhere in the NT and is probably used here because of Timothy’s Jewish background, since the phrase was used among Greek-speaking Jews to designate the OT.”
[5] For example, the faithfulness of God is proved trough the historical accounts and prophecy outlined in the OT. Moreover, the wisdom of God is detailed par excellence throughout the “Wisdom Books” of the OT. Most assuredly, when a pastor cuts out the Proverbs and Psalms from their teaching (the latter of which contains virtually every Christian doctrine in germinal form), they do their flocks a most serious harm by neglecting thousands of years of Christian devotions, hymns, and theology.
[6] It is noteworthy that Paul here uses the verb ὑποστέλλω (hypostéllō) meaning “to shrink from fear” to describe what a preacher should not do. That Paul was not fearful to declare all of God’s Word to gentiles—indeed, preaching that included the OT—is a lesson for modern day pastors who are more fearful of losing congregants than remaining true to their commission to preach from God’s whole written counsel. In his comments, Brodersen erroneously limits “the whole counsel of God” strictly to the New Testament, and Stanley remarkably limits the value of the OT to mere pragmatics. For a stern and rightly critical review of the latter’s recent book, See David Mappes, “Stanley’s ‘Stanley’s ‘Irresistible’ Is a Dangerous Disappointment,” Regular Baptist Ministries, February 2019, https://www.garbc.org/commentary/stanleys-irresistible-is-a-dangerous-disappointment/.

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