Must Every Sermon Focus on Jesus?
My friend Bryan Chapell, in his fine book Christ-Centered Preaching,1 has argued that [all?] preaching is really about getting Jesus across to an audience as a worldview. If Christ is not preached, Chapell writes, it may be seriously questioned whether what we have heard is a Christian sermon or lesson. Chapell’s thesis agrees with a similar thought in the writings of another friend, Sidney Greidanus.2 Both Chapell and Greidanus allow that this does not mean that every verse or passage directly reveals Jesus Christ, but they do argue that every passage in the Bible has as its larger context the person, work and necessity of Christ. In like manner, Calvin Miller wants to know this about ever sermon: “Is the sermon about Christ?”3
So how shall we respond if the following 10 messages focus in their entirety on God the Father and not specifically on God the Son? Bryan Chapell does admit that there are thousands of passages that contain no direct reference to Christ. If that is so, then how is the teacher or preacher to remain Christ-centered in these texts that are silent on His person and work?
Chapell replies that when neither the scriptural text nor scriptural typology presents us with the Savior, the teacher or pastor must rely on the greater context of the Bible in order to bring out the redemption focus of that message.4 Usually this is done by appealing to the progressive nature of biblical revelation as it comes to full flower in the New Testament. But this is neither the theocentric method of teaching and preaching advocated by John Calvin nor the Christological method used by Luther. Instead, it is a redemptive-historical-christocentric method of preaching that views the “whole counsel of God” in light of Jesus Christ.5 Greidanus correctly noted that it is improper to read Christ back into the Old Testament, for that would be eisegesis, or reading meanings from the New Testament into the Old Testament text. That, of course, is the real issue that presents itself here, and that calls for great caution. So how does Greidanus propose to remedy this situation? He would have us “look for legitimate ways of preaching Christ from the Old Testament in the context of the New.”6 But what has happened to expository preaching in that case? It appears to begin with the text of the Old Testament, but it appears to rely on the New Testament for the real solid stuff, that is, the theology and principles we can apply directly to our lives. Even if this is not what is intended, this is what often results in the hands of many Christian teachers and preachers.
But how can we do such jumping from the Old Testament text to the New Testament without committing the methodological faux pas of eisegesis? Greidanus’ solution is that we must never take “an Old Testament text in isolation, but [we] must always understand [read: exegete?] the text in the contexts of the whole Bible and redemptive history.”7 Simply to take an Old Testament text and preach on it is to preach an Old Testament sermon, Greidanus warns. Of course, that aphorism is noting more than a tautology: Old Testament texts yield Old Testament sermons! But who said that was bad or undesirable—as if someone other than God were the source and author of the Old Testament or that these texts had such temporality written over them that almost all of them were now passé and useful only as primers or sermon starters? And if that is true, then what of those audiences to whom these Old Testament messages were first preached who did not have a New Testament in the back of their Bibles?
What exactly is meant when we use the phrase “Old Testament sermon”? Do we simply mean a sermon that is derived entirely from the Old Testament? Or do we mean a sermon that was formerly valid but is no longer kosher for believers in the post-Old Testament era? How could those who lived in the Old Testament era have done any less, or any more, than to limit their teaching and preaching to what revelation was available up to that time? It is not as if the revelation did not come from God or that it was of some inferior quality, was it? Or did those Old Testament saints get it wrong?
What makes a sermon a Christian sermon or lesson? Must all sermons and lessons based on the Old Testament move inexorably on to the New Testament if they wish to earn a “Christian sermon rating” (CSR)?
But the discussion grows even more complicated. Greidanus boldly claims that redemptive-historical preaching does not ask, “What was the author’s intended meaning for his original hearers? But, how does the redemptive-historical context from creation to new creation inform the contemporary significance of this text?”8 In that same context, Greidanus favorably quotes Christopher Wright: “We may legitimately see in the event, or in the record of it, additional levels of significance in the light of the end of the story—i.e., in the light of Christ.”9 But notice that Wright carefully uses the word “significance.” Greidanus, however, goes on to affirm dangerously “that a passage understood in the contexts of the whole Bible and redemptive history may reveal more meaning than its author intended originally.”10 Such a view of the plurality of meaning that exceeds the truth-intentions or assertions of the original authors who stood in the counsel of God ultimately runs the risk of forfeiting the divine authority that is to be found in the passage; this view could be taken to imply that the human author wrote his text in a purely automatic and mechanical way, as if it were dictated or whispered word for word in his ear without the human author having a proper idea of its messianic or future redemptive meaning. But if the meaning God intended exceeds the meaning the human authors recorded, where shall we locate this additional surplus meaning? If it is not in the grammar and syntax, it must be somewhere between the lines! But if it is between the lines, whatever else it is, it is not written. And if it is not written, is it inspired? The apostle Paul makes it clear that only the graphe, what is written, is inspired (2 Tim. 3:15-17). Now we are really in a jam!
All too often the depth that many search for as contemporary believers, and the depth that God intended His human writers of Scripture to get—and which they did get, for they recorded it in the text—is missed in our day. As a result, too frequently we feel we must run to the New Testament as quickly as possible to enhance what some wrongly regard as the minimalistic Old Testament meaning with a super-spiritual meaning infused from the New Testament, thus adding Christian values to an otherwise “Judaistic sermon” to help the church or those in our modern world. But how wrong such judgments and procedures would be!
This is not to say that, after the meaning and message of the Old Testament has been established on its own terms, we must act as if the New Testament were not available at all. The New Testament really does exist, and we can (and must) often use it in our summaries to our major points and/or to the whole message, pointing out how the beginning, middle and end of the unified plan and message of God in the total Bible fits so nicely with what also is taught in the Old Testament text. I have argued elsewhere for the unity of the “promise-plan” of God that encompasses the whole Bible and therefore shows one divine mind, one plan and one story of salvation in all 66 books.11 It is against this backdrop of viewing the grand plan and story of the Bible that I find agreement with my friends Chapell, Greidanus and Miller. But I must not prematurely infuse New Testament values and meanings back into the Old Testament in order to sanctify it before I independently establish, on purely Old Testament grounds, the legitimate meaning of the Old Testament text. If I perform such an infusion, I only pretend that I am accurately giving the Word of God exactly as He wanted it taught and preached from the Old Testament passage. So let us first do our work of true exegesis on the Old Testament text. Then, having gotten the meaning God revealed at that point in time, let us see how our Lord developed that same word, if there is further development on into the rest of the Bible.
1. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).
2. Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
3. Calvin Miller, Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 62-65.
4. Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 281-88.
5. Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 227-29.
6. Ibid., 228.
7. Ibid., 230.
8. Ibid., 232.
9. Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 28.
10. Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 233.
11.Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), and Kaiser, The Christian and the “Old” Testament (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1998).