In past letters we have talked at some length about what precisely constitutes a “Christ-centered” sermon. I want to give some particular illustrations of this in this letter, so that you may see how these ideas we have discussed can be put into practice.
As you know, there are many different kinds of material in Scripture. There are not only differences between the Old and New Testaments, but there are also differences between various kinds of material. There are historical books, poetical books (not only the Psalms, but also parts of the historical books and prophetic books), prophecies, epistolary books, and what is sometimes called wisdom books (which would include especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). Each kind of book presents a somewhat different problem, although all are certainly a part of that one Scripture which contains the written record of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
I cannot, of course, give detailed examples of all these different types of books, nor many examples from each type; but some illustrations would perhaps be of some assistance to you.
It is, I think—if I may speak from my own experience—sometimes difficult to preach on historical material and still have a Christ-centered sermon. But if one remembers that the history of Scripture can be treated from two different viewpoints, our understanding of how this is possible will also be clearer. We all know that history, especially that of the Old Testament, can be treated either from a “redemptive-historical” viewpoint or from an “exemplary- historical” viewpoint. If one treats an historical passage from the viewpoint of redemptive history, then one emphasizes how history in the Old Testament was part of the dispensation of types or shadows which pointed ahead to the realities of salvation in Christ. God gave His people types and pictures of Christ and the great work of salvation in the history which that people lived and experienced. The Bible makes this very clear The ram which was caught in the thicket when Abraham offered up his son Isaac was a picture of Christ, the Substitute for His people. The land of Egypt where Israel served as slaves of Pharaoh was a picture of the bondage of sin in which we all are held. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 10 that the Rock from which the water flowed in the wilderness was Christ. The land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, which Israel inherited was a picture of heaven. Israel’s conquest of Canaan by the power of God (remember how we sing: “They gained not the land by the edge of the sword. . .”) was a picture of the victory over all our enemies which God gives to us by faith in Christ. And so we could go on.
But one can also use the “exemplary-historical” method of treating Old Testament history. Paul gives us the ground for doing this in I Corinthians 10:6, 11: “Now these things were our examples. . . . Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” When we treat Old Testament history from this viewpoint, then we stress the fact in our sermons that the life and experiences of the people of God in the Old Testament were given to them and recorded in Scripture that we might learn from them how to walk as the people of God in the midst of the world. The Scriptures not only show us our walk, but illustrate that copiously from countless examples of the saints. And these examples are indeed a rich source of instruction for us.
Any and every part of the Old Testament can be treated either from the redemptive-historical viewpoint or from the exemplary-historical viewpoint. The former is true because the whole Old Testament is the progressive development of the types and shadows which pointed ahead to Christ. Even if one does not always find specific types in the technical sense of that word, as is the case, e.g., of Joseph, yet all the history of the Old Testament belongs to that progressive development; and preaching from the redemptive-historical viewpoint requires that one find the particular place which any event occupies in that development. But all of the Old Testament is also given for our examples upon whom the end of the ages has come. And so we have these two possibilities, or even a combination of the two in our preaching.
But the point that I want to make now is that whatever approach is used, the sermon must be Christ-centered. If one treats the appropriate passages from the redemptive-historical viewpoint, then there is very little problem, for the history itself points ahead to Christ and one can hardly miss “Christ” in preaching on such material. It is, e.g., impossible to imagine how one could preach on the manna with which God fed His people in the wilderness without preaching also about Christ Who is the Bread of life (see John 6). The redemptive-historical approach, by definition, means Christ. But when one takes the exemplary-historical approach, the same must be true. Scripture holds up the life of the people of God as a life of faith—faith in the promise. It is true that there are also negative examples. When Paul, in I Corinthians 10, says that all things were written for our ensamples, he is referring to the unbelief which characterized a large segment of the nation. And he is telling the saints of the New Dispensation that they must not be like that. But whether positive or negative, it is a life of faith which is held up as the example for us to follow. And this means two things. It means, first of all, that that life of faith which characterized the Old Testament saints was a faith in the promise of God. And that promise is, in one word, Christ. All that they did which was pleasing in the sight of God was rooted in faith in God’s promise that He would send Christ. Without this emphasis the whole point of the Old Testament is missed. But it means, in the second place, that the saints walked by faith because the power of the promise was already worked within them. No more than the saints of the New Dispensation did they have faith of themselves; then too, it was the gift of God. Already the salvation which God promised in Christ was given to them on the strength of the promise, by virtue of the certainty of the promise and because they already tasted the firstfruits of the promise—if I may put it that way. And so all their godly life was a life which they lived because the Christ Who was yet to come was the strength of their hope and calling.
But what is true of historical material is also true of what we sometimes call “wisdom” material. After all, it cannot be forgotten that the central chapter in the book of Proverbs, and therefore the key to the whole book, is chapter 8. And there is clearly stated that the wisdom of which the whole book speaks is, after all, Christ. Of Whom else can it be said, “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His way before His works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. . .” (vss. 22ff.)? If this point is ignored in preaching on the book of Proverbs, then the book becomes little more than a handbook of moral conduct and etiquette. Christ is always the wisdom of the whole book.
The Psalms are the same. It is true—and anyone knows that—that the Psalms arise out of historical circumstances in the life of the Psalmist. And if it is possible to determine these historical circumstances, it is also important that the minister, in preaching on the Psalms, make this clear. The Psalms have certainly been such a treasured part of the meditations of the people of God in every age because they, taken together, form a kind of spiritual biography of every saint. But the fact, nevertheless, remains that the Psalms are all, without exception, Messianic. There are sometimes efforts made to distinguish between the so-called Messianic Psalms and the Psalms which are not Messianic; but this cannot be done. Christ is singing in these Psalms in all of them. This is so true that there are passages in the New Testament which literally state this. Just today we were discussing in school the passage in Hebrews 10:5-7: “Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: in burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God.” Once again it struck me that the author of this epistle literally states that Christ said these words. There are many such quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament. And when you read them, you discover that the words of the Psalm quoted by Christ really only fit in His mouth—not really and in the fullest sense of the word, in the mouth of the Old Testament Psalmist. Think for example of the first verse of Psalm 22. Who else could really say these words but Christ? This is even true of those Psalms where the Psalmist speaks of his sins—and they are many. Undoubtedly, here too, Christ is speaking—speaking of the burden of sin and guilt which He bore for His people and the agony of the wrath of God which He endured because of it. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that neither the Psalmist nor we could ever sing these Psalms if it were not for the fact that Christ sang them first of all. All this surely must be made explicit in a sermon if a sermon is truly to be Christ-centered.
The same is true of prophecy. We all know that a great deal of prophecy points directly ahead to Christ, and it is clear on the surface that it is impossible to preach on such prophecies without preaching about Christ. But this is not true of all prophecy. There are many prophecies which are directed to the historical situation in which Israel found herself and which have no specific and explicit reference to Christ. Certainly this is true, e.g., of the prophecy which Isaiah spoke to Hezekiah when he told Hezekiah that his life would be prolonged. (By the way, there are also prophecies which refer only to Christ without any immediate historical reference. I refer, e.g., to the prophecy made to King Ahaz in Isaiah 7:14: “Behold the Lord Himself shall give you a sign. . . .” And there are prophecies which have both an historical and a future-prophetic reference. But this by the way). Nevertheless, even those prophecies which have only an historical reference must be treated in such a way that the sermon is Christ-centered. And this will surely be the case when it is understood that the historical events of which the prophets spoke were historical events which belonged to (or touched upon—as in the case of the prophecies against Syria, Assyria, Babylon, etc., e.g.) the history of Israel They must therefore be also treated as we would treat history, of which I have spoken above.
I had hoped to complete this discussion in this letter, but now see that there is still more to say which cannot be included here. And so. . . one more letter.
Fraternally, in Christ,