One of the more popular topics of discussion in the Evangelical world—especially in the world of evangelical preaching—is how to preach Christ from the Old Testament. I was reminded of this again the other day when I came across a video of Pastor Matt Chandler discussing differing methods of interpreting the Bible, and particularly the stories of the Old Testament. Check out the 3½-minute video:
Now, please hear me. What follows is not my attempt to give Matt Chandler a hard time or call his faithfulness into question. I haven’t followed his preaching very much, but everything I have heard him preach, I’ve liked. I also acknowledge that the context of this brief, 3-minute video is not one that lends itself to academic precision or nuanced qualification. I get that. So please don’t think of this post as me pooh-poohing Matt Chandler.
Nevertheless, I find his comments to be a good representative of a very popular view of Old Testament interpretation that I believe misses the mark. And so I want to use his comments as a springboard to address a broader hermeneutical trend that I find troubling.
Now, I agree wholeheartedly that we shouldn’t preach the Old Testament narratives moralistically. Preaching the Old Testament should not issue in a barrage of “Be” sermons: “Be like Daniel. Don’t be like Jonah.” I also agree, as Matt says, that the Bible is not fundamentally or ultimately about me, but about God and what He is doing in history to manifest the glory of His name. You should not read the story of David and Goliath and think that the point of that story is that you can be a little David and slay the giant of your debt. But seriously guys. The claim that the point of David and Goliath is “Jesus slays the giant of sin,” is just as allegorized and just as cheesy as me slaying the giant of my debt.
Such an interpretive conclusion is a symptom of a growing movement in biblical interpretation at the popular level. And that is: in the name of being “Christocentric” (a good motivation), it is becoming popular to read Christ into Old Testament texts where He simply is not.
Shadow and Substance
One argument for reading the Old Testament this way is actually articulated in the video, beginning just before the 2:00 mark. Pastor Matt says,
“The story of David and Goliath is a picture of what Colossians would call a shadow of what was to come in Christ [Col 2:17], so that Christ is the substance and…the story of David and Goliath is the shadow.”
I hear this argument made often, but I fear those making it haven’t carefully considered Paul’s point in Colossians 2. Paul states that believers are united with Christ (Col 2:9-12), and that we now have freedom from the debt that stood against us with its legal demands (Col 2:13-14). Because of this, Paul draws the conclusion that no one can condemn a Christian on the basis of those demands that belonged to the Mosaic Law (Col 2:16). We no longer worship God via festivals, new moon celebrations, and Sabbath days. We worship Him in spirit and truth through Jesus (John 4:21–24).
It was these elements of ceremonial worship that were shadows of what has now come in Christ. It is improper to apply the “types and shadows” moniker—both here in Colossians 2:17 and in Hebrews 10:1—to the Old Testament text itself, as if the Old Testament is just hazy and too unclear to understand. The ceremonial laws were a shadow, but the Old Testament was revelation—God speaking clearly to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways (Heb 1:1).
The Road to Emmaus
Another argument, not made in the video, is that Jesus Himself interpreted the Old Testament in this way, and gave us license to do so via His conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Luke tells us, “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). So when Jesus got to David and Goliath, what did He tell them, if not that He came and slew the giant of sin as the Son of David?
Well, first we have to consider the possibility that Jesus might not have discussed this text with those two men. Explaining “the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” doesn’t necessarily mean that there were things concerning Himself in every Scripture. It means that He went to select texts that spoke of Him, and explained how the entirety of the Old Testament as a whole looked forward to Him. Those who use Luke 24:27 to support the claim that Jesus is in every text of the Old Testament say more than what Luke has said.
The Point of David and Goliath
But if Jesus did mention 1 Samuel 17 on the road to Emmaus, He would have honored the authorial intent and original context of the passage. From a redemptive-historical perspective, the point of the story of David and Goliath is to bring David onto the scene of prominence. He will be the King of Israel who trusts in Yahweh in ways in which it is clear that Saul did not (1Sam 13:8–13). He will be the man after God’s own heart (1Sam 13:14), from the tribe of Judah (1Sam 17:12; cf. Gen 49:10)—not Benjamin, as Saul was (1Sam 9:1)—who will rule Israel in righteousness. This sets the stage for Yahweh to make His covenant with David, which promises a righteous ruler in Israel to sit on David’s throne forever and ever. This, of course, finds its fulfillment in Jesus, the Son of David, the Lion of Judah, whose dominion will be everlasting (Dan 7:14; Rev 11:15).
So that’s speaking redemptive-historically. But from a more “zoomed-in” perspective, the text itself makes the point very clearly. David says:
“This day Yahweh will deliver you up into my hands…that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that Yahweh does not deliver by sword or by spear; for the battle is Yahweh’s” (1Sam 17:46, 47).
And so I think Matt stretches things when he says, “In [the story of David and Goliath], God was communicating to us and to Israel that a Savior was going to come and was going to slay the giant of sin and death once and for all.” Instead, the text tells us that God was communicating to us and to Israel that His sovereignty is stronger than the greatest human warrior or army. I believe the principle here is that God will use the weak who trust in Him to shame the strong who trust in themselves (cf. 1Cor 1:27). Just as God chose the younger Abel over Cain, the younger Isaac over Ishmael, the younger Jacob over Esau, the younger Moses over Aaron, so He chooses the runt of the litter, the little shepherd boy David over the head-and-shoulders-taller-than-everybody-else Saul. God chooses the unlikely to be prominent, and in some cases, to triumph over what would have seemed to be the obvious choice. And, ultimately, He chooses the manger over the royal palace, humility over pomp and circumstance, the foal of a donkey over an armed chariot, and the cross over the crown.
Interpretation vs. Application: You Can Get There from Here
See, even if the Gospel isn’t the proper interpretation of every individual text, we can get to the Gospel in the application of every sermon. And understanding the story in its own context and for its own sake will get us there, authorial intent and context well intact. And not only does it have the advantage of being faithful to the text, it actually sheds even more glorious light on the Gospel than by looking at the text, shrugging, and saying, “Uhhh… Jesus!”
We don’t have to choose between (a) a Christocentric hermeneutic, on the one hand, and (b) a failure to read the OT as Christians, on the other. We must allow the text to speak for itself, considering both what the original author was intending and what the original audience would have understood. And we should also faithfully make application to Christ and the Gospel. What we need is contextual, grammatical-historical interpretation with Christocentric application.
We can get to Jesus—the climax of the story of redemption—from any point in the story of redemption. We don’t need to insert Him into every phrase of that story, where the biblical authors didn’t. That is truly the way to “preach the whole Bible as Christian Scripture.” We allow it to speak for itself in all its parts. We make interpretive connections to Christ where the text does, and we don’t where it doesn’t. We don’t “reinterpret” the Old Testament, but we apply each scene of the redemptive story in light of its climax: the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. In this way, we will demonstrate that we believe that the Old Testament already is Christian Scripture, and doesn’t need our creativity to make it Christian Scripture.