Faithful biblical teaching should, and will, produce a response. And people’s response should, through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, reflect the response that the biblical text itself was seeking to produce. We want people to think, feel, and act in ways that are in line with what God says in his word in whatever passage we are opening up for them in our preaching.
But responding to God’s word can (and should) create a crisis. It is the crisis of “How can I?”
- How can I live in the way God wants?
- How can I repent when I know I don’t want to?
- How can I trust God and his promises and step out in faith?
- How can I praise and thank God when life is so tough and I feel so abandoned?
- How can I be faithful to God in the world, surrounded by all the gods and idols of the people around me?
- How can I bear witness to God when I’m just plain scared?
- How can I seek justice and peace in the world when evil is so powerful and I feel so small and weak?
- How can I live with this suffering when God seems so far away?
- How can I be a person of integrity and truth living in a world that forces people into corruption in order just to survive?
- How can I believe in the sovereignty of God in my contemporary world when so much seems out of line with his will?
- How can I find satisfaction in life and work when it all ends in death anyway?
All of these are questions that people in the Old Testament wrestled with too. Several times the Old Testament recognizes that the most honest answer to many of those questions is simply, “I just can’t.” That’s exactly the response that we hear from Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah when God called them to serve him. And it’s what Joshua told the people of Israel when they enthusiastically said that they would serve the Lord God only. With no tact or flattery whatsoever, Joshua bluntly told them, “You are not able to serve the Lord” (Josh 24:19 NIV).
So the hard fact is that the word of God, on the one hand, drives us to see the response we ought to make, but on the other hand, also tells us ruthlessly that we will fail to make that response well, or fully, or even at all.
And if our preaching is being faithful to God’s word, especially in preaching and teaching the Old Testament, it ought to produce that double effect.
- Our preaching should hold up before people very clearly what God expects, what God longs for, what God is seeking from us as his people. And we should give people every possible encouragement to respond positively. We appeal on God’s behalf, calling people to love him and obey him with all their heart and soul.
- And yet, and yet . . . Deep down we know our own weakness and failure only too well, and even if our hearts respond with a willing “Amen!” to what the Bible tells us, we know that our wills and our actions will not always follow. We know that we fail, and our preaching needs to acknowledge that fact.
What does the preacher do then? Well, you can always shout louder, and many preachers do! You can just go on hammering people with what they should and shouldn’t do. You can load them with guilt and try to build up their courage.
But none of those things will solve the problem of “I just can’t.”
No, when our preaching holds out the response that God wants but also shows how far short we all fall from that (including the preacher), that is when we must preach Christ. Faithful preaching of the Bible (and especially of the Old Testament) should produce a Christ-shaped vacuum — a sense of the desperate need for the grace and power of God that comes only from the gospel. For that reason, preaching from the Old Testament should be gospel-centred preaching — not because it is always evangelistic but because it always leads us to see that the gospel of the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ is the very heartbeat, centre, point, and purpose of the whole Bible from beginning to end. This is what the whole Bible story is ultimately for.
This does not mean that once we have made the link with Christ and the grace of the gospel, we then just let people off the hook of the response they need to make to the word of God. Far from it. It is the grace of the gospel that then generates the right response — of faith, repentance, or obedience — in practice. (See Romans 1:5 NIV.)
—by Christopher J. H. Wright, adapted from his new book How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth
How to Use This Book
Gain confidence and skill in teaching from the Old Testament. You will learn why and how we ought to preach and teach from the Old Testament, and how to do so with power. You will discover how the entire Old Testament points to Christ; and you will find in-depth guidance for preaching life-changing messages from the law, prophets, Psalms, and wisdom literature.