Book Reviews

Book Review: How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth (Christopher Wright)

Christopher Wright is a missiologist, an Anglican clergyman and an Old Testament scholar. He is currently the International Ministries Director of Langham Partnership International, and he loves the Old Testament. He loves teaching it, preaching it, and writing books about it. But even though the Old Testament takes up three-fourths of the Bible’s word count, why don’t more pastors preach from it? Well, hearing that your pastor is going to teach through a sermon series on Genesis doesn’t sound so very fantastic, does it? Or, perhaps, hearing that you’re going to preach through a sermon series on Genesis doesn’t sound so very fantastic, does it? Well, not if you have no clue about how to preach or teach from the Old Testament. 

Wright divides his book into two sections. Part One (5 chapters) asks Why should we preach from the Old Testament? and Part Two (10 chapters) asks How can we preach from the Old Testament? 

Part One

God himself gave us the Old Testament. He tells us about creation, himself, ourselves—who are we and what it means to be a human beings—sin, and God’s plan to save us. The Old Testament was also Jesus’ Bible. It’s where he saw himself as God’s Son, and where we learn about the background to Jesus as our Savior.

The Old Testament gives us the long story and far-reaching promise of God. Wright condenses the Bible into a drama with six acts, or stages (34).

  1. Creation. The Bible focuses on how God created the earth we live in, and how we were to live here as God’s imagers.
  2. Fall. Genesis 3–11 describes how sin entered the world and how evil abounded in our rebellion against God.
  3. Promise. The world now sits under a curse, but God has promised to put things right. Wright writes, “God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 launched the whole of the rest of the Bible story, but especially the story of Israel in the Old Testament. God planned to bring blessing and salvation to the world through this people… God would use Israel as the means by which he would bring salvation into the world—salvation which we know was accomplished only by Jesus, the Messiah of Israel” (34–35).
  4. Gospel. In the center of the Biblical drama, God in his faithfulness sent Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. “The gospel is the good news of all that God accomplished through the birth, life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth” (35).
  5. Mission. Acts tells us how God (or Jesus, see Acts 2:33) poured out the Holy Spirit onto his disciples to be witnesses for him among to the ends of the earth. God’s people now includes both Jews and Gentiles who trust in Jesus Christ. All who are “in Christ” “are part of the people of Abraham” as we see in Galatians 3 (35) And the reason for our existence as God’s people remains the same. Our mission is to participate in God’s mission of bringing blessing to all nations on earth.
  6. New creation. God’s concern has included the whole of his creation. Revelation 21–22 “show how God will purge and restore creation as the place where God will dwell with his redeemed people from all nations and where all suffering, evil, sin, death, and curse will be no more,” something that had been promised in the Old Testament as well (Isa 65:17–25). Jesus’ death and resurrection has accomplished this (Col 1:15–20). As Wright notes, it is not really the end, but only a new beginning “of a new creation that will last forever” (36).

This means that we always need to be looking forward and thinking about where our journey leads us. But when we arrive at the Gospels, we can’t simply forget about our journey. Wright notes, “For Jesus and his followers (including also the Apostle Paul), the Old Testament was essential in order to understand the identity and mission of Jesus—that is, who Jesus was and what he came to do” (39).

Why should we preach and teach from the Old Testament? Because we need to know the Old Testament in order to understand Jesus. The Old Testament explained his identity and what he came to do.

It’s easy for us evangelicals to reduce the Bible and our need for salvation to these three points:

  • I am a sinner.
  • I believe Jesus died to take my sins away.
  • I am forgiven and will go to heaven when I die.

But if you only preach and teach that, your congregation will miss seeing the glories of God. Wright shows us that by“putting Genesis 3–11 together, the problem facing God is not just that individuals are sinners who need salvation from judgment and death but also that human families, societies, nations, and cultures are broken and fighting and that the earth itself is suffering the effects of sin and evil” (47).

However, in chapter 4 Wright shows us the danger of fanciful preaching. That is preaching that aims to make every Old Testament text point to Christ right away. We need to preach texts “in a way that both explains and applies fully what [the original author] meant and makes a link to Jesus Christ and the gospel” (55). When we leave out the main points of the Old Testament story, we flatten the text and make it boring. Your preaching can easily begin to sound the same.

Yet, as we see in chapter 5, because the text you are preaching lies on the journey to Jesus, you should be showing your congregation the links to Jesus and the gospel. Wright offers examples from Joshua 1, Ruth, and Psalm 96.

He offers good examples how to look at the different horizons of the text.

  • Horizon 1 is the Old Testament period—the context of the original text.
  • Horizon 2 the Gospels and Acts.
  • Horizon 3 is the return of Christ and the new creation.

When you study any Old Testament passage, ask yourself, “Where does this text fit within the wider context of what God promised right at the start of the story? And where does this text point in relation to the fulfilment of God’s promise through Christ—whether at his first or second coming?” (68). You can make links from the Old Testament to Christ through contrasts. Wright offers examples on how to do so with the sacrifices, food laws, and violence, vengeance, and cursing.

Wright’s Questions (Part Two)

I love the questions that Wright offers throughout his book, either questions you should ask yourself so that you can dig deeper into the text, or questions you want your congregation to ask as you direct them to Christ.

Faithful biblical teaching produces a response in your congregants, and their response should reflect what the biblical text was seeking to produce (81). This kind of response should create a crisis, one which Wright calls the crisis of “How can I?” Examples are:

  • 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 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?

Then you seek to answer these questions in your sermon by pointing to the gospel, God’s faithfulness, Jesus’ character, etc.

In Part Two, since the Old Testament is a story, Wright develops for us why we tell stories. Through stories:

  • we tell each other who we are.
  • we hold our communities together
  • we express and pass on moral values
  • we cope with the present and hope for a better future
  • we can expose and challenge things that are wrong

As people who have received God’s true word, we need to see how the Old Testament functions in this way for us today.

Wright gives checklists about a story’s plot and what makes up a good plot, characters (who are the main/supporting characters? Do we read any contradictions between what was said and what was done?), God (how is God involved? What do I learn about him? Does this affect what he does later in Israel’s history?), and how the narrator told the story (did he build suspense? What did he emphasize or repeat? Did he leave any gaps, things he didn’t explain?).

In the last few chapters Wright guides you through how to preach on the law, the prophets, and the psalms. He ends with two appendices and a bibliography. Appendix 1 offers a brief timeline of Israel’s history divided into different sections (the exodus, time of the judges, united and divided monarchy, exile, etc.) and important people during those periods. Appendix 2 presents a brief timeline of the united and divided monarchies, who the kings of Israel and Judah were, and who were their prophets.

Recommended?

There is so much more that could be said about Wright’s book. If you are a preacher or a teacher, please pick up this book. Maybe you’ve been a bit nervous about dipping into the Old Testament. Or maybe you’ve preached widely and often from the Old Testament. This book will surely help you to ask more questions of the text, to understand God better, and to preach the gospel more clearly. This is a fantastic resource by someone who really knows the Old Testament. Highly recommended.

Lagniappe

    • Author: Christopher J. H. Wright
    • Paperback: 288 pages
    • Publisher: Zondervan Academic (April 19, 2016)
    • Look Inside

Buy it on Amazon or from Zondervan Academic

Disclosure: I received this book free from Zondervan Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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