Sometimes we don't know what to do with the Old Testament. In conversation and conviction, we love to explain how the OT anticipates, longs for, prepares, and points to the coming Messiah. We stand in awe of what Isaiah says about the Suffering Servant. We may even like it when our pastor explains the OT echoes in the NT, demonstrating its beauty and subtlety.
But then we get to a passage like this in our Scripture-reading plans:
Now when you bring an offering of a grain offering baked in an oven, it shall be unleavened cakes of fine flour mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers spread with oil. (Lev. 2:4)
How are we supposed to nourish our souls with this law about baking?
People have come up with a variety of answers to this question. One method is to seek to find Christ in every verse. Perhaps Christ is the unleavened cakes, or the wafers. Or maybe this is a symbol of Christ's future offering on Calvary.
Is Christ mentioned—or embedded somewhere—in every verse? Should we find creative ways to read Him into every portion of Scripture? How should preachers declare Him from all of Scripture? These questions matter, because how we handle the word of God matters.
Notice the wording of 2 Timothy 2:15: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth."
We honor Christ not only by declaring Him from the pulpit,
but also by how we study His Word
God cares about both, and we need to care about reading, preaching, and teaching as much as God does. So we have to honestly ask: should we look for Christ in every verse?
There are some who suggest that if we do not look for Christ in every verse, then we fail to honor Him. None of us want to be guilty of dishonoring our Savior. We want to exalt Christ and handle His word with accuracy. The question, as we will see, is not whether we should declare Christ from His Word, but rather how to go about doing that.
Thinking through the Christocentric Hermeneutic
Should we find Christ as the subject or topic of every text? That is what one form of the Christocentric hermeneutic proposes. It desires to show that every text relates directly to Christ, which is why some say it is the only true method of Christian interpretation and preaching. The problem ensues when this method is applied to texts that do not call for it. Some of the results should make you feel a bit uncomfortable.
For example, the Christocentric hermeneutic has argued the darkness that surrounded Abraham at the founding of the Abrahamic covenant parallels the darkness that engulfed Christ on the cross. Samson's rejection of his tribe mirrors how Jesus would be rejected. David and Goliath is a picture of how the ultimate David will re-vanquish sin, Satan, and death. The death of Nathan at the hand of false witness is a picture of Christ's own death at the hand of false witness. Esther's willingness to sacrifice her own life is a picture of the willingness of Jesus to sacrifice His own life.
Those connections may seem strange to us since, in context, those verses do not seem to say what the Christocentric hermeneutic alleges they do. However, proponents of this hermeneutic would counter by reminding us that this is what the Bible does. Paul preaches Christ (see 1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2; 2 Cor. 4:5), and we should too. They also contend the NT uses the OT by finding Jesus in verses in ways that are not always readily apparent. Even Jesus Himself read the entire OT (Luke 24:45) as about Himself. Hence, there must be a deeper meaning in the OT scriptures, one that even the prophets were not necessarily aware of. This justifies the above approach.
To be sure, there are many positives within the Christocentric hermeneutic. It is honorable that supporters of this hermeneutic stress theology in an age devoid of doctrine. It's wonderful that they emphasize the unity of Scripture and redemptive history. God does have a plan, and we need to be the first to acknowledge it. It is also good that they desire to support their position from Scripture.
That being said, there are problems with this method. The passages cited above do not prove that Paul thought that the Scriptures only spoke of Christ. Paul doesn’t use the OT in such a manner. He speaks of various doctrines from the OT, like the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54–55) and obedience to one’s parents (Eph. 6:1–3). Instead, the above passages speak of preaching Christ as opposed to one’s self (2 Cor. 4:5) and as the central point of the gospel message (1 Cor. 2:2). These texts do not go as far as the Christocentric hermeneutic wishes them to.
Likewise, the NT’s use of the OT does not justify the Christocentric hermeneutic. Central to this issue is what our Lord does with the OT. Jesus does not have a Christocentric hermeneutic. He uses the OT to speak of marriage (Matt. 19:5–6), eschatology (Matt. 24:15), and loving God (Luke 10:27). He does not reinterpret those OT texts, but appeals to what they say.
Along that line, Luke 24:25, a passage often cited by the Christocentric hermeneutic, states that Jesus affirms “all the prophets have spoken.” With that, He affirms the OT writers’ intent as to what the OT meant in all its details. That is, in essence, what we are talking about with a grammatical-historical hermeneutic. Thus, our Lord’s hermeneutic does not support a Christocentric hermeneutic, but a grammatical-historical one.
Re-thinking how We Preach Christ from the Old Testament
Our Lord’s affirmation points us in the right direction as to how to honor Christ both in the end of declaring Him and in the means of rightly handling His Word. The prophets themselves knew what they were doing. They knew how to speak of Christ in His suffering and glory (1 Pet. 1:10, 12), even if they did not know the timing or circumstances of His coming (1 Pet. 1:11). Accordingly, we do not need to read Christ into their revelation, but rather we must see how they establish Christ and declare that.
Here are some ways the OT authors establish Christ:
1. They prophecy of Him directly
From the opening chapters of Scripture (Gen. 3:15), the prophets reveal direct predictions about Christ (cf. Isa. 7:14; 9:6; 53:1–12; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 12:10). These prophecies are not merely apologetically important, but contain theology about Christ. We should understand not only what these prophecies anticipate, but also the theological significance of those expectations. That amplifies the person of Christ.
2. They show how He participates in the Old Testament
The prophets record events in such a way to show the activity of the Godhead. God looks down from heaven through the pillar of cloud, even as God Himself is the pillar of cloud (cf. Exod. 14:24; cf. 13:21). God sends fire from heaven, even as He is on earth in Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Gen. 19:24). These moments highlight how the second person of the Trinity has been involved in God’s plan from the beginning.
Jesus is the Word that creates (cf. Ps. 33:6; John 1:1),
the Word that drives God’s plan, and the Word that finishes it (Rev. 19:13)
Christ receives glory when we demonstrate how He has always pushed forward redemptive history.
3. They prepare the way for Christ in details
The prophets lay out so many important theological truths. Those theological truths should shape our lives so that we honor Christ. We cannot neglect that. Furthermore, those theological truths are conveyed in key phrases that both the OT and NT connect with Christ’s work. Understanding the nature of Bethlehem as a humble town of David’s birth establishes why Jesus will be born there in the future. He is born humbly, and yet is the new David who will restore the line. Understanding the sacrificial system helps to establish the nature of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement.
Understanding the creation week highlights how
Jesus begins a new creation as He rises on the first day of a new week
The more we understand the truths of the OT, it not only should change our lives to please Christ but also shed light on His glorious ministry. If we want to know Him better, we need to know the OT and know it rightly.
4. They prepare the way for Christ in God’s plan
The prophets weave together a unified plan of God from creation moving to the NT (cf. Neh. 9; Pss. 78; 104–6). Thus, every verse of Scripture may not connect with Christ directly, but is working out God’s plan that culminates in Him. God’s work is glorious and compounds into the ultimate dramatic glory of the revealing of the Son of God.
Ultimately, the prophets show us how they already established ways to link their writings with Christ. We do not need to make a new path. We can just follow the ones they already revealed. We say “what the prophet said” just as Lord did (cf. Luke 24:25). This ensures we have the full theological breadth of the OT that fully amplifies Christ.
A grammatical-historical hermeneutic does not lessen
the glory of Christ in Scripture. It unleashes it
We need to have confidence that the method prescribed in Scripture is sufficient to showcase the complete glory of Christ. We do not need to force a text to connect with Christ, but rather we need to invest the time and effort in seeing the way the biblical writers connect God’s word with the Word. Then, as we exposit the full counsel of God, we can glorify Christ in hermeneutical obedience as we proclaim Him fully.
[Editor's Note: This post was originally published in October 2017 and has been updated.]