Preaching Jesus All the Time
By Fred Zaspel–
It is an encouraging sign when young ministers and ministerial students ask how to preach Christ more consistently while remaining faithful to the text at hand. It’s a question that we all have faced, and doubtless few have it all figured out. I’m sure I don’t, but I love the discussion. We know from Jesus himself that the Bible is all about him (Lk. 24:44, et al), and it just has to be right for us who handle the Word to seek to find him there.
Certain passages are easy, and we might wish that every passage were as obvious as Isaiah 53, Romans 3:21ff, and such. But in those passages that are not so obvious we still wonder. We instinctively wonder also at the legitimacy of some (primarily) older commentators who find supposed “types” of Christ in the most surprising places. We are right to suspect, for example, when a preacher tells us that the center board on the back wall of the Old Testament tabernacle represents eternal security, that he has allowed his imagination to run ahead of his hermeneutics. Similarly for those who have suggested that the lover’s description of his bride’s belly as a heap of wheat and her navel as a bowl of wine (SoS 7:2) is representative of the Lord’s Supper. This kind of handling of Scripture has no constraints and appears irresponsible. It may leave some who hear amazed, but it may also make them think that the Bible should be reserved for “the experts” — or that the whole exercise was just silly. Although the theology preached may be wonderfully biblical we are probably right to think the preacher would better find another text for it.
Yet we should expect to see Christ, say, in the Song of Solomon. The book, on the face of it, is about a husband and wife and their love for each other, of course. Yet this is a huge theme that in Scripture inevitably culminates in Christ and his church, and that just cannot be ignored. But tracking a biblical trajectory is not the same as allegorizing. And so when we preach from Solomon’s Song we are right to focus on what it is — a display of marital love. But somewhere along the line we must also treat that theme canonically and see marriage as a reflection of Christ’s perfect love for us, and so on.
I don’t at all say that every sermon must expound, say, the nature of imputation, redemption, and such, although these kinds of themes certainly ought to be the staple of our ministry. But surely, if our preaching is to be genuinely and distinctly Christian, we must do more, week to week, than re-tell a given narrative and make corresponding ethical exhortations. It all must be an outworking of the gospel. And so our exhortation is not merely, “Behave like this,” but “Behave like this because this is what you are redeemed to, because you now belong to Christ, because this is the inevitable entailment of union with Christ, because we are no longer under sin’s dominion but consecrated to God in Christ, because God is at work in me to this very end, because it is like Jesus,” and so on. This is the apostle’s Paul’s regular model. There are other motivations, to be sure, but this redemptive context must always remain central and prominent and never just assumed.
The point here is not that every sermon must be an exposition of the cross per se, but every sermon must at least be cross informed. To do this we must keep an eye on the broad strokes of redemptive history and the Bible’s story line. We must notice how various themes are taken up in Scripture and how the New Testament writers understand the Old, all the while recalling that there is in it all a movement to Christ.
And so, it frankly may not be best to preach sixty-eight sermons from the life of Abraham or David, for example, lest we fall into bare moralism. It might be better to take larger strokes so that, 1) yes, we can observe their faith or lack of faith and their strengths and weaknesses and instruct and exhort accordingly. But 2) we can also display them in their Biblical – theological / redemptive – historical significance in light of their anticipation of Christ as the New Testament traces out yet another fulfillment theme. Similarly, it may be best not to preach twenty-two sermons from Esther, so that the sermon series does not become an endless exercise in moralistic instruction but rather a tracking of human responsibility and faith within a context of divine promise that culminates in Christ.
So also when we preach from the Wisdom literature. It may be going too far to say that Psalm 1 or Proverbs 1:20-33 is “about Christ” in the same way that, say, Psalm 110 is “about Christ.” But in these hortative passages, even in the Old Testament, we must understand and convey to our hearers that 1) the ideal presented here is realized only in Christ, 2) that Christ is “made unto us wisdom,” that 3) in Christ there is a “now and not yet” realization of this life of wisdom in our own experience, that 4) it is a major purpose of Christ’s redemptive work to restore us to this very ideal, and so on. We should not shy away from ethical exhortation — the Bible never does. But we must always keep in mind the Christ-centered redemptive context of that exhortation.
So also when we preach from the Gospels we must keep in mind that these are written, simply, to tell us about Jesus. They are not written, primarily, to tell us about ourselves. And so the point of the story of Jesus’ walking on the water and stilling of the storm, for example, is not that we should be careful to keep our eyes on Jesus so as not to sink beneath the waves of trouble that surround us in the storms of life. However legitimate some of this application may be, the point of the passage concerns Jesus, not us. What impressed the disciples in the boat that day was that here was a man who commanded the weather! “What kind of man is this?!” The explicit purpose of the Gospels is to tell us about Christ, and this simple, basic consideration will guide us well as we preach through them.
So also in the New Testament epistles, Paul, for example, never shies away from ethical exhortations. But continuously these exhortations are grounded in the person and work of Christ. His famous “therefores” (e.g., Rom. 12:1) illustrate this well. But his hortatory sections are marked throughout with reminders of his redemptive ground and frame of reference, as I mentioned earlier. (This topic I hope to expound more fully in a later post.)
Granted, not every genre of Scripture is tells us about Jesus or his work in the same way. But we do well to read our Bibles as Christians, from the standpoint of the fullness of revelation in Christ. We do not need to stoop either to bare moralism or allegorization. Certainly, we’ll never in this life complete our pursuit of learning the many rich ways in which Christ is presented to us in Scripture. But keeping in mind these broad principles surely will be a help. We must keep an eye on Scripture’s leading trajectories and themes. We must remember the genre from which we are preaching, recognizing its role and function in the canon. We look for explicit prophecies and “types,” but we also must try to read it all through our Christian glasses, shaped by the fulness of revelation in him.
There is so much more, of course, but these broad considerations I think are helpful to keep in mind. I hope to pursue this further another time.
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010) and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012).