Christians must model their preaching and their understanding of Scripture from the apostolic writings. Where else can we find our model for Christ-centered preaching of the Old Testament if not from the New Testament?
The Gospels endeavour to show how Christ fulfills God’s promises in the Old Testament, while the rest of apostolic writings bring together three elements: Christ, the Scripture (Old Testament), and the church. Put another way, they show how the Old Testament authoritatively guides the church by pointing to Christ who can be found in Scripture.
The proof of these statements comes by observing the apostolic preaching of Christ. To give one example, consider the following four ways that Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 draws us to see Christ in the Old Testament as well as in the church’s evangelistic preaching.
We see Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament promises
Paul opens his sermon by recounting the story of Israel (vv. 16–25). He finishes the story of redemption by claiming that Jesus is the offspring of David, the promised Saviour (v. 23). Jesus fulfills the promises in the Old Testament. As Paul says elsewhere, “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20).
We see Christ rejected in the Prophets
Yet many Israelites did not recognize Jesus because, as Paul explains, “they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him” (v. 27). According to Paul, rightly understanding the prophets entails knowing that Christ was to be rejected. Paul thus perceives the prophets as speaking regularly of Christ. Yet many Israelites did not understand their own Scripture and so rejected Christ. It was a problem of understanding.
We see Christ’s life prophesied in the Old Testament
So far, Paul tells Israel’s story pointing to Christ as its fulfillment. He also shows how Christ is a common topic of the prophets. He then continues to show how Christ’s life corresponds to the Old Testament. Specifically, he highlights how the Old Testament speaks of Christ’s resurrection:
And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ Therefore he says also in another psalm, “‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. (vv 32-37)
Here’s how Paul understands the three passages quoted above: Psalm 2 calls Christ God’s Son; Isaiah 55 points to Christ’s new covenant ministry; and Psalm 16 refers to Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
The mode of prophecy that Isaiah 55 and Psalm 16 use can be explained by prosopology. Now, prosopology is a technical word that means that one reads a text to discover who the speaker of a passage is. In the case of Isaiah 55 and Psalm 16, we know that Isaiah wrote Isaiah 55 and that David wrote Psalm 16. Yet Isaiah and David record another person speaking in these two passages.
In Isaiah 55, we hear the Father speaking to the Son, while, in Psalm 16, David recounts the Son speaking to the Father. This is how Paul reads these two chapters. And this is how we ought to read them. Biblical prophets overheard conversations between the Father and Son as part of a prophetic revelation.
Thus, the Father promises the Son “the holy and sure blessings of David,” and the Son requests that the Father not let the Father’s holy one see corruption by remaining in Sheol, a corrupting place in which the dead dwell.
In order to prove that David records the voice of the Son in Psalm 16, Paul says, “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.” Since David died and saw corruption, therefore, David cannot be the person speaking in Psalm 16. It has to be Christ. This is what Paul argues.
We see the rejection of the apostolic preaching of Christ in the prophets
At the conclusion of his message, Paul proclaims:
Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: “Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.” (vv. 38–41)
As the fulfillment, the topic, and a speaker in the Old Testament, Christ offers forgiveness in the present. And he also frees people from the burden of the Old Covenant (“the law of Moses”).
And if one rejects Christ now, then we fall into the danger of becoming the kind of scoffers that the prophet Habakkuk speaks of: “Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.” Because, after all, Habakkuk’s words can apply to the response of the apostolic preaching of Christ. It’s part of what prophets do.