Preaching the Gospel from the Old Testament: A Case Study

Last week I shared 3 Guiding Principles for Preaching the Gospel from the Old Testament. But abstract principles like that are of little help unless you know how to apply them in specific situations. So let’s see how these principles might unfold in a sermon series on Jonah.

Preaching Jonah Practically

Jonah can be preached in a very practical manner.  Perhaps you have heard a series given in the following way:

  • Jonah chapter 1: The running prophet.  The points being: (1) You can’t run away from God; (2) Are you running from what God wants you to do?; and (3) Stop running.
  • Jonah chapter 2: The praying prophet.  The points being: (1) How do we pray when large obstacles in life are present that result from our disobedience; (2) We pray admitting our suffering; and (3) We pray remembering that deliverance comes from God.
  • Jonah chapter 3: The preaching prophet.  The points being: (1) Just say wants you to say; (2) God can bring true repentance anywhere; (3) Just be faithful, it is God and not you.
  • Jonah chapter 4: The pouting prophet.  The points being: (1) We often do ministry without the compassion behind it; (2) Realize the compassion of God; and (3) Have compassion for people.

In assessing the above approach to preaching Jonah, we can see the positive in it: practicality.  Equipping the believer for good works is a purpose of Scripture.

But then there is the negative: it misses out by not bringing Christ into the sermons. Jonah is a major book that foreshadows the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the resultant grace that will be given to the nations. By making the Jonah series so practical, we miss on on the purpose of Jonah in the plotline of redemptive history.

A Christ-Centered Approach to Preaching Jonah

What are we to do then?

First, we need to look for specific references within Jonah that point to Christ.  This is easy, as Jesus will refer to Jonah being in the big fish as a sign of his death and resurrection.

Next we need to consider the themes in Jonah, looking for any tensions that are left unresolved in the OT, finding true fulfillment only in Christ. A great example of this is seen in Ecclesiastes, where the vanity of life is described.  The answer to this tension in Ecclesiastes is to obey God.  A good answer for the OT, but we have a much fuller answer through Christ, as we have the certainty of hope beyond this life through him.

This tension is also seen in Job.  After all the suffering, God’s answer to Job is to fear God and realize that you have no idea of the depths of the wisdom of God.  Another good OT answer.  But in Christ we have even a better understanding of suffering.  The perfect Christ will suffer for us, taking all of our suffering upon himself. In our suffering, we now have fellowship with the Son of God himself.

With such an understanding, we see that there is a similar tension in Jonah 4. Here we are left unsure of whether Jonah understood the compassion needed when you have an aversion to the people God has given you. But in the NT testament, the tension is answered: we can minister to people we have an aversion to, because Christ had compassion for us that while we were yet enemies of God, Christ died for us.

As to Jonah 2 and 3, we can apply another principle in bringing the NT into the preaching of the OT.  We need to see the trajectory of themes.  Such themes include the OT idea of Sheol (death), which finds greater significance in the themes of eternal death/resurrection/judgment.  And Jonah’s commission to preach good news to one particular people (Ninevah) expands globally in the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20). We could trace others, but I think you get the point.

In summary in preaching the OT, make it practical, but by all means bring in the fullness that is found in Christ.

About Jeff Louie

Jeff is Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary (San Jose), where he teaches classes on systematic theology and the Old Testament. Before Jeff came to Western, he served as a pastor in Chicago for 6 years and in San Francisco for 19 years.

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