In recent days there has been considerable discussion about what it means to speak of “preaching Christ from all of Scripture.” Some object to this way of speaking and this approach to Bible interpretation on the grounds that it does violence to the true meaning of Scripture. For those within Dispensationalism, there are two peoples of God, an earthly people (Israel) and a heavenly people. As they read Scripture, there is a genuine sense in which God’s promises to national Israel are the center of Scripture. In this view it is held that God intends to restore national Israel, including the temple and the sacrificial system. Thus, according to most forms of Dispensationalism, those promises of an earthly kingdom are thought to be the norm by which all the rest of Scripture must be understood. Another objection is that the project of preaching Christ from all of Scripture does not do justice to the particular text at hand, that it neglects the specific contribution of this text before us to the unfolding story of Scripture. Still another objection complains that “preaching Christ from all of Scripture” tends to give short shrift to the ethical demands of Scripture. Sometimes, they argue, the text is really about us and our growth in godliness.
Let us define our terms. What does it mean or what should it mean to speak of “preaching Christ from all of Scripture”? There are versions of this approach that, because of the desire to lead the congregation to Christ, probably do not do justice to particular texts of Scripture. It is possible to turn a text into a springboard, as an opportunity to say what the preacher really wants to say. This is a genuine danger in all forms of topical preaching when the text of Scripture does not govern and drive the sermon. Preachers have been known to pass over the original intent of the human author of Scripture, to pass over the message of the text in its original social and churchly context, and to pass over the sense of the text in the flow of the immediate biblical context. I have seen this done under the guise of “preaching Christ from all of Scripture” but I have also seen this done in the interests of applying the text to the congregation’s Christian experience or to their ethical life.
Properly understood, to preaching Christ from all of Scripture is a godly, biblical, and true goal of preaching and properly understood it requires the preacher to pay close attention to the original language and contexts of the passage at hand as well as the broader context. Preaching Christ from all of Scripture means that the preacher must discipline himself and the sermon to let the text before him govern not whether it leads us to Christ but how.
This brings us to the problem of Dispensationalism and what we might call an Israeleo-centric way of reading Scripture (hermeneutics). This is a nineteenth-century theological system that has been popular since the early part of the 19th century. Nevertheless, it is not the historic Christian approach to reading Scripture. For most of the church prior to the rise of Dispensationalism, such an approach would have been described as “Judaizing.” Indeed, those approaches that did seek to restore the types and shadows (Col 2:17; Heb 8:5; 10:1) of the Old Testament were regarded as Judaizing in the sense that they did not properly recognize the progress of redemptive history and revelation.
Since the earliest days of the Reformation, the Protestants followed the earliest Christian Fathers (e.g., Barnabas, Irenaeus) in seeing that, in one way or another, all of Scripture points us to Christ. Our Lord himself taught us to think this way in Luke 24. As Luke records the encounter with the disciples he showed them how all the Scriptures pointed to himself. Only after their eyes were opened, however, did they understand what he had said: “They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32; ESV). Space permitting, we could survey our Lord’s argument with the Jews in John 8. He argued explicitly and repeatedly that the Old Testament Scriptures were pointing to him and even that Old Testament believers already knew him by faith (8:56).
The Apostle Paul also read the Scripture this way. In order to confirm to the Corinthian congregation the validity of his ministry, he argues from something that he and they both accepted as a given: “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20; ESV). The significance of the various events in redemptive history was not the establishment of a permanent national people. They were speaking to us. Paul writes, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11; ESV). The writer to the Hebrews reads the Old Testament as though they pointed us to Christ: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb 1:1–2; ESV). The Apostle Peter affirmed this way of reading Scripture:
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Pet 1:10-12; ESV).
The Old Testament prophets were preaching Christ through types and shadows. We have the reality but Christ is the center of all of Scripture. So, the Bible does have a focus, a central, organizing narrative but to preach Christ properly we have to pay attention not only to the punchline, if you will, but to the story that God the Spirit gave us. The OT narratives and the other types of literature in the OT were not given to be passed over lightly but to read carefully and in context.
The Abounding Grace of God is that God the Spirit directed, moved, carried, and inspired the writers of Scripture (by using their background and personality) to point us to Christ in a rich tapestry of revelation. We need not flatten out the message of Scripture so that every passage sounds like every other passage. Leviticus leads us to Christ rather differently (and sometimes surprisingly) than Nehemiah does. A good, careful reading of Scripture will recognize its diversity as well as its unifying message.
We need not choose between preaching Christ from all of Scripture and accounting for the ethical obligations that belong to those who have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Part of the story is that we have been given new life in Christ and that we are being gradually sanctified. As the apostles typically present the story, our new life is grounded in the person of and finished work of Christ for us and for our salvation.