preaching the Old Testament

Paul House on preaching Isaiah

1. Know the context/background. Biblically, historically, literarily.
2. Look for important doctrines.
3. Look for how the New Testament makes use of the book. They are identifying patterns linking books in the Old Testament to Jesus.

These three steps require that we know the whole Bible, and have a framework of Biblical theology.

It’s very difficult to preach Isaiah verse by verse. It’s massive.

Big Picture: Four kings mentioned in Isaiah 1 as being part of the landscape of the book.

Assyria was a pretty nasty empire who used to extort countries through the threat of invasion. Their artwork and historiography shows that they ruled by terror. Impaling heads. Burning people. All that sort of stuff. They ruled Judah, one way or another, for over 100 years.

Then there’s Babylon. Babylon eventually conquered Assyria, but before that happened Babylon was a thorn in Assyria’s side. And Assyria conquered them a bunch of times. So when we see that Assyria conquered Babylon in the text – we have to ask “which time”… the Ancient Near East was a volatile political mix constantly one step away from (or in the midst of) conflict. The kings of these nations jostle for status and make bold proclamations about their greatness.

And Isaiah is focused on promoting Yahweh as the real king of kings and lord of lords. He preaches and predicts Assyria’s arrival for thirty years, and then becomes the comforter and conscience of Israel and Judah.

The message of Isaiah starts with sin and degradation and ends at Zion. It’s creation and new creation – God acting through a redeemer to bring his people to the new creation and he punishes the wicked.

Isaiah 2:1-22 describes the nations are coming to the Lord and invites Israel to do the same. Isaiah, like Jesus and Paul, was to go first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.

The gospel has always been “accept my king, and you will be at home in Zion (the new creation).” It comes with a downside. The gospel is very good news to those who put their trust in it, and very bad news for those who don’t. That’s one of the most pressing challenges of our time – preaching judgment. But everybody, deep down, wants justice. So we need to figure out how to preach that truth with love.

Chapter 25 describes the gift from the true king (as opposed to the gifts from kings of surrounding nations) as life. Delivery from death. Chapters 21-33 are the hardest to preach in the book of Isaiah. There are some beautiful passages in chapter 19 that promise the Egyptians, the Assyrians and the nations will be part of God’s people.

The prophets never give up on getting Israel back into the fold.

The book speaks to the late eighth century and early seventh, primarily, but it also says something about the future. And about a future that still has not happened today.

Structure – Seven Cycles.

1. The Bloody City and Glorious Zion. 1:1-4-6.
2. The Spoiled Vineyard and the Rejoicing Citizens of Zion. 5:1-12:6.
3. The Wicked Nations and Yahweh’s Resurrected People . 13:1-27:13.
4. Proud Ephraim and the Rejoicing Remnant. 28:1-35:10.
5. Blaspheming Gentiles, the Covenant with David, and Righteous Gentiles. 36:1-56:8.
6. Blind Watchmen and Citizens with a New Name. 56:9-62:12.
7. A Blessed People, New Heavens and Earth, and Burning Sinners. 63:1-66:24

The book ends with the call for missionaries from many nations (Isaiah 66:18-21).

The big issue is “are you a servant of the servant?”

Jesus quotes Isaiah when he starts his ministry. John the Baptist cites Isaiah. Several times in the New Testament the writers use Isaiah to show that they are preaching “THE GOSPEL” the same one that Isaiah had been preaching. Isaiah is a great model for ministering to all sorts of people in all sorts of settings.

More on preaching the Old Testament from Gary Millar

Reading back on my post about Gary Millar’s tips for preaching the Old Testament I realised I’d missed a couple of pages of notes. Here are some more nuggets of wisdom from the mouth of the Irishman…

  • If you have the text at your right hand and a pile of commentaries at your left the biggest mistake you can make when preparing a sermon is to reach out first with your left hand.
  • The OT is often preached with scant regard to the text – it’s almost always “be like the Old Testament Character”…
  • Narrative doesn’t commentate on the action “this is a bad idea”… we have to be sensitive to what’s going on. We have to get into the flow of the story in order to pick up these little things.
  • The biggest problem that we have when approaching Old Testament narratives is reading the text. If you don’t read the text you won’t get it right. You have to work on the text, then work out how it fits with Biblical Theology, this needs to be done before you start the talk.
  • Having done the work on the text we need to start figuring out how we present the work as Christians.
  • We don’t just need to pull Jesus from the hat in every text. Christ-centred preaching does not seek to find where Christ is mentioned in every text – but to show how each text manifests God’s grace in order to prepare people in relation to Christ. This is not quite so tenuous as Spurgeon suggests in the following quote (from this sermon here). He’s right to want to relate every part of the text to Christ – but sometimes his connections are tenuous.

“Don’t you know young man that from every town, and every village, and every little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London?” “Yes,” said the young man. “Ah!” said the old divine “and so form every text in Scripture, there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. And my dear brother, your business in when you get to a text, to say, ‘Now what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis—Christ. And,” said he, “I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one; I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savour of Christ in it.”

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