I’ve been thinking lately about how to read and preach the Old Testament. The richness and relevance of the OT was one of the great surprises for me in my time at college so I want to make sure that I’m equipped to teach it well to others. To that end, over the last few weeks I’ve been listening to the talks from The Gospel Coalition’s conference on Preaching Christ from the Old Testament.
Perhaps naively, I thought they would be talks about how to preach the Old Testament. What I discovered upon listening is that they’re talks about preaching Christ: they start in the Old Testament but most of the air time is taken up in the New Testament (normally Paul). I’ve been trying to work out what to make of that. This week, the talks were recommended for small groups to listen to at our church but we haven’t done that yet.
Take this talk by Tim Keller. He’s preaching on Exodus 14 and he tries to prove that salvation in the Old Testament is very similar to salvation in the New Testament:
- It’s God’s grace
- It’s about crossing over
- It’s brought by the mediator
All those things are true, but are they in this passage?
I think #1 is definitely there in Exodus 14. You can’t read it without being struck by the action of God – the helplessness of the people, Yahweh’s manipulation of the elements, the whole thing with the cloud and darkness. Of course, that’s a theological rather than christological point but obviously it is true to our salvation in Christ as well.
#2 is a little more interesting. At first I thought Keller was taking the crossing of the Red Sea as some sort of allegory for passing from death to life but he gets there by thinking about what was going on spiritually for the Israelites. He sees them as spiritually dead and enslaved in Egypt such that their crossing of the Red Sea is more than a political liberation. I think he’s on to something there though his language does sound pretty allegorical at times.
#3 I was much less convinced by. Keller argues that Moses is a mediator because he both represents the people (in their fear) to God and channels the power of God. This points to our better mediator who represents us but doesn’t just channel God’s power but actually is God. I have no doubt that Moses is the forerunner to Jesus in his mediatorial capacity but I just wasn’t sure that that was in this passage. Keller argues that God could have struck the Israelites down and the reason he didn’t was because they had a mediator but that doesn’t seem to be the nature of what Moses is acting out here – the Israelites aren’t in danger of God striking them down.
In terms of how the rest of the Bible interprets this passage, Keller’s right to point out that it looms large. The OT takes the Red Sea crossing as the symbol of the exodus and the great salvation God won for his people (see Deut 26:5-10, Psalm 78, 106, Isaiah 40-55). That theme comes up again in the NT (like in Matt 2:15) though it’s sometimes a little obscure (for example 1 Cor 10:1-4). God’s grace is definitely on view but the idea of ‘crossing over’ that Keller uses seems too narrow for the way the NT uses the paradigm and the mediatorial function doesn’t seem to be on view at all. So if you want to read something like mediation back in Exodus 14, you not only go beyond the flow of the passage but also how how the NT interprets it. You end up making a systematic point, not a biblical point.
That’s where I feel like the danger is. Keller’s points look neat on the surface and they totally say true things but they seem to be stretching the movement of this passage a bit. The emphasis is on preaching true things about Christ rather than about uncovering the meaning of Exodus 14.
I’m not against frameworks: I do expect to get to Christ from the Old Testament. But I think we have to be careful how far we push the framework. After all, even if you get the framework from the Bible in the first place, it will still be inadequate, needing reform at some level. The framework might help you to read the Bible but the Bible has to critique and re-shape the framework. That’s what I’m not sure is happening in this talk. The framework’s there and you can fit the passage to it but it seems that the points about Christ that Keller gets have their source in his framework rather than in this passage.
How do you preach the OT? How would you use this talk with your small group?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.