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Preaching Through the Old Testament

Many of us dream about preaching God’s Word, but there are so many different dynamics and challenges that we have to work through – especially in 21st century America. There are many ways it could go right and numerous ways it could go wrong.

But even if we, as preachers, can get even a few percentages better every year, that adds up over time! That’s the benefit of finding resources like this podcast and building a supportive community with whom you can discuss and process.

Every bit of confidence will transfer through your preaching to your congregation’s walk with the Lord.

Let’s dive into some things you might want to think about before using the Old Testament in your teachings (and reasons to NOT avoid it).

There are several reasons why you might want to consider incorporating books and passages from the Old Testament in your sermon planning. For one, the Old Testament is unfamiliar territory for many people, so it gives you an opportunity to wow people and make them think you’re deep and profound. 

You’re just preaching what’s there, but their lack of familiarity makes it feel profound. 

But seriously, there are many confusing things about the Old Testament and so many incredible aspects we can draw wisdom from. We will explore those contrasting things in this discussion.

It’s natural for some pastors to steer clear of using the Old Testament in their preaching. It brings up many questions. 

There are topics, stories, and situations we find there that can make us scratch our heads in wonder or even make us feel uncomfortable. Things like:

  • Covenants
  • Concubines
  • Murder
  • Kings (good & bad)
  • Slavery
  • Promises
  • Redemption
  • Prophecy

It can be difficult to formulate Old Testament sermons when the culture of that day and our culture today are so very different.

Teaching about Jesus or Christian living can feel much easier to many pastors compared to teaching about the Old Testament. 

Typically, for some preachers, there are sections of the Old Testament they feel more confident with and others that are quite difficult to know how to handle. 

In this Discussion:

  1. What are the challenges of preaching the Old Testament?
  2. What are important dynamics preachers need to be aware of as they preach through the Old Testament?
  3. Where can we start or how can we preach the Old Testament from a new perspective?


Theological Gaps

How many of the commands and/or promises given to Israel apply to us today? How much are we supposed to see ourselves in the people of Israel, versus seeing these things given to a distinct country with a distinct political system at a distinct time in history?

Take for example, Jeremiah 29:11– a familiar verse that many want to claim – “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” 

Can we claim that? We’re not exiled Israelites in Babylon. But we are part of God’s people as the Church and are in a type of exile in a non-Christian world. So that’s an example of the tough theological questions that come up.

Another challenge that comes up theologically is the weird stuff that happens in the text. Things like when God seems to show up on the scene as an angel or heavenly being, or the Spirit fills and guides someone, but it’s not the same as described in the New Testament. 

When we understand more of what the New Testament is saying but feel unsure about the Old Testament “version” of something similar, what do we do with that? 

Another example that brings up questions is that the 10 Commandments say not to bear false witness, but Rahab does this to protect the spies and it seems ok. This type of thing can feel scary to pastors because we don’t know what to do with it. 

There are big questions that come up that we don’t want to ignore and gloss over. Our listeners aren’t usually aware of the theological challenges that we have to sort through before we present a sermon. It’s an opportunity to bring clarity to a lot of unfamiliarity for the people in our congregations.

Cultural Discomfort

Some of the questions we listed earlier become very confusing regarding the cultural differences we encounter. Why are certain lifestyles ok for their culture, but not ours?

The historical context of the Bible, and specifically the Old Testament, was in a very different time and culture than our present-day American perspective.

It brings up curiosities such as, how much did God allow in that era regarding cultural norms?

Slavery is a confusing one. The entire redemptive story in the Old Testament is about freeing His people from Egyptian slavery. But then, as you read on, it seems having servants is acceptable for His people. Why did God allow it? 

And idolatry in our culture certainly does not look like carving an image and worshiping it as God. But we are tempted to shrink God in other ways and overemphasize certain characteristics at times. Idolatry expresses itself differently now compared to the same issue in the Old Testament. But in our hearts, it’s the same.

These are examples of how we, as pastors teaching from the Old Testament, have to try and bridge the gaps – and it can be tricky.

There is no doubt that if you preach a lot from the Old Testament, you’re going to bump into more tough texts

Some preachers preach 90% from the New Testament and practically ignore the Old Testament. And that’s somewhat understandable due to our faith being made complete in Christ and the work of the New Covenant, being fleshed out in the Church. 

It wouldn’t be completely inappropriate to preach more from the New Testament than the Old Testament, but 2 Timothy 3 says all scripture is breathed out by God, and the “Bible” that the early church had was the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures.

You can’t read the book of Revelation and understand it without understanding many of its themes, imagery, and dynamics come from the Old Testament.

It’s probably not wise to ignore it if we want people to get to know and understand God. 

Some write off Christianity simply because of the cultural themes in the Old Testament that bring up legit questions (slavery, concubines, etc.)

But if you’re a pastor who isn’t afraid of it and doesn’t ignore it, you’ll at least gain the respect of those listening… even if they don’t completely grasp it or agree with you in the end. You’ll bring intellectual credibility.  

As one reads through the Old Testament, a lot is happening. It’s THE epic story! But it can feel disconnected because sometimes sections of the text won’t seem to fit where they are, or it might feel like it came out of the blue.

It is because there are dynamics in the Old Testament that we need to be aware of to understand the meaning behind how it was written and other aspects that may seem out of place for our day and time.

Dynamics to Be Aware Of

Here, we will go over some of the dynamics that are important to keep in mind as you’re studying, preparing, selecting, presenting, and preaching Old Testament passages.

The Style of Writing

One of the reasons we like New Testament letters is that they feel so linear. We are familiar with the structure of a letter – they have a clear beginning, message, and closing – so we feel comfortable with them. 

Old Testament books, on the other hand, can be a lot more cyclical when the same thing happens in different ways and is often out of order.

A great resource for understanding Old Testament books is The Bible Project. They create incredible animated videos that help you understand the structure of a particular book. There are themed videos and overviews of an entire book of the Bible so you get the overarching concept. Check it out here.

Many of the narrative books of the Old Testament (like Exodus or Samuel) use chiastic structures. A chiasm is essentially a sandwich of ideas. Idea A is mentioned at the beginning and end, and Idea B is placed in the middle and is more important. 

A lot of times they’re not written chronologically. 

There are repetitive themes in the Old Testament – even between and across books. You can sense an author making an illusion. They aren’t super obvious in making the point that they are repeating the themes or events that were mentioned at the beginning of the book. It’s artistic and thematic – more like you sense and feel it as you read it. 

It is also why we need to be immersed in the old testament scriptures, so we have a grasp on how they were written. If you never study and preach them, you’ll remain lost on how useful and interesting they are. You won’t make the connections and see the artistry if you don’t take the time to learn about the styles and purposes of the writing.

New Covenant Faith

There are most likely members of your congregation who think: “We are now living in the New Covenant  – why even bother with the Old Testament?”

There are big points of value we can glean from it. The Old Testament:

  • Reveals who God is
  • Reveals how God sees His people
  • Reveals a lot about the heart and character of God 
  • Reveals a lot about Jesus Himself (“I didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it” – Matthew 5:17)

Jesus cared about it. He often quoted it and helped people understand it. And He fulfilled it.

All of scripture is in some way pointing to Jesus.

We need to realize that we can preach from the Old Testament without the message being moralistic and all about rules. We can learn to bring the focus to Jesus. 

Just be sure you don’t overdo it by trying to cram “Jesus” in at the end in a way that feels unnatural and forced. 

There will likely be Old Testament sermons that end without a pretty bow, possibly leaving people with unresolved emotions. But there are ways to bring perspective, and perhaps comfort as you close the message and transition into prayer. 

Sometimes the service ends in a “Jesus crescendo” that will lend itself well to a time of communion and sometimes the sermon will end with a tone of, “well as we’ve seen throughout the Old Testament if you’re hoping for political leaders to make your life better, keep hoping ‘cause it ain’t gonna happen.” 

Experiencing the disappointment of the Old Testament stories is part of what God is doing in these writings. He’s trying to get us to realize that we have to find our hope in Him and not in fallable, very human leaders.

A great Ministry Pass resource to check out is the sermon series on reconciling the Old and New Testaments

How to Start (or Refresh) Old Testament Sermons

At this point, you’re probably asking: What are some OT sermon series I can look into preaching? Where do I start?

You don’t have to take on the more in-depth, complicated books right away. For example, you may not want to start by going through Ezekiel verse by verse. 

Old Testament Books to Consider

There are many great options to start with. Here are some suggestions:

  • Isaiah 40 – God’s comfort, 2-3 weeks
  • The 10 Commandments – Could be 1 sermon, or stretch it out for 10 weeks
  • Jonah – What the Lord is calling us to be in a world that is against God, 3-4 weeks
  • Ruth – Encouraging story of God preserving His people in the middle of the trials of Judges, 4 weeks
  • Psalm 23 – 3, 4, 5, or 6 weeks
  • Genesis 37-50 – Joseph, 6 – 8 weeks
  • Genesis 1-11 – Addresses many current issues, 10-12 weeks

Suggestions for longer series:

  • Genesis – The entire book! There is so much to cover!
  • Exodus – The defining redemptive work of God in the OT equals deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Rich with gospel, deliverance, and God’s character!
  • Summer Psalms – Pick 5-7 Psalms, perhaps from a variety of genres.
  • Proverbs – Go through chapters 1-9, or create a series around themes.
  • Daniel 1-6 – Standing firm in faith even when it isn’t easy or popular.
  • Judges – Amazing how relevant it is today.

Psalms & Proverbs are great evangelical books to teach from. Seekers tend to be open to them because most can appreciate learning about comfort and wisdom, even if their faith isn’t sure.

If you preach to people in pain, you’ll always have an audience. Many of the Psalms are written by someone in pain. You read it and think: Wow, God understands.

Plan Ahead

As you’re processing the step of preaching on the Old Testament, developing a Preaching Calendar is very useful. 

You can better envision what would flow well and how to look ahead for the quarter, year, or season. You can see where things might fit naturally and thematically – where you might want to start with some shorter Old Testament series, and when you might teach longer series.

That’s an idea/advantage of preaching through a longer Old Testament book. You can start it, then get through some other series, and come back to it if it makes better sense in your overall preaching plan. 

A couple of Old Testament Ministry Pass sermon series you might want to look into are:

Prophets of Doom: Reading the Old Testament Prophets

These short Old Testament books provide the faithfully delivered call to repentance to Israel and to the nations. In this four-week series, we’ll examine one passage from four different Minor Prophets that conveys the essence of that prophet’s message.

The Law: The Book of Leviticus

This 5-week sermon series through Leviticus examines with modern-day practicality the holiness of God, the Old Testament sacrificial system, and the Law of Moses, detailing how these instructions apply to Christians today. Each week connects a specific New Testament concept to the Levitical topic at hand, touching on issues like sin, atonement, priesthood, redemption, purity, worship, and obedience.

People Want to Know the Bible

When church attendees are asked what they want from their church, one of the top answers is: help me understand the Bible. So let’s do this!

Don’t be scared of teaching the Old Testament. Rely on the Spirit, and have a plan. God will work through the plan.

Remember, God wants to be known!

Preaching from the Old Testament is an opportunity to invite your people to know and commune with God on a deeper level.

Incorporating Old Testament passages into our sermons is nothing we should feel we need to run away from. But instead, we can choose to have the humility and wisdom to say, “I might need some insight here; maybe other voices to help me understand how to reveal the character of God and His desires through this type of sermon theme.” 

When you’re willing to do that, you will see God work.

1 Corinthians 1:21 says “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (ESV)

We study, work, and craft to do our best – yes. But the best of what we have to offer is the folly of what we preach. 

It pleases God to save those who believe. 

So whether you’re preaching through tough text, your own personal pain, the gospels, or any of the things we’ve discussed on the Preaching Through podcast, please remember…

… it’s not on you; it’s on the Lord. 

He delights to save people through our foolish, dumb, not-all-that-great preaching. 

What a gift!

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