A couple of years ago I read an excellent commentary on Jonah written by Phillip Cary. He said something in the second paragraph of the introduction that changed my life:
First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[†]
“Like the whole Bible,” this Old Testament book is about Christ.
If, unlike me, you never attended a mainline Protestant seminary, you might miss how shocking these words are. But trust me, one would never hear this sentiment expressed at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. On the contrary, we mostly didn’t study something called the Old Testament; we studied the Hebrew Bible. To call it the Old Testament, after all, would imply a continuity with the New Testament that critical scholarship within the realm of mainline Protestantism denies at every turn.
While the Hebrew Bible happens to be included in our Christian Bibles, it doesn’t really belong to us Christians. At best, we’re overhearing someone else’s conversation. Therefore, the strange first-person plural pronouns (“let us create”) for God in Genesis 1 cannot be a Trinitarian reference. The “prophet like Moses” of Deuteronomy 18:15 cannot be Jesus. The “virgin who shall conceive and give birth to a son” of Isaiah 7:14 cannot be pointing to Christmas, irrespective of what it meant in its original context. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 cannot say anything about Christ’s atoning death. (Worse, from a liberal mainline perspective, this chapter says the most about penal substitution, so it certainly can’t be referring to Jesus!)
Why would an ostensibly Christian seminary, much less one aligned with the United Methodist Church, fail to emphasize the continuity between Old and New Testaments in its core Old Testament classes? After all, this wasn’t an undergraduate Bible class at a secular public university, whose students come from a variety of religious backgrounds. We’re under no obligation to respect religious pluralism. Yet I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that we were discouraged from thinking that the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New.
Did the Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the Old Testament not foresee the coming of Christ? In which case, as this Christianity Today article implies, the Old Testament era was a mistake (Plan A) that God put right with the coming of Jesus (Plan B). What kind of doctrine of scripture would this imply? Where would this leave doctrines of God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty?
It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?
So I can sympathize with the average layperson who dreads hearing a sermon on the Old Testament for fear that it won’t be about Jesus. I’m guessing that in most mainline churches, that’s the case. (After all, their pastors went to places like Candler!)
But I hope that my parishioners know better. Every sermon I preach is about Jesus, in one way or another. I preach the gospel through every sermon. I preach Christ crucified in every sermon. And why not? I can’t improve on that message. And that message never gets old.
† Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.