Ask These 5 Questions to Bring Clarity to Your Old Testament Sermons
I wish I’d had Christopher Wright’s new book How to Preach Through the Old Testament for All Its Worth when I regularly preached. It would have helped me preach the text, yes. But it would have helped me preach it in a way my congregation would have understood it.
Because let’s face it, preaching the Old Testament can be…challenging! Wright sympathizes:
to be honest, the Old Testament is a difficult set of books…trying to preach a sermon or teach a Sunday school class from the Old Testament is too exhausting for the pastor or Bible study leader and too confusing for the people. It’s much easier to stick with what we know—the New Testament. (17)
Which is why Wright offers a five-question roadmap for preaching and teaching Old Testament stories. We’ve briefly sketched the questions he outlines to help your Old Testament sermons sing with clarity.
When and Where? The Setting
Every story has a setting, and the Old Testament is no different: “historical narratives are set in a particular time and place, and that background is important in understanding the story and its meaning.” (102)
Wright offers three levels when answering questions about the “When” and “Where”:
- Immediate Setting of the Story Itself. Preaching the Old Testament well means knowing the story’s basic circumstances.
- Wider Setting within One of the Bible’s “Mega-Stories” “Every Old Testament story in the historical books comes within a wider narrative.” (102)
- Whole-Bible Setting. “When and where does this story take place within the great sweep of the Bible’s single big story?”
Grasping the “Where” and “When” is crucial, because it “will affect how we understand what happens in the story itself, what the characters in the story do or do not know already, and how they act and react.” (103)
What and How? The Plot
Next, Wright suggests we ask another question: “What happens in this story, and how does one thing lead to another?” (103) He offers the plot structure common to most stories as a guide to help us map every Old Testament narrative:
- Opening situation
- Trying to overcome that problem
- The problem reaches a climax
- The problem is finally overcome
- Closing situation
He advises writing out the story scene by scene, using the outline above to mark its major movements. “Grasp the whole plot and observe how it has been structured…Only then can you teach it faithfully.” (106)
Who? The Characters
As with any story, biblical ones will usually have a central character—sometimes more if it’s a longer story. After identifying them, we often take a wrong turn when it comes to what they mean:
We tend to like simple stories in which one character is clearly the “good guy” and another character is clearly “the bad guy”…But the Bible is often much more realistic and true to life…So when you come to preach or teach on Old Testament stories, do not think that you have to tell your listeners in simplistic terms. (109)
Since these characters were like us, “when you preach about them, be as honest as the Bible itself is.” (109) But remember that, while the Bible is full of human characters, the central one is God himself.
Why? The Narrator
Then there is the more basic question: Why? “For what reason has the narrator chosen to tell us this story when there must have been many more that he has chosen to leave out?” (111)
Wright identifies four broad kinds of reasons why stories were included in the Bible:
- Recording historical events upon which our faith is based
- Illustrating experiences that faith and obedience involve
- Illustrating suffering and costs that faith and obedience demand
- Illustrating the consequences of sin and rebellion.
Identifying the “Why” will go a long way in bringing clarity to your sermons on the Old Testament.
So What? The Reader
Finally, we have the “So What?” “Every story needs a listener or reader,” Wright reminds us (116). Which calls for a response. Yet our invitations to respond shouldn’t just be applicational, but implicational too:
We tend to read a story from the Bible and then simply ask, “How does that apply to me?” Then we pull out a few nice principles—some good advice that we could have taken from any story, whether in the Bible or not…Instead, we need to ask: How am I implicated in this story? (117)
Proving the story’s implications would include asking more questions: How should we respond personally to God? Where do we fit into God’s whole story, in light of this particular one? How should the story affect my discipleship and obedience? And, what does it teach us about our salvation and participation in God’s mission?
Whether you are a paid or volunteer teacher of the Old Testament, get Wright’s book. Read it, digest it, and live it—for the sake of your preaching ministry.