The Primacy of Christ-centered Interpretation
To what extent is it necessary to “proclaim Christ” when discussing or explaining the Scriptures? As has been expounded in prior articles, and will be re-visited here, the Bible advances a Christ-centeredness to the Scriptures and to preaching. However, much of the examples in Scripture has been in reference to preaching. Preaching must be Christ-centered. The question arises: Is the necessity of proclaiming Christ from Scripture limited to preaching? When we aren’t preaching, such as in informal teaching opportunities or casual discussion, what place does such a homiletical principle have?
Although I don’t intend to fully revisit the earlier made discussions pertaining to the Christ-centeredness of Scripture and the necessity of preaching Christ from all Scripture, I do believe a cursory restating of some of those key ideas will be useful. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the earlier posts wherein those topics were discussed with greater rigor. The discussion in this post is very much presuming an understanding of those ideas.
As we have seen prior, Jesus and the apostles frequently explained that all Scripture is ultimately about Jesus. After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to two of his disciples who were travelling to the village Emmaus. Jesus kept them from recognizing him, and in the midst of discussing the events of the crucifixion and the recently reported resurrection:
“[Jesus] said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” – Luke 24:25-27
A little later, after the Emmaus road discussion, Jesus appears to his disciples:
“Then [Jesus] said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’” – Luke 24:44-47
The main divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures were the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (of which Psalms was the biggest part). Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that all the Scriptures ultimately points to his death, resurrection, and the consequent gospel implications.
In addition to Jesus’ testimony about the Scriptures, we also have statements from apostles such as Paul:
“For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” – Acts 26:21-23
I hope these few listed verses have been a refreshing reminded of Scripture’s testimony about itself.
We also see in Scripture that preaching is routinely summed up in proclaiming Christ. Paul, in exhorting the Christians at Corinth, describes to them the content of preaching and says,
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” – 1 Corinthians 1:22-24
In the next chapter, Paul again exclaims to them,
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2
We know from Acts 18 that Paul stayed in Corinth for 1.5 years. This refutes the argument that Paul was preaching Christ because he was just evangelizing. Paul spent many months building the church in Corinth, and through it all he sums up his preaching in one person: Christ.
Moving from principle to practice, there are many sermons recorded in the Bible wherein we can see the outworking of this principle. Prominent examples of preaching in the New Testament can be found in the following locations: Acts 2:14-36, 3:11-26, 7:1-53, 10:34-43, 13:16-47, and the book of Hebrews. Unfortunately, time doesn’t permit a thorough discussion of all these sermon examples. I do hope to eventually provide a detailed analysis of the principles perceivable in these sermons, but for now, I hope a few simple comments will suffice. Upon reading these sermons, it is evident that preaching Christ wasn’t just a fanciful idea to these preachers, but rather an all-encompassing reality. Throughout these sermons, the preachers faithfully exposited the truths of Old Testament texts and never failed to connect them to the person and work of Jesus Christ. So, as God’s Word has shown us by both principle and example, we can and must preach Christ from all Scripture.
This brings us back to the question at hand. Is the necessity of proclaiming Christ from all Scripture limited to preaching? In other contexts, such as informal teaching opportunities or casual discussion, are we not under such a mandate? I believe such a question reveals a misunderstanding of why preaching is Christ centered.
I would submit to you that the Scriptures aren’t Christ-centered because preaching is Christ-centered. Rather, preaching is Christ-centered because the Scriptures are Christ-centered. The principled and practical outworking of preaching are reflective of the very nature of God’s Word. Namely, that it fundamentally and ultimately points us to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This isn’t limited to overt “messianic” section of the Old Testament, but rather, as the preaching examples show, all texts of Scripture need to preached in light of Christ. Consequently, regardless of whether we’re preaching or not, we must strive to interpret all Scripture in light of Christ, not because it’s exemplified in preaching examples, but because it’s reflective of the very purpose and structure of the Bible.
A phenomenal example for us is Jesus’ Emmaus road discussion cited above. There, Jesus was having an informal, casual conversation with these two disciples in the midst of their travels. Yet in that setting, Jesus discusses with them the significance of Old Testament texts and explains how they concern himself. He even lovingly rebukes them, calling them “foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe” what they should have seen in the Scriptures. This example precludes any idea that interpreting Scripture in light of Christ is only appropriate in more formal preaching settings; as here, we see Jesus engage in such an endeavor while in an informal, casual conversation.
Another consideration to keep in mind is that church looked differently back then as compared to today. Whereas contemporary Western church experiences may often involve formal times of singing and preaching in a dedicated building, church gatherings in the early church era appeared more spontaneous and smaller knit. We read descriptions of early church activity in the following verses:
“To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house” – Philemon 1:1b-2
“how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” – Acts 20:20
“The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 16:19
As seen in those verses, the early church was characterized by teachings and gatherings of Christians in both house churches and public spaces. Consequently, if the early church experience was different from our own, how can we limit explaining how all Scripture leads us to Christ to only our contemporary Sunday morning pulpit experience?
As a result of the Scriptures being inherently Christ-centered, Jesus interpreting all Scripture in light of himself in a casual context, and the early church experience being more spontaneous and informal; I would affirm that proclaiming Christ from all Scripture is absolutely not limited to just preaching. Rather, we see a wholehearted commitment in Scripture to interpret all Scripture in light of Jesus’ person and work regardless of the formality of the occasion. Consequently, perhaps a better term to reflect this Biblical standard would be “Christ-centered interpretation”. Whether preaching, teaching, or casually discussing God’s Word, our interpretation of and application from the text needs to faithfully and accurately lead us to and/or be rooted in Christ. If, as Scripture teaches, all Scripture is fundamentally and ultimately about Jesus, but we don’t get to him from a text of Scripture, how much do we truly understand that Scripture?
Striving to interpret and apply all Scripture in light of Christ is rooted in understanding the Bible’s own testimony about itself. Regardless of the context, whether we’re teaching or casually discussing the Bible, it is necessary to interpret the passage in light of Jesus as it reflects the truest goal of the Biblical text. So, whether in preaching, teaching, discussion, or personal reflection, let us strive for a Christ-centered interpretation of God’s Word.