Editor’s note: This article is the second in a three-part series by a Chinese house church pastor in response to a preaching workshop conducted in Shanghai by a prominent American pastor. The workshop focused on how to preach the gospel, and in particular Christ, through the book of Genesis. The China Partnership is thankful to this pastor for assistance with developing a curriculum on gospel-centered preaching. Check out Part 1 and Part 3 to complete the series.
[An American pastor] has helped train the [Chinese] pastors on Christ-centered preaching and he emphasizes that the story of redemptive history should be preached in every single sermon. We first need to come to a common ground. When Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” and when the believers and apostles of the first century church kept proclaiming that Jesus is Christ in the temple, in their houses, and in front of the Jews and Greeks, the message they proclaimed was the gospel message framed in the structure of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
In [the pastor’s] syllabus, he states that there are only two ways of reading the scripture. Essentially, I can read it as if it is about me and what I must do, or I can read it about Jesus and what he has already done. Only two ways of interpreting scripture can be developed from these two perspectives – namely, moralistic interpretation and Christ-centered interpretation. With this in mind, all sermons by default tell us what to do in order to advance morally if they are not preached on Jesus and what he has done to stimulate response from human hearts. When Paul says that the gospel is the power of God, he implies the inner change and life transformation brought about by the former response.
Now the simple question we encounter here is how to proclaim Jesus’ story in every time of worship? We cannot preach only from the gospels every Sunday. I’ve had these questions and have been challenged by the doubts of others when I’ve studied Christ-centered preaching. How can we preach Christ’s story naturally in every sermon rather than falling into the trap of doctrinarism? This question is exactly where our confusion lies. If every passage rigidly points to the exaltation and imitation of Christ without proper transition, then we can fall back into moralistic teachings.
The best teaching [the pastor] brought us was how we can transition a passage from its micro context into the macro context of the biblical, redemptive narrative and he himself demonstrated the beauty of Christ-centered preaching by preaching from an Old Testament passage. His points were as follows.
First, pointing Old Testament passages to Christ is abundantly practical.
One way to approach the Old Testament is to seek the solution for the issues addressed in its passages. Only Christ can answer these issues; for example, the issue of kings and the kingdom. The Israelites kept appealing to judges and kings, but all of their successes and failures demonstrate the fact that the Israelites yearned for a real king, whose place no human king can take.
Another way to interpret the Old Testament is by seeking the end of the story, for only Jesus finishes the great narrative of the Bible. For example, who else can fill the vast emptiness after the fall of man? We can approach the Old Testament with a law-receiving perspective. For example, we can look at the story of Abraham interceding for Sodom and see the motif that God is willing to forgive many because of the righteousness of a few. Only Jesus, who took the punishment for our sake, is the final righteousness according to the law and enables us to fulfill the law. We have fulfilling symbolism, as well. Only Jesus fulfills all the great symbolism in scripture; prophets, priests, kings, the Passover, the copper snake, and the temple all point to Jesus Christ.
The second point is that we should put the gospel segments into the framework of a theology of redemptive history, so that we can lead our audience to worship Christ. Redemptive history leads us through creation, fall, redemption and restoration.
In the book of Acts, Paul preached the gospel in various occasions. Looking at Paul’s preaching to different people in chapters 13, 14 and 17, we generally see that a gospel that proclaims Jesus is Christ includes four points. It proclaims the idea of creation, that there is a God who is the Creator of heaven and earth. It explains the fall of humanity and that God asks humans to repent because worshiping idols, false gods, and things of vanity are all sins. The gospel proclaims redemption through Jesus Christ, who is the messiah of the Jews and the savior of all human beings. Lastly, it teaches the final consummation; we can accept the atonement of God and be justified in Christ.
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This is the redemptive historical framework that we talk about. If we analyze the preaching of other apostles in Acts, such as Peter and Stephan’s preaching, their sermons had different emphases according to the variation of their audience, but the messages they preached always fell into this redemptive historical framework. For example Peter, who addressed the Jews who came to offer their sin offerings when he preached the Pentecostal sermon, preached mainly on redemption and transformation. Additionally, the Holy Land and temple that Stephan emphasized pointed to the righteous man, Christ. Stephan’s sermon was about interpreting the fulfillment of symbolism and a message of redemption. Therefore, we should say that redemptive historical preaching is an approach that we can find in the Bible itself.
How can an Old Testament passage that has already found its way to Christ be placed into such a redemptive historical theological framework? We can see in scripture the theme of God’s original purpose for creation and how the fall points to the unfulfilled nature of that theme. Redemption and transformation is about the unfulfilled theme being fulfilled perfectly by God because of the work of Christ. The story waiting to be finished is God’s creation plan, with the fall introducing the suspense of an unfinished story, and redemption and transformation through the work of Christ ending the story perfectly in the final chapter.
We can say that creation is the theme that is waiting to be finished, the story waiting to end, the symbolism waiting to be fulfilled, the law waiting to be obeyed. The fall is the theme with no answer, the story with suspension, the superficial symbolism, the law disobeyed. In the final analyses, we draw Christ in and point out that only Christ can bring a solution to the theme, finalize the story, realize the symbolism, and fulfill the law.