For years, I have heard people say it. In books, in articles, in podcasts. Again and again, we are told that preachers cannot use OT stories as moral examples.
Why? Because it breaks the rules of Christ-centered preaching. If we talk about OT figures we can only discuss how they point forward to Christ. If we use them as a moral example then we have simply become moralists.
Or so we are told.
Now, it should be acknowledged that the motivation here is commendable. Yes, we want to preach Christ (though we need to define what that means more carefully). And yes we don’t want to advocate some sort of moralism from the pulpit.
But does that mean we are forbidden from using OT stories as moral examples? I think not. And here’s why: The NT authors used OT stories as moral examples.
There are numerous instances of this, but just consider one passage from Paul. After recounting the numerous stories of Israel in the desert—parting of the red sea, eating manna, water from the rock—Paul says:
Now these things took place as examples for us, that we may not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolators as some of them were. . . We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did. . . nor grumble as some of them did. . . [these things] were written down for our instruction (1 Cor 10:6-11).
In other words, don’t be like the Israelites in the desert.
And OT figures are also used as positive moral examples. James appeals to the story of Elijah as an encouragement for us to pray: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently” (Jas 5:17).
Beyond, this there is the entire Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 which recounts the great deeds of the saints of the OT. Yes, they were deeds done on the basis of faith (not meritorious works-righteousness). Nonetheless, their actions were still laid forth as a model for us to follow:
Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight. . . and let us run with endurance the race set before us (Heb 12:1).
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that OT stories only function as moral examples. Of course, they also point forward to Christ. Indeed, the NT writers use many OT figures precisely as types of Christ, anticipating his great work of redemption.
But, here’s the point: it doesn’t have to be one or the other. OT stories/figures can function both as a type of Christ and as moral examples of what true faith can produce in the life of God’s people.
In the end, that means there’s freedom in the way we preach these OT stories. And that freedom is established by the NT authors themselves.