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.
Michael, thank you! For years I have heard of the danders of moralistic interpretations of scripture versus the gospel. It was always a stark choice and anyone teaching moral virtues instead of the pure gospel were bad guys. This article is so refreshing and is what I’ve always felt, but never verbalized the way you’ve done it here. Thanks for pointing out the fallacy of this either/or teaching and capturing what the Bible actually says!
Looking at the NT authors’ use of the OT is the right way to approach not only this subject, but hermeneutics as a whole. In addition to the references listed here, others to consider include Matt 12:1-8; 2 Cor 11:3; Heb 3:7-19; 12:15-17; Jas 5:10-11; 1 Jn 3:12; 1 Pet 3:5-6; 2 Pet 2:6,15; Jd 11. Maybe we could even include Rom 3:31 – 4:25! The matter is not as simple as saying, Yes, the NT appeals to OT saints as examples, but certainly there are typological events and persons who bear ethical significance. Of course there is ethical significance since unbelief leads to death and faith yields fruits and transforms us. But to simply hold up Job or David and say, Be like him or Don’t do as he did is deadening because it reduces revelation to a mere law so there is no power in it. Pointing to OT believers as heroic examples is not what Heb 11 is doing (which is an exposition of Hab 2:3-4). Hebrews 11 is not about these believers but what they believed in – Christ and his heavenly kingdom (cf. 13:14). What we see in Heb 11 is that there is one people of God with the same hope. Love for God is aroused by faith (not isolated imperatives) which is why the Puritan John Preston said to get faith and the rest will follow. The goal of preaching (as a means of grace) is to nurture faith by which we grow in the knowledge of God (the essence of eternal life).
I hope there is some relevance here: Faith without deeds. James 2:14-26. The ancients lived by faith & obedience and are commended for that as they too stood on the promises of God. Their morals did not save them any more than ours do. We walk the same path and cross the same desert (in a way) because of sin. But we are further along & see more of the promises that God has delivered. Just as He said He would. Because he lives and walked in obedience, we too shall live and walk in obedience.
A worship service should address various aspects of the Christian walk, it shouldnt be just down to a sermon and a minister should possibly point out what aspect of the christian life he is addressing to avoid confusion and maintain clear guidance.
It is probably what many books in the NT deal with when Christ came to turn things right side up.
I completely agree with your post. It stands to good reason that we should be able to get our hermeneutic from the NT authors. I have been given much thought to this recently and wondered what you thought about employing allegory about OT figures as Paul does in Galatians?
My two favorite OT moral examples:
Moses in Numbers 12:3 – “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.”
Phinehas in Numbers 25 – “While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab…And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel…When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand 8 and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly…And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.'”
Christopher Scott says
Great post! I did not realize some people say you cannot use OT figures as moral examples because it takes away from pointing toward Christ. Interesting. . . Too much of a good thing can be bad, I guess.
Thanks for this post and for your ministry.
Andrew Kerr says
Thanks for your stimulating post – lovingly, I would suggest the better approach is that we need to refine this view & it is neither one or the other but both in this way:
First we must realise that the apostles always (as far as I am aware) cite examples in the context of the Gospel of free grace – in that sense we should not moralise without the understanding that we are sinners and only in Christ and by His power can we follow the example.
Second the way to rescue OT examples from moralism is the doctrine of union with Christ which is how I put it to my students – so when Daniel prays thrice daily & Job perseveres in trial it is only by the power and grace of Christ working retrospectively from the Cross, by grace.
Third that’s why we are better not to say “do this” without saying “seek Him” – looking to Christ in repentance & faith is the Gospel.
Fourth the Greek word in 1 Cor 10:6 is tupoi or “types” so we need to reflect on what that means – is it a type in a technical or non-technical sense?
I stand to be corrected – a fellow disciple & friend
Glad to read this post. In my home country , most theologian (90% charismatic population) disagree with quoting OT for moral examples.