Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching

Two scrolls2Almost every passage you preach in the New Testament will have Old Testament quotes or allusions present. What should we be noticing, and what should we do with them?

A. OT Quotes – these are usually very obvious. They are typically marked in quotes, and often have a quotation formula introducing them, such as “This was to fulfil what was written by the prophet Isaiah,” (then the quote), or “As Isaiah wrote,” . . .

B. OT Reference – this is where the New Testament writer refers to an Old Testament incident. For instance, Jesus referred to Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness (Numbers 21:6-9) while speaking with Nicodemus. It is not a quote, but it might as well be, it is a direct and overt reference.

C. OT Allusion – this is more subtle, it is where the New Testament writer is implying Old Testament wording but without making it a quote.  Peter’s use of language like “royal priesthood, holy nation,” etc (1Peter 2:9) is an example of allusion rather than direct quote.

D. OT Informing Theology – to us Walter Kaiser’s label, informing theology is that previously written material that was readily available to the writer and probably the original hearer/reader, but may take some digging for us to grasp. Sometimes this will be overt, such as Jesus’ speech about being a good shepherd is built on a shared awareness of Ezekiel 34 with his hearers. Sometimes this will be more hidden, such as Jesus’ resistance to Nicodemus’ conversation opener based on an awareness of Genesis 3 that Nicodemus didn’t get (and most commentators seem to miss too . . . is he really saying we are dead if we are without the Spirit?)

What should we be doing with this Old Testament colour in the New Testament text?  Let’s start with two basic but important points before we continue with more suggestions next time:

Important Point 1 – read the Old Testament. The only way to gain familiarity with the literature that the NT writers knew and often assumed knowledge of is to spend time in it. The more you read it, the more the New Testament use of it will jump off the page. Know the whole, and start to recognise the major passages that get quoted or referenced, or alluded to a lot.

Important Point 2 – when studying the New Testament, always go back and look at the Old Testament source for quotes and references. Sometimes do so for recognised allusions and informing theology too. If you don’t do that digging, you won’t fully grasp passages that you intend to preach.

Next time we will ponder further how to study this and then preach in light of it . . .

3 thoughts on “Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching

    • Sure. Nicodemus starts with a comment that seems to anticipate a positive response. “We can tell you are a teacher come from God…” It feels like Nicodemus is starting positive in order to establish a rapport with Jesus. Perhaps the Sanhedrin were concerned about how things didn’t work out too well with John the Baptist, so they want to get Jesus onside earlier? Anyway, Jesus doesn’t give Nicodemus the time of day as far as a God conversation is concerned. Instead he immediately replies with a statement that unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God. To put that another way, he might as well have said, “Nicodemus, you are spiritually dead, so we cannot talk about God stuff with you are you are…” Nicodemus was the teacher of Israel, but Jesus is telling him that unless the Spirit of God brings new life into him, then he is just a flesh man, but without spiritual life. This must have been hard for the teacher of Israel to take onboard!

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