Mullins Lectures: Ryken calls pastors to preach and teach Christ from the Old Testament
When the apostles preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, they used Old Testament texts. Preachers in the New Testament era possess the completed canon of Scripture, but that shouldn’t mean they rely exclusively on the New Testament when preaching Christ, argued Philip Graham Ryken during the 2018 E.Y. Mullins Lectures on Christian Preaching at Southern Seminary, Sept. 26-27. Ryken, who is president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, presented four lectures covering the foundations for and applications of preaching Jesus Christ from the Old Testament.
The two-day series, named in honor of Southern Seminary’s fourth president, represents one of the oldest endowed preaching lectureships in the United States, second only to Yale university’s Lyman Beecher Lectureship on Preaching.
To start, Ryken laid foundations for his talks by enumerating 31 reasons to preach and teach from the Old Testament. He named theological assumptions such as “the Old Testament is the Word of God,” interpretive observations such as “the Old Testament is Christ’s method of preaching the gospel,” and historical precedence such as preaching Christ from the Old Testament has been “strongly vindicated by the history of the church.” These 31 reasons are not exhaustive, according to Ryken, but they are meant to encourage curiosity and excitement about preaching Christ from the Old Testament Scriptures.
He moved from foundations into an exposition of Exodus 1:22-1:8, the passage that details the birth of Moses and his mother’s sending him in a basket into the Nile River. Ryken observed from the passage that God works in human history, that he is overcoming evil, and that his work culminates in Jesus Christ. He observed parallels Moses’ story and the birth of Jesus, another Jewish baby who fled a murderous king and grew up to rescue his people. Throughout his lectures, Ryken traced this salvation theme throughout the book of Exodus, from Israel's deliverance from Egypt and the Red Sea to God's presence with his people during their wilderness wanderings through the tabernacle. Each of these stories composes a narrative of redemption that carries great significance even 2,000 years later.
Approaching the text this way, “the salvation God has accomplished in history becomes the story of your own salvation,” Ryken said.
The preacher’s job is not just to accurately understand the Old Testament, but also to apply it to daily life, Ryken said during a different session of the Mullins Lectures. This application should start with the preacher applying the Bible to himself, he said. He used Ezra, the Jewish priest who reintroduced the returned Israelite exiles to the Scriptures, as an example of faithful application of biblical teaching.
According to Ezra 7:10, the teacher “set his heart to the study of Law of the Lord, to do it and teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” Ryken noted that, according to Jewish tradition, Ezra was considered the greatest student of Scripture after Moses. But he not only knew the Scriptures well; he applied it to his life before he taught it. Ezra had a holy ambition to teach the Bible to the people of Israel, and that emerged from his personal devotion to God’s Word. This same kind of conviction should motivate seminary students preparing for ministry.
“What have you set your heart on?” he said. “I’m sure your commitment when you started to study here was to understand as much about the Scriptures as you could. What about your commitment to growing in personal holiness — was that right up to the level of your commitment to studying biblical truth? Are you still leaning into it and are you still intent to growing in the Christian life? Are you nurturing through prayer a desire to serve others through what you’re learning through God’s Word?”
It is dangerous to understand biblical truth without experiencing it, Ryken said. He added that seminary students are usually ambitious to understand theology and doctrine on a deeper level, but their personal growth and spiritual discipline often lags behind. This not only hampers their ministry, he said, but also damages their souls. He encouraged students to lean into their prayer lives, and to nurture a desire to serve others through what they are learning in class. In order to know God in a biblical sense, Ryken said, believers must trust, obey, and be like him.
“A seminary like this is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be — because of the accountability you will have for what you are learning from God’s Word. If all you’re doing is taking that [information] in without putting into practice or sharing it with others, it’s going to be unhealthy. What Ezra describes here is the healthy life for a seminary student.”
Ryken also highlighted the importance of practical application in sermons, which is a natural extension of this personal application. He noted that the Puritans spent half of their sermon on application. They didn’t just teach on doctrine itself, but also its “use” in daily life. According to Ryken, this kind of balance should mark Christian preaching today. Pastors should work as hard on application as they do on exposition, he said.
“Different people in a congregation need God’s truth in different ways — depending on who they are and depending on their life’s circumstances,” he said, noting that he likes to pray before preaching that the Holy Spirit would use the sermon in unique ways for each person in his congregation.
This kind of application is also apparent in the Pauline epistles. The Apostle Paul’s exhortations are particular and specific, nor does he deal only with behavior, but instead he presses into deeper motivations and desires. He cares about the matters of the heart.
“Paul doesn’t just tell you, ‘Do this; don’t do that,’ which is pretty easy to fall into as a preacher,” Ryken said. “The gospel doesn’t tell us to do a better job so that we can measure up more closely to God’s standards. The gospel assumes that we don’t measure up to those standards, which is why we need God’s grace.
“The law says, ‘Do this and you will live.’ The gospel pronounces a resurrection word to us and says, ‘Live!’ and then the Scripture says, ‘Now, do this’ as a way of living out the life that God has put into us by the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit.”
Ezra’s ambition ultimately reaches its fulfillment in the New Covenant era, Ryken said, in which preachers have a full knowledge of God’s purposes in salvation history and can teach the full revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ryken noted that Ezra would have given “anything and everything” to know the completion of God’s plan, and to teach not only rules and statutes, but also gospel and grace. Yet the means of faithful teaching remain the same: personal application of Scripture to the preacher’s soul before public application of Scripture in the lives of the congregation.
“God needs to do a work in us before he can use us to do his work in others,” Ryken said. “And that’s not a one-and-done, either. It’s not as if you study for awhile, then apply it, then teach. You’re continuing to study the Word of God, you’re continuing to strive after new obedience and new areas of repentance. So there’s continuously a fruit of God’s work in your life to share with others.”
As for public application, pastors need to remember the gospel. They shouldn’t give their people a list of right and wrong, but instead call their people to a more intimate knowledge of the Father.
“When we’re talking about applying God’s truth, we’re not just giving people a 'to-do' list, he said. “We are actually helping them come to a deeper knowledge of God, and a knowledge of God in a comprehensive way — not just knowing about God, but a personal knowledge and encounter with the living God for life and eternity.”
Audio and video of the Mullins Lectures are now available online at equip.sbts.edu.