Lessons from Leviticus: Expositional Preaching from the Old Testament

In recent years, expository preaching has experienced a resurgence. In reaction to topical sermons driven by the personality and whims of the preacher or the felt needs of the congregation, many have returned to the practice of verse by verse exposition. I believe this trend has helped address the crisis of biblical illiteracy and the evangelical disconnect between the authority of Scripture and its sufficiency. Overall, the recovery of expositional preaching is a sign of health and cause for celebration. However, this return to text-driven preaching has exposed a hermeneutical deficiency—what do we do with the Old Testament?

Challenges to Old Testament Exposition

Pastors eagerly take on a Pauline epistle and Scripture hungry churches usually devour such sermons. After all, the logical structure of argumentation in epistles easily connects with the Western mind. Plus, the New Testament provides but a short hermeneutical gap between us and the biblical audience. Preaching through Old Testament books presents a vast challenge for the faithful expositor. The Old Testament world feels entirely foreign to us, not only when it comes to Ancient Near East culture, but the genre of literature feels dry, obtuse, and tedious. Thus, unlocking the riches of God’s word for the 21st century for today’s Christians requires careful explanation that often stretches patience. In an age of short Wikipedia articles and three-minute, how-to youtube videos, few believers have the attention span or the work ethic to grasp and apply the Old Testament.

Though difficulties in teaching God’s word persist in every age and culture, each generation must persist in proclaiming the whole counsel of God to all of God’s people. We must not become Marcionites either by conviction or by practice. Unhitching the church from the Old Testament is a devilish solution birthed from a misunderstanding of the gospel itself. Though teaching the Old Testament contains many contemporary challenges, robbing the church of the riches of God’s word is at best pastoral abuse and at worst condemnable false teaching. We must learn to preach the gospel from the Old Testament.

Currently, I’m teaching through the book of Leviticus at Redemption Church. If modern ears struggle with listening to preaching from the Old Testament, the regulations of Levitical Law presents a big challenge for the preacher. I know it certainly has for me! Yet, God’s word is profitable and good for building up the church. As I’m currently teaching through Leviticus, here are a few lessons I’ve learned in preaching this Old Testament book, that I hope will encourage other expositors to preach the Old Testament with confidence and faithfulness.

1. Budget Time for Exploring the Literary, Historical, and Cultural Contexts

Every sermon ought to include these components, but Old Testament books normally require extra time. Few Christians have a solid handle of Israel’s history and culture, so pastors must carefully explain the context and background to their hearers. Expositors tend to preach lengthier sermons by default, but Old Testament sermons require precision of language and economy of words to make the most of a congregation’s attention spans. Since Old Testament passages require extra explanation of background material, understand that this aspect of your sermon will need to expand as you preach Old Testament books. One of the advantages of preaching chapter by chapter is that your sermons will build upon on one another, preventing you from having to reteach the background of a book each week—though you would do well to provide weekly reminders and summaries for those just joining in the series.

2. Learn to Handle Large Sections of Scripture Effectively

Old Testament books move much slower than their New Testament counterparts. The pericopes of the gospel move quickly, and an epistle’s argument moves concisely. The length and the slow burn of themes of Old Testament literature requires a quicker pace of preaching. After all, a three-year sermon series on Leviticus would test even the patience of Moses. I tend to take a chapter or two a sermon, relying on summarizing sections and tracing themes instead of parsing verb tenses every other sentence. Due to our unfamiliarity with legal literature, we often lose the forest for the tress. Taking on larger chunks of Scripture is a homiletical challenge, but it helps the church to stay engaged and see the larger themes and meaning of Old Testament books.

3. Make Contemporary and Relevant Application

The tedious exposition necessary for books like Leviticus needs to be lavished with relevant and practical application. The question looming in the back of the mind is, “Why does it matter? Why should I care?” Old Testament sermons can easily turn into an exegetical lecture—dry, boring, and unhelpful. Not only that, but what value is left of the Old Testament Law now fulfilled in Christ? Pastor’s must labor to show the value and contemporary relevance of God’s word, particularly when teaching the Old Testament. Provide specific application in light of the doctrinal principles uncovered from the text.

4. Master Biblical Theology

While one danger is to turn Old Testament sermons into academic lectures, an equally egregious error is to make bad application with moralism. Yes, the same error made by countless Sunday school teachers is often made by pastors too. The Old Testament is not Aesop’s fables. Mastering biblical theology will help you to preach Christ from every text in a way that connects to the passage preached. Rather than just sprinkling the gospel on superfluously at the end of the sermon, biblical theology will enable you to connect the passage theme to the gospel in an organic way. Biblical theology will empower you to make Christological application from every text, which will help you avoid the pitfalls of moralistic preaching.

Though preaching the Old Testament can present a challenge, it is well worth the effort. Because we believe in the authority of God’s word, we cannot avoid two-thirds of Scripture because some books are more of a challenge to preach. More than ever, the church needs gospel-focused, Old Testament preaching which showcases the unity of God’s redemptive plan, the fullness of his character, and the glory of his wisdom. The Old Testament helps us see the devastation of human sin and our need for God’s covenantal love in grace. Faithful Old Testament preaching will depend on our understanding of the gospel and add rich and vivid texture to the person and work of Christ. May we expositors rise to the challenge of heralding the entirety of God’s word to our churches. For it is Christ we proclaim, “warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).