The Power of Jots and Tittles:Old Testament Preaching in Today’s World
By Dr. Robert R. Ellis
According to the familiar words of the King James Version, Jesus said,
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach [persons] so, . . . shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-19).
The Lord spoke these words to a crowd that was already quite committed (at least in principle if not in reality) to the authority of every bit of the Jewish scripture, down to the tiniest “jot” and “tittle.” He affirmed in strong terms the validity of the law and prophets and the necessity of their being taught. Now, two millennia after the Sermon on the Mount, the question is how seriously do we, the contemporary followers of Jesus, need to take the law and the prophets. Do we need to “do and teach them” in order to “be called great in the kingdom of heaven”? To ask the question another way, must the law and the prophets, as well as the rest of the Old Testament, be preached in the church?
The authors of the New Testament repeatedly affirmed that the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament, is quite important for the church. We often quote the Pauline text that says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, NRSV). While we would readily affirm that 2 Tim. 3:16-17 also accurately describes the value of the New Testament, its affirmation was made with the Old Testament squarely in view.
Neglect of the Old Testament in Preaching
Some in the history of the church have intentionally and dogmatically rejected the Old Testament as unessential, or even pagan, literature that has no authority for the church. Marcion (ca. 85-160), rejected the Old Testament and “Jewish” portions of the New for example. The early church in turn rejected Marcion and upheld the canonical authority of the Old Testament. The spirit of Marcion has not died in the church. Besides those who have been philosophical followers,1 many Christian preachers have shown themselves to be “closet” Marcionites through their intentional or unplanned avoidance of the Old Testament in preaching. While occupying more than three-quarters of the canon, Old Testament texts represent only a minuscule percentage of the scripture preached before many congregations. From one perspective the neglect of the Old Testament in preaching is understandable. The Christian proclamation of these ancient texts requires preachers to hurdle historical, cultural, theological, and sometimes even moral obstacles. As Donald Gowan has said, “It is a foreign land which they enter when they open the pages of one of those archaic books—no Christ, no Church, worship by sacrificing animals, strange people with strange customs . . . .”2 Indeed, the Old Testament “jots” and “tittles” can seem inordinately obscure and irrelevant.
Essentiality of Preaching from the Old Testament
From another perspective the neglect of the Old Testament in Christian preaching is unconscionable. If we indeed affirm that the collection of all those “jots” and “tittles” comprises the first segment of the Christian canon, then the Old Testament is an essential and indispensable part of the word of God, and we must preach it if we intend to declare “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). As Jesus said about these old words, “Whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
The practical values of preaching the Old Testament abound—several appear in 2 Tim. 3:16-17: “teaching . . . reproving . . . correcting . . . training in righteousness. . . equipping for every good work.” To be more specific about the teaching value, if churches do not hear the Old Testament, they cannot comprehend such foundational realities as God’s creative work, the Lord’s sovereignty over the earth, the holiness of God, the pervasiveness of human sinfulness, or the remarkable story of the Lord’s redemptive work from the beginning of history. The Old Testament opens up for us such important issues as the incomparability of God, the mystery of theodicy, the necessity for social justice, and the hope for a new creation.3
Yet another pragmatic motivation for preaching the Old Testament is the possibility it offers for vitalizing (or revitalizing) our homiletics through the power of story. As Elizabeth Achtemeier has said, so often we preach about the Bible, turning it into sermonic propositions, rather than preaching the Bible itself—that is, story which is the Bible.4 The Old Testament carries the majority of the story, as well as plethora of texts that literally are stories—stories that are spellbinding, terrifying, convicting, hilarious, and inspiring. Stories filled with violence, love, sex, jealousy, hate, doubt, trust, birth, death, and new life. They are stories that can captivate the imagination of the church and sweep the people of God up into the Spirit’s redemptive purposes.5
I do not want to overstate my case in this appeal for Old Testament preaching. The Old Covenant is not more important than the New for the pulpit. Our preaching is Christian preaching, and the New Testament is the Final Word of God. However, that final word is truncated, and the record of God’s revelation is eclipsed, unless it is joined with the preaching of the First Word.
Hermeneutical Contexts for Old Testament Sermons
Context of the Ancient Near East and the Old Testament
When we preach the First Word the challenge is to figure out how ancient Israelite texts can be the stuff of Christian preaching. While this article does not lend itself to a lengthy discussion of Old Testament hermeneutics, a few general comments may be helpful. Old Testament texts must be understood within several contexts. First is consideration of the ancient context. A passage must be read against the backdrop of the culture of the ancient Near East. The great distance between “that world” and “our world” can be bridged with the help of good commentaries that have already done the spade work of digging through ancient data for relevant material. Then the preacher must draw a conclusion about the basic meaning and theological values that the text had for ancient hearers. The message and the theology of the text can then be placed alongside other Old Testament passages that deal with similar issues to gain a canonical perspective. To say it another way, one determines the “theological direction” of the selected text and then looks for other passages that are going in the same direction, while watching out for parallels and developments of the basic theological issue(s).
Context of the New Testament
The second contextual sphere to be considered in Old Testament preaching is that of the New Testament. Every interpreter must wrestle with the question of the relationship between the Testaments. A healthy approach strives for a balanced view of the continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New. Some interpreters err by overemphasizing the continuity of the Testaments, with the result that the New Testament is collapsed into the Old (e.g., the New Covenant becomes a mere parenthesis in God’s real Old Covenant plan), or with the opposite result that the unique revelation of the Old Covenant is buried under an allegorical imposition of the New. Other interpreters, like Marcion, make a mistake in the other direction: overemphasizing the discontinuity of the Testaments, with the result that they are blinded to the true and essential light that the Old Testament shines regarding God and God’s world. A balanced view holds testamental continuity and discontinuity in tension.
According to Matt. 5:17-19, Jesus emphasized continuity through his affirmation of the ongoing authority of the Old Covenant: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets . . . . Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law . . . . Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments . . . shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” Thus Jesus proclaimed the continuing validity of the ancient Word for his new kingdom. Jesus also declared that there is something genuinely new about the New Covenant; there is also a discontinuity from the Old. He said that he had come to “fulfill” or, perhaps better, “fill full” the law and prophets (Matt. 5:17). Jesus reframed the old revelation in terms of a great new redemptive act. The God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old, and God’s creative and redemptive purposes remain the same; however, in Christ there is a radical new Way of redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection. Citizenship in the new kingdom comes to all people by faith, not heredity (within a single chosen family), and the kingdom is a spiritual one with no geographical limitation (to a particular chosen land). The discontinuity of the Testaments also has ethical implications, for Jesus’ speech in Matthew 5 goes on to the theme of “you have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . .” (5:21-48), thereby expanding the moral implications of the law and prophets. Jesus did not abandon the ethical “direction” of the Old Covenant; however, he certainly carried the spirit of the Law and Prophets to radically new heights.
To summarize the implications of this hermeneutic for the preacher: first, the continuity of the Testaments means that the basic message of the Old Testament (concerning the nature of God and creation and the purposes of God) remains the same as it moves from the Old through the New Testament. Therefore, plumbing the riches of that message in the Old Testament must be an essential feature of Christian preaching. Second, the discontinuity between the Testaments means that the preacher must consider the way in which the radical New Covenant carries God’s redemptive purposes onward and reframes the nature of relationship with God.
A helpful model for addressing the continuity/discontinuity issue is to consider what the New Testament does with the message and theology of an Old Testament passage in terms of either (1) assuming its validity, (2) canceling its authority, or (3) “filling full” its meaning by reorienting the theological direction of the ancient text. An illustration of the first option (assuming validity) is the fact that the New Testament simply assumes the Old Testament’s story of creation without elaboration, except for proclaiming that Christ stands at the beginning and end of creation (e.g., Col. 1:15-20). With regard to the second option (canceling authority), Jesus’ sacrificial death canceled the need for the Old Covenant’s sacrificial system (e.g., Hebrews 10).6 To illustrate option three (“filling full”), Jesus accepts the role of Davidic kingship but redefines its significance in terms of a spiritual rather than political kingdom (e.g., John 18:36).
Sometimes the task of relating specific Old Testament texts to the New Testament is a simple matter of lining up “that text” with “this text,” as when we place the dietary restrictions of Leviticus 11 alongside the statement in Mark 7:19 that Jesus “declared all foods clean.” The task is often much harder when the Old and New passages do not line up so neatly. For example, the preacher must struggle with such issues as whether the “eternal promises” made to specific persons in Old Testament covenants remain intact or are superceded by the New Covenant, whether the New Testament assumes or cancels Old Testament laws about capital punishment, and whether the eschatological expectations of the prophets have been fulfilled in Jesus’ first coming or if they must await his return. Answers to these kinds of hermeneutical questions require a preacher to develop a broad theological perspective that comes from continually reading and reflecting on the whole canon.
One specific issue that arises concerning the relationship of the Testaments in sermon preparation is how to use the New Testament when preaching an Old Testament text. Sometimes an Old Testament passage can be paired very effectively with a New Testament text. Of course, such pairing is essential in cases where the New Testament cancels or radically reorients the authority of the Old Testament. Pairing can also offer very creative ways of applying Old Testament texts. For example, Elizabeth Achtemeier (a preacher with a masterful skill at pairing texts) suggests linking Psalm 2 (a Royal Psalm) with Phil 4:4-7 (the Kenotic hymn) around the theme of God’s laughter—a laughter that finds its ultimate joy in the triumph of Christ’s kingdom.7 While pairing texts is one good approach to preparing Christian sermons from the Old Testament, the preacher should not feel constrained to employ a New Testament text in an Old Testament sermon. Since the Old Testament contains revelation of the same God as the New, a text from the Old has a validity all its own. A preacher should not think it necessary to find a New Testament passage to “proof text” the Old Testament, as if the authority of the Old Testament needs some shoring up. The Old Testament is true in its own right. Indeed, the relevance of the Old Testament for the church is understood through the theological framework of the New Testament; however, direct use of New Testament texts may or may not be essential in an Old Testament sermon.
Context of the Contemporary World
The third hermeneutical context a preacher must consider in preparing a sermon is the contemporary world. The culture behind the Old Testament is even farther removed from our world than the culture of the New Testament (although the historical contexts of the Old and New Testaments have many more connections with one another than either one has with today’s world). The “discontinuity” of the Old Testament and contemporary culture is offset, however, by the “continuity” of human nature. Our life issues often intersect with those of Old Testament people so that those ancient “jots” and “tittles” have the capacity to invade our world with life-giving power. The Old Testament tells the stories of ancient people who struggled, just like we do, with identity, self-esteem, guilt, forgiveness, failure, success, work, child-rearing, aging, death—and on the list could go. Our challenge is to apply effectively the ancient perspectives to modern problems. Achtemeier suggests several questions that help when exploring the relevance of an Old Testament text.
How will my people hear this biblical text? What is the message of God for them in this passage? . . . What would my people doubt to be true in this text? . . . What do my people need to know or to be reminded of from this text? . . . With what inner feelings, longings, thoughts, and desires of my people does this text connect? . . . If this text is true, what kind of world do we live in? Or what if the text were not true, what would be the consequences?8
These questions from Achtemeier assume a deductive movement from the text to the congregation. A preacher may also want to use an inductive methodology that travels from today’s world back to the text. James and Christine Ward illustrate how a preacher might move from contemporary ethical issues back to prophetic texts. Here are a few of their examples. The problem of segregation or exclusivism in many American congregations can be addressed in a text like Isa. 56:3-7, which anticipates the day when foreigners will be included in God’s kingdom. The words suggest a sermon on the relationship between ministerial hierarchy and the laity in the church based on Amos 7:10-15, which describes the prophet’s conflict with the priest Amaziah. Or one might preach on the church’s responsibility to the neediest people of our society from Isa. 58:3-9, a passage that describes true “fasting” as caring for the oppressed, hungry, and homeless.9
For many preachers and their congregations the Old Testament may seem like a collection of obscure “jots” and “tittles” that have little relevance for today. When, in fact, those old words contain a vital power, for they are the First Word of God not only to ancient Israelites, but also to the church today. The challenge is to translate ancient “jots” and “tittles” into the “ABC’s” of today’s world. Our culture desperately needs to hear the good news of the old story, and we “clay-pot” preachers can carry this treasure through careful, thoughtful work and the guidance of the Spirit who has the power to make all things new—especially the word of the Old Testament.
1 For a brief summary within a context of preaching from the Old Testament, see Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 18-22.
2 Donald E. Gowan, Reclaiming the Old Testament for the Christian Pulpit (Atlanta: John Knox, 1980), 6.
3 Greidanus, 27-28.
4 Elizabeth Achtemeier, Preaching from the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 14.
5 The issue of preaching the stories of the Old Testament links with the contemporary homiletical trend toward narrative preaching. While a narrative sermon may or may not deal with a story text, stories do lend themselves well to narrative preaching. See, for example, concerning narrative and Old Testament preaching, John C. Holbert, Preaching Old Testament: Proclamation and Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991); and Steven D. Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002).
6 The fact that Jesus did cancel the authority of some Old Testament law nuances his comments in Matt. 5:17-19 about the importance of upholding all of the law. The point is that Jesus affirms the “spirit” of the whole law of the Old Testament and even the “letter” of much of the law; however, there are points at which he radically redefines how one relates faithfully to God and therefore makes dramatically new applications of the spirit of the law. For example, in Jesus’ kingdom “purity” is shifted primarily from a physical to a moral/spiritual dimension; therefore, laws of physical cleanliness lose their relevance in the New Covenant.
7 See Achtemeier, 145-47, for details of the sermon. For Achtemeier’s general discussion on pairing texts see pages 56-59. Lectionaries also provide a good source for ways in which Old Testament and New Testament texts can be paired. The Revised Common Lectionary is available online at divinity.library.vanderbilt.edu/lectionary.
8 Achtemeier, 54-55.
9 James Ward and Christine Ward, Preaching from the Prophets (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 85-126.
10 With regard to preaching difficult Old Testament passages see Elizabeth Achtemeier, Preaching Hard Texts of the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998).