What Should New Testament Preachers Do with Old Testament Promises?
Some time ago my wife and I visited a church we’d never been to before and heard a message from one paragraph in Joshua 1. Take particular note of the promises (bolded), because the preacher did:
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.
A stirring passage. And the preacher, who was a gifted speaker, skillfully weaved its themes into a unified sermon. We profited from it. We love to hear God’s word preached with care and feeling.
But there was one implicit rhetorical move underlying the entire message that I felt uncomfortable with, and it was explicitly stated at the end when the preacher said, looking into the eyes of his audience, These are God’s promises to you.
Discussing the sermon later with my wife, she said something I found very helpful. She knew that for all the preacher’s good intentions, it wasn’t right for him to apply those words from Joshua 1 directly to Christians. She knew what not to do with Joshua 1. But, she said, what should she do with it?
Preachers, the next time you encounter an Old Testament promise in your sermon text, I encourage you to try three basic, time-tested ways of avoiding the error I’ve described.
1. Apply the promises to Israel first.
The preacher could have avoided his error if he had added just one paragraph in place of that line—just one additional rhetorical step. And that step needed to go backwards.
The preacher needed to take a step back and clarify that Joshua 1’s promises were given to Israel first. Joshua is part of a long story, and no one today lives in the same chapter Joshua did. In other words, these promises are not to us.
Faithful evangelical interpreters dispute the precise level of continuity between the church and Israel. But I’m not aware of anyone who says they’re exactly the same thing. Some element of translation needs to be made when New Testament sheep are led graze in Old Testament pastures.
Frequently, this point can be made by expanding the sermon to include another paragraph or two of scriptural context. Soon New Testament Christians hearing the message will see some promises they know can’t apply directly to them, perhaps promises they don’t even want! In fact, those kinds of promises are found just verses before the passage above. Here’s God speaking to Joshua (note where I’ve bolded):
Arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory. (Josh 1:2–4)
What is a soccer mom supposed to do with this? How about an ailing urban planner? A recently baptized third-grader? They won’t want to live in the land of the Hittites. If they know their Bibles at all, they’ll know intuitively that these promises are not for them. That mom may wish for the larger house one subdivision over, but taking off her shoes and walking around its yard is more likely to get her yelled at than to bring the property under her ownership. The specific details in the context of Joshua 1 make it clear that New Testament Christians aren’t being addressed.
2. Translate the promises.
The next move is this: translate the promises for New Covenant believers. If Joshua 1 promises certain things to the children of Israel, talk about what these promises indicate about God’s character, and about God’s plan for the world. He’s got the same character and the same plans.
Think about the character of God as revealed in Joshua 1. This is a God who could do everything for the Israelites but doesn’t; he encourages them, through Joshua, to “be strong and very courageous” and go clear out the land for themselves.
Is this still God’s way? Yes. He can make things happen directly; he could evangelize people himself, and sometimes he basically does (some people are converted through reading a discarded Bible). But generally he calls us to be his—strong and courageous—witnesses.
Think about the plan of God as revealed in Joshua 1. He’s in the process of giving a land to his chosen seed, Abraham’s seed. Joshua 1 uses a theologically significant word when it says they will “inherit” it (see Woudstra in NICOT, 62). And Joshua 1 is all part of God’s plan to bless the world through that seed.
Our task as biblical interpreters is to discover what Joshua 1 contributes to this story, how it enriches the themes of that story, how it advances the story. All this is relevant to New Testament Christians.
3. Give the (now-translated) promises to the grafted-in olive branches.
This means that a Bible interpreter can go ahead and give the promises back to Christians after translation. These promises are for us, even if they aren’t to us—just like the sap of an olive tree is for whatever branches are on it, even if some of them have only lately been grafted in (Rom 11:17–24). These promises are part of the “doctrine, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” that the Bible was given to us to provide (2 Tim 3:16). All OT promises do apply to modern Christians somehow. Just not directly as if we’re standing on the border of the Promised Land.
So don’t withhold this passage from grafted in olive branches, including yourself. If you bury the promises in qualifications, pull them out again and present them. We Gentiles were once “strangers from the covenants of promise” (Eph 2:12), but the grafting operation Jesus performed made believing Gentiles and Jews into one body (Eph 2:16). We’re no longer “strangers to the covenants of promise,” as if they have nothing to do with us.
No, Sarah Smith of 101 Peachtree Lane, Atlanta, GA, has no right to expect direct and immediate application of the promises of Joshua 1. She doesn’t get to claim Hittite territory. But it’s quite true that one day “the meek will inherit” every bit of the territory God names in Joshua 1, and more (though what role national Israel will play in this is another convoluted question evangelicals disagree on). If you can’t say “These are God’s promises to you,” you can nonetheless say, “These promises will be for you in the New Earth.” All God’s promises are Yes in Christ (2 Cor 1:20).
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a writer for Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.
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