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Phil Long's Tips for Preaching the First Testament

March 21, 2019
God is happy when we try, even if we sometimes make mistakes.

Professor of Old Testament Phil Long has spent his career studying and teaching the Old Testament (or, as he prefers to call it, the "First" or "Larger" Testament). In a recent interview, we asked Phil for his advice on preaching the Hebrew Scriptures. He responded with a list of seven tips—and some encouragement for preachers who find the First Testament intimidating.

  1. God will smile on you for trying!

  2. Don’t feel like you have to answer every complexity before you can get the big points.

  3. Make sure you read the whole text. Getting the big points should involve reading the whole text several times, getting the flow of the text. Don't dive into the middle of the book of Job, grab a chapter, and think, “Okay, I can understand this.” That could go very wrong. It's about the whole scope. So be sure to read the whole thing.

  4. Remember that this was Jesus's Bible! And Paul, referring to the Old Testament, said very clearly that these things were recorded for our instruction. There are so many issues—relating to who God is, what the world is, what happened to the world, why it's broken, and so forth—that are not directly addressed in the New Testament because they're already addressed in the Old Testament. If we don't wrestle with the Old Testament and preach it, people will miss important things. The New Testament by itself is not enough. It's the climactic chapter, but by itself it's not enough. And you’ll never fully understand even the New Testament without that background from the Old Testament.

  5. Preach the overarching message of the Prophets. Preaching the Prophets can be quite daunting—they're huge. But don't think, “All right, there are 66 chapters in Isaiah, so that'll take me 66 weeks to cover the book of Isaiah.” Don't do that! The prophets often have oracles of judgement and oracles of salvation, and there's a lot of repetition because we have a collection of all the prophet’s occasional speeches—their sermons, if you will. So you want to find the guiding motifs. What are the guiding themes? What is the direction of this prophet? What's the overarching message? Try to sort those out, and then preach that overarching message. I'm keen on teaching some books front to back because they have a careful structure that calls for that, but I think the prophets are better preached thematically.

  6. Don't avoid the favourite passages of the Old Testament. I used to think, “Okay, everyone's preached on Psalm 23, so I'm going to preach on something more clever. I'm going find something that no one thought had anything good to say, and I'm going to say something good from it, and everyone will think I'm clever for having found it.” You don't need to do that! The favourite passages are favourite for a reason. So, by all means, make sure your people have heard a sermon on Isaiah 53. Don't let them go for five years without ever hearing a sermon on Isaiah 53. It's okay to preach the favourite passages—not to the exclusion of the others, but certainly don't avoid them.

  7. Illustrate your point. As general advice, I would say that it really helps people grasp what you're saying if you're able to illustrate it well using a contemporary illustration. It's one thing to know truth, but it's another thing to feel it or experience it. And it's the illustration that enables us to kind of grasp the point.

    Above all, I think the most important thing to say is that God does approve our trying. He's happy when we try, even if we sometimes make mistakes.

Learn more from Phil Long at our upcoming Pastors & Leaders Conference 2019, May 7–9. Limited scholarships available. Learn more.

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