Should We Imitate OT Characters?

by Jon Akin

I was on a panel recently that discussed Christ-centered preaching. One of the topics that we discussed was the issue of the current backlash against a moral example hermeneutic—seeing the behavior of OT heroes as examples to emulate or avoid. Also, Dr. Daniel Block mentions this approach to the OT in his recent post on Ed Stetzer’s blog. I wanted to offer some more thoughts on this subject in response:

  • Why the backlash? I think there are two reasons:
    • It leads to moralism- The character study approach lends itself to moralistic preaching that abstracts the text from Christ and at best produces Pharisees. “Samson was lustful, don’t be lustful. Nehemiah was a good leader, copy him and you can be as well.” This produces a performance-based Christianity (Do instead of Done!).
    • You can’t apply this method consistently- In Genesis 12 Abraham lies about his wife, gives her over to be violated by another man, and yet he is enriched in the process. In Exodus 2, Moses kills an Egyptian. Many would say don’t murder like Moses, but in Acts 7 God says this is Him raising up a savior that the Hebrews reject. Preachers often preach Samson as an example of what not to do, some even question whether or not he’s regenerate, and yet he’s praised in Hebrews 11.
  • How should we understand NT texts that clearly present the people of the OT as examples for us? Let me make a few observations
    • The NT provides examples of what NOT to do- The NT presents sinful behavior that is judged by God. Examples of this would include the wilderness experience (1 Cor 10; Heb 3-4) and Sodom as an example of judgment (2 Pt 2:6; Jude 7)
    • The NT provides examples of faith- Hebrews 11 presents examples of faith, but this faith is authored and perfected by Jesus, so even these are Christ-centered (Heb. 12). Preaching OT characters as examples of faith is approriate and will avoid moralism so long as through these examples we point to the One who authored and perfected their faith.
    • The NT provides examples of what to do but it is never abstracted from Christ- There is 1 mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. The problem with example application alone is that it completely ignores Jesus! It flattens the text and has no mediator, making a one-to-one correlaton between the OT person and us as if the story is all about us! In contrast, Christ-centered preaching, which is what the NT authors are doing, says that all righteousness is fulfilled in Christ, and only in Christ and through Christ can you follow the righteous examples. The NT authors give these examples in the context of the gospel. For instance, Elijah is given as an example of effective prayer for us to emulate (James 5:16). But his example can’t be separated from the context of James. James 1:18 says, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth [i.e. The Gospel] that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” Who is the firstfruits? Jesus! We are to be a kind, a picture of Jesus, the firstfruits. The positive behaviors laid out in James are examples of what Christlike living looks like in the world, and in chapter 5 this includes prayer. This means that in Christ we can pray effectively, but outside of Christ, God won’t listen to us.

OT scholars who are leery of typological interpretation will often say “We can’t look for Christ under every rock” and are quick to point to NT passages like 1 Corinthians 10 to legitimize approaching the people of the OT as examples. However, they often overlook that Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 10 that the “Rock was Christ.” If we don’t read the OT through the lens of the NT, then we will miss what the Spirit is saying to the churches.