Previous | Next

Fall 2020 · Vol. 49 No. 2 · pp. 165–177 

Christ-Centered Preaching

Kristal Toews

Speaking to his disciples after his resurrection, Jesus said,

“This is what I told you when I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scripture. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” 1

Jesus’s claim is that the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms—the Old Testament Scriptures—were written about him, and that they anticipated specific events, namely, his suffering and his resurrection, which would result in the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all nations. He is the point of the story.

It is possible to preach Christ from all of Scripture, and to demonstrate that the Bible is one story that climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When my children were young, I was surprised how difficult it was for them to recount the storyline of a movie they had watched or a book they had read. Rather than quickly articulating the point, they would explain irrelevant details and side conversations. As they grew older, my kids gained the skills {166} of consolidating material and getting to the point. As Christian preachers, we must learn to do the same. Since Jesus claims that he is the point of Scripture, we must develop the skill of Christ-centered preaching in order to get to him in our sermons so that people will begin to see their lives in relation to his life.

This paper is an attempt to present effective tools for getting to Jesus when we teach the Scriptures. Drawing on teaching materials created by The Charles Simeon Trust and Bryan Chapell’s book Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, I will begin by identifying several ways in which preachers can miss the point when preaching from Scripture. I will then briefly critique Greg Boyd’s attempt to highlight the centrality of Jesus through a “cruciform hermeneutic.” 2 In the process, I will explain why I believe that a Christ-centered hermeneutic provides a better pathway to Jesus. Finally, I aim to demonstrate how employing a Christ-centered hermeneutic can enable preachers to make sense of the biblical story.

Christ-centered preaching aims to determine the link between any biblical text and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that we may preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all nations, showing all people how their story connects to his story. According to Bryan Chapell,

Christ-centered preaching rightly understood does not seek to discover where Christ is mentioned in every text but to disclose where the text stands in relation to Christ. The grace of God culminating in the person and work of Jesus unfolds in many dimensions throughout the pages of Scripture. The goal of the preacher is not to find novel ways of identifying Christ in every text . . . but to show how each text manifests God’s grace in order to prepare and enable his people to embrace the hope provided by Christ. 3

How can we as preachers employ a Christ-centered hermeneutic to demonstrate that Jesus is at the center of the story? We begin by taking a biblical text through three steps of analysis as per the diagram below:

Figure 1 {167}

First, we must understand their story. Beginning with a text of Scripture, we must attempt to discern what the original text communicated to its original audience. Since biblical texts were written at a specific time to a specific group of people, we must take the time to examine the texts as investigative reporters, observing how an argument or narrative is structured, listening well for key words and big ideas, and deciphering when and where the text was written in relation to the life of Jesus and in relation to world history. After we have done this, we are ready to connect it to his story. Since each individual biblical “story” (whether it’s a narrative, letter, poem, or prophecy) is connected to the larger story that spans Genesis to Revelation and climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we must determine the contribution this specific text makes to the overall biblical story. Only then can we apply it to our story so that it changes the way we think and act today. 4

Bible teaching turns into self-help when we short-circuit this pathway. If we seek to apply the “Text” to “Today” without properly understanding their story and connecting to his story we can commit common mistakes identified in the diagram below. 5

Figure 2


When preachers “travel” directly from the text to today, they often allegorize the text. “God led his people through the Red Sea,” someone might say, “and this proves that he will make a way through my challenges.” If we teach Exodus 14 in this way, we have made this text an allegory. We have decided that we represent the people of Israel and that the Red Sea represents our challenges.

This may seem innocuous and encouraging rather than dangerous, but if we preach the text in this way we offer our congregants false hope, {168} which could ultimately destroy their faith when their challenges persist. Biblical writers do not draw this application from the Exodus story. From Exodus 16 onwards, although the Israelites were delivered from slavery to Egypt through the Red Sea, they were still required to continue persevering through life’s challenges. A more faithful application would make the following parallel: as God delivered Israel from physical slavery in the Exodus, Christians have been delivered from slavery to sin through the “exodus” accomplished by Jesus. He has provided us a pathway through final death and judgment, but we still have to persevere through life’s challenges now. This is how the Apostle Paul applies the story of the Exodus in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13.

If we want to make coherent links between a text and today that strengthen our congregation’s ability to persevere instead of offering false hope, we must pay attention to how biblical authors interpret a text. 6


While going directly across the diagram leads to allegory, travelling only the first leg of the journey leads to moralism. Romans 12:9-11, for instance, outlines the nature of genuine love. If we tell people, “Love like this,” without connecting the imperatives in this text to Jesus’s story, we burden people with commands without reminding them why and how they can obey these commands. Our goal, instead, should be to follow the example of the Apostle Paul who roots all his imperatives in indicatives (teaching people who they are in Christ before telling them what to do), 7 and who continually references the work of the Holy Spirit in effecting obedience. In the words of Polly Long, a homiletics lecturer at Regent College, “We do not ever want to send our people out of the church alone. They must walk out the door knowing that the Holy Spirit accompanies them to do everything the Scripture commands.” 8

By providing this caution, I am not suggesting that we avoid teaching the moral commands found in Scripture. Rather, I am highlighting the fact that if we teach moral commands without reminding our congregants of their position in Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we are preaching self-help rather than a Christian sermon.


Finally, if preachers travel from the text directly to the gospel without first understanding its message to the original audience, they could present an overly spiritualized reading that misses the meaning of a text altogether.

In Joshua 2, Rahab put a red cord in her window so that the Israelites would spare her home when they invaded Jericho. If the color red reminds of us the blood of Jesus, we might preach that, as Rahab was saved by the {169} red cord, Christians are saved by the red blood. This leap of logic sidetracks us from exploring the profound message communicated in these chapters. If we spend time understanding their story, it becomes apparent that the author of Joshua spends a chapter and a half telling the story of this one Canaanite woman to demonstrate that all Canaanites who surrendered and placed their trust in Yahweh could be saved from the Israelite army. Careful investigative work helps us determine how to preach this text: instead of focusing on the red cord as an obscure symbol of salvation (an interpretive move that is not modeled by any of the biblical writers who reference Rahab) 9 we will focus on the posture required for salvation. 10 The text’s message that anyone, regardless of gender or ethnicity, can be saved from judgment if they are willing to surrender is powerful and complicated and must be heard when this passage is being preached.

When we moralize, allegorize, or spiritualize the Scriptures, we do not properly link individual biblical texts to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Consequently, we miss the point of the biblical story in our preaching.


Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd agrees that Jesus is the point of the Christian story but works backward from this point to reinterpret the Scriptures by means of a cruciform hermeneutic. Boyd identifies Jesus’s willingness to suffer on the cross on behalf of his people as the climax of the Scriptures, as the purest revelation of the character of God, and therefore superimposes this action over the rest of the Bible’s narrative. Under this framework, Boyd asserts that texts which describe God’s judgment or wrath in both Old and New Testaments are problematic, and that its authors are partially or fully mistaken. To demonstrate the pathway Boyd travels to implement a cruciform hermeneutic, I created my own visual representation below:

Figure 3 {170}

Beginning with the story of Jesus, Boyd approaches the Old Testament texts by placing a cruciform framework over them in order to reinterpret their meaning and assess their accuracy. In his words,

Jesus is not part of what the Father has to say or even the main thing that the Father has to say. As the one and only Word of God (John 1:1), Jesus is the total content of the Father’s revelation to us. For this reason Jesus must be the sole criterion to assess the degree to which previous prophets were catching genuine glimpses of truth and the degree to which they were seeing clouds. 11

Later Boyd explains, “The degree that any portrait reflects the cruciform character of God . . . I label it a direct revelation. Conversely, to the degree that the surface of a biblical portrait fails to reflect the cruciform character of God . . . I label these indirect revelations.” 12

Other scholars argue that this approach, rather than affirming the cohesive story of Scripture, has the potential to destabilize Scripture itself. If every segment of the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms is open to evaluation and assessment, the canonicity of these ancient Jewish and Christian texts is called into question. Duane Garrett comments,

Boyd’s hermeneutic has left the Old Testament with no meaningful authority. It is we who decide in a given text whether Jeremiah is speaking out of his sinful misconceptions or the Spirit breaking through, speaking the truth. If it is the former, all we can do is look upon the misguided text and rejoice that God was so loving that he allowed the prophets to tell countless lies about him. 13

By contrast, while Jesus claimed that he fulfilled the Old Testament and deepened the ways in which people interpreted and applied its commands, he did not call into question the inspiration of its authors and the truthfulness of its claims. 14 Similarly, the Gospel writers drew extensively on the Old Testament in order to demonstrate how Jesus completed its story because they regarded the books of the Old Testament as the stable foundation of Christian faith. 15 In Luke 24, Jesus encourages the disciples to look back at the Scriptures in order to see more clearly what was already there. Boyd, on the other hand, encourages us to look back in a way which distorts and redefines what was already there.

Analyzing The Cruciform Hermeneutic during a presentation at the Evangelical Society Meetings in 2018, Daniel Carroll, Professor of Biblical Studies and Pedagogy at Wheaton College, insisted that the primarily cruciform picture of God presented by Boyd does not provide solace or comfort for ancient or modern people seeking justice for the wrongs committed against them in this world. 16 During the same session, Lissa Wray Beal, Professor of Old Testament at Providence College, {171} argued that God’s judgment and wrath are featured in both the Old and New Testaments. 17 Beal agreed that the Old Testament presents us with many troubling texts, and acknowledges that the Old Testament has been misapplied to condone violence, but ended her presentation with the following summation: “My own hermeneutical journey to this conclusion differs significantly from Boyd’s [regarding] questions of inspiration and authority.” 18

Since one of our core distinctives as Mennonite Brethren is being a “people of the book,” 19 I believe that we should employ hermeneutical approaches which affirm the full inspiration and authority of both Old and New Testaments. The Christ-centered hermeneutic presented in the following pages has, at its core, the conviction that the Scriptures are truthful and accurate in all that they communicate regarding the character and nature of God, and the conviction that Scripture itself has a forward momentum of progressive revelation that culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is necessary to name these core assumptions because they serve as distinctive markers which separate a Christ-centered hermeneutic from a cruciform hermeneutic.


To avoid making exegetical mistakes that short-circuit preaching preparation and using hermeneutical approaches that undermine the Scriptures, I propose that we examine practical tools for developing Christ-centered preaching. In sum, a Christ-centered hermeneutic aims to identify a link between any biblical text and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, with the aim of showing how Jesus is the center of the biblical story that implicates all people. Bryan Chapell affirms, “Since Scripture as a whole is God’s revelation of his redeeming activity in Jesus Christ, a preacher needs only to demonstrate where and how a particular text functions in the overall redemptive plan in order to show its Christocentric form.” 20 To help preachers identify the function a text serves in this endeavor, he suggests that we analyze whether a passage is preparatory for the work of Christ, predictive of the work of Christ, reflective of the work of Christ, or resultant from the work of Christ. 21 I will explain and give examples of each.


Any text that affirms that people cannot save themselves—that they are fallen, fallible, and need a savior—prepares its original audience and us for the work of Christ. Jesus does not need to be mentioned or even conceived of by the original audience in order for us to preach Christ as {172} the center of a preparatory text. Preachers simply need to demonstrate how a specific text prepared people for a savior.

Having referenced Rahab earlier, I’ll use an example which involves her story in order to demonstrate how a preparatory text functions. In Joshua 7, the narrator reports that Achan took loot from Jericho. His actions angered Yahweh, who withdrew his protection from Israel. The Israelites lost their next battle and people died. Joshua cried out to Yahweh, who demanded that Israel deal with the rebellion in their midst. Eventually, Achan was identified as the culprit. He and his family were stoned to death and the nation was restored. This is a difficult story, which has caused some Bible teachers to question the accuracy with which biblical authors portray God’s character. 22

If we take time to understand their story, however, we will notice that the narrator took pains to highlight the fact that Achan was a true-blooded full Israelite (Josh 7:1), who was well aware of the potential consequences of his actions. In the previous chapters (Josh 3-5), all Israel had celebrated the Passover, recalled Yahweh’s deliverance, and renewed their covenant with him. In Joshua 6:16-20, all Israel is told what will happen if they disregard Yahweh’s command to not take items from Jericho. That same day, Achan breaks the covenant. Immediately after the nation has recounted God’s faithfulness to them for over 400 years, Achan puts this relationship at risk. People would be shocked if a groom cheated on his bride between the covenant ceremony and the dinner reception; this is basically what Achan has done. He is punished accordingly, and the seriousness of his crime requires a national covenant renewal ceremony (Josh 8).

Jesus is not mentioned or conceived of by the original audience, but we are being prepared for his work by the story. Between the warning found in Joshua 6:16-20 and Achan’s story in Joshua 7, the narrator completes the story of Rahab who is rescued from destruction (Josh 6:22-25). An outsider becomes an insider because she bows her knee to Yahweh. 23 In contrast, Achan (the insider) becomes an outsider because he refuses to bow his knee to Yahweh. This story communicates that salvation is not linked to ethnic identity but submission to God. In doing so, the story prepares us for the work of Christ.

As we seek to connect it to his story, therefore, we have made a close link between Joshua 7 and the cross. Through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s wholly obedient son, God has provided a way for all people to escape judgment. The question remains, will they bow their knee?

Making the final leg of our journey, we can now apply it to our story. This text can provide comfort for outsiders. All who do not believe and are not yet part of the covenant community can become insiders if they accept the conditions of God’s salvation: belief in and obedience to Jesus. This text also provides a warning: any insider can become an outsider {173} by refusing to accept the conditions of God’s salvation. Finally, it can be preached as a corporate warning for the New Testament covenant community, the church. As the entire nation was affected by the deliberate rebellion of Achan, so the entire church can be affected by tolerating, and sometimes even celebrating, rebellion. In Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, both Jesus and Paul warn the church to confront unrepentant people and eventually remove them from inside the community.

Joshua 7 can be understood as a text which prepares people for the work of Christ. Many other Old Testaments texts (especially narratives) also fit under this category. Asking the question “What does this text tell me about the nature of sin, the need for a savior, or how God saves?” will help people connect it to his story.


Bryan Chapell affirms that, in addition to preparing people for the work of Christ, texts can directly predict the work of Christ. Biblical authors predict or prophesy about a future savior in Messianic Psalms (e.g., Ps 2), prophetic passages (e.g., Isa 52-53), and apocalyptic literature (e.g., Dan 7:13-14), and also narrate details which prefigure the work that Jesus will do. For example, in Exodus 12 the blood of the Passover lamb is painted on the doorposts of people’s homes so that the angel of death will pass over their homes. The New Testament connects this story in Exodus with Jesus’s death and his blood. Jesus is crucified on Passover weekend. He is the Passover lamb who takes away the sins of the world and ransoms us from eternal death (John 1:29, 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Pet 1:13-19). The Passover story, therefore, is predictive of the work of Christ.

In order to connect and apply predictive texts, one follows the same pathway. For example, Exodus 25-31 contains a myriad of details regarding the construction of the tabernacle. We can preach these chapters in a Christ-centered way by first understanding their story. The design of the tabernacle and its instruments demonstrated the holiness of God, the distance between God and humans, and the sinfulness of humans. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies where God’s Spirit rested, only once a year; and a veil separated him from God. As we connect this text to Jesus’s story, we recognize that the high priest of Israel prefigured the work Jesus would do. Jesus came as the final high priest to make atonement for the sins of his people and to reconcile them to God (Heb 9). We can apply it to our story the same way the author of Hebrews does: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (Heb 10:19-22). The {174} tabernacle texts predict the high priestly work of Jesus, which now allows us to confidently enter God’s presence. What great news!


Texts can prepare us for the work of Christ, predict the work of Christ, and also reflect on the work of Christ. When we encounter a biblical text that references the ministry of Jesus, we can ask the following questions: “What does this text teach about who Jesus is and what he came to do? What response is Jesus calling from those he meets?”

In John 1:19-51 there is an extended scene in which John the Baptist testifies about Jesus and Jesus gathers his disciples. As we begin to understand their story, we can connect it to his story by asking what it teaches about his identity. The text affirms that Jesus is the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), the Messiah (John 1:41), the one spoken about in the Law and the Prophets (John 1:45), the King of Israel, and the Son of God (John 1:49). We can apply it to our story, by asking what response Jesus is expecting from people in light of these claims regarding his identity. In this text he calls out: “Come and see” and “Follow me” (John 1:39, 43, 46). Like the disciples, we too must come and see Jesus and follow him in order to know him for who he truly is.


In the example of moralistic preaching mentioned earlier, both the Old and New Testaments contain many commands regarding how covenant people should live. In order to preach these texts with a Christ-centered hermeneutic, we must first reflect on how obedience results from God’s grace, and how the call to obedience was perfectly fulfilled by Christ. When we preach on a text which calls us to act a certain way, we need to look for the indicative that drives the imperative, the deliverance that precedes obedience.

The Ten Commandments (Exod 20, Deut 5) are the Bible’s most basic rules for living, Yet, if we read the chapter before the commandments themselves, we gain the information we need to preach them with the work of Christ in view. In Exodus 19, Yahweh says to Moses: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:4-6a). Yahweh calls the people to obey in Exodus 20 after reminding them of his deliverance in Exodus 19. They are to live in a way that pleases God as a grateful response to his incredible grace. {175}

If we continue reading beyond the Ten Commandments, we immediately encounter further motivation for obedience:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (Exod 20:18-20)

As we read this text to understand their story, it immediately becomes evident that the Ten Commandments are not meant to be taught in a moralistic vacuum. These rules for holy living are sandwiched between two motivating factors: grace and reverential fear. When we connect it to his story, we can reflect on the fact that Jesus is the only one who lived a sinless life in perfect obedience to Yahweh’s commands; and we can rejoice in the fact that as we trust in him for our own salvation, his righteousness is credited to us (2 Cor 5:21, Rom 3:21-26). As we continue to apply it to our story, we follow the example of preachers like the Apostle Paul. After spending eleven chapters explaining the grace of God, he transitions to teaching how Christians should respond: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Rom 12:1). If we discern that any Bible text discusses what it looks like to obey God or Jesus, we can present it using a Christ-centered hermeneutic by reflecting on how its commands result from the work of Christ.

It is possible to preach Christ from all of Scripture and to demonstrate that the Bible is one story that climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that implicates all people, if we understand how each Bible text functions in relation to the work of Christ: as preparatory, predictive, reflective, or resultant. When preachers seek to understand their story by carefully investigating how each biblical author communicated God’s words and actions to people within history, and learn to connect it to his story, they will help congregants apply it to their story, and recognize where each person stands in relation to Jesus Christ, who is the point of the story. The Holy Spirit inspired a unified story that climaxed in the life, death, and resurrection of the Living Word, Jesus Christ. Let us preach it well, with Jesus at the center. {176}


  1. Luke 24:44-45 (NIV). Similar ideas are expressed in Luke 24:13-27, John 5:39-47, 1 Cor 15:3-5.
  2. Gregory A. Boyd, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).
  3. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 279.
  4. The three steps I have outlined in this paragraph are my personal adaptations of material found in The Charles Simeon Trust’s “Pathway to Preparation” teaching materials at
  5. “Pathway to Preparation.”
  6. For a more detailed analysis of literal, spiritual, and allegorical methods of reading Scripture, see Iain Provan, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017), 81-225.
  7. James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 625-30.
  8. Personal conversation when preparing to facilitate a preaching workshop with Long in January 2019.
  9. See Heb 11:30-31 and Jas 2:24-26.
  10. For discerning whether something is functioning as a symbol in the Old Testament, see chapter 6, “The Christocentric Method,” in Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), esp. 257-60.
  11. Boyd, Cross Vision, 21.
  12. Boyd, Cross Vision, 59.
  13. Duane A. Garrett, review of Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence, by Gregory A. Boyd, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 62, no. 1 (2019): 199-203.
  14. See Matthew 5:17-48 and 19:1-12.
  15. In Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), Richard B. Hays provides a comprehensive picture of how the authors of the Gospels employ the Old Testament in their argumentation.
  16. M. Daniel Carroll, “Reflections from a Christotelic Pacifist on Greg Boyd’s Christocentric Pacifism” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society meeting, Denver, CO, November 15, 2018),
  17. Lissa Wray Beal, “The Nature of Divine Judgement and Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society meeting, Denver, CO, November 15, 2018),
  18. Beal, “Nature of Divine Judgement.”
  19. This is the title of chapter 4 in Lynn Jost and Connie Faber, Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2002), 25-33.
  20. Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 302.
  21. Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 282-88. {177}
  22. Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portrayals of God in Light of the Cross, vol. 1 of 2, The Cruciform Hermeneutic (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 313-20.
  23. Lori L. Rowlett, “Inclusion, Exclusion and Marginality in the Book of Joshua,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 17, no. 55 (September 1992): 21. Lewis Hawk outlines an extended comparison of the stories of Rahab, Achan, and the Gibeonites to demonstrate how these narratives are meant to comment on each other. Lewis Daniel Hawk, Joshua, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry (Minneapolis: Liturgical Press, 2000), 25-32.
Kristal Toews (MATS [Biblical Studies], Regent College) is the pastor of discipleship at Northview Community Church in Abbotsford, BC. She loves teaching the Bible and fanning into flame the teaching and leadership gifts of others. Kristal is married to Bob, and they have three adult children. This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the 2019 Equip Study Conference, on October 25, 2019, at the Waterloo Mennonite Brethren Church in Waterloo, Ontario.

Previous | Next