How do you appropriately and accurately preach Jesus from the Old Testament? Every pastor faces this challenge, if he wants to preach the whole counsel of God to his congregation.
Many fall prey to the fallacy of pointing to Jesus in the Old Testament. They see something that reminds them of the gospel or the life of Christ, and they say, “See! Here’s Jesus!”
But it is not the preacher’s job to point to Jesus in the OT. Rather, it’s his job to show how the OT points to Jesus. It’s a difference as big as driving against traffic on a one-way street.
Here are some examples from the Book of Ruth that show how to drive with the traffic flow of redemptive history, not against it.
Chapter 1: Where’s the bread?
Ruth opens with the words, “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab.” This is almost comical, since Bethlehem is a compound word in the Hebrew, combining beth, “house,” with lehem, “bread.” Bethlehem, the House of Bread, has no more bread in it!
Naomi, after the passing of her husband and two sons, hears that “the Lord had visited his people and given them food” (1:6), and so she returns.
This points to a future time when the Lord will visit his people and give them food. Except the difference is that the Lord, I AM, will not merely give his people food, he will be their food. He will visit them, not only providentially, but also physically. He will announce to them, “I am the bread of life.”
Chapter 2: The wings of the Lord
The temptation in chapter 2 would be to compare Boaz – who gives food to Ruth, with leftovers – to Jesus – who fed the 4000 and 5000, with leftovers. But that smacks of the “this reminds me!” fallacy that we ought to avoid. Rather than drawing comparisons, trace the storyline of redemptive history.
The part that points to the redemptive historical climax in Jesus is Boaz’s statement in 2:12, “The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”
Here in chapter 2 we see a pagan, idolatrous Gentile come under the wings of the Lord. There would come a time when many more among the nations would do the same. But not until, in a stunning twist of irony, God’s own people refuse to come under his wing:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37, parallel Luke 13:34)
It was Israel’s rejection of Jesus, which included his atoning death on the cross, that opened the door for the nations – you and I – to come under his wing of protection from God’s wrath.
Chapter 3: Finding rest
The chapter begins and ends with the theme of rest. In 3:1, Naomi asks Ruth, “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you?” Then in the last verse of the chapter, Naomi assures Ruth that Boaz “will not rest but will settle the matter today” (3:18). These verses form an inclusio.
The principle is that the redeemer doesn’t rest until he accomplishes rest for his beloved. Furthermore, we see that the redeemer does this on behalf of the Lord. This can be seen in the connection the author makes between Boaz’s and Ruth’s statements about “wings”. Boaz says, “a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (2:12). Ruth, in a manner of speaking, views Boaz as the incarnation of the Lord’s wing when she says, “Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer” (3:9).
But, as the author of Hebrews tells us, there is a rest that God’s people are still waiting for (Hebrews 4:8-9). Ruth chapter 3 points to the actual incarnation of our redeemer, Jesus, who promises, “I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29; same Greek word for “rest” as the LXX in Ruth).
Chapter 4: A son who anticipates the Son
The story concludes with Boaz and Ruth being married, and Ruth giving birth to a son. In this chapter, the responsibility of pointing to Jesus shifts from Boaz to this new son. There are five ways this son points forward to the birth of God’s Son.
1. This son is born in Bethlehem (4:11).
2. This son is referred to as “the offspring” in the midst of a comparison to Judah (4:12). The word “offspring” often is a technical term used to identify someone who will have a special role in God’s plan of salvation.
It is first used of Eve’s offspring who will crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Later this word is used in reference to the offspring of Abraham who will inherit the land (Genesis 17:7-8), and the offspring of David who will sit on the throne forever (2 Samuel 7:12). Each of these promises are fulfilled in Jesus (see Revelation 13:3, Galatians 3:15-16, and Luke 1:32-33, respectively).
3. This son was conceived through a unique demonstration of God’s power, “and the Lord gave her conception” (4:13). Jesus also would be conceived in an even greater demonstration of power, in a virgin.
4. The women of the town bless Naomi, saying the son, “shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age” (4:15). The delightful renewal Naomi experienced was only foretaste of the complete restoration of eternal life that God’s Son would provide.
5. This son is the next step toward the coming of David, from whom would come the Messiah, Jesus (4:17-22, see the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3).
A few observations regarding the application of this method. You might even call them rules of thumb.
1. As I said before, the goal is not to point to Jesus in the OT, but rather to discover how the OT points forward in the storyline to the coming of Jesus, and what he will accomplish in fulfillment of the OT.
2. Notice that the aspect of what points to Jesus changes throughout the book. It would be a mistake to say Boaz is the only pointer to Jesus because he is the kinsman redeemer. This is especially clear in chapter one, where he doesn’t appear, and chapter four, where there is strong evidence that the newborn son is the pointer.
3. The kind of pointer changes from chapter to chapter. Abraham, Moses, David, etc. will be the pointer to Jesus in some of their stories, but not in others. So look for trajectories in theme or the part of story that demands an intensified resolution. The strongest pointers, however, are quotations or allusions of the OT in the NT, which we don’t have many of in the Book of Ruth.