How did the early preach about Jesus if they did not have a New Testament? The obvious answer is that they must have preached from the Old Testament! Of course, it wasn’t ‘old’ to them, it was the only Scripture they knew, the Law, the Prophets, and Writings were God’s Word to Israel. Even so, how do you preach Jesus’ cross and resurrection if you don’t have the Gospel of St. Mark, St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, the epistle to the Hebrews, of the Revelation of St. John the Divine? Well, they did it, by and large, by going through the Psalms!
As one reads through the New Testament, it becomes clear that the authors detected in the Psalms various pattern and images which reminded them of Jesus, specifically, who he was and what he achieved in his death, resurrection, and exaltation. It is hardly surprising then that the three Old Testament texts most often quoted in the New Testament are all Psalms. To be precise, Psalms 2, 110, and 118 provided the scriptural foundation for early Christian preaching about Jesus. I challenge my students that if they want to preach like the apostles then they should immerse themselves in the imagery, language, stories, and hopes of the Psalter.
Let me give three examples of how the Psalms shaped the good news about Jesus in the preaching of the early church.
First, Psalm 22 is the heartfelt prayer of the innocent person who feels that they suffer unjustly and is threatened from all sides. It opens with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”which accentuates the sheer desperation of the speaker who feels alone and even abandoned by God. The Evangelists St. Mark and St. Matthew both recount how Jesus uttered these same words on the cross just as his life was ebbing away (Mark 15:34/Matt 27:46). Some have taken this to mean that Jesus was hoping that God would rescue him from the cross and establish the kingdom, yet when God didn’t rescue him, Jesus supposedly died feeling defeated and betrayed by God. I’m more inclined to think that Jesus probably had the whole of Psalm 22 in mind. Later in Psalm 22 we read that God “has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows” (Ps 22:24-25).
Reading Psalm 22 on Good Friday declares to us that Jesus became God forsaken for us, in our place, in our stead. He made that cry of abandonment so that no child of God would ever experience Godforsaken-ness. What is more, just like the speaker in Psalm 22, Jesus looked ahead to the time when God would vindicate the innocent who suffer unjustly, because God is in the business of delivering those afflicted by the evils of this world. So it is fit and right for us to regard Good Friday as a day to, “proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” (Ps 22:31)
Second, Psalm 16 is an anthem praise to God for his faithfulness. Such is the confidence of the speaker that he can say that even death will not separate him from God’s goodness towards him: “Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (Ps 16:9-10). It is these words from Psalm 16 which Peter quoted in his famous Pentecost sermon. Peter reasons that David himself died and remains dead, so he can’t be the one who was not abandoned to the grave, but since Jesus was raised to life, the Psalm must be referring to him (Acts 2:25-33). David, the author of the Psalm, is recruited as a witness to God’s plan for the Messiah to die and rise and to bring salvation to the people.
Reading Psalm 16 on Holy Saturday reminds us that Jesus went to the place of the dead, he participated fully in the experience of death, and yet death could not keep him. Therefore, we can be like the Psalmist and have complete confidence that God’s faithfulness and goodness will follow us all the days of our life, he comforts us in our final breath, and he receives us into life everlasting. Because of Good Friday, God’s people can sing: “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Ps 16:11).
Third, Psalm 2 is an enthronement Psalm, celebrating how God had installed his holy king in Zion. Unsurprisingly Ps 2:7, “You are my son; today I have become your father,” was a favourite text of New Testament authors for referring to Jesus’ resurrection where God installed Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Luke records Paul preaching a sermon in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch with the words: “We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: ‘You are my son; today I have become your father’” (Acts 13:32-33). Paul is saying, rather provocatively, that all of God’s promises to Israel are made good in the resurrection and enthronement of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.
Reading Psalm 2 on Easter Sunday announces to us that Jesus is raised to reign. Through the resurrection, Jesus is installed as Lord over all things and he will reign until all of his enemies are subdued, the wicked, evil tyrants, and even death itself. Consequently it is futile that the “kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against his anointed” (Ps 2:2). Not only is Jesus Lord of all, but he is Lord for all. He is the one in whom Jews and Gentiles can find hope. Therefore, as the Psalmist says, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Ps 2:12).
So this Easter, rather than run to the Gospels or Epistles in want of theological reflections, I invite you instead to consider how to see Christ in the Psalms as the crucified, buried, and risen Lord.