Next Thursday I will be leading a webinar on “Preaching the Tone of the Bible” with a special focus on epistles. The details are to be found here.
Category Archives: Genre
The traditional sermon was always built around a list of parallel points. But what if the passage does not work that way? How can we reflect the flow of thought in a passage in order to not only say what it says, but also seek to do what it does in our preaching?
This webinar is on Thursday the 30th of January at 6pm UK time. Click here to register.
“Standard” Closings – We should be especially hesitant to hold any letter to a standard closing since there is much variety to be found among the epistles. However, seeing the kind of content that may be found might spur our thinking a bit, then next time I will probe the possibilities further.
1. Travel plans and personal situation – Never forget that epistles are not data-dumps, they are a glimpse into a gripping narrative. These sections sit up to be preached effectively when we know the power of narrative.
2. Prayer – Often brief, but a glimpse into the writer’s thinking and often a summary of what has occupied him throughout.
3. Commendation of fellow workers – A meaningless list of names? Not so fast, they are there on purpose and can reveal much of the situation and connections.
4. Prayer requests – This could be a personal and vulnerable glimpse, or an applicational grounding of what has come before. Either way . . . useful.
5. Greetings – Typically a personal touch to reinforce the narrative force of the letter.
6. Final instructions and exhortations – Almost always a helpful summary of the main teaching re-applied in the closing inches of the papyrus.
7. Holy kiss – Not sure what to say about this bit, but maybe because I’m English.
8. Autographed greeting – Helps you realize that an amanuensis was writing, and importantly, that the author wanted to be identified. Why?
9. A “grace” benediction – Perhaps Paul was just polite, or maybe he was happy to be known for preaching grace at every opportunity, including the final line of his letters?
Some combination of these elements will appear at the end of an epistle. How to preach them is worth pondering because they are both inspired and sadly too often ignored. I’ll probe some examples next time.
2. Strategic Teaching Point – eg. Galatians 1:3-5
This is not the whole of Paul’s opening, it is just the grace and peace greeting. But it could be preached as a gateway into Galatians. If the point he is underlining here is made strongly, it sets up questions over his authority (go back to verse 1, or leave until next time and connect that with the biographical sections that follow at the end of chapter 1 and start of chapter 2), and questions over their move from this gospel (move on into verse 6 and following, or leave that until next time). Interestingly, with the explosive content that follows, I suspect many readers miss the greeting, but notice what Paul says and doesn’t say:
He builds on the giving grace of the God with a Trinitarian reference to God the Father and Jesus Christ. But don’t miss that this God is referred to as “our Father.” Christ is the self-giving solution to our sin problem and Christ delivers, rescues, saves us from an evil world (Paul is not going light on sin!) This rescue mission of Jesus is the plan and desire of the God who is now our Father, and it is all about Him, He gets the glory as we respond to this truth.
But notice what is missing. The gospel is surveyed and it is all about God and the work of Christ. There is no reference to our commitment, our diligence, our law-keeping, our fleshly efforts to be godly, etc. Yet how easily we will corrupt the glorious grace of the gospel into something about us. And that is the issue Paul will chase from verse 6 . . .
3. Biographical Instruction
Following the greeting and gratitude, many epistles will include a biographical section setting the scene for the letter. Again, Paul tends to use this as an instructional opportunity. As preachers let’s not skim this section either. These sections allow us to establish epistles in a narrative setting, which has numerous benefits for a series of messages. Here are a couple of examples:
* Galatians – After the explosive opening, Paul addresses the two critiques against his ministry by using biographical instruction. First, that he is not a full Apostle (Galatians 1:11-24) Second, that his is not the full Gospel, he is not preaching the whole truth (2:1-10).
* Philippians – Paul really takes advantage of his situational info to teach some key truths in 1:12-26, which then leads into the main proposition of the epistle for the final verses of chapter 1.
* 1 Thessalonians – Notice that Paul’s biographical section extends to the end of chapter 3! The main body of the letter doesn’t arrive until the fourth chapter . . .
Do we let individual verses surprise us and inform our understanding of a passage? For instance, look at Psalm 56 in this post.