The Why Behind Preaching

UnionWhyMost of the time we tend to focus on what we are doing.  Sometimes we ponder how we could do it better.  Too rarely we ponder the motivation behind our ministry.  Why do we preach?

Let’s ponder two simple reasons (loaded with multiplied motivations in pregnant-with-meaning summaries):

1. Because we love God.  The God we love is the God who loved us first – who loves, who speaks, who gives of his riches, who gives himself.  This captures our hearts and gives us something to say.  We love God because he is the best news we have ever received, and so we want to spill that thrillingly good news to others.  We want to see God’s work built up, and it is a work done not by force, but by proclamation, presentation and appeal.  We are not mere recipients of a good message, but we are drawn into the eternal conversation out of which that message has come – the Spirit of God is at work in us pointing our hearts to Christ in whom we see the heart of the Father.  God is at work in hearts and we get to participate in that.

Preaching as an act of devotion, an act of worship, and even preaching as obedience to God’s Word and as obedience to his calling on our lives – these could all be added.  But the bottom line surely is this: as we take stock of our own motivation in preaching, are we still gripped and driven by a vertical responsiveness?  This can so easily grow dull or become corrupted by a self-elevation and self-worship. Surely the best thing to do here is to spend time on our face before God and ask Him what our motivations are (ask yourself and you may respond with a lie!)

2. Because we love others.  Loving God shapes our loves to conform to his.  He deeply loves the people who will sit in the church on Sunday, or who will visit for the guest event, and so gradually our love for these people grows too.  We want to serve them by offering the very best news there is.  We want to preach because people need to hear the good news – both those who still live as dead in the realm of darkness, and those who are in the family, but feel the constant pull of the flesh toward self-reliance.  We preach because we want others to have the joy that comes from not only receiving, but also spilling to others according to the way God made and wired them.

Love the Lord, love your neighbour . . . simple.

Hershael York: The Book of Acts and Us

HYorkDr Hershael York is the Senior Pastor at Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky.  He is also the Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  I really appreciated his books Speaking with Bold Assurance (2001), that Hershael co-wrote with Bert Decker, and Preaching with Bold Assurance (2003).  I am really thankful for this post on the enduring relevance of Acts for us as preachers in today’s world – a reality I hope is demonstrated in Foundations (forthcoming from Christian Focus).  Over to Hershael:

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The New Testament epistles would leave us puzzled and perplexed if we only had the gospels without the book of Acts. We would not know how the gospel advanced to the Gentiles, who Paul is, when Christianity spread from Jerusalem to the world, or even why the church took shape and functioned as it did. Perhaps most significantly, we would not know the components and contours of apostolic preaching.

About half of the Book of Acts consists of speeches, discourses, and letters. In fact, like the Greek historian Thucydides, Luke actually moves the narrative forward through careful reconstruction of speeches by followers of Christ and their opponents. He records eight addresses delivered by Peter, Stephen’s lengthy sermon that enraged the Sanhedrin, Cornelius’s brief explanation, a short authoritative address by James at the Jerusalem Council, the advice of James and the elders in Jerusalem to Paul, and nine sermons and speeches by Paul. Clearly Luke believes that what the church said impacted what they did.

But Luke is more than a historian. He is also a theologian. He is not merely recording the words spoken, but the heart of the Christian message, the kerygma, that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, Lord of Heaven and Earth, and that his crucifixion and resurrection provides redemption from sin for all who will repent and believe.

While manners and modes of communication change through time and across cultures, that core message of the gospel is the unshakeable and irreducible axis of Christian proclamation on which faith rests. The message of what God has done through the person and work of Christ is not merely a historical chapter that we have advanced beyond. Now as much as in Acts, the preaching of Christ is what God uses to move the narrative forward until Christ returns.

Foundations Guest Series Introduction

Foundations CoverWhat do you do when you have one opportunity to communicate the life transforming message of the Bible? Where do you go biblically to address the key issues people really need to hear today?

I had one series of just four sermons and desperately wanted my hearers to hear the critical building blocks of belief. I could have gone to Ephesians or another epistle. I could have gone to the Gospels. I decided to go to Acts.

Preaching from Acts is an exciting challenge because you are entering into other peoples’ sermons as well as their situations. The first apostles were communicating the timeless gospel to the first hearers as the message spread. Perhaps what they preached then would be ideal for expressing the life transforming message today?  It is.

Foundations: Four Big Questions We Should Be Asking But Typically Don’t is forthcoming from Christian Focus Publications. It is a little book that I hope will pack a big punch. In Foundations we see how the Apostles addressed the very questions that we should be asking, but typically we don’t.

Acts contains messages preached under the glare of imminent threat, thus making every word count. Acts contains messages preached to staunch Jews ready to defend the honour of their heritage, a couple of purely pagan crowds who did not know Othniel from Oprah, some brand new believers in Christ, and every other possible combination of listeners. In Foundations we hear Paul addressing the sophisticated philosophers in Athens, over-zealous pagans in Turkey, and some of the judges brought in to put him on trial. We see how the apostles united when the gospel faced its first major attack, and how they made it so clear how the foundational questions must be answered by all.

Underneath our beliefs there is a foundation, and often it sits there unchallenged. The most important issues for life and eternity are regularly engaged in the Bible, but we often ignore this foundation. We too easily think it is all so obvious that we would be wasting our energy to linger longer than it takes to give a momentary tip of the hat to these issues.

Foundations is a fast read, but I hope it will help preachers and listeners, young believers and those established in the faith. It might even be used to clarify the wonder of the gospel to those who are still looking in from the outside. This guest post series is going to run over the next weeks to help mark the launch of Foundations.

Thanks to everyone who will contribute to this guest series. And thank you to everyone who helps spread the word about Foundations – by encouraging others to follow on Twitter (@4BigQs) or Facebook (Facebook.com/4BigQs), pointing people to FourBigQuestions.com, or buying several copies to pass on to friends and pastors so that in a small way, the great wonder of the Gospel can grip the hearts of as many as possible.

Sincerely, thank you.

Another Guest Post Series – Coming Soon!

Foundations CoverLast year I ran a guest post series to mark the launch of Pleased to Dwell.  There were some great posts from folks including Darrell Bock, Glen Scrivener, Dane Ortlund, Peter Comont, David Murray, Rick McKinley, John Hindley (click a name to see the post!)

Starting in the next few days I am going to run a guest post series to mark the launch of Foundations: Four Big Questions We Should Be Asking But Typically Don’t.  This book is based on the sermons and speeches in Acts, so it should be a helpful little read for preachers, but it is targeted much wider.  Maybe it will be a useful book in your church? Perhaps for a small group study, or as an encouraging giveaway, maybe for youth, maybe for your leadership team, maybe to folks on the fringe, perhaps even to some not-yet-believers who might be open to its message.

I am thankful to the friends who will be offering posts in this series and I hope it will be helpful for you.  I will continue to intersperse my own posts related to preaching during these weeks.

If you are able to help spread the word about Foundations, please do.  Momentum is building toward the launch and every social media comment encouraging others to follow, like, buy, etc. is appreciated.  Here is the Facebook page, here is the twitter link (@4BigQs) and the book’s own website is FourBigQuestions.com.  Thanks so much!

Jesus Nudges

BeachFire2Christ is very careful with us. He knows how to shepherd hurting and discouraged souls. For an example, consider John 21. The gospel of John seems to come to a crescendo at the end of chapter 20. Thomas gets to give the great punchline of the book when he declares to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Then John seems to wrap things up at the end of the chapter. But then we get chapter 21.

John 21 does not really teach anything new about Jesus. The big themes of the gospel seem to have come to a conclusion, but still John adds this final chapter. Why? Probably because we need to focus on the disciples for a moment.

They were tired. Probably they were drained. Perhaps they were discouraged. Certainly they felt a bit down. The adrenaline of being in Jerusalem for the previous three weeks was gone and now they were coming to terms with being in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. He was going back to heaven, and they would have to get used to this new life. So Peter went fishing, and six others went with him.

At least that was something he could do right, or so he probably thought. They caught nothing. And so begins a sequence of déjà vu’s designed to tenderly shepherd the hearts of these men.

Déjà vu #1: Calling – The man on the shore told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and suddenly they had an overwhelming catch of fish. Hang on, does this seem familiar? Didn’t this happen one time before, about three years before? It was in Luke 5. It was the point at which Christ called Peter and Andrew, as well as James and John, away from their fishing business and into the business of fishing for people. Now Jesus gently nudged them back on track with a careful reminder. “I called you to fish for people. Keep the focus.” He could have rebuked them, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.

Déjà vu #2: Provision – As they arrived on shore and sat down to enjoy breakfast, Jesus passed out the bread and fish. Hmm…hang on, is this familiar? Jesus providing bread and fish for everyone, besides the Sea of Galilee, maybe even in this very spot? That was in John 6 (and other places). Maybe Jesus was gently reminding them that as he had provided for their needs before, so he would continue to provide for them now. Keep trusting. He could have told them bluntly, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.

Déjà vu #3: Purpose – Jesus works with us in groups, but also individually. As Peter walked up the beach he would not have struggled to recognize the relevance of a charcoal fire. There is only one other mentioned in John’s Gospel – the one where he had denied his Lord three times. Now Jesus was ready to talk things through with Peter. Actually, they would surely have talked about the matter on Easter Sunday, but now there were six other disciples needing to hear what Jesus had to say to Peter.

So began the famous conversation. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” It was a poignant and even painful question for one who has betrayed the Lord he loved. But Jesus tenderly reinstated Peter, making it clear for him and for us all, that even though he had failed, he was not finished. That is a message we all need to hear.

So Peter was not finished, but what was he called to do? Feed sheep, tend lambs, tend sheep – that is, to be about Jesus’ other great concern. Again Jesus nudged his disciples gently back toward the priority issues – fishing and feeding. That is what life is about for all who follow Jesus. We either fish for people, or support those that do. We either feed the sheep, or help those that do. It is a simple reminder of what matters to Jesus – people. How easily we forget, or get discouraged, or distracted. We are to keep giving ourselves to people ministry. Jesus could have commanded it harshly, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.

And after the déjà vu came the future view. Peter had claimed to be ready to die for Jesus. In the strength of his own resolve he had lasted mere hours. Now Jesus told him that he would get that privilege, but it would be when he was old that he too would be stretched out to die.

How was Peter supposed to live with that knowledge? He had not made it through the night before, but now Jesus tells him that he will be martyred in his old age. Now things were different. Peter knew Peter just a little bit better. And Peter had a very simple instruction to bring him through these next decades toward death – he was to “follow me.” Simple.

But Peter was distracted by his lifelong friend who was walking along near them by this stage. So Peter asked about John. Jesus told Peter not to worry about him, but to stay focused – “you follow me.”

As we live our lives we are called to fish and feed. Some will be more fisher, others more feeder. Some will be more front line, others more supportive. And we are all called to follow faithfully. We may be on the Peter path, or we may be on the John path. Neither are easy. The Peter path of martyrdom is so intimidating that Jesus typically doesn’t give us decades of warning. But the John path of growing old, being alone, dying of “natural causes” – this is also uniquely challenging. The key to both is clear, “follow me.”

As we keep our eyes on Jesus we will find our values reflect his, for we will be driven by giving ourselves to people – fishing and feeding. As we keep our eyes on Jesus we will find ourselves following faithfully, all the way to the finish line that he ordains personally for us. Christian? Follow me.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 6

NEW2And the final post in this series.  Looking at the last paragraph of 2 Corinthians 5 –

17. Too many will boast about outward issues in ministry, but God evaluates the heart (2.Cor.5:11-12) God knows what is going on inside the minister of the Gospel.  Others will only ever evaluate based on externals since that is what they see.  Don’t evaluate your own ministry based on what “fans” say who only watch the outside stuff.  They may be impressed, but prayerfully ask God what is going on inside you and you will probably get a clearer glimpse in a few seconds than others see in many months.  We must not rely on handshakes, compliments and twitter comments to overshadow the reality of our own hearts.

18. The New Covenant minister is constrained and controlled by the love of Christ (2.Cor.5:13-15) While we may be considered out of our minds for not going the way all others go, it is not our thoughtful strategies that drive us, it is the love of Christ.  The New Covenant means that we are so gripped by the death of Christ that we live each moment in light of that love.  It is only in the death of Christ that we can know the cure to the self-obsession of the human heart.  So because he died, we don’t live for ourselves.

19. We must stop evaluating people according to worldly measures (2.Cor.5:16-17) We humans once evaluated Christ by worldly measures and he was found wanting.  But he lacked nothing.  How wrong we were.  Now anyone who is in Christ is a whole new person.  So we must stop judging each other the way the world does.  How impressive is he? How outwardly pretty is she? What are they wearing? How powerful is their ministry? How knowledgable are they?  How will I benefit if I connect with them?  STOP!  If anyone is in Christ then they are a new creation . . . and if we are spiritual, then we will find them to be fascinating and infinitely more valuable than what this world offers.

20. God has given us a ministry of reconciliation as ambassadors in a fallen world (2.Cor.5:18-21) God is appealing to a world of self-absorbed fleshists through us to be reconciled to him.  What can overcome the total corruption of human rebellion?  God made the perfect Christ to be sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.  This message is no legal fiction or contractual loophole, this is the glory of the New Covenant gospel – sins forgiven: fully, finally, freely, forever!; new hearts given; and the Spirit dwelling within us that we might be reconciled to full relationship with God in Christ!

Let me encourage you to chase the theme of the New Covenant throughout the Scriptures – there is more there than we tend to realise!

New Covenant Ministry – Part 5

NEW2Into 2 Corinthians 5 for the final stretch of this series of ministry related comments:

14. The Spirit guarantees our hope, not our circumstances. (2 Cor.5:1-5) God has given us the Spirit as a guarantee of what is to come.  This earthly tent is fading (this earthen vessel is being increasingly broken), but the stirring of the Spirit within whispers the dawning of eternal immortality as we anticipate the fuller life that is to come. So in ministry we don’t cling to false promises of easy life now, but we are willing to serve in the midst of groans because there is something far greater to come!

15. We are away from the Lord now, but we are living in anticipation of seeing him (2.Cor.5:6-10) The Spirit within us stirs courage in our ministry, and He stirs our motivation to please the Lord.  Why?  Because even though we are not with the Lord now, we long to be.  And we know we will be.  And when we see him, we know that he will evaluate us and so we long to please him in all we do until that day comes.  Strength comes not from our circumstances, but in the midst of whatever circumstances as we live to please our coming Lord.

16. The anticipation of evaluation, the fear of the Lord, motivates us to action (2.Cor.5:9-11) Is the fear of the Lord compatible with a New Covenant emphasis on intimacy with God by the Spirit? Absolutely. The fear of the Lord is dependent on God’s greatness, and his love is not in opposition to his great power, presence and strength.  So as we anticipate evaluation by the Lord, it stirs us to long to please him (a love response to loving greatness).  And as we take the Lord so seriously, we seek to influence others to take him seriously too – we persuade.

The final post is coming next time . . .

 

New Covenant Ministry – Part 4

NEW2Continuing the thoughts in 2 Corinthians 3-5, so why is ministry glorious, yet so tough?

11. We should not expect our lives to match the glory of the gospel in respect to our strength, but rather  to manifest the glory of the gospel in our weakness. (2 Cor.4:7-12)  Others may look down on us because we are not impressive.  We may long for superhero strength in ministry – every spiritual gift, perfect life, abundant tangible blessing, being liked by everyone, etc.  But the treasure that we have is held in jars of clay.  Unimpressive, weak, fragile, often cracked and inadequate.  Life is worked into others as death seems to reign in our experience.  These are key verses for us in ministry.  How often do we feel afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, physically weak, struggling to sleep, discouraged from every angle?  Yet we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, destroyed, or finished.  Just as Jesus was given over to death for the sake of others, so that is our privilege in ministry.

12. The challenges of life tempt us to be silent, but trusting we speak. (2 Cor.4:13-15) As we experience the trappings of death in our bodies, in our emotions, in our circumstances, in our ministry experience, so we are tempted to be silent, but instead, we speak.  Why?  Because we trust the God who raised Jesus from death to do the same with us.  We give ourselves as servants in proclaiming Christ, even at the cost of our lives, confident that God will raise both us, and those that He reached through our ministry.  What a day that will be!  So we may feel like we are being spent and extinguished, but God’s grace is extending to more and more people.  As more thank God for the gospel, so God is more glorified, and we are satisfied that He is worth it.

13. We are encouraged, not by externals, but by the lasting internal reality. (2 Cor.4:16-18) Sometimes we can grow discouraged internally because of all the struggles externally.  Many do burn out, and this is very different than be spent for Christ.  Let us pray that we can discern the wonder of what God is seeking to do in our inner selves day by day.  The expenditure and investment of life now is actually preparing an eternal weight of glory that will never bear any comparison to the cost to us in this life.  One day we will see the eternal fruit of our weak and simple ministry of grace in this life.  We will see the lasting treasure that is invisible now, but is more real than anything we see in this life.

Next time we will venture in to chapter 5.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 3

NEW2I am walking through 2 Corinthians 3-5.  The first two posts are here and here.

7. There will be many reasons to lose heart, but one main one. (2 Cor.4:1-6)  With the most exciting news, we will struggle with the apparent lack of response from many.   It will seem as if unbelievers have their thinking veiled so that they cannot see what is being offered – and that is exactly what is going on.  The god of this age is actively at work in the world, (and in the church), to keep people concerned with other things.  The lack of response will tempt us to force the issue . . .

8. New Covenant ministry will always face the temptation to trust something else.  (2 Cor.4:1-6)  Just as listeners struggle to see the gospel of the glory of Christ, so we will be tempted to force the issue.  We will be tempted to twist arms, force compliance, apply cunning, add to the message, etc.  But instead:

9. Our confidence is in the God who brings light to darkness.  (2 Cor.4:1-6)  The God who spoke light into existence across the cosmos is the same God who shines the light of knowing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ into hearts.  He has awakened an appreciation, yes, a love for Christ in our hearts, so we will trust Him to do the same in others.  Our world is full of people blinded to the wonder of knowing Christ, the very image of the good God who they need to know.  In fact, our churches contain many people for whom the gospel remains a concept, but their emotions are driven more by life issues than life Himself.

10. So we proclaim Christ. (2 Cor.4:1-6) Anything else would be to proclaim our own wisdom (our clever plan to promote compliance), or ourselves.  As Paul will make clear moving on, our strength in ministry, or our lack of it, is not the focus – rather it is our weakness that makes it possible for the strength of God to be manifest.  So instead of promoting ourselves, we offer Christ.  We speak of Christ.  We present Christ.  And amazingly, by the mercy of God, the light will dawn in hearts and minds both in the pew and in the populace.  Jesus Christ is the image of God, he is the Lord, the supreme focus of all, and it is in his face – i.e. in relationship with him – that the riches of the gospel are to be found.

More ponderings on this coming tomorrow.

Why Didn’t God Reboot?

Reboot22I recently upgraded the operating system on my computer.  Frustratingly I now have a computer that freezes periodically.  The only solution appears to be reaching for the power button for an enforced reboot.

God created humanity and soon saw them corrupted by sin.  It was not gradual.  We read of the fall into sin in Genesis chapter 3. As soon as sin entered the story we see Adam and Eve hiding and protecting themselves, and when confronted they continued that pattern by blaming each other, and for Adam, even blaming God for what had happened.

In the next chapter we read of one of their sons murdering his brother.  Sin’s influence was immediate, and it was devastating to humanity.  We were created for loving fellowship with God and with each other.  But God watched as humanity spread like cancer across the globe, destructively devouring every opportunity to love in an insatiable quest for self-promotion.  The loving God created a world quickly filled with hate.

Why didn’t God reboot?

It is not that God didn’t have the power to reboot.  He spoke everything into existence by the power of his word, so he could just as easily wipe and begin again.  He did wipe the planet with the flood, and yet saved sinners through that to continue the same race that had pushed the boundaries of sin in the first place.

It is not that God wasn’t concerned about sin.  He hates sin and its devastating effects on his creation.  He hates death in all its forms – physical and spiritual.

So why didn’t he reboot creation, and especially humanity?

The two biggest questions we can ever face are central to understanding this question.  First, which god is God, or, what is God like?  Second, what does it mean to be made in his image, or, what is a human?

If we were to tour the god options on planet earth we would find an amazing consistency.  Most of the god options on display are gods defined by their power or desire for control.  In many ways they tend to be, as Feuerbach put it, “projection of our own ego onto the clouds.”  That is, the gods of the humans tend to be bigger and better versions of humanity – specifically, fallen humanity.  Since our life in a fallen world is marked by self-promotion and the desire to control our circumstances and our rivals, so the same must be true of God (or so we tend to think).

Yet the God of the Bible continues to surprise us if we are looking for a fallen and competitive human magnified into divinity.  Instead we find a God who is other-focused, a God who gives and gives.  He is a God who is prepared to give not only of his abundance, but of himself.

That is all good, but why didn’t God reboot a fallen and rebellious creation?

First, because God knew that humanity created in his image would always explore the realm of not loving God.  Since true love can never be forced, the exploration of the forbidden fruit would always have a certain strange attraction to creatures made with creative and inquisitive natures.  So God could reboot, but then it would all happen again.  But this doesn’t mean that God was somehow stuck with a badly designed creation – fatally flawed forever.

The second, and main, reason that God didn’t reboot is because he already had a plan.  Before the foundation of the world God knew what it would take to have a world inhabited by creatures joining in the loving fellowship of the Trinity. He knew it would take more than an impressive creation.

God is God and we are not.  That truth was challenged by the lie of the serpent in the garden.  Humanity was offered a rival god-like status and we grabbed it with one bite.  God was saddened, but not surprised.  He had a plan.

God’s right to be God and to rule according to his nature has been challenged for thousands of years.  Perhaps the greatest challenge is humanity’s counterfeit god-complex by which we act as if we are gods.  We play god when we corrupt God’s loving creation into a self-loving and self-serving realm.  Then without thinking we project a power-hungry, glory-grabbing, self-serving onto the clouds and say that God is just like us.

With billions of people living the lie, surely God is outvoted and his great plan is defeated?  Surely hell laughs in derision?  Actually, no.  God is God and we are not.  God is like God and not like the fallen us.  God remains loving and giving and generous and kind.  And most astonishingly, God doesn’t need to reboot to fix the fallenness of humanity.

In the Gospel we discover that God had a plan.  We can explore the darkest recesses of rebellion and hatred toward God.  We can live the lie with the resources of the world at our disposal.  But we can never turn the lie into truth.  God is God, we are not, and His intention still holds true.  God will have a creation filled with humans who love Him and each other, sharing in the eternal delight of Trinitarian fellowship.

Before the foundation of the world God had planned to give of himself for our sake.  He planned to send His Son to die in our place and so startle us with the entirely different character of God that he would win our hearts from the apparently unbreakable power of self-love.  When Jesus died on the cross he paid the penalty for our sin, but more than that, he revealed the true glory of the true God, and so is drawing sinful self-absorbed mini-gods back into fellowship with the true God.  God will share his glory with no other god-rival, but he will share the glory of his love with us who are his!

The serpent, and every human, and all hell has given everything to defeat God’s great plan for creation.  We have all failed.  One day everyone will know they have failed.  One day every knee will bow.  And in that day they will look on the bride of Christ in amazement.  God planned to bring a vast number of humans into the loving fellowship of the Trinity.  And that is exactly what he is doing!

God did not need to reboot creation.  God had a plan that was not dependent on original creation, but on his great plan of redemption.  God had a better plan.