12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition (pt.3)

envelope2And to finish off this series of pointers on preaching epistles, here are the final four:

9. Root imperatives in their own soil.  It is tempting to simply harvest imperatives and preach a to-do list.  Don’t.  Instead let each imperative be felt in its own context, including the earlier sections of the epistle where our gaze was pointed to Christ.  Don’t let application sections become self-focused when they actually are intended to present guidance for what flows from the doctrinal sections.

10. Be clear.  You can never be too clear in the way you structure the message and present the content.  Look for ways to help your listeners follow you, and also follow the author in his thought.

11. Preach the text.  The church has a full history of preaching messages from texts, but instead preach the message of the text.  There is a world of difference.  God inspired the Bible as it stands, He doesn’t promise to inspire every thought that is provoked in our minds as we read the text.

12. Engage in conversation.  Don’t just sit alone with your preaching notes.  Get into conversation.  First, with God.  Second, with others – commentaries and co-preachers, as well as listeners, etc.  Conversation about your sermon will almost always improve your sermon!

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition (pt.2)

envelope2Continuing the brief list of a dozen pointers from yesterday…here are four more:

5. Master the whole.  Don’t just preach chunk by chunk through the epistle without getting to grips with the flow of the whole.  You cannot accurately preach a portion of an epistle without a good grasp of how the whole is working together.

6. Get the author’s logic.  Don’t read a section and look for three preachable parallel points.  Instead wrestle with what the author is trying to do in this particular section.  Sermon outlines can always adjust to fit the text, and they should do so.  Don’t adjust the text to fit your outline.

7. Preach to today.  Don’t just present a set of commentary labels and then try to apply “back then” truths to today.  Instead, preach the text to today, and go “back then” to substantiate what you are saying.  Wrestle with how that audience is similar to, and different from, your audience today.

8. Let truth be felt.  Epistles can lull us into a false sense of abstraction.  Don’t give theological theory, preach the gospel applied to real life (both then and now).  Preach tangibly, use implicit imagery, be vivid, help images to form on the heart-screens of your listeners.

The final four tomorrow.

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition

envelope2Epistles are often seen as the easiest texts to preach.  After all, they tend to be logical, structured and, since they are written to churches, easy to apply.  Here are some reminders that may be helpful for effectively preaching epistles:

1. Grasp the narrative.  Hang on, I thought we were talking about epistles?  Indeed.  By exploring the historical setting, especially by paying close attention to the details in the epistle itself, plus any Acts context, we can start to get a sense of the narrative that lies behind the letter.  The letter itself is one side of a conversation at one moment in time.  “Narratives” can be preached with tension, with feeling, with imagery, etc.

2. Learn the background.  Not just the specific occasion of the epistle, but whatever background understanding would help you.  For instance, how much do you really know about slavery in the Roman Empire?  What about proto-gnostic religions?  And the geography?  Take the chance to learn more, don’t just try to replenish what you once knew.

3. Familiarise like crazy.  Don’t read a letter then preach it.  Read it.  Read it.  Read it again.  Each time through, the flow of thought will become clearer and clearer.

4. Focus on the frame.  The “letter-frames” often get short shrift from expositors.  They shouldn’t.  Look at the beginning and end of the epistle: what is included, how conventions are followed or broken, each and every clue to the situation of author and readers.

Tomorrow I’ll share the next four…

Holy and Blameless Before Him

holy-blameless-300x180We have just refreshed the look of the Cor Deo website.  Please click here and head over for a look around.

I just posted a new piece on sanctification called, “Holy and Blameless Before Him”

“There are lots of debates about how sanctification works. Presumably because the common views don’t work. What are the common views? In simplistic terms there are essentially two: one is that sanctification is by my personal effort, the other is some variation on the notion that it either doesn’t matter or that God will do it.

Typically we think that the solution to two extreme views will be a blending of the two. So in this case, is sanctification best understood as a cooperative effort where God does his bit, and I do my bit? I don’t think that will help us. Our flesh will corrupt that model. Instead, let’s ponder the big biblical framework for sanctification. . . ”

Please click here to go to the post.

7 Ways to Guard Hearts at Bible School

Classroom2After the post on guarding hearts at a Christian conference (or ministers gathering), I was asked about Bible School.  Here we go…

The opportunity to study in a Bible School (college, seminary, divinity school, etc.) is a real privilege.  I thoroughly loved my experience at two great seminaries.  To spend your best hours receiving instruction in the Bible, maybe in the original languages, in theology and church history, in personal spirituality and in pastoral equipping to better serve God in the church and in His world, this is a wonderful privilege.  Add in new and sometimes lifelong friendships, numerous answered prayers, extended conversations and seeing growth in yourself and others, and it can sound like a glorious utopian experience for the man or woman who loves Christ and wants to love him even more.

Solomon was given great wisdom, and what did he say?  Above everything, guard your hearts . . .

How?

1. Walking with Christ is not the same thing as academic exercise.  You will be hearing and reading wonderful material.  You will hopefully be expected to read your Bible and other good books.  You will be required to research, read, think and write about God.  You will also enjoy spiritual conversations with faculty and fellow students.  And you will be tempted to let all this be your devotional life. But walking with Christ is “with Christ,” not just “about Christ.”  Be sure to keep the conversation going with God in the midst of your studies.  Why not talk to Him about this question: “Father, why is it that so many passionate Christians grow dry and cold in Bible School?”

2. Human glory is toxic.  The academic environment is not positive, or even neutral, for maintaining devotion to God.  I certainly loved being on campus and enjoyed some great times with God there.  But don’t let a beautiful campus or warm atmosphere distract you from the dangers inherent in the system.  Receiving grades for your work will feed the competitiveness of your flesh.  Receiving speedy feedback and affirmation will feed your flesh’s desire to build its identity in itself and its own achievements.  The comparative environment means that you may stand out in some class or other, and thus feed the autonomy impulse of your sinful flesh.  Glory from other humans (students, teachers, and outside friends) is both toxic and addictive.  Beware.

3. Pride is profoundly destructive.  Jesus warned the scholars of his day that seeking glory from humans is mutually exclusive to a healthy relationship with God.  (See John 5:38ff) Why?  In part it is because glory feeds the prideful tendency of my flesh which thinks I am a god, and as a result push God away.  God opposes the proud, even in Bible school.  Beware of reinforcing the glory/pride system.  Seek to pray and guard the hearts of fellow students and faculty as well as your own.

4. Keep relationally Bible saturated.  Never settle for required Bible reading assignments.  Make sure that you are soaking your soul in the fresh water of the Word and maintaining that conversation with Christ throughout your studies.  Do a fast-paced Bible read through.    Keep talking with Christ about the lure of sophisticated speculation (arms length playing with ideas that no longer stir your heart).  What you need most is not successful education, or sophisticated knowledge, or academic awards.  What you need most is Christ.  Share your Bible highlights with others, other people will need to be re-infected with a simple love for Christ too.

5. Christ loves the church, stay connected.  The people at church may not know about the things you are learning.  The leaders at church may not do things the way you’ve been taught to do them.  The sermons at church may feel lightweight compared to your lectures.  Nevertheless, you need to stay connected at a local church.  Serve where you can.  Don’t be an annoying critic.  Do look to love others whenever you can.  (Incidentally, pursue learning from faculty who are actively loving the church, not distant destroyer-critics.)

6. Let the stresses push you up against God.  There will be stress at Bible School.  Deadlines.  Financial strain.  Impossible verb paradigms.  Schedule overload.  Pressure on your family. You will be tempted to grow your independence and determination muscles, as well as your ability to function on little sleep.  Instead, let the pressure push you up against God.  And by faith get some sleep!  Remember that your stress impacts your spouse, your children, your room-mate in the dorm, your church, etc.

7. Value relationships carefully. You may think it is really just about you and God.  But human relationships matter.  Value every student, not just the impressive (or attractive) ones.  Speaking of attractive, beware of the extra emotional electricity in a high spirituality environment – it is a great place to meet a spouse, but guard hearts, don’t damage them.  Value faculty and care for them, they are real people too.  And finally, know that there will be attacks from the enemy – yet another reason to stick close to Christ and draw others with you.

What would you add to this list?  I know there’s plenty more . . .

10 Pointers for Preaching Easter

10 targetfEaster is a critical season in church ministry.  There may be people in church who would normally not be in church. There will be regulars who need to be captured by the Easter story afresh.  Here are 10 pointers for preaching Easter:

1. Tell the story – whether people are first-timers, once a year attenders, or regulars, they need to hear the basic Easter story.  Jesus told his followers to have a regular reminder in the form of communion, so we can be sure that Easter itself should include a clear presentation of what actually happened.

2. Pick a passage – while you can preach a blended harmony of accounts, why not pick a specific passage and preach it properly?  At the very least, it will be a blessing for your own soul.  For instance, Luke’s account of the trials, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is marked by his distinctive “two witnesses” motif . . . underlining the certainty of what took place.  His use of the term “it is necessary” underlines the ‘must-ness’ of God’s plan.

3. Undermine familiarity – the frequency of reference to the death of Christ, combined with serene artistic impressions and popular jewellery, has made most people unaware of the reality of that first Easter.  Carefully pick a fact or two to help bring it home: Jesus was probably crucified at eye-level; the condemned had to lift his body weight to take a full breath.

4. Beware of shock and awe – people won’t be drawn by your graphic description of gory medical detail.  Rather, they will be won by the Spirit.  Be sure to preach Christ and him crucified, don’t try to shock people into a response.  Some may be hardened by exposure to Hollywood special effects, but others may grow faint at the mention of blood.

5. Recognize there is emotion in Easter – we certainly don’t want to manipulate emotions, but neither should we deny them.  Easter stirs emotions.  There will be sadness at what Jesus went through and why it was necessary (my sin). Yet also the joy and celebration of the resurrection – Easter mixes and stirs the emotions.   Preach in such a way as to make evident the emotion within the text you are preaching, while engaging with the mixture of response from those listening.

6. Make clear the truth of Easter – it is hard to think of a good excuse for not making clear the truth of Easter, including the fact of the Resurrection.  Apologetically this is ground zero for our presentation of the Gospel and Christianity.  Don’t miss the opportunity.

7. The Resurrection is more than proof – be careful that the Resurrection does not become simply the proof that theologically Christ’s sacrifice was accepted, or apologetically that Christianity is true.  Yes and yes, the Bible presents this truth and offers unparalleled historicity, but there is more.  The Resurrection introduces the wonder of New Covenant spiritual life now, and hope for the fulfillment of God’s plans in the future, and so much more.

8. The Crucifixion is more than payment – just as the Resurrection can get reduced to a source of proof, so the Crucifixion can be reduced.  Some will make it just an example for us.  That is very weak.  Some will present it purely as the payment for the penalty of our sin.  This is stronger, but still incomplete. Consider John’s Gospel emphasis on the cross as the revelation of the glory of God’s character, or as the means by which people are drawn to Christ.  (Obviously, if your passage is focused on satisfying the wrath of God against sin, then don’t fail to make that your emphasis!)

9. Clarify the ultimate identification – preaching any narrative will naturally lead to listeners identifying with characters in the story.  The Easter story is full of potential points of identification: deserting disciples, denying Peter, doubting Thomas, betraying Judas, power-hungry Caiaphas, self-protective Pilate, hurting Mary, mocking soldiers, shouting crowds, repentant thief, etc.  But don’t miss the central character: Jesus Christ came to identify with us, to bear our sin, to take our place, and to invite our trusting and adoring gaze in his direction.

10. Never lose the wonder – be sure that if you are preaching Easter to others, that it has first refreshed and thrilled your own soul.

Helmut Thielicke described Spurgeon’s humour as “Easter laughter,” that which comes as a “mode of redemption because it is sanctified – because it grows out of an overcoming of the world.”  May Easter so grip our hearts this year that our preaching points others to the wonder of the cross and the empty tomb, and so that our own souls burst out in praise to the God who would make such an event the centerpiece of His glorious redemptive plan!

Turning Blah Blah to Wow!

wow2A lot of people in our churches read a lot of the Bible as filler and waffle.  They wouldn’t state that overtly, of course.  After all, it is the word of God!  But actually, in practice, a lot of the Bible is read without real engagement.  Consider the epistles, for instance.  Why does this phenomena occur?

1. Because of complex sentences.  It can be hard for any of us to truly track a sequence of sentences from Paul.

2. Because of unfamiliar words.  Stewardship. Saints. Manifold. Rulers.  Not necessarily unknown words, but not words most people tend to use in normal life.

3. Because it seems to lack direct relevance.  We can’t help but look for what it is saying “to me,” which means the rest can seem distant or theoretical.

4. Because of familiar words.  Hang on, didn’t we say unfamiliar words were the issue?  Actually, Christian terms can grow too familiar – grace, given, revelation, promise, gospel, church, wisdom, boldness, confidence.

I am looking at Ephesians 3:1-13, for an example.  Paul begins a prayer in verse 1 and then gets distracted before returning to the prayer in verse 14.  Why does he get distracted?  Because he mentions his imprisonment for the sake of “you Gentiles.”  This triggers his explanation of why those Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t feel the way they probably do feel – i.e. losing heart.  (Actually, it was Trophimus, sent from Ephesus, who indirectly led to Paul’s arrest and imprisonment in Acts 20, so they probably felt an extra burden over Paul’s imprisonment!)

So to lift their hearts regarding his sufferings for them, and therefore to make clear their glory (i.e. their value expressed in his sufferings as part of God’s plan), Paul goes off on a theological digression that should thrill our hearts as well as it did theirs!

But instead most people read it as “blah blah blah…Gentiles…blah blah…grace…blah blah…wisdom…blah blah blah”

Enter the biblical preacher!

The preacher’s role, is, in part, to slow people down in this text and to help them make sense of what Paul is actually saying.  No word is wasted, and no word should be lost under an indiscriminate “blah blah” flyover reading.  So?

1. God gave Paul a key role in unveiling new news – God gave Paul a key role in his forever plan for the sake of the Gentile believers, which was to reveal the momentous new news of the Gentile co-equality in the gospel!

2. God gave Paul grace to preach Christ and explain the news – God gave the ultimate-sinful-nobody, Paul, grace to do two things – first, to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ; and second, to make clear God’s great plan, the new news about the Gentiles.  Why? So that the church can be God’s trophy cabinet to show off his multi-coloured wisdom to the spiritual realms!

3. God’s plan gives us Gentiles stunning boldness! – God’s plan in Christ means that we Gentiles have ridiculous boldness when it comes to entering God’s presence (don’t forget the temple imagery in the previous section)!

So, the Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t lose heart, but instead they should be thrilled at their glory/value demonstrated in Paul’s suffering for their sake!

This is true for us too, just as the scars of Christ are beautiful to us because they show God’s love for us.

(I wouldn’t preach these three points as they stand, but I would make it my aim to help listeners hear the content of a section like this, turning the blah blah blah into Wow! after Wow!)

How Do You Pray for Fellow Believers?

PrayingHands2There is a strange phenomena in the church when it comes to praying for people.  Obviously this is a generalisation, but I have observed it enough to suggest that it may be a pattern.

When people become followers of Jesus our prayers for them seem to change.  Before they are saved we pray for God to work in their lives and circumstances, for their hearts to be drawn to Christ, for the spiritual blindness to be taken away, etc.  Once they trust Christ and are in the family, then what do we pray for? Often it seems to shift to the more mundane matters of health and career.

This is not just the case in church prayer meetings, but also among leaders too.  I know that I am tempted to pray more fervently and more “spiritually” for those who are outside God’s family, or for those who are on the fringes.  But for those who seem to be doing well in human terms?  It is tempting to assume all is well.

Take a look at Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in 1:15-23.  He begins by referencing how thankful he is for their faith in Christ and love for the saints.  These are healthy believers – they have a vertical relationship that is spilling into their horizontal relationships.  These are the kind of people I am tempted to bypass as I pray.  Not so for Paul!

The One Thing – He goes on to make clear the one thing that he prays for them: that the Father might give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him!  That is, Paul prays for these believers to know God.  Simple.  Or is it profound?

Clearly he doesn’t mean that he wants them to “come to know” God, but to grow in their knowing Him.  He wants their relationship with God to go deeper, that the union they have with Christ should become more vibrant and developed.  (Remember that “in Christ” occurs almost forty times in Ephesians – union with Christ is a massive theme in the letter.)

I suspect many of us who have a passion to see the lost brought to salvation may fall into the trap of then missing the growth potential that exists for a believer.  There is so much more than just getting saved and then telling others, there is massive potential for spiritual growth and maturity.

The Three Things – Paul spells out this one prayer request with three specifics.  He wants God to enlighten the eyes of their hearts to know three things.

First, he wants them to know the absolute certainty of their calling in Christ.  We have churches filled with people who carry the label of Christian, and yet have all manner of uncertainty and confusion over God’s calling on their lives.

Second, he wants them to know that they are God’s inheritance – an inheritance He considers to be gloriously rich!  This is not something new believers readily grasp.  Just as it takes a wife many years to truly believe that her husband really loves her, so it is with God’s people.

Third, he wants them to know how much power there is toward them as they trust God for it.  That is, is there enough power for a life like mine to be truly transformed by the gospel?  Is there enough power for me to be raised from my sinful state of death to do the works God has prepared for me to do?  There is if that power is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, seated him in glory, put all enemies under his feet and made him head over the church!

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is incredibly encouraging for us to read.  More than that, it is deeply challenging to recognize that this prayer was prayed for those who were already faithful and loving.  Let’s not bypass those that seem healthy and established in our churches and in our ministry spheres.  Let’s pray for them, and for ourselves too, to be growing in our relationship with God, knowing more profoundly the reality of our hope, his inheritance and the abundance of power available!

Genre Shock

Shock2Can a church experience genre shock?  Maybe.

Let’s say you have been preaching through a narrative series – perhaps a gospel or the life of Abraham or David.  Then you start a series in Romans.  This could be a shock.  From flowing plots and character development to tight and complex logical sentences, abstract theological explanations and loaded terminology.

Is there a way to ease the transition?  And if there is, is it necessary?  I would say probably not in most cases, unless the last series has been a long one and the shift in genre is stark.

Here’s how not to avoid genre shock – preach every text as if it is an epistle.  This is certainly a popular approach for some, but it has real weaknesses.  For instance, narratives get choked by multiplied principles and preaching points.  Poetry gets dissected so that the emotive force of the imagery is lost in a torrent of triple-pointed outlines.  And epistles feel like more of the same, when they should be like theological dynamite for the life of the church.  Let’s not go with this “every-text-an-epistle” approach.

Here are a couple of ways to transition from one series to another of a vastly different genre.  I am certainly not saying these ideas are necessary, but they certainly are ideas:

1. A genre intro message – Let’s say you are going from a gospel to a prophet.  Instead of diving into the complexity of apparently disordered prophetic burdens about places we’ve never heard of, why not preach a message that introduces people to the blessings of being in the prophets . . . and then start into the specific book the week after.  This might allow time in a more familiar passage by way of transition and preparation.

2. A new series intro message – Let’s say you are going from the Life of David to an epistle.  Instead of getting bogged down in the opening verses and complex sentences, why not introduce the series with the story of the letter.  If it’s history is rooted in Acts, then you have the chance to give the setting in a narrative fashion.  Tell the story, set the scene, taste the epistle by previewing the series and maybe put the main idea of the book up front so it doesn’t get lost in the progression of passage after passage.

3. A big story bridge message – Let’s say you are going from Genesis to John or Philippians.  Instead of forgetting Genesis like yesterday’s newspaper, why not take a message to trace the story you saw in Genesis through the canon to set up the next book?  Most people in our churches do not know the big biblical story as they could.  Why not use a message to trace the story forwards and set up the next series?

Whatever you do, make sure the transition message actually has a main idea and is not mere buffering.  You may be preaching something creative, but be sure you are preaching something.