Category Archives: Review

Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 6

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

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And to finish off the list . . .

6. Be aware of who is truly wise. Step back and think of wisdom literature as a whole genre for a moment, consider the dynamic that is going on. In it’s simplest form it is this – a wise person is offering his wisdom to someone who is less wise. Remember this is not the same as knowledge or information, it is personal not abstract, it is applied in the complex situations of life, and we all stand alongside Rehoboam while the offer is made – who will we listen to – wisdom or folly?

The wise person comes to us in the written word, as a person of authority, of greater wisdom, or greater experience of what it means to live in God’s world, and in God’s way. That wisdom runs right through Proverbs, it is what is being searched for in books like Ecclesiastes. Think of the massive climax towards the end of Job when God breaks into the discussion with His wisdom – it’s huge, isn’t it? In wisdom literature, the wise person offers their wisdom for us to benefit from, freely. Can you see where this is going? Wisdom finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Listen to what Paul says in 1 Cor 1:26-31:-

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

That’s why I said earlier in the week that when we get into wisdom literature, it can seem as though those big themes of the Bible have been laid aside for a while. They haven’t been, but we might need to work a little harder to see them and we need to need to be very wary of preaching wisdom in a way which is purely focused on temporary benefit for us. Proverbs are too often preached as “super-tips” for a better life now only. Be wary of approaching Song of Solomon in a way which only celebrates human sexuality in this life. Watch out for an understanding of Job that gives answers to suffering in this life without lifting our eyes to eternity. Let’s not preach wisdom in a way which only celebrates His gifts without lifting the eyes of our listeners to the wonder of the giver.

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Blog Review of 2013

DogBinoculars2It has been a quieter year on the blog as I have had to scale back the writing in recent months.  Launching a new church has certainly taken time and energy, but what a privilege it is to be involved in such a project.  Meanwhile, back at the blog:

Most popular posts, in reverse order:

Preaching Doxologies and also Preaching [Insert Word] Jesus, came in just behind  The Preacher’s Clock: Procrastination?  Preparation  & Anticipation.  Writing about Bible Reading usually gets a stir.

A single post about Reading and Preaching seemed to get a big reaction for a stand alone post.  The first in the Three Common Mistakes series proved the most provocative –  Genesis.  In second place came a mini-series called Dangerous Immunization  Part 2, along with a series on the dangers of Exemplar Preaching – Exemplar ChristiExemplar Homo-BiblicasExemplar Persona Illustrations and Legitimate Exemplar Preaching.

The top series of 2013 was the Preaching Myths series back in the summer:  #1 – Pew Trust  #2 – Cool Preaching  #3 – Acid and Bleach    #4 – Non-Gospel Preaching  #5 – Short Talk Required  #6 – Evaluation Verboten  #7 – Sawn-Off Concordance  #8 – Delivery Equals Circus

Some of my favourites:

I enjoyed pondering and writing the following posts and want to mention them now - Why God Still Works Through Poor Preaching and Losing our Youth by Dangerous Superficiality, which is closely tied to Static vs Dynamic Position Principle.  I wish churches would use testimonies, but not without a guide along the lines of Ten Top Testimony Tips.  I enjoyed the work that went into the Repentance Word Study in Acts.

I think my favourite series was How to Preach Less than Christian – Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4

Highest Impact Books:

I was able to review some stunning books this year.  Here are four not to miss.  Probably the best biography I’ve read is Jonathan Edwards, A Life by George Marsden.  A must read for people preaching the Gospels is Pontius Pilate by Paul Maier.  I recently wrote on a great little book on the Apostle Paul’s writings - How to Like Paul Again, by Conrad Gempf.  And for anyone involved in church work, take a look at Deep and Wide, by Andy Stanley.  (I enjoyed writing a film review on Les Mis too Click here to go there.)

Thanks for visiting the blog this year.  I hope that 2014 will be a good year for the blog, and an even better year for all our preaching!

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Book Review: How to Like Paul Again, by Conrad Gempf

41eLcj9NQOLThe front cover of this book (published by Authentic, 2013) has a snippet of an endorsement that states, “The best thing on Paul written for non-academics I have ever read.”  I agree, although I can’t list a whole lot of other books on Paul written for non-academics, to be honest.

Gempf is engaging and witty, his style draws you in and keeps you hooked.  His concern is that Paul has gotten a bad rap and so people judge him without knowing him.  I don’t have a negative view of Paul at all, but by the end of this book I liked him and his letters even more than when I started.

This book is like a crash course in hermeneutics, but a genuinely enjoyable course . . . the kind taught by a master teacher who so captures your attention that you don’t realise it is a course in hermeneutics.  Each chapter builds on what has gone before and Gempf seems to enjoy a Paul-like rhetorical conversation with his readers.

His method is to select three epistles and work with each one for a few chapters.  He starts with Galatians, then moves onto 1 Corinthians.  He contrasts the two.  Different audiences, different letters.  A church in need of 1 Corinthians could be harmed by a slap-dash misapplication of Galatians, and vice versa.  I loved the letter to the Galatians from the other side – a helpful feature of a section that gives a clear sense of the danger churches today face in respect to the Law and Christian spirituality.

Throughout the author is convincing the reader of the importance of understanding what it meant back then before pondering what it might mean for us today.  A wonderful dose of healthy hermeneutical teaching in a book that reads more like a good novel or biography than a biblical studies text book.

After Galatians and 1 Corinthians, I did put the book down.  Busy schedule and a family Christmas.  And, to be honest, I thought Philemon might be a weak end to a great book.  I was wrong.  Philemon was a great place to add another set of dimensions to Paul and his apostolic writing.

This is a great book for new Christians and long-term preachers alike.  Maybe you went to Bible school and have preached through Paul’s letters many times.  I still think you should read this book.  It is refreshing and it will stir your appreciation for the epistles again.

Perhaps your Christmas presents were wonderful, but lacked a gripping book.  Why not buy yourself a late gift.  In fact, buy two or three because you will be thinking of people to whom you must give a copy.  Thanks Conrad, a wonderful book!

To order this book in the UK, click here.

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Preaching Defined cont.

MeyerPreachingYesterday I shared Jason Meyer’s thesis concerning the ministry of the word:

The ministry of the word is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word.

We looked a little bit at the stewarding and heralding elements of the definition.  Finally comes the intended result: that people encounter God through his word.

I am glad this element is included.  Too often preaching definitions settle for proclamation of principles and propositions and truths.  But the ministry of the word should result in personal encounter with a personal God.  Meyer rightly distinguishes his intent here from Blackaby’s intent in his term “experiencing God.”  Blackaby’s position is considered only a positive transformation, but Meyer rightly notes that an encounter with God can have positive or negative response.  He doesn’t probe Blackaby’s position, so I won’t add too much, except to say that encountering the Person of God is not about a mystical experience that cannot be described.  God is a communicative God who meets us in His Word rather than in a realm “beyond words” so we should be wary of teaching that treats the Bible only as a stepping stone or an entry point into an experience.

As Meyer points out, the same message will be the aroma of Christ to God . . . life to some, stench of death to others.  Some will find biblical preaching profoundly offensive (hence we need the courage to herald, rather than trying to please everyone).  But again, this is where I find myself nodding along with Meyer while pondering the places he hasn’t gone yet.  The emphasis in the early chapters is on encountering God reverently.  The focus is on trembling at the word of God.  Don’t get me wrong, we should be trembling and reverent, but there is more here than the limitations of militaristic heralding can convey.

What is profoundly offensive to some humans is not just the authority and judgment of God that holds them culpable and condemned.  It is also the tender other-centredness of the relationship between Christ and His Father.  The humility and self-giving of God is offensive to a humanity hell-bent on self-reliance and personal achievement – being “like God” if you will, albeit nothing like the true God!  Feuerbach referred to the human tendency to project our own ego on the clouds and call that God.  This is exactly why the revelation of the Triune God is so offensive to many.

Yet at the same time it is that self-giving otherness of God that is so delightful and sweet smelling to those who are being saved. It is not just that the King is victorious and I bow reverently in His presence.  It is also that the King picks me up, embraces me and brings me fully into the fellowship and love He shares with His Father.

In true biblical preaching we encounter the person of God reverently, and we encounter the persons of God delightedly . . . captivated by the wonder of being united to the Son by the Spirit as his bride, crying Abba by the Spirit to the Father as His child, the friend of God and thus fully embraced in the relationship of the Trinity!

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Preaching Defined

MeyerPreachingI am always interested to read a different definition of preaching.  It is helpful to ponder what it is we do and definitions can help with that pondering.  So here’s a definition:

The ministry of the word is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word.

This is Jason Meyer’s thesis in his book Preaching: A Biblical Theology.  Let’s probe it a bit and I think you will find it to be a helpful definition.

Stewarding – The preacher does not generate the message.  It is a stewardship entrusted to us by God.  It is His word, His revelation, His message, etc.  Our task is to faithfully handle the Bible as we faithfully steward that trust.  I like the image here.  Many preacher’s treat the Bible as if it is merely a source book of ideas, or an interesting data dump that we can mine for sporadic treasures.  Stewardship points to the sacred entrustment and to the value of the word of God.  Let’s be good stewards of a very precious trust – in how we handle it, in how we first respond to it (since we are lead-responders), in how we prepare to communicate it to others.

Heralding – The preacher is a representative who speaks.  Meyer points to the wartime imagery of a herald who conveys a message with the authority of the king whose message he brings.  Inasmuch as he heralds accurately, he heralds authoritatively, but it is not his own authority.  So our task is to fearlessly herald the message we’ve been entrusted with as stewards.  Again, I like some of the limits implied here.  We are not called to offer friendly suggestion or polite tips, we are called to herald God’s message boldly and courageously.  Some will respond to that message positively, others antagonistically, but our task is not to please everyone, even while trying to win everyone.  It does take courage to faithfully handle and fearlessly herald God’s word.

At the same time, I am slightly hesitant to restrict the imagery here to military proclamation for that implies something about the Person we represent: there is so much more to the Bible’s message than kingly authority and military conquest over sin, death and Satan.

I am only at the start of Meyer’s book, but I am thankful for the good work he has done so far.  A Bible-wide theology of the ministry of the word . . . this is something we should all be doing all the time.  I’ll look at the final element of the definition tomorrow.

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Paul Tripp on Law and Grace

49331I am really enjoying Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp.  Here’s a paragraph that jumped out at me last night as I read a few pages:

When I hear a sermon that is essentially law-driven, that is, asking the law to do what only the grace of Jesus Christ can accomplish, I am immediately concerned about the preacher.  I immediately wonder about his view of himself, because if he had any self-consciousness about his own weakness and sin, he would find little hope and comfort for himself and his hearers in that kind of sermon.  You see this dynamic in the Pharisees.  Because they thought of themselves as righteous, perfect law givers, they had no problem laying unbearable law burdens on others.  Their misuse of the law had its roots not only in bad theology but also in ugly human pride.  They saw law keeping as possible, because they thought they were keeping it. And they thought that others should get up and keep it as well as they did.  They were the religious leaders of their day, but they were arrogant, insensitive, uncompassionate, and judgmental.  They were not part of what God was doing at the moment; no, they were in the way of it.

If you want more, get the book.  This paragraph is on page 153.

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Treasure Shifts – part 2

9781844746026Here is the rest of the list of treasure shifts that can occur in the heart of a pastor/preacher.  Paul Tripp hits the nail on the head on almost every page of his Dangerous Calling, but I am just offering this snapshot for now (review to follow in the next weeks!)

4. ESSENTIALITY: Moving from rest in the essential presence of Jesus the Messiah to seeing oneself as way too essential to what God is doing.

. . . I begin to load the burden of the individual and collective growth of God’s people onto my own shoulders.  This causes me to devalue the importance of the gifts and ministry of others and tempts me to assign to myself more than I am able to do.  In ways that I probably am not aware of, I’ve begun to try to be the Messiah instead of resting in my identity as a tool in his faithful and powerful hands.

5. CONFIDENCE: Shifting away from a humble confidence in transforming grace to overconfidence in one’s own experience and gifts.

. . . We are all capable of becoming all too confident in ourselves.  A confidence shift begins to take place from the treasure of humble confidence in the power of rescuing, forgiving, transforming, and delivering grace, to rest in my own knowledge, abilities, gifts and experience.  Because of this, I don’t grieve enough, I don’t pray enough, I don’t prepare enough, I don’t confess enough, and I don’t listen to others enough.  I have begun to assign to myself capabilities I don’t have, and because I do, I don’t minister out of my own sense of need for Christ’s grace, and I don’t seek out the help of others.

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Book Review: Pontius Pilate by Paul Maier

PilateI am just re-reading a book I devoured a couple of years ago.  It is historical fiction, but don’t let that put you off.  This historically annotated piece of work is a brilliant read.  It presents a biographical insight into the life and career of Pontius Pilate–his background in Rome, his prefecture in Judea, his confrontations with the Jewish authorities, his history shaping encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.

I suppose this review is a little late for this year, but if you ever preach around Easter, then you must read this book.  It was originally published in the 1960′s, but the timeless content means it could have been written last week.  Paul Maier is a pre-eminent historian of the first century and this makes his reconstruction of character and event particularly insightful.

Why did Pontius Pilate feel so trapped?  He was two strikes down with the Jewish populous when Jesus was presented to him.  This man was clearly innocent, but Pilate could not afford another disaster.  He could not face another report to the Emperor about his failure to manage the pesky Jewish religious affairs.  His ring declared him a friend of Caesar, with all the rights that went with that.  But the Sanhedrin turned the Jesus trial into an ultimatum for Pilate.  Was he really a friend of Caesar, or were these Jewish leaders more concerned with peace in Judea than he was?

Even if it is too late for this Easter, Christianity is an Easter faith and so I would strongly encourage you to get a copy of Pontius Pilate.  Don’t read it to your children, but grab a drink, get comfortable and step back into the first century.  Any preacher will benefit from doing so.

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Book Review: Jonathan Edwards, A Life

51QLzAKPcZL._AA160_Written by George Marsden, 2003, Yale.

Mammoth?  Maybe.  Magisterial?  Absolutely.  Marsden’s 505 pages plus notes on the life of Edwards is an absolute joy to read.  He neither falls into the culturally critical Edwards bashing of years gone by, nor into the presentations of Edwards as if he fit every theological mold of his tradition.  He certainly avoids the bizarre agenda of separating Edwards’ genius from his vibrant faith.

The Edwards offered in Marsden’s work is the Edwards of history, a man profoundly gripped by the glory of the triune love of God, a man who remained resolute in his disciplined life of study and ministry, yet who progressively grasped the captivating wonder of God’s gracious intratrinitarian love and grew beyond a self-determined resolution approach to spirituality.

I won’t give Edwards biography here.  However, for anyone who has only seen Edwards through the caricature of a single sermon title, Marsden is a must read.  Bridging the historical worlds of puritanism and enlightenment, Edwards is a massive figure in theological, philosophical and modern church history.  Marsden gets the Augustinian heritage of Edwards, shining light on the emphases sometimes perceived by some to be imbalanced, yet showing Edwards to be a brilliant mind coupled with, and guided by, a captured heart.

Since I suspect it is mostly preachers who visit this blog, let me suggest that we do well to spend time with the greats by means of good biography.  Marsden has also written A Short Life of Edwards, which is not an abridgement of this work, but another biography cast in an entirely new way, as it were.  I look forward to reading that now that my thoroughly marked up copy of A Life is no longer next to my reading chair.

Edwards is intriguing on many levels, and from many angles: Revival, Calvinism, Augustinian Trinitarianism, puritan theology, church polity, academic institutional history, philosophy, cross-cultural missions, religious affections, hermeneutics, and so on.  Take the time to get to know Edwards with this biography and you will find your own life and ministry stirred in many ways, all beneficial.

Not wanting to give away the ending, let me share the final paragraph anyway:

How can the creator of such an unimaginably vast universe be in intimate communication with creatures so infinitely inferior to himself? . . . Edwards’ solution–a post-Newtonian statement of classic Augustinian themes–can be breathtaking.  God’s trinitarian essence is love.  God’s purpose in creating a universe in which sin is permitted must be to communicate that love to creatures.  The highest or most beautiful love is sacrificial love for the undeserving. Those who are given eyes to see that ineffable beauty will be enthralled by it.  They will see the beauty of a universe in which unsentimental love triumphs over real evil.  They will not be able to view Christ’s love dispassionately but rather will respond to it with their deepest affections.  Truly seeing such good, they will have no choice but to love it.  Glimpsing such love, they will be drawn away from their preoccupations with the gratifications of their most immediate sensations.  They will be drawn from their self-centered universes.  Seeing the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ as the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he has created.

(To buy Marsden’s work in the UK, click here.)

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The Preacher’s Clock: Preparation

clock2Yesterday I mentioned Robinson’s advice on moving from a five-day to a ten-day cycle simply by shifting the initial exegetical work back to the previous Thursday.  I know that in my own experience most weeks are not consistent and so I have to be flexible on my preparation schedule (even if I have my own ideal).  But I suspect that even many who have a standard weekly schedule still have to flex more than they would like.  So what kinds of time go into a sermon preparation phase?

1. Blocks of concentration – Good sermons don’t get crafted in snatches between emails.  Having significant blocks of concentration time is critical and need to be carved out of normal life.  This can mean taking deliberate steps: turning off the phone, moving away from the computer or turning off the email notification, perhaps leaving the office and finding a “study” zone that allows for concentration.  When we moved I left behind my favourite wooded area where I used to sit in the car and work without phone signal, but gained access to a church building that is quiet at key times.

2. Chunks of process progression – Some things don’t require being “in the zone,” but are needed to move the process forward.  Perhaps researching a specific issue for an illustration, or chasing a quoted passage to gain familiarity.  The key thing here is to know what needs to be done, and to have some days in which to get these chunks of work done.  It doesn’t matter that it is only three times twenty minutes worth of work, if you are already at Saturday afternoon, these will get squeezed out.

3. Brief and extended moments for contemplation – Focused and planned prayer time is important.  Taking prayer time when available also counts.  Praying through a message in the car is better use of time than hearing the same cycle of news and chat on the car radio.  I wouldn’t want to rely on car time for prayer.  That makes it sound unimportant.  But I wouldn’t want to be without those “non-traditional” times either.  These times to think and pray are cumulative and valuable.

4. Focused prayer time – So as well as fitting in prayer and spilling out prayer as you soak in a message and anticipate preaching it, it is also worth scheduling and planning real prayer time.  I like to spend some time praying in the church, focusing in on the people I associate with certain seats.  Some like to pray and walk, others have a prayer closet.  I don’t think God minds where.

5. Pre-delivery time – I value that time the night before and the morning of preaching to be able to run through the message.  This is why I can’t just preach from old notes as if it were fresh.  At this stage the work is done, but it is amazing how much can be improved when hearing the message through your own ears.

All of this time takes, well, it takes time.  Hence starting the process earlier always allows opportunity for both the planned blocks and the smaller pieces in the whole puzzle to come together.

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