Let Historical Details Be Details

5StonesbThe Bible contains a lot of historical narrative.  Historical narrative contains details.  Let’s not be unnecessarily clever with these details.

Hypothetical Tale 1 – In 1964 a preacher at a Bible teaching conference was preaching on the story of David and Goliath.  He came to the verse that tells of David taking five smooth stones and putting them in his pouch before going to face the giant.  “Now you may be asking, why five smooth stones?  Why not just one?  Does David lack faith in God?  Not at all, I tell you, he was just prepared for Goliath’s four brothers!”  The audience all gave a 1960’s Bible conference chuckle, except for one character who guffawed with awkward volume.  The preacher’s joke had gone down well.

Hypothetical Tale 2 – In 1964 another preacher at a denominational conference was also preaching on David and Goliath.  He read 1.Sam.17:40 and launched into an explanation of the five stones.  “Some will say that faith trumps wisdom.  Not so.  The story has become something of a tale of mythic proportions, but here we catch a glimpse of the original reality.  David was not foolhardy.  He was prepared.  Here was a man with his faith, and his wisdom.  Facing the foe, David went prepared into battle.”  The audience diligently made 1960’s style notes and headed home encouraged to not be foolhardy in their daily lives.

These two tales are both made up.  One is about a Bible-believing preacher who sought, humourously, to honour the giant-killing faith of David.  The other is about a preacher with a lower view of inspiration, and a desire to give good human wisdom to his listeners.  As much as I dislike the assumptions behind the latter preacher’s comments, let’s ponder the first preacher some more.

Imagine if, in that crowd, were several hundred pastors and lay preachers.  Some found the Goliath’s brothers comments humourous, while others found it stirring.  All of these later made the same point as they preached the passage.  Somehow the various settings don’t all react in the same way, and another generation of listeners hear the comment as received wisdom in Old Testament interpretation.  By the 1970’s several devotional expositional paperbacks include the significance of the number of stones.  Fast forward a generation or two and this insight is established as truth.

But what if it started as a joke?

What am I saying?  Just because we hear something from other preachers doesn’t make it true.  Just because it is published in a book or two doesn’t make it true.

Let’s grow in discernment by learning all that we can about the culture, the history, the geography, etc.  Let’s be discerning in our understanding of a text by evaluating carefully the context.

David was not hedging his bets by taking more stones – there is nothing in the text that points to a blending of faith with human wisdom.  He had seen God at work before and anticipated seeing it again now.  These giants were supposed to be eradicated from the land and David trusted God to complete the mission now.

So why five stones?  Did he lack faith to take more than one?  How many stones in your pouch would cause you to trust in yourself against a monster like Goliath?

Perhaps David’s pouch held five stones.  Perhaps his habit was to always have five for a day’s work protecting sheep.  Perhaps he always grabbed the right shape and size, and this day there were five such stones where he looked.  Perhaps he gave it no thought at all.

What we know is that he took five smooth stones.  Historical detail.  And unless the text pushes us to see meaning in such a detail, let’s not get distracted from the bigger issues in the narrative.  Giant king Saul was scared.  Young king-to-be David trusted God.  The stones were a detail.

Let’s be careful not to be too clever with details of stories.  Read stories carefully.  Every detail matters.  But not every detail is a sermon in its own right.  You never know who will take your clever quip and run with it!

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!

UK Competition: Buy Galatians, Maybe Win Set

GalatianscompetitionI have a little introductory devotional guide to Galatians coming out in March.  In it, I take the reader through Galatians one preaching unit at a time, making clear the main idea and structure of the passage (although this is not intended to be a devotional and not a preaching guide, I suspect it may be helpful for preachers too).

Anyway, I really love the way 10ofthose.com are passionate about getting good Christian books to as many people as possible!  And with the release of this book, they have come up with this competition.  If you pre-order a copy of Galatians, then you will be entered into the draw to win one of five sets of the series (multiple authors including David Cook, Jeremy McQuoid, etc.)  If you click this link, or the picture, it will take you to my partner page on 10ofthose.com.  Thanks!

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs – #2

RadarScreen2The second of five radars may well be the most important and the most difficult to develop.  Yesterday’s radar considered one aspect of our textual study skills, but this radar is about our underlying assumptions about everything.  I think we should all prayerfully ask God to develop in us:

Radar 2. Hissing Radar (in your assumptions)

The most dangerous assumption we can make is that we are neutral and can think clearly.  Every one of us has spent our entire life swimming and soaking in the brine of a post-Fall world system that hisses constantly with The Lie of pseudo-godlike autonomy.  The serpent introduced skepticism about God’s word, God’s character, and invited humanity to dive into a totally new version of godliness.  This new godliness meant that we humans became the image of the god of this age – self-absorbed, autonomous and overly confident in our own independent capacities.  We live our lives deafened to the hiss of our serpent-shaped existence.

The Gospel doesn’t save us from one or two sins we have done, but from the absolute self-loving, God-hating, autonomy of our spiritually dead hearts.  The problem we have as believers is that we tend to think we are somehow now immune to the subtle influence of The Lie.

Our flesh has been pickled in the subtle but sour vinegar of that original Lie.  As we seek to grow, let’s pray that God will develop in us a radar that will hiss when our assumptions evidence that serpentine autonomous impulse.

Here are some quick flags to highlight areas this lie often surfaces:

  • God can be a source of resources for us, but always from a distance.
  • With suitable resourcing I can do the job myself . . . i.e. sanctification.
  • I can be a good Christian, but I don’t need any sort of relational closeness to Christ.
  • I don’t need you (where you is God, or you is other believers).
  • I make independent and uninfluenced decisions, and therefore I am alive.
  • If my preaching can offer practical guidance, then individuals can make the decision to apply the teaching and be successful at living their individual and independent lives.
  • Etc.

May God develop in us an early warning system that hisses whenever our assumptions are dangerously autonomous and self-glorifying.

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs

RadarScreen2

To grow as preachers, I believe we need to develop several internal radars.  Think of a radar as an early warning system that beeps when there is an issue in the vicinity.  To be without any radar is to be dangerously naïve.  This week I plan to work through five radars we can prayerfully develop in our preaching:

Radar 1. Old Testament Radar (in your text)

Sometimes Bible writers flag up their use of earlier texts, “to fulfil what was written…”  Often they simply allude to, or hint at, biblical texts that are feeding into their thought.  Biblical writers typically assumed that their readers would have a full Jewish familiarity with the Old Testament, but most of us do not have anything like a full Jewish familiarity with the Old Testament.  Hence we need to develop the radar.  Unless we do, we will miss a lot of what is sitting in the sermon text before us.

I am not suggesting that every sermon should fully develop every earlier biblical allusion in the preaching text.  I am suggesting that a preacher who is unaware of how earlier texts inform and shape the preaching text will struggle to be a good steward of the preaching text.  The best preachers do not say everything there is to say, and they do speak with clarity and simplicity.  Please preach with clarity and simplicity, but with clarity built on the richest and most determined exegetical study already under your belt.  This means lots of things, but it must include a growing awareness of earlier texts assumed by the writer of the preaching text.

For example . . . think about John 3:1-16, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.  Nic knew his Bible, but was treated as unqualified for conversation about spiritual matters.  In the course of the conversation the text is picking up on Ezekiel 36, Deuteronomy 29, Numbers 21, and perhaps the overarching backdrop – Genesis 3 . . . (is Nicodemus dead and needing a new birth, or not?)

How do we develop this radar?  Two suggestions:

A. Read the whole Bible, a lot.  There is no tool that can compensate for a lack of personal intimacy with the Word of God.  Prayerfully and purposefully devour the Scriptures as if they are the most precious gift you have.

B. Double check you haven’t missed something with good commentators.  We need the benefit of the community of God’s people and good commentators are a real blessing.  At the same time, many do miss the influence of earlier texts and so shouldn’t be relied upon apart from A, above.

Tomorrow I will offer another radar I believe we all need to see developed in our lives.

 

Jesus Was Not 50% Human

FiftyPercentbThere is a phrase that I suspect we would do better without.  It is only introductory to another thought, but it tends to lead somewhere potentially unhelpful.  It goes like this, “Jesus, in his humanity…” or “Jesus, in his divinity…”

I understand why we use these phrases.  There are times when you are preaching a Gospels text and you want to underline the fact that Jesus fully entered into our world and experience (albeit without sinning), so the first phrase is used to highlight some aspect of the true humanity of Christ.  There are other times when we preach something in the Gospels and we want to underline that this isn’t “just” a human, but he is also God.

God the Son did step fully into our world via the Incarnation and this is a glorious truth, but I suspect the introductory phrase often undermines the fullness of the union.  That is, Jesus is fully God, fully man, and fully one.  But often we can give the impression it was a 50:50 split.  That is, look at the human side, then later, let’s look at the divine side.  Let me give an example that will hopefully help.

Here we see Jesus, who, in his humanity, … is feeling compassion for the crowds stood before him.”  Or “…is dreading the forthcoming agonies of the cross.” Or “…is angered in the face of death.”

Yes, we do see Jesus’ humanity as he sheds tears of compassion for a shepherd-less people, anticipates the agonies of Calvary, or is stirred by the sheer wrongness of a funeral.  We see Jesus’ humanity in every episode of the Gospels.  But we also see Jesus’ divinity in each one too.  Jesus told his slow to believe disciples that if they had seen him, they had seen the Father.  I think I am slow to believe too.  Here I am, two millennia later, still falling into wrong assumptions about God the Father, despite reading the Gospels so many times.

When we see Jesus feeling compassion for the crowds, in Matthew 9 or Mark 6, we are seeing God’s heart for the people.  If you see Jesus, you see the Father revealed.  When we see Jesus feeling the weight of what lay before him at the cross and in separation from perfect communion, we see the heart of God revealed.  When we see Jesus respond in both empathy and anger at the death of Lazarus, God’s heart is shining out for all to see.  If you see Jesus, you see the Father revealed in him.

But when we use the introductory formula, “in his humanity…” then we can inadvertently hide the Father.  Jesus, in his humanity, is feeling … but the Father remains aloof and unmoved, without passion, compassion, anger, empathy or true love?  And before we know it, without even saying it, we have reinforced the traditional view that the true essence of God is completely opposite to all we know and experience, and therefore God is really out of reach.  We should think long, hard, and biblically, before we choose to stay there theologically, or imply this homiletically.

John 1:18.  John 14:8. Colossians 2:9.

Webinar on Poetic Literature

webinar_bannerThis Thursday I am leading a webinar on “An Introduction to Poetic Literature” at 18:00 GMT.  It is free and if you would like to join, you just need to register on this page.

The Union Podcast Interview continues today as I am asked “How is Christ becoming man vital for our salvation?”  (I believe there will be five episodes this week.  I won’t post every day, but will list the links after the series completes.)

 

Incarnation Series Review

I am really thankful to everyone who contributed to a great series.  I hope that these posts helped to stir an appetite for the wonderful subject of the Incarnation.  In case you missed it, here is the page to go for information on Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation.  And here are the posts: we started with an Introduction to the Series.  Then . . .

HindleyJohn Hindley

Let the Wine Flow! (John 1-2)

 

darrell_bockDarrell Bock

Lessons about the Incarnation from Luke 1-2

 

Glen-321A-300x267Glen Scrivener

Incarnation, The True Turning Point

 

a9a01de9-2aa2-44ea-a921-0f1077786e8b-220Bruce Fong

Incarnation and Expository Preaching

 

OrtlundDane Ortlund

Life As It Was Meant to Be

 

tts-portrait-jordanscheetz-300x300Jordan Scheetz

The Incarnation in the Old Testament

 

comontPeter Comont

Jesus Wept

 

murray__005_400x400David Murray

Rehearsal for Calvary

 

Frost webRon Frost

A Stirring Love

 

Rick McKinley

Where’d Jesus Go?

 

Ron Frost – A Stirring Love

Frost webRon Frost is my friend and colleague as a mentor in Cor Deo.  He also serves as a Pastoral Care Consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International.  I first met Ron when he was teaching Historical Theology at Multnomah Biblical Seminary.  Be sure to check out his blog SpreadingGoodness.org (as well as his posts on Cor Deo’s blog too).  Ron loves how some Puritans, especially Richard Sibbes, point his heart toward Christ.  So in this entry in the Incarnation Guest Series, Ron takes us to Sibbes with the hope that our hearts will be stirred too:

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Richard Sibbes, a 17th century Puritan preacher, invited his listeners to consider both the motivation of Christ’s incarnation and its implications for believers.

“He was born for us; his birth was for us; he became man for us; he was given to death for us.  And so likewise, he is ours in his other estate of exaltation.  His rising is for our good.  He will cause us to rise also, and ascend with him, and sit in heavenly places, judging the world and the angels.” [Works, 2.178]

Sibbes made the point in a sermon series on the Bible’s Song of Songs—with the figures in the book seen to be Christ and the Church.  The allegorical reading was strong on mutual marital love, something the unabashed Sibbes wanted to his audience to feel: “Affections have eloquence of their own beyond words.”

Sibbes, it should be said, also drew his marital imagery from other Bible content beyond the Song. He held the Bible to be divided by its testaments, with the Old Testament as a limited starting point that looks ahead to the marital fulfillment of the New Testament.  The latter spoke of Christ as the bridegroom coming for his bridal Church.

“In the new covenant God works both parts: his own and our parts too.  Our love to him, our fear of him, our faith in him—he works all, even as he shows his own love to us.  If God loves us thus, what must we do?  Meditate upon his love.  Let our hearts be warmed with the consideration of it.  Let us bring them to that fire of his love . . .” [2.174]

Many readers today will find Sibbes’ marital familiarity to be over the top.   But does he have a point?  Do more juridical and disaffected readings of the incarnation actually blind us to God’s motivation?  This motivation, Sibbes held, is birthed out of God’s mutual Triune love.  In marital love—leaving aside physical intimacy—God gives humanity a glimpse of the mutual devotion and delight of his own eternal bond.

With that caveat in mind let’s return to the lesson Sibbes takes from the incarnation.  God sent the Son to stir our response.  And this response explains every other feature of genuine spirituality: “our parts” of faith.

Sibbes makes the point.  We love God because he first loved us in Christ and we now get to anticipate growing in that love forevermore.