Category Archives: Stage 1 – Passage Selection

Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 4

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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4. Areas for special attention

So let’s try and get down to nuts and bolts. What practical steps can we take to try and improve our preaching of wisdom literature?

1. Beware of self-improvement. It is all too easy to focus on the fact that Job ended up with more stuff at the end of the story than he had when it started, or to preach Proverbs 22:4 in such a way that we motivate our listeners with the prospect of material blessings now, rather than the glorious treasure that awaits us when Christ appears. It’s true, wisdom literature seems at times to focus on material blessings in this life, but I think there is more going on here – and more on that later.

2. Beware of making promises out of proverbs. Yesterday, I mentioned the example of Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”), we need to teach this in a way which both understands and communicates that proverbs are generally true, they not promises. This proverb is saying that if 100 sets of parents train their children up in the gospel, more will become followers of Christ than won’t, but this is not a promise that 100% will. Wisdom literature often provides us with general truths, not promises to be claimed.

3. Preach thought units. In his excellent book “Preaching With Variety”, Jeffrey Arthurs points out that Proverbs are often grouped together, though the connection between them can be quite subtle and not always obvious. Look hard, reflect, pray to identify those units of thought. And don’t be afraid to use a good commentary. Arthurs also suggests taking a more thematic approach to Proverbs, where you can draw together a few proverbs on the same theme (laziness, alcohol, parenting, old-age and youth) from different parts of the book. Also, there’s nothing wrong with simply preaching a whole sermon on one proverb.

In other wisdom books, the units of thought are often much larger. I’ve heard of someone preaching through Job a verse a week, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

We will complete this list next time . . .

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 3

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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3. Be aware of the challenges in preaching wisdom literature.

I’ve already mentioned some of the challenges in teaching wisdom. But there are other challenges – how about the theological question of preaching wisdom literature? Think of some of the big Bible themes – creation, sin, promise, redemption, and so on. When you dive into wisdom literature, it can seem as though these big subjects get very little development as we read through the wisdom literature. And even when they are mentioned, it might be hard to see how our understanding is developed therein. Song of Solomon is a good example – I mean, what is it about? There’s a whole lot of stuff in there on men and women and well… you know what I mean. But what has this got to do with those important big Bible doctrines? If you’ve read anything on the Song of Solomon, you’ll see this tension getting to people – there’s a big debate going on – some people will tell you that it’s basically some kind of sex manual for happily married Christians, others will tell you that it is nothing of the sort, that it is a book about Christ and his church. I’ll leave you to do the reading on that, but I’m convinced that the argument itself comes from this apparent disappearance of the grand narrative of the Bible story. I say apparent because we’ll pick up on this later in the week.

Another problem, more practical perhaps, comes when we try to preach from a book like Proverbs. How should we divide the text up? A chapter at a time? A verse at a time? Is there really a connection between these proverbs that can help us draw our thinking together into a unified sermon message? And what about Job? Even breaking the text up into sizeable chunks is still likely to make for a lengthy sermon series. Or Ecclesiastes – how many messages are you going to take to get through this book? One or more?

Then there’s the issue of how wisdom literature functions. Think of verses like Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”) or Proverbs 15:22 (“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”) Don’t many of us will know godly parents who faithfully taught their children the gospel all their lives, and whose hearts are now breaking for those same children as they are far from Christ? And didn’t Rehoboam surround himself with not one but two teams of counsellors?

I’ll attempt some answers tomorrow, but for now let’s be aware of the challenges in preaching wisdom literature, and not rush in without a proper respect for the sophistication of this beautiful genre.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 2

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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2. Know why it is important to preach wisdom

With the exception of the Psalms, wisdom literature is very often neglected by Bible teachers and readers alike. Why is this, and what do we miss out on when we neglect wisdom literature?

Firstly, we miss out on the necessity of reflection. Now of course, all scripture requires us to reflect on it, and to meditate on it. But think about it for a moment, I was preaching recently on Luke 14 and an incident of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. It was a narrative passage, and so none of us in the room had much of a problem with what the passage was saying in the immediate sense – a sick man came to Jesus on the Sabbath, and Jesus healed him. I suspect that sadly, not everyone hearing that sermon believed that the miracle actually happened, and sadly, not everyone understood the significance of what Luke was saying about who Jesus is, but do I think that at the very least, everyone present understood the passage in it’s immediate sense – that Luke says a sick man came to Jesus and that he got healed by Jesus.

But imagine now that I am preaching this Sunday on Proverbs 30:18-19:-

18 “There are three things that are too amazing for me,

four that I do not understand:

19 the way of an eagle in the sky,

the way of a snake on a rock,

the way of a ship on the high seas,

and the way of a man with a young woman.

What is the immediate meaning of this passage? What is it saying, in order for us to reflect on it? That’s a bit harder, isn’t it? And I suspect that many of us stop reading at this point, and flick over to Philippians to find something with a clearer immediate meaning. But this is the point – wisdom literature underlines to us the necessity of reflection. This proverb is inviting me to stop what I’m doing, to reflect, to take time to think about what this could possibly mean, what the connection is between these four “ways” and in doing so, to get a little wiser.

Many of us don’t like reflection. We live in the internet age of social media and immediate information, preferably in 160 characters or less. But wisdom literature defies that approach to life and demands that we slow down, maybe even that we stop what we are doing, and that we consider. Sadly one of the reasons why we neglect wisdom literature, is that we have lost the art of reflection.

Think of the book of Job – it’s a long book. Who of us hasn’t struggled through some of those passages and wondered if it will ever end? Again it’s tempting to turn forward a few hundred pages in order to find something a little easier to understand – but that is kind of the point and it’s all wrapped up in the genre itself. We might be looking for an easy answer to the problem of suffering, something we can post on Twitter or Facebook, but God refuses to give us that kind of answer, He gives us a proper answer, He gives us the book of Job. And it is a cosmically-proportioned book, to discuss a cosmic struggle.

So let’s know why it’s important to preach wisdom. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the specific challenges.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – 1. What is Wisdom?

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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We’re going to think this week about preaching wisdom literature. It’s a big subject, so let’s pitch right in and ask, how can we improve our preaching of this important genre? Firstly…

1. …Understand what wisdom is.

What exactly is biblical wisdom? Perhaps the easiest way to answer this question, is to look at a passage – not in one of the wisdom books ironically – but a very important narrative in 1 Kings 12. Solomon, the archetypal wise king, has died and his son Rehoboam is taking the throne. The people of Israel come to him and say “Your Dad laid a heavy burden on us in taxes and so on, so lighten it for us.” What is Rehoboam going to do?

He starts well – he gets counsel. First, he listens to his father Solomon’s old advisers. They tell him “Do as the people say and they will serve you totally.” Next he takes counsel from his old school buddies, and they tell him that he needs to stamp his authority on this people, make a statement, show them that he is not to messed with. “My little finger is thicker than my father’s thigh… he disciplined you with whips, I will discipline you with scorpions.” That ought to do it – that’ll show them who’s boss. So who is Rehoboam going to listen to? – And here’s the point, because for a Hebrew reader, this decision has “wisdom” and “folly” written all over it. Solomon’s counsellors are older, they are experienced in helping to run a country, they have spent a lot of time with wise King Solomon and they would have learned from his wisdom. Rehoboam’s old school pals are young, have no experience of running a kingdom, and not much experience of life, either. To the Hebrew mind, it’s a ‘no-brainer’. A wise man is going to listen to the wise old counsellors and the foolish man is going to listen to the foolish young counsellors. Which will Rehoboam do? Will he show himself to be wise or foolish? I’m sure you know, and the rest as they say, is history.

And this is invaluable to us in understanding biblical wisdom. For us Westerners especially, when we think of wisdom our minds go very quickly to intelligence. We tend to think that the cleverer, the more educated a person is, the wiser he/she will be. But that is a Western idea, not a particularly biblical one. I imagine that Rehoboam’s young counsellors had a good education, but they were still foolish by way of their youth and inexperience. Many of us live in a culture which is obsessed with the idol of youth. We are drawn to young people with new, fresh ideas. But again that is a Western idea, not an expecially biblical one. In biblical cultures, older people were held with higher regard than younger people because of their years, their experience and hence their relative wisdom. Of course there are exceptions – you will find foolish old people and wise young people in the Bible – Solomon himself, as a young king recognised his need for wisdom and asked God for it – and that’s a big theme in Proverbs for example, of enabling the young to get wisdom. So let’s understand what wisdom is – it is not intelligence, education or information. Wisdom is the knowledge of God and how to live in His world. 

And tomorrow we’ll actually look at some of the wisdom books. I promise.

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Letter Frame – Preacher’s Treasure 7

PenInk2In this series I have looked at letter openings and closings.  Lots of treasure that is often overlooked and ignored despite being fully inspired and massively preachable!  Here are a few closing ideas to pull the series together:

1. Preach a whole book through the lens of a key element in the letter frame.  By taking an opening greeting, a doxology, or whatever, it is possible to introduce and preach the big message of an entire epistle.  This could function as a stand-alone message.

2. Introduce or conclude a series in a book using opening or closing elements.  Instead of sounding like an introductory page in a study Bible (i.e. just giving a bland author, recipients, date, occasion, map, etc.), diving into the body of an epistle and ignoring the opening or finishing a series abruptly, consider the value of an overview intro or conclusion that is a legitimate exposition of an inspired text.

3. Consider a series of doxologies, closing prayers, or whatever, with whole epistles reinforcing each message in the series.  This would be a challenge for the preacher, and might require some awareness from the listeners, but it could be highly effective.  It would help us break out of a “standard section length for every sermon” approach. Whole books have big ideas that transform lives.  Letter frames offer summaries that root those ideas in shorter texts.

What other ideas would you add?  How have you heard a letter frame preached effectively?

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Letter Frame – Preacher’s Treasure 6

PenInk2There are some stunning doxologies in the epistles.  They are a potential treasure for preachers:

1. Doxologies tend to offer a succinct overview of the content of a letter.  What the writer was pondering as he wrote or dictated tends to come out in this late point of praise.  As preachers we can tap into that to review or overview the epistle as a whole.

2. Doxologies offer the preacher an opportunity to preach a different genre within the epistle.  Just as introductory and closing materials can offer a more narrative type of content (i.e. accessing the narrative behind the letter), so the doxology allows the preacher to preach something akin to poetry.  Preaching poetry offers something different to the discourse that predominates in the epistles.

Here are some doxologies to ponder:

* Hebrews 13:20-21 . . . The preacher (remember that Hebrews is not an epistle, but rather a sermon with an epistolary postscript) points to God’s raising Jesus from the dead, and to the blood of the eternal covenant, as the one who will equip the hearers to live lives pleasing to Him.  The Jesus-focused encouragement throughout the “letter” is seen even here.

* Jude 24-25 . . . One of the more famous doxologies pointing to God’s ability to guard and protect believers in an antagonistic world.

* 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 . . . An easy one to miss, this is effectively a doxology within the body of the letter (similar to Paul’s explosions of delight at the end of Romans 8 and Romans 11:33-36).

* 2 Corinthians 13:14 . . . Is Paul offering three elements of God’s goodness within a trinitarian framework, or is he actually referring to the One who is the grace and love of the Son and Father, that is, the Holy Spirit?  Jonathan Edwards understood this doxology as being entirely about the Spirit, which would fit a letter gripped by the New Covenant ministry theme.

* 1 Corinthians 16:22-24 . . . A striking and often ignored conclusion to a letter.  Perhaps verse 22 is key to the complexities of church life in Corinth?  I have never heard anybody preach from this section, have you?

* Revelation 2-3 . . . Don’t miss the treasure in Jesus’ seven epistles to the churches of Asia Minor.  Recognizing the consistent themes within and throughout each individual letter is key to making sense of the details.  The promise to the overcomer always makes sense in light of the description of Christ and the commendation/complaint within the letter.

Seems like there is plenty of scope for a series of messages based purely on the doxologies.  After all, pondering the truth and life-changing relevance of the gospel should lead us to praise God!

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Letter Frame – Preacher’s Treasure 5

PenInk2Yesterday we saw that there are a host of ingredients that could go into an epistle closing section.  One way to use the closing is to select an element and preach an overview of the whole epistle using that text.  Some examples:

1. Preaching Final Personal Remarks – Galatians 6:14-15

Paul keeps on reinforcing the big themes of Galatians: it is all about Christ crucified, the promised deliverer, and the work of the Spirit in making us new creatures in relationship with our Abba.  Here Paul gives a Christ and Spirit (New Covenant shorthand term) summation, just to reinforce the point already made in chapters 3-4, in the summary of 5:5-6, etc.  From these two verses you could effectively preach the whole letter.

2. Preaching Concluding Exhortations – Romans 16:17-20

Paul addressed the issue of a disunited Roman church from the beginning of the letter.  The applicational climax in 15:7-13 is brought back here in the final verses of the letter.  Romans could be preached or reviewed with this text, as it could with the doxology to follow in 16:25-27.

3. Preaching Closing Prayer – 1 Thessalonians 5:23

Again, the big themes of the body of the letter are clearly evident in this single verse: sanctification and anticipation of the Lord’s return.

4. Preaching Prayer Request – Colossians 4:2-4

Not only does Paul offer a “practical” prayer request, but it is focused on the key issue of the whole epistle – the person and mystery of Christ.

5. Preaching Greetings – Romans 16:3-16, 21-23

Paul’s list of connections in Rome gives an insight into the constitution of the church in Rome – several Jewish names among a predominantly Gentile group.  This is tricky, but if handled well, this could be a gateway into the issue that Paul has been addressing theologically throughout the letter.

Tomorrow I will almost wrap up the series by looking at doxologies, and then will offer a final post with some big letter-frame preaching suggestions.

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Letter Frame – Preacher’s Treasure 4

PenInk2I have been looking at “standard” openings in New Testament epistles.  Let’s look at “standard” closings and ponder some of the value to be found:

“Standard” Closings – We should be especially hesitant to hold any letter to a standard closing since there is much variety to be found among the epistles.  However, seeing the kind of content that may be found might spur our thinking a bit, then next time I will probe the possibilities further.

1. Travel plans and personal situation – Never forget that epistles are not data-dumps, they are a glimpse into a gripping narrative.  These sections sit up to be preached effectively when we know the power of narrative.

2. Prayer – Often brief, but a glimpse into the writer’s thinking and often a summary of what has occupied him throughout.

3. Commendation of fellow workers – A meaningless list of names?  Not so fast, they are there on purpose and can reveal much of the situation and connections.

4. Prayer requests – This could be a personal and vulnerable glimpse, or an applicational grounding of what has come before.  Either way . . . useful.

5. Greetings – Typically a personal touch to reinforce the narrative force of the letter.

6. Final instructions and exhortations – Almost always a helpful summary of the main teaching re-applied in the closing inches of the papyrus.

7. Holy kiss – Not sure what to say about this bit, but maybe because I’m English.

8. Autographed greeting – Helps you realize that an amanuensis was writing, and importantly, that the author wanted to be identified.  Why?

9. A “grace” benediction – Perhaps Paul was just polite, or maybe he was happy to be known for preaching grace at every opportunity, including the final line of his letters?

Some combination of these elements will appear at the end of an epistle.  How to preach them is worth pondering because they are both inspired and sadly too often ignored.  I’ll probe some examples next time.

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Letter Frame – Preacher’s Treasure 3

PenInk2So you can take the whole introduction and preach it to show the themes that will follow, as I suggested from 1 Corinthians 1:1-9.  But there are some other possibilities too:

2. Strategic Teaching Point – eg. Galatians 1:3-5

This is not the whole of Paul’s opening, it is just the grace and peace greeting.  But it could be preached as a gateway into Galatians.  If the point he is underlining here is made strongly, it sets up questions over his authority (go back to verse 1, or leave until next time and connect that with the biographical sections that follow at the end of chapter 1 and start of chapter 2), and questions over their move from this gospel (move on into verse 6 and following, or leave that until next time).  Interestingly, with the explosive content that follows, I suspect many readers miss the greeting, but notice what Paul says and doesn’t say:

He builds on the giving grace of the God with a Trinitarian reference to God the Father and Jesus Christ.  But don’t miss that this God is referred to as “our Father.”  Christ is the self-giving solution to our sin problem and Christ delivers, rescues, saves us from an evil world (Paul is not going light on sin!)   This rescue mission of Jesus is the plan and desire of the God who is now our Father, and it is all about Him, He gets the glory as we respond to this truth.

But notice what is missing.  The gospel is surveyed and it is all about God and the work of Christ.  There is no reference to our commitment, our diligence, our law-keeping, our fleshly efforts to be godly, etc.  Yet how easily we will corrupt the glorious grace of the gospel into something about us.  And that is the issue Paul will chase from verse 6 . . .

3. Biographical Instruction

Following the greeting and gratitude, many epistles will include a biographical section setting the scene for the letter.  Again, Paul tends to use this as an instructional opportunity.  As preachers let’s not skim this section either.  These sections allow us to establish epistles in a narrative setting, which has numerous benefits for a series of messages.  Here are a couple of examples:

* Galatians – After the explosive opening, Paul addresses the two critiques against his ministry by using biographical instruction.  First, that he is not a full Apostle (Galatians 1:11-24)  Second, that his is not the full Gospel, he is not preaching the whole truth (2:1-10).

* Philippians – Paul really takes advantage of his situational info to teach some key truths in 1:12-26, which then leads into the main proposition of the epistle for the final verses of chapter 1.

* 1 Thessalonians – Notice that Paul’s biographical section extends to the end of chapter 3!  The main body of the letter doesn’t arrive until the fourth chapter . . .

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Letter Frame – Preacher’s Treasure 2

PenInk2Last time I looked at the “standard” opening of New Testament epistles.  I suggested we should look at what is added to the bare bones and where the bare bones structure is changed.  One other thought is to notice where the opening is entirely missing and ponder why that may be the case.  For instance, Hebrews is minimal when it comes to its letter frame (just an epistolary postscript added at the end) – many scholars would now agree that this is because Hebrews is really a sermon rather than an epistle.

Let’s ponder a couple of possibilities when it comes to preaching an epistle opening:

1. Preaching the Opening as Thematic Overview – eg. 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Paul gives the normal sender, recipients, greetings and gratitude opening.  But what he adds at every point points the reader to themes that will follow in the letter itself.  After gently highlighting his apostolic authority and connection in verse 1, notice the following pointed material:

* Holiness – He identifies an apparently unholy church as sanctified and called to be saints. (v2a)

* Unity – To a church acting in arrogant isolation, he points out the unity of the global church. (v2b)

* Spiritual Gifts – He writes of the grace-gifts of God to them for their enriching when they were misusing spiritual gifts in a way that did not honour Christ. (v3-7a)

* Final State – To a church convinced they were already living in some sort of final state of “spiritual resurrection” and heavenly party, Paul mentions Christ’s future return. (v7b-8)

* Trinitarian Fellowship – He writes to a church that has misunderstood the role of the Spirit to be a marker of their spiritual arrival, rather than the One who is sent by God to bond them in fellowship to Christ the Son.

Preaching this opening with attention to content can offer a great introduction to the letter as a whole, and a sense of cohesion to a letter often treated as disconnected blocks of material.

Next time I’ll offer a couple of other examples of how a letter opening can offer more than a section to skim in order to get into the meat of the letter.

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