Category Archives: Stage 2 – Passage Study

The Missing Dimension – Part 2

hermeneutics2Yesterday we looked at John 5.  What a chapter.  Jesus was accused of encouraging Sabbath breaking.  He turned that charge into one of apparent blasphemy, then proceeded to defend himself against the accusation.  For ten verses he laid out truths about life-giving and judgment in respect to his relationship with his Father.  Then from verses 30-47 the defendant turned prosecutor as he went after his accusers with a sequence of witnesses that not only defended his position, but highlighted the culpability of his accusers.  It is wonderful legal drama.

At the climactic moment in that sequence, Jesus poked his accusers in the chest in respect to their handling of the Bible.  They searched for top tips in order to receive glory for each other, but they were blind to the revelation of God through his Son in the Old Testament.  They cared for horizontal glory rather than vertical glory.

This raises an issue we should ponder.  When we study a Bible passage, not least when we are preparing to preach.  We need to be alert to a couple of realities:

1. Look for God’s self-revelation, not just for life advice (or even for a sermon).  Wonderfully, our God wants to be known much more than we naturally want to know him.  And we need to recognize that our natural tendency will always be to not see him, but to default back to seeing the Bible content as material for our sake.  Some naturally default to intellectual curiosity, others to intellectual skepticism, others to life coaching tips, etc.  Whatever the default nuance may be, the default orientation will be toward self rather than toward God.  Only as he stirs our hearts and gives us a taste for knowing him will we discover the delight of pursuing the God who first pursued us.

2. As you look at Jesus, he looks at you.  Jesus does not remain simply the object of our curiosity.  As we study him, he turns that around to study us.  As we accuse him, we find ourselves convicted.  As we probe his character, we find our own character probed.  The shift from defendant to accused found in John 5 is a shift we experience all the time if our eyes are him.  This turns Bible study into a glorious conversation, if we are willing to engage in such.

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The Missing Dimension in Biblical Interpretation

hermeneutics2Interpreting a biblical passage is a critical element of the preacher’s task.  Principles of hermeneutics should be readily accessible to the good preacher, second nature really.

Numerous hermeneutics textbooks list the principles – awareness of literary form and the influence of genre; concern for the grammatical choices made the author in his efforts to be understood; the significance of authorial intent; knowledge of the relevant historical background factors influencing the meaning of the text – such as geography, religio-politics, culture, etc.; deep sensitivity to the written context, both immediate and within the flow of the book as a whole; recognition that scripture does not contradict scripture, but does interpret scripture, yet the importance of remaining focused on the particular text, and so on.

But there is one key dimension that tends to be overlooked in hermeneutics texts and yet should be front and centre in our concern as preachers.  Perhaps we should call it the moral blindness principle, or the interpreter’s heart principle.

Jesus put his finger on the issue in John 5.  As he spoke to the trained religious elite of his day, he turned defense into attack.  He had been accused of breaking the Sabbath, to which he made sure they accused him of something more substantial (see v18).  Then he laid out some key truths in respect to the Father and Son, around issues of life-giving and judgment (see vv19-29).

From verse 30 he started pointing directly at his accusers and speaking in the first and second person.  He called his witness in support of his claim, (acknowledging John the Baptist in passing), who was first and foremost his own Father.  Yes, there were the works he did, but the focus is really his Father.  But then he made it very personal.  He told the Jewish leadership that they had never seen him, didn’t know him and didn’t have his word in them.  That is strange, these were the Bible quoting leadership fraternity of Jerusalem.  How could they be accused of not having the Bible down?

Jesus threw a hermeneutical failure at them.  They were certainly diligent, searching the Scriptures for top life tips, but they missed the person revealed there.  How?  Because they did not have the love of God in them.  How could that be?  Because of a mutually exclusive issue that might be one of the greatest dangers we face as preachers . . .

They were concerned about the horizontal reality of what people thought of them, which meant they were not concerned about the vertical reality of what God thought.  They loved getting glory from each other, rather than the glory that comes from God.

That is moral blindness.  That is the principle of the interpreter’s heart.  If my heart is concerned about what people think of me, I may well be blind to the truth of the text I claim to understand and then proclaim to others.  If you preach, ponder this principle prayerfully – it is one we cannot afford to miss.

 

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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 – 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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Filed under Christianity, Genre, Homiletics, Old Testament, Preaching, Religion, Specific text, Stage 1 - Passage Selection, Stage 2 - Passage Study, Stage 3 - Passage Purpose, Stage 4 - Passage Idea

Jesus the Nazarene

Jesus-the-Nazarene-300x252Just catching up on Cor Deo posts, in case you missed any:

Why does Matthew end his great Christmas narrative with a whimper?  Other sections of his gospel finish with strong summaries, so why not the first two chapters?  Why have a great story end with some geographical details, an obscure reference to an unidentified prophecy and a comment about Jesus being called a Nazarene?

 This post ponders the impact of this great enigma of biblical interpretation in the gospels.  Click here to go to the post.

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Don’t Stain Glass the Bible Folks

StainedGlassLots of Christians have a habit of “stained glassing” Bible characters.  Sometimes it seems like pretty much anyone other than Jezebel and Judas Iscariot will get a free pass and find their actions vindicated by believers.

Why does this happen?  Perhaps it is the result of Sunday School training that can sometimes turn the biblical narrative into myth-like stories with morales based primarily on character behaviour.  Perhaps it comes from too easily assuming that faith in God is a binary reality whereby any faith in an individual equates to full faithfulness, rather than recognising that God patiently works with people who are in the process of learning to trust Him rather than themselves.  Perhaps we are just nice people who assume almost everyone in the Bible is a nice person too (i.e. you have to be overtly evil to be anything other than laudable).  Perhaps it comes from forgetting that the primary character to focus on in the Bible is God, rather than the people, so that the people become models for our actions where perhaps they shouldn’t.

So where does this happen in the canon?  There are countless examples, but let me prod our thoughts with a few characters that tend to get “stain glassed.”

The Patriarchs – Abraham responds to a call from God, but when does he really trust God’s promise?  Sure, he moves with his family a long distance, but it is only after he separates from his family that God follows up with him.  Then it is another while before Abraham seems to finally trust God’s promise about his seed.  So between his initial call and his being declared righteous by faith there is the bizarre incident with giving his wife away in Egypt.  Abraham is on a journey, a faith journey.  And if we try to sanctify his decisions and affirm it all, then we may upset the wives in our congregation, and misrepresent the text.

Other OT Characters – Ruth was amazingly godly, but was Naomi acting by faith when she setup a very compromised situation?  Do we want to affirm everything about Mordecai and Esther?  Heroic and courageous?  Certainly.  But deeply faithful?  Worth pondering.  Nehemiah always gets lauded as the ultimate leader, but what legacy did he leave in respect to the hearts of the people, as well as the building project?  Was Jonah just reluctant, or was there a heart issue with him, in contrast to the character of the God he ended up somewhat representing?

Disciples – This is an interesting category.  Perhaps it is an anti-category.  That is, often I hear the disciples being treated like dunces when we treat them as if they should have fully grasped the content of all four gospels before the gospels were even written!

The Bible is full of real people with real issues and real messy mixed up faith responses, and for that we should be profoundly thankful.

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Preaching and the Tone of the Message

ToneHead2So assuming we agree that the tone matters, how are we to arrive at the tone of a message?  Three steps are needed here:

1. Consider the tone of the text.

As we develop sensitivity to the text and the setting of the text, we should be increasingly effective at grasping the tone of the author.  We need to go for a humble confidence rather than a brash confidence in this.  We are looking at lots of factors and weighing them up.

2. Consider the listeners to the message.

Who are you preaching to, and what is the occasion of the sermon?  Sometimes the occasion will influence the tone significantly (i.e. a funeral), sometimes it will be less significant.  It is not enough, though, to figure out the tone of the text and replicate that.  That text needs to be preached with sensitivity to these listeners.

3. Consider yourself as a preacher.

What is your natural or default tone?  Do you have a theological bias?  For instance, do you see everything as duty and expectation?  Do you see everything as gentle and joyful?  Do you turn any passage into a guilt trip?  The better you know yourself, the better you will be at selecting tone on purpose rather than defaulting into a tone that is less than helpful.

When you have evaluated all these factors, then there is still a bit more to consider.  Next time I’ll blog about the dangers and the needs as we think about preaching tone.

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Preaching Tones and Texts

ToneHead2This series is not about “adding tone” to lifeless letters and words.  It is about recognizing the tone of the text, and then being sensitive to the impact of our tone as we preach that text.  Here are a couple of example contrasts:

1. Tone of writer: Galatians and 2 Timothy.  This is perhaps the two extremes in Paul’s writing.  In Galatians Paul is very upset about the false teachers.  He forsakes convention to deliver a stinging astonishment statement in 1:6 instead of the standard thanksgiving opening.  In chapter 3 he is questioning who has cast a spell on the believers who he obviously loves deeply, but is so concerned about.  And by chapter 5 he makes the strongest remark in all of his writings, again about the false teachers.

Compare that with the sensitivity of Paul in his later letter to Timothy, beloved Timothy.  He writes about false teachers there too, but the tone is completely different.  He is concerned, he is deliberate, he is urgent, but he is gentle at the same time.  Paul wanted both letters to get through – one as a wake-up call, the other as an encouragement.

2. Imposed tone of preacher: Hebrews and Ephesians.  One example of how we can impose a tone that contradicts the material we are preaching can be seen when we think about these two letters.  Hebrews is a sermonic message designed to encourage and warn.  It startles.  It urges.  It paints pictures and explains a small number of specific Old Testament texts in such a way as to urge the believers on.  But preachers can bring in a foreign tone – one of theologically dense intensity that loses the energy of the original letter/sermon.

Or think about Ephesians.  The opening sentence in 1:3-14 is abundant in language choice.  The grace of God seen in the choosing, the giving of the Son, the giving of the Spirit, is lavished on believers.  And what might we do with it?  To be honest, too many of us turn it into a sterile detailed presentation of a theological doctrine triggered by one or two key words in the passage.  I wonder if the Ephesian elders would recognize our presentation of it?

Tone matters.  The tone of the text.  And the tone of the preacher.

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Preaching The Tone

ToneHead2I’d like to point our thoughts to the issue of tone in preaching.  Not just our tone, but also the tone of the text.  Let’s start there.

Good Bible Study – Good Bible study methodology has to include awareness of context, both written and historical, as well as content, both details and flow of thought.  In fact, that is a fairly good summary of good inductive Bible study.  Looking at both context and content, we try to make sense of a passage.  If we lose any of those four elements, we won’t understand it properly.

Without historical context/setting, we will import our own culture into the meaning of the text.  Without written context we will pluck passages from the larger flow of thought in their particular book.  Without attention to flow of thought we will be explaining apparently random details and probably using them to springboard to our own systematic theology categories.  Without attention to details we will make errors in grasping the meaning.

Better Bible Study – As good as context and content are, without looking at the author’s intent we will not really grasp the meaning of a passage.  Again, there are at least two broad indicators of intent:

1. Stated intent – if the writer tells us why he is writing and what he is trying to achieve, that is great.

2. Tone of text – this is more subjective, but there will be plenty of clues in the text.  Unless we ponder the tone of the text, I would argue that we are not in a position to claim understanding or to write down the main idea of the passage.

Tone Matters – In any communication tone matters.  Every spouse knows this.  Every child knows this.  Every friend knows this.  And in written communication, tone is not always easy to spot.  How many times have people misunderstood your emails or text (do you even know?)  I can’t imagine that the Bible writers were oblivious to tone in their writing, and they probably gave attention to the tone that they intended to communicate.

Before we can preach a passage effectively, we need to understand it.  Before we can understand it, we need to pay attention to the tone.

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