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!)

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt.2

Slip2It is easy to focus in on little details, but this series is about the big things that we need to be clear on for healthy biblical preaching.  Often we won’t see these mistakes in ourselves, but let’s pray for God to show where some of them might be true of us:

Mistake 2 – Not Preaching the Passage

There are many directions we can head after we finish reading a text (whenever that occurs in the message).  Here are some options that fail to preach the passage, and then I’ll share some reasons why this happens:

A. We can head off into our own ideas – whether they are self-help tips for living, self-absorbed personal anecdote sharing, personal soapboxes or targeted rants . . . the passage is not doing the work here.

B. We can head off on a biblical safari – it is easy to fill time with multiplied cross-references.  It is also easy to get positive feedback, but this may be for superficially impressing people rather than for saying anything meaningful.

C .We can head to the passage we wish we were preaching – maybe everything is Romans 3 for you, or perhaps Philippians 4, or whatever.  But what about this preaching passage, when will this get any coverage again?

D. We can linger in, but not preach the passage – dwelling on minor details or offering pleasant platitudes, even if we stay superficially in the passage, but don’t really preach it, then we are still digressing.

E. We can dive into our theological prof persona – do you wish you were teaching theology in a classroom?  Don’t work out that issue in the pulpit.

F. We can head for the newspapers – in our quest for relevance or to be a political voice, we can abdicate our role as preachers of the Bible.  By all means be relevant, but not at the expense of the text.

Why does this happen?  Some people know no better.  Some preachers were trained poorly.  Some churches push the preacher toward an unhealthy approach to the text.  But ultimately, the biggest reason that we have to face is this: not preaching the text is an evaluation of God’s ability as a communicator.

If God inspired the text, and if he did a good job, do we think that we can improve on that communication by our alternative methods of preaching?  Give everything you can to actually understanding and presenting the text so that its message is communicated, its revelation of the character of God is revealed and so that your listeners are able to experience exposure to this unique and wonderful passage!

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.

 

Identifying with Bible Characters

film3The Bible is full of stories.  Stories are very effective ways to communicate.  When a story begins, people tend to do two things – first, they identify with (or disassociate from) characters, and second, they feel the tension in the story, anticipating the resolution.  So when we preach Bible stories, let’s be sure to help listeners connect with what is going on.

1. Don’t give a history lecture, preach the story to today.  It is easier, perhaps, to dispassionately tell what happened back then.  But it is not easier to listen to that.  It is, typically, dull.  However you may choose to do it, please make it clear to your listeners how the ancient story impacts contemporary life.  That doesn’t mean you have to constantly make up-to-date references (sometimes telling a story takes time and making lots of links to today can become distracting), but do frame the sermon with relevance so people know there is value in engaging the story fully.

2. Don’t caricature the characters, encourage identification with their fallen and frail human-ness.  It is easy to pick on one solitary feature of a character in a story, but fail to give a fair representation of them.  Peter puts his foot in his mouth, but he also has the guts to get out of the boat.  Zechariah doubted the angel, but was also a faithful pray-er over many decades.  Don’t simply beat up listeners with a quick connection to the failure of a character.  Stories work slowly as the listener engages with a character all the way to the point of resolution in the story.  Simply pointing out a flaw and applying it carries all the sermonic tension of a limp rope.  Try to reflect the fullness of the character portrayal offered in the biblical narrative and its context.

3. Don’t identify without theocentrizing.  It is also possible to present the characters effectively so that listeners can identify with them, but miss the point that God is at the center of biblical narrative.  It’s not just Joseph’s kindness and personal character quality that is significant in Matthew 1, it is also very much focused on God’s revelation of His plan to both save His people from their sins and His presence with His people.  Joseph is a great example of a “fine, young man.”  But the passage presents this fine, young man responding to the revelation of God’s purposes.  Jesus, Immanuel.  That is the information that Joseph acted upon.  The amazing thing about Christmas narratives is that the theocentric truth is bundled up in a tiny human infant.  (And we get to preach the amazing truth of the Incarnation soon!)

Christmas preached as just peace and happiness and quaint idyllic scenes is a travesty – Christmas is also a set up for theocentric preaching (but don’t lose the humanness of the other characters too).

 

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.

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.

 

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 . . .

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.