Category Archives: Stage 3 – Passage Purpose

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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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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Developing Layered Story Sensivity

WeavingYesterday I suggested that we shouldn’t be plucking stories and presenting little life lessons.  So what to do?  I pushed the idea of seeing little story accounts in the context of the bigger sweep of stories in that section, and then seeing that section in light of the bigger story of the book, and the book in light of the biggest story of the whole Bible.  Yes, but how?

1. Read the big sweep, then repeat.  It is very hard to grasp the big picture of the Bible without reading large chunks of it.  Simply digging deep into the meaning of a sentence will not give the big picture awareness that the Bible invites.  Even checking commentaries and reference tools will only offer a limited awareness of the sweeping sense of Scriptures.  While some commentaries are becoming more alert to the structuring and flow of a book, nothing can replace the benefits of knowing the big picture for yourself.

2. Look for the links between smaller narratives.  Develop a sensitivity for links and contrasts offered by the biblical writer.  Check the little theme of laughter ribboned through Genesis 17-21, and it isn’t simply Sarah and Isaac.  Look at the relative locations of Jacob to his family either side of the wrestling match.  The Bible is fairly sparse on detail compared to modern fiction writers, but what is there is there on purpose.

3. Ask why stories are neighbours.  Why does the story of Abraham with Gentile Abimelech come after the story of Lot being dragged out of Gentile Sodom, which is really a story about Abraham watching God’s justice and promise in action?  Without becoming dogmatic based on the limited links you might recognize, do probe the flow of the text and ask good questions.  Don’t only probe within a text.  Think about the contrasts and comparison points between Joseph in Genesis 37 & 39 and Judah in Genesis 38 . . . leaving the land, garments, goats, compromise, etc.

4. Don’t focus on little life lessons, look for how the text reinforces bigger realities.  Life isn’t ultimately about how we do business, or how we do wrestling, or how we do temptation, or how we do sojourning.  Life is primarily about how we relate to the one true God who makes promises and keeps them, who is involved in life yet sometimes apparently distant, etc.  Preach about God and living in response to His self-revelation.  Don’t just tip your hat to God and focus on how we can be more like a Bible character in our quest to live essentially independent lives of obedience to divinely inspired example (stretched to make preaching points).

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Layered Story Sensitivity

WeavingWe are trained as children to pluck out Bible stories and learn a lesson.  Let’s try to fix that as adults.

You know the routine.  You select a story, such as Abraham and Isaac on the mountains of Moriah.  You tell the story.  You offer a lesson…be willing to obey God whatever He asks.  Job done.  And the children go away thinking that that is how to handle the Bible.  Pluck the story, point to a life lesson.

Then as adults we can easily do the same thing.  You select a story, such as Jacob wrestling with the stranger at night.  You tell the story.  You offer a lesson…or maybe several (adults can cope with more): three top tips for handling complex threats.  (I’m making this up, although it is true that preaching this way doesn’t require much time.)  Be careful what situations you put yourself in.  The dark is dangerous.  Fight hard because God doesn’t let anything happen to you that you can’t cope with.  (Forget that last one, it is problematic on so many levels!)

God did not give us a compendium of life lessons dressed up as character stories.  The Bible writers were masterful in crafting the historical accounts into literary masterpieces.  The brevity of individual stories woven together into epics of grand proportions.  So what to do?

1. Study stories in the context of the bigger stories.  Abraham and Isaac heading to the mountains of Moriah is the climax of a twelve chapter, decades long faith journey for Abraham and God.  It wasn’t a random test coming out of nowhere.  It was a heartbreaking and confusing test in the context of a story that had stretched as long as many of us live on earth.  Promise, travel, gradual response, family separation, land assignment, further travel, false starts, wrong-headed plans, bizarre marital failures, repeated promises, eventual faith, later covenant sign, divine protection over the marriage and very late promise fulfillment.

2. Study bigger stories in the context of the bigger stories.  So don’t just make sense of Jacob’s wrestling in the context of Jacob’s bigger story, see it as part of the sweeping story from Abraham’s promise down through the generations.  Jacob was a deceiver, as was Laban, and the threat of Esau was massive . . . but was God a deceiver?  Could He be taken at His word?  Was Jacob’s big issue really his problematic relatives?  Or was it himself and his own view of God?

3. Study bigger stories in the context of the biggest story.  While this shouldn’t override the passage and completely change its meaning from what it could have originally meant, we have to be sensitive to the whole Bible epic of God’s dealings with humanity.

Tomorrow I’ll poke at this issue from another angle.

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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 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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