Category Archives: Stage 3 – Passage Purpose

Pondering Passage Purpose

arrow target2As a preacher studying a passage it is tempting to be purposeful in pursuing your own message, but to ignore the purpose of the passage. Maybe you are intrigued by the passage, or perhaps wondering how it could be preached.  Yet somehow, in the mix, we seem to lose sight of looking for why the writer wrote the text.  That is, rather than simply looking for what the writer wrote, we also need to ponder why the writer wrote it.

1. Look at the context – It is vital to look at any passage in its context.  What is going on around the text you are focused on?  What is the flow of thought or logical progression in the book?  What does the book generally say about its purpose (perhaps in the introduction, conclusion or “letter-frame”)?  If you have ever studied hermeneutics at all, you should be committed to the importance of context – not just for words, but also for sections.

2. Look at the content – This tends to bear the weight of our study efforts.  What words are used?  What are those words referring to?  How are sentences structured?  And so on.  Content is very important, especially when it is understood in context.  But combining contextual study with analysis of content is not the whole process.  Don’t miss the next one for a fuller grasp of the meaning of any text:

3. Don’t forget to consider the intent! – Content in context will do a lot to explain the “what” of a passage.  But unless we are deliberate, we can fail to recognize the “why” of a passage.  This may seem circular, but unless we are alert to the “why,” then we can’t fully grasp the “what.”  Look for clues in context, in content, in tone, in attitude, in the presence of imperatives, etc.  Some of this is hard objective analysis, some of it requires more of a subjective feel . . . which is not license to impose intent, but recognition that we must really listen to a text and be gripped by it, rather than merely passing it under the microscope of our preconceived expectations.

Passage purpose is easily neglected, but if it is, our preaching may feel like analysis . . . without vitality.  If we start to prayerfully get to grips with the intent of the original author, then we will tend to find the Divine Author getting to grips with our hearts through the passage.  Once we find some clarity on the purpose of the passage, then we also have a great starting point to consider the purpose of our message.  Pursuing the author’s purpose tends to fit with God’s purpose in my heart, and then helps with clarity on His purpose in my preaching that passage to others.

 

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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).

 

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What Does Transformational Preaching Transform?

Ripped2Almost everyone agrees that preaching should be transformational.  But we need to define what it is that we are seeking to see transformed?

1. Conduct – This is the most obvious area of transformation.  We all love to see a life transformed from worldly conduct to “christian” conduct.  But we also need to be wary.  Consider Frank.  Frank was a drinking champion.  He could drink more than anyone else and still be standing – that is how he got respect in the pub.  Then Frank saw a beautiful young lady going into the church next door.  He started attending.  He quickly realised he got no respect for his drinking abilities, but would get respect for church attendance.  Everyone in the church celebrated the transformation of Frank – “look at what the gospel can do!”  Really?  Self-concerned glory hunting gave way to self-concerned glory hunting in a new context (worldly Frank in the pub became worldly Frank in the church).  Not exactly gospel transformation.  That’s the problem with conduct.  It can be faked.  It can also be manipulated from the outside.  Peer pressure and cultural conformity can bring about impressive results.  But God’s involvement is not required.  A Christ-gripped life will manifest transformed conduct, but it also goes much deeper.

2. Character – Again, let’s both affirm this and be wary of it.  Character tends to be measured as the sum of the parts of conduct.  Consistency in multiple areas of conduct looks like character.  But if one area of conduct can be faked (for Sunday morning), then multiple areas can also be faked for each time someone is watching.  The Gospel will change a character both profoundly and gradually, but if we aim to change character in people, we are still liable to apply pressure and treat them as self-moved autonomous beings (wasn’t that part of the lie in Genesis 3?)

3. Belief – Unless people are transformed in what they believe, any change in character and conduct will remain superficial.  Belief is more than knowledge.  I can inform people with knowledge, but how do I influence what they actually believe and trust in from the heart?  That seems to go beyond what I can achieve.

All of these things are good and all will be transformed by biblical preaching in one way or another.  Ultimately though, if we are talking transformation, we have to go to the next level:

4. Affections – Call it heart, call it values, call it appetites, whatever.  The gospel transforms a life from the inside-out, from the heart outwards.  It takes the Spirit to plant an appetite (a relish) for Christ in the affections of someone.  This is where I feel relieved of the pressure to bring about transformation, but also the incredible privilege of my position as preacher.  I don’t twist arms to conform to behavioural standards for the sake of church conformity.  I do present Christ and the Gospel in all its wonder and majesty and sweetness, and I do so absolutely dependent on God to bring about transformation.

Biblical preaching transforms lives, but it occurs from the inside-out.  Anything more superficial will tempt me into acting like a mini-god pressuring mini-gods into self-moved determination and that just smacks of a fallen world perspective on the whole thing.  God’s Word invites us to trust Him, we should do the same.

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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 – 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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