4 Reasons to Handle the Bible Well

designAny Christian leader will have opportunity to communicate biblical truth to others. It may be a sermon, or it may be in conversation; it may be to a group of Christians, or it may be an evangelistic setting, but we will all communicate the Bible to others. Let’s be sure to handle the Bible well.

What do I mean by that? I mean good basic biblical interpretation. Understand meaning in its immediate context, as the author intended, following the grammar of the text, making sure we see what it actually says, recognizing something of the historical and cultural setting, etc. I mean not imposing fanciful interpretations that make you appear either extra clever, or excessively creative or even downright oblivious to the plain meaning of the text itself. I am not saying we all have to have high level degrees in biblical exegesis before we can speak to others. I am saying we can all do our best to handle the Bible well.

So why is it important to pay attention to how we handle the Bible, whether in preaching or conversation? Here are four reasons:

1. Because of God. A basic assumption that would help all of us is to trust that God is a good communicator. That means that if God chose to inspire a collection of documents, then He would do a very good job. He did. So a personal commitment to handling the Bible as well as possible is an expression of my trust in God’s ability to communicate well. He did not inspire a poor Bible that needs our cleverness, our fanciful ideas, or our creative shortcuts. When we try to improve God’s communication by our own sophistication we insult our God. When we handle the Bible carelessly we demonstrate a lack of value for our God’s communicative nature. Let’s handle the Bible well because of God.

2. Because of the unsaved. Another important point to remember is that people who do not yet know Christ will come to know Christ because of the Spirit drawing them to Him, not because of our brilliant presentations. However, they are evaluating our presentations. If we claim that the Bible was given by inspiration of God, but then proceed to read it carelessly, or elevate our own “codebreaking genius” above a text we claim was given to us by God, then we should not be surprised if some do not take the gospel seriously and view us as being duped by an unthinking religion. When the Bible plays a secondary role to our communicative sophistication (or our sloppiness), those who are trying to evaluate the claims of Christ may be led to feel that it can’t be worth much if we appear to not take God’s revelation seriously. Let’s handle the Bible well because those who don’t know Christ are watching us.

3. Because of believers. Periodically I get to go to the doctor’s office and see the medical expert in action. I might get seven minutes, and I cannot see the screen they spend so much time looking at. I don’t learn much. Periodically I take my car to the mechanic and I might stick around and watch an expert in action. I might get to spend a little time, but I typically won’t see much. I don’t learn much. But every week I sit in a church and watch a Bible expert in action. I might get half an hour, or even more. Sadly, in many cases I would not learn much that would help me handle the Bible well. When we handle the Bible before people, they are looking to our example as well as our message. How we handle the Bible will make a mark on them. Are we setting a good example of observing the passage closely, interpreting accurately, and applying appropriately? Are we demonstrating an attitude to the Bible, and an approach to handling the Bible, that we are happy for our listeners to copy all week long? Let’s handle the Bible well because those who think we know what we are doing are watching us.

4. Because of me. I want to handle the Bible well for my own sake too. I want you to handle the Bible well for your own sake. How silly we must seem when we treat the Bible as if it has limited value, but believe that our clever communication is what people need. The truth is, when we short circuit the process and offer personal proof texts and hobby horses, we steal from ourselves the riches that come from having our nose in the text and our hearts open to the God who wants to meet us there. Maybe my message to others will be limited in value for some reason, but my own time in the Bible seeking to understand it and respond to God will be invaluable for me. Let’s handle the Bible well because even if our communication were to fail, our own time with God in His Word is eternally priceless.

Prayerfully ask God to search you and try you in this area. How are you handling the Bible when you preach? What about in conversation? Attention given in this area will never be wasted effort for those that love God!

Big Idea or Big Story? Lessons Both Ways

Tents2I studied preaching in the “Big Idea” school of preaching. We were required to read books from the “Christocentric” school of preaching.  In my experience, many preachers in both groups need to learn from one another.

The big idea folks tend to emphasize the particular passage open before them.  They never dismiss the big story of the Bible, but their primary concern is to communicate the message of this particular passage.

The big story folks tend to emphasize the big story of redemption, irrespective of which specific text they may be preaching.  They don’t dismiss the importance of a particular passage, but their primary concern is to preach the big picture gospel at every opportunity.

Both approaches can be highly effective.  And both approaches can be done very poorly.  One way both will fall short is where the Bible is mishandled.

Big idea folks focus on the specific passage, but this cannot guarantee accurate exegesis, nor effective presentation of the relevance of that passage to listeners.  If the preacher harvests the imperatives in a passage and preaches a pressurized message inviting the listener to self-initiate some kind of moral transformation, then the text has been abused and the message of the Bible corrupted.  If the preacher fails to effectively engage the bigger story of Scripture, then the particular passage could be mishandled in light of its whole Bible context.

Big story folks focus on the full history of God’s redemptive plan, but this cannot guarantee immunity from moralistic preaching, nor does it always generate accurate handling of the text.  If the preacher imposes fanciful shortcuts to get to the goal of the rest of the redemption story, then it may seem like the text before the listeners may be turned into a secret code that only the preacher can unravel.  When big story preaching does not handle each text carefully, it can have the effect of flattening the Bible so that every passage is essentially a vague reflection of the one big story that will get imposed on it by the preacher.  And even when the redemption plan is laid out, how easily moralism can creep in via pressure to choose belief as our great work.

Both schools of thought have a lot to offer and I would thoroughly recommend you read the best books in both groups. But whichever camp you choose to set up your homiletical tent in, be sure to benefit from what is good about the other group too.

Challenge Perspective

designPreaching should involve a confrontation between God’s perspective and ours.  That is not to say that our preaching should feel confrontational as a default.  But there is always something deeper going on than we tend to think.

We think that we see our world the way it is.  We think that we see ourselves the way we are.  We think that the way we think is well motivated and accurate.  But the Bible challenges that.

Too easily we will justify ourselves and excuse ourselves, but it is not just how we see self that is an issue.  We assume that the world as we see it is the reality as it actually is.  But actually the Fall of creation into sin mars and skews everything.

When God speaks through His Word He does not simply reinforce our perspective.  We might think that we understand our place in the world, and that we know what life is all about.  And with this great insight, we tend to think that the Bible needs to offer us some tips for engaging life better so that we can be more successful in our various endeavours.  But what if God is not excited about your self-help project?  What if He is doing something altogether deeper, bigger and infinitely more wonderful?

As preachers we must not simply harvest the imperatives in a passage and serve our listeners by creating a to-do list for them.  We are called to so much more. We need to help them encounter God’s thoughts, God’s heart, God’s values, God’s greater and richer reality that is entirely right-side up in our upside-down world.

This means that as we preach, we have to be thinking bigger than just the immediate words in the text we preach. We have to be thinking bigger than the experience of our listeners in the lives they lead.  We must have a more God-given canonical, global and eternal perspective so that the reality we preach stretches and challenges and confronts the small, local, me-focused world of our listeners (and ourselves . . . hence preparation should always feel profoundly and spiritually challenging).

This is not easy, but dialogue with God and with friends in the preparation process can be key to avoiding offering small morsels to satisfy small perspectives.  How is the next text you plan to preach rocking your world and stretching your life perspective?

A Fresh Approach

FreshAir2It is very easy to let past sermons influence your next sermon. The way a passage is traditionally handled can easily become the default way we feel it should be handled again.

Now there is a positive side to this. If a passage is traditionally handled accurately and appropriately, then being fresh for the sake of it is not a good idea. Let’s be traditional all day long if that means handling the Word well.

However, sometimes a good traditional approach can overpower an equally appropriate approach to a passage. For instance, recently I preached from Acts 8 and Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch. As I studied the passage I felt some subconscious pressure to do what I have always heard from that narrative – namely, a brief telling of the story and then a lengthy engagement with a longer section of Isaiah 53. After all, it is a great opportunity to make clear to our listeners what was shared with the Ethiopian Eunuch.

But is there another legitimate approach? I felt there was. Specifically, I wanted to engage with what occurred in this particular narrative. By keeping my focus on the passage in Acts 8 more, I was able to look at God’s sovereign initiative in preparing an individual for an encounter with God’s Word, and how that Word may not be immediately clear, but God is able to bring clarity to it, and when He does, that reader discovers that clarity in God’s Word is more about the Who? revealed than some sense of What-To-Do? that we might anticipate.  Furthermore, seeing Christ clearly is what leads to life transformation. This sense of God’s dealing with individuals and leading them into His Word to find Christ was a rich and unique subject to ponder.

When we come to a passage, let’s remember that this particular passage is unique.  Let’s be aware of how we traditionally hear it presented and be sure that this is the way to go before committing ourselves to it. Recognise that while each passage is saying one thing, it is possible to engage each passage in various ways, several of which may be completely legitimate.

2015 Blog Summary

designThis was an intriguing year for BiblicalPreaching.net – thank you for visiting the site! Let me share some highlights and stats with you.

Some of the Series – We began the year with a series of preaching resolutions that stirred some good comments, followed by another provocative series on radars preachers need to develop, and then 10 reasons why your listeners may not be satisfied with the preaching they are hearing. People always seem drawn to Biggest Mistakes series too, since we all make lots! So 10 Listener Fatigues is worth a mention too in a similar vein.

Monthly Opener – At the start of each month I have shared a longer post that has been picked up by the European Leadership Forum.  These included, Overflow Leadership: 2 Vital Ingredients, Jesus Nudges, Cracks are Serious, one that stirred lots of verbal response at a conference – 7 Ways to Guard Hearts at a Christian Conference (with its follow up regarding Guarding Hearts at Bible School, and also at Guarding Hearts at Church).

Book Launch – The end of the summer was given over to another guest series at the launch of Foundations – click here to find out more. Here’s the series intro, plus a couple of highlights for me?  Glen Scrivener on sin, John Hindley on being human, and Jonathan Carswell on a Passion for Books (have you heard about 10ofthose.com starting in the USA now? Please spread the word!).  Speaking of books, I also shared a chapter from Pleased to Dwell at the start of December (how can I nudge people to ponder the Incarnation during the rest of the year – all ideas welcome!)

There were quite a few other posts that seemed to stir response, such as Who Turned Preaching Into a Solo Sport? And probably the one that deserved the least attention, but somehow got quite a lot – Meaningless Chatter.

Most Popular Posts this Year?  Due to some friendly sharing from friends with big readerships, by far the most popular posts were these (can these posts get traction again on twitter? Feel free to share the links!)

10 Pointers for Young Preachers as well as 10 Pointers for Older Preachers

10 Pointers for Seminary Trained Preachers as well as 10 Pointers for “Untrained” Preachers

10 Pointers for Preaching Teams as well as for Preaching Easter, and Special Occasion Preaching, and of course, Evangelistic Preaching.  There was another on Planning a Preaching Calendar, and one on Planning a Series.

There you have it, another year of blogging. So much I didn’t mention, but thanks for reading this far!  What should I write about in 2016?  All suggestions welcome, most suggestions followed!

Star Wars: Awakening the Force of Reverse Nostalgia in Preaching

Star_Wars_The_Force_AwakensYesterday I wrote about Star Wars and tied one thought into preaching. The critical ingredient in this movie seems to be its use of “nostalgia” – not just familiar score, scenery and action, but especially familiar characters. Almost every emotionally stirring moment in the film is stirred by some moment of recognition or a sense of relational connection (so good to see him again!) – what I loosely referred to as the “nostalgia.”

Pondering how much this features in the rhetorical design of the film led me to ponder preaching. Too often we miss the opportunity to re-introduce people to the emotional moments of biblical story where we can re-experience the thrill of identification with a well-known character. This is possible with Bible stories, and sadly, it is possible with The Character of The Story in the Bible – God Himself. Sermon by sermon we should be stirring affective engagement with God as His familiar character qualities re-emerge through the pages of Scripture.

So what is the force of reverse nostalgia?  And how can we awaken it?

Star Wars is grand in scope – it is a cosmic manichean struggle between good and evil, two sides of the impersonal force behind everything. And yet the story is that of people, not great armies. On an individual level these people are caught up in a great struggle, but their own stories reflect hints of a more biblical worldview – relationship, betrayal, parenting, etc.

One character in Star Wars has a restlessness about their character. Eventually comes, for me, the best line in the film – “Dear child, the belonging that you seek is not behind you. It is ahead.”

What Am I Calling Reverse Nostalgia?  I am referring to that stirred emotion of anticipation, the restless longing tapped by this quote. Sure, the Resistance may long for a cosmos where the dark side of the force is defeated, but such a utopian ideal is not heart-stirring. One character’s yearning to belong is.

Think of Hebrews 11:13-16. In this central section of the great “hall of faith” chapter, Abraham and his like were those who left behind their old country and headed for a better hometown. They died with their faith still intact, still anticipating their “repatriation” in a place that will be home. They did not look back, but instead they hailed home – with an anticipatory recognition of the community of love and joy to come, a belonging they were yet to experience.

Preaching That Taps Into Reverse Nostalgia.  Good preaching cannot be simply about good living now, nor about good living later.  Good preaching stirs that “hailing home” reflex in our hearts. The restlessness of this life stirred in anticipation of belonging. This is not about how nice the streets are in heaven.  This is about a relational bond that we taste by the Spirit, but one day we will experience to the max.

As we preach, let’s be sure to present God as personal so that listeners can be captured by His personality, His character, and all that He is.  As we preach let’s be sure to anticipate our destiny. Some songs capture this with lines like, “and the bride will run to her lover’s arms, giving glory to Emmanuel.” The key is not circumstance, it is interpersonal connection.

Let’s be sure to introduce listeners to the person of Jesus Christ. Let’s tap into that “nostalgia” factor of interpersonal connection as we re-introduce Him each week.  And let’s stir anticipation through “reverse nostalgia” and the anticipation, not of what is to come, but of who is to come! Star Wars touches that nerve purely on a family level. The Bible takes that to a gloriously greater dimension.

Let Christmas Improve Your Preaching

designI just wrote a brief devotional post stirred by the quote from Pleased to Dwell in the image. You can click here to go to that post. This quote stirs a preaching thought:

How can Christmas improve our preaching?

Think about Moses for a moment. Moses was a great prophet. Not because he was eloquent (he was not). Not because he was confident (again, he was often not). If you boil it down, Moses was a great prophet because we read of how he, time and again, met with God face-to-face. Moses could speak of the God he was representing because he knew that God. It wasn’t just a knowledge of Scriptures or theology, it was a personal repeated encounter with God himself.

Most of us have probably never had the experience Moses enjoyed. But that does not mean we should preach as purveyors of facts. We are called into God’s presence in a way that was not possible in Moses’ day. We are called to know God in a way that was not possible back then.

Christmas has changed things. The greater prophet than Moses, one who has spent far more time watching the Father and hearing his words, the ultimate prophet has come into our world. Jesus not only brings us the ultimate revelation, he has also created the ultimate access. Because we can be united to Jesus by the Spirit, we can boldly approach the heavenly throne at any time. Because we are united to Jesus by the Spirit, we can know the heart of God more clearly than ever before.

Christmas is critical to understanding the ministry we now have. We don’t speak facts only about a distant God. We speak of a God we can know personally. We speak of a God we can meet with day by day and speak with as a man speaks with his friend. And when Christmas so saturates our understanding of everything that we dwell closely with the God who wants to dwell with us, then when we preach we will be able to represent him better than ever before.

Let Christmas Preaching Point Deeper

AdventDay2Christmas sermons can feel a little bit superficial. Nostalgic Christmas card scenes described with platitudes about peace on earth, etc. If we are not careful, we can miss a great opportunity to preach the gospel to visitors who may only come to church at this time of year.

The traditional way to get to the Gospel in our Christmas preaching is to paint an arrow from the crib to Calvary. This is certainly an important link to make. By all means let folks know why Jesus chose to come and where it was all headed.

But maybe in our eagerness to move the story forwards, we may be missing something. After all, our listeners may not be as surprised by the cross as we seem to think they will be.  Maybe they anticipate hearing about those old Bible stories and maybe they find Christmas and the Cross to be two of the familiar facts about Jesus. If so, then it can still all feel very “long ago and far away.”

Perhaps people might be surprised to discover that Christianity actually speaks to the heart of their daily struggle.

For instance, ever since the Fall we have all been saturated in the brine of self-solutions. I can get my act together. I should work my way out of this. I need to turn over a new leaf. I am the master of my own destiny. I, I, I.

Add in the Gospel and people may find it slightly foreign and a little irrelevant.  Maybe Jesus can bring peace on earth in some hypothetical future, but how does that help this week? It doesn’t stop wars today and my life is still a struggle.

So this Christmas, instead of simply drawing a line from Jesus’ birth to death, why not pause and ponder if there is a way to reveal an underlying theological issue that people feel. How about this – Christmas points away from “what-must-we-do” to “who-can-we-trust.”  And we need that.

Please take a look at a brief devotional post on this issue, it might help with your Christmas preaching this year.  Click here to go to the site dedicated to Pleased To Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation.

Fighting Gravity – part 5

Gravity2Gravity pulls, and pulls, and pulls. So does the theological gravity that we live in in this world – the Fallen World Gravity (FWG). We have pondered this pervasive force during the last days. Let’s look at one more facet of this ugly gem.

5. The pull toward pride.  Perhaps we are just circling the many facets of the same false gem.  In the Fall we usurped God’s selfless throne and put the self-absorbed ego in His place.  Naturally, then, we will tend toward pride. Again, this is not simply true for those outside of Christ. It is also true for everyone of us that is in Christ, but also still in the flesh and in this world. One day this gravity will be gone and what a burden will lift from us!  For now, it is best that we become more aware and pray for clearer eyes to see the wonder of the good news of God’s love in Christ.

We are pulled toward pride. In everything we do, maybe especially the good things we do as believers, we still suffer the pull toward pride. In the future we will look back on all this pride and wonder what we were thinking. But for now, this fallen world ‘theological gravity’ makes some nonsensical things seem perfectly normal.

I suspect I will spend the rest of this life purging my view of ‘normal’ in light of God’s Word.  There is so much that is so fallen and yet I remain unaware. Let’s pray that God would give us eyes to see where the FWG, rather than biblical perspective, is influencing our perspective in life and ministry. Let’s pray for a clearer vision of God in His world, and of our listeners in theirs, so that our preaching might better address the reality of what is before us each Sunday.

How else does the Fall influence us, even as believers, and in ways we tend to not notice?

Fighting Gravity – part 4

Gravity2We live lives pulled by gravity. Physical gravity keeps on pulling us downwards. We can be a research physicist or a playful toddler. It doesn’t matter, gravity pulls. Fallen World Gravity (FWG) keeps on pulling us too. It pulls us toward a worldview where I am at the centre, where glory is a-relational and based on how weighty we can be in competition and comparison, and where independence just makes sense.

Here’s a fourth pull that is there whether we recognize it or not:

4. The pull toward speculation. This one is less obvious to us, even if we have done some good study biblically and theologically. It is strange, but the ‘theological gravity’ of this fallen world pulls us to enjoy speculation. We seem to be naturally pulled toward speculating intellectually, or experientially, or both.

Of course, God has created us to learn and to explore, but somehow this fallen world gives us a corrupted version of that. So rather than chasing all there is to know about God in His self-revelation through the Word, we will quickly put the Bible to one side and delve into intellectual and philosophical speculation.

Or we will quickly put the Bible back on the shelf and pursue some sort of spiritual exercise that might lead us into an experience that goes beyond anything God has directly offered in His self-revelation. Somehow these pursuits are permeated by an inherent independence, and that gravity continues to pull us away from God’s good plan to a fallen and twisted theological pursuit or practice. It is strange how much this happens and, for the most part, we remain quite unaware of how strange it is.

We will preach to people who just want to accumulate knowledge so that their intellectual curiosity can be assuaged. That is a problem. We will preach to people who just want to find some spiritual exercise that might lead them to a spiritual high. That is a problem.

What is more, since FWG is so pervasive, our listeners may hear a preacher who really just wants to accumulate knowledge so that his fleshly compulsion to speculate philosophically can be satisfied. That is a problem. Or they may hear from someone who is more concerned with climbing into some sort of anointed euphoria than growing in relationship to the God who can be known in Christ. That too is a problem.

Be a learner with curiosity. Let it drive you deeper into your relationship with Christ. Let the Bible be the ground you dig, and let God’s heart in Christ be the treasure you find. Let the pulpit be a place of sharing that treasure. May our churches be communities of increasingly captured hearts enjoying knowing the God who has revealed Himself in Christ so that we can know Him!