Category Archives: Stage 5 – Message 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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The JtB Principle

ForkSignYears ago I experienced a weekend of preaching that marked my own ministry for life.  Our church had managed to book a very well known speaker for its annual retreat.  That weekend, his preaching was a disaster.  As my wife and I drove home we reflected on the weekend of ministry and I knew this was a key moment in my life and ministry.  Reflecting on how he had ended up preaching like that stirred me to choose a different path.

I am convinced we all need to settle this core issue now, whatever stage of life and ministry we are at:

The John the Baptist Principle: Jesus must become greater, I must become less.

There is a fork in the road before us all.  One pathway is signposted “Jesus” and the other one is signposted “me.”  For all his good ministry over the years, this particular preacher seemed to have been okay with promoting himself through his preaching.  It felt so uncomfortable for us who were listening.  I decided that I wanted to choose the other option.  What does that involve?

Instead of seeking to impress listeners, let us seek to communicate - Our flesh and ego will be tempted to bust out our lofty learned vocabulary and heavy-duty theological terminology.  But if we are on the “Preach Jesus” pathway, then we will seek to be as clear and simple as possible.  We will be more satisfied to hear that a twelve year old listened attentively, than we will be to be told our preaching was “deep” (i.e. over the head of the person seeking to give polite feedback).

Instead of seeking to impress listeners, let us seek to equip – Again, our fleshly tendency toward pride will naturally want to make folks want to hear us again.  It is nice to think that people are dependent on you for their weekly dose of truth.  But if we are on the “Preach Jesus” pathway, then that will include a desire to equip them to read the Bible for themselves, meet Jesus for themselves, feed themselves, etc.  If every sermon is primarily about presenting God through an accurate, clear, engaging and relevant presentation of that text, may every sermon have a secondary goal of motivating listeners to want to engage with God in His Word during the rest of the week.

Instead of seeking to impress listeners, let us seek to introduce – Our fleshly inclination to present ourselves as the centre of the universe will nudge us toward assuming personal introductions are over as our sermon introduction begins.  That is, “I am here now, and I am preaching.”  This will typically be followed by an attempt to impress people with my knowledge, or my wisdom, or my suggestion for their betterment, etc.  But if we are on the “Preach Jesus” pathway, then we will feel compelled to introduce the person of our God, typically by pointing to His Son, throughout the message.  The personal introduction is the core of the message and the person being introduced isn’t ultimately us, but Him.  And when lives aren’t transformed as we prayed they would be, then our prayer will tend to be, “Lord, please help me do a better job of introducing you . . . because I know that if they could just catch a glimpse of you, change would follow.  PS Please let me know you more before next Sunday 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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Preaching and Paradigms

PAradigmWhen we preach, we don’t simply present a truth, make an offer, or demonstrate the relevance of an ancient text.  Every biblical passage is a heavenly assault on the unquestioned assumptions of a fallen world.  That is to say, we don’t really live in a neutral world with some evil “out there” and some good information in the Bible.

The truth is that our entire world is upside-down.  Every cell in this universe is corrupted by the fall.  Yet we love to live in the myth that we are objectively evaluating a normal reality.  Then when extremes come before us, we are the arbiters who can discern what is extreme and what is not.  This results in people listening to the Bible and trying to find something relevant, rather than hearing the absolute revolution it speaks into our fallen, me-first, self-loving, circumstances-determine-mood, world.

So when we preach, what are we doing?  Sure, we are presenting the truth of the passage.  We are inviting people to meet the God who reveals Himself in His Word.  We are showing that the ancient text is more relevant than anything we hold to be truly contemporary.  But we are also bringing a heavenly critique of all that we believe to be normal.

Tomorrow I am preaching Psalm 46.  It is a wonderful Psalm of comfort for people fearing the destabilization brought by human enemies.  The LORD of hosts is with us, He is our fortress.  That changes everything.  He will utter and war will be defeated forever.  Here we are, understandably concerned by what we see going on in the world, perhaps even fearing for our future and our children’s future.  But the Bible challenges assumptions we don’t even recognize, and as we encounter the message of a passage like this one, we find our whole paradigms recalibrated to the reality we can’t see.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 6

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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And to finish off the list . . .

6. Be aware of who is truly wise. Step back and think of wisdom literature as a whole genre for a moment, consider the dynamic that is going on. In it’s simplest form it is this – a wise person is offering his wisdom to someone who is less wise. Remember this is not the same as knowledge or information, it is personal not abstract, it is applied in the complex situations of life, and we all stand alongside Rehoboam while the offer is made – who will we listen to – wisdom or folly?

The wise person comes to us in the written word, as a person of authority, of greater wisdom, or greater experience of what it means to live in God’s world, and in God’s way. That wisdom runs right through Proverbs, it is what is being searched for in books like Ecclesiastes. Think of the massive climax towards the end of Job when God breaks into the discussion with His wisdom – it’s huge, isn’t it? In wisdom literature, the wise person offers their wisdom for us to benefit from, freely. Can you see where this is going? Wisdom finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Listen to what Paul says in 1 Cor 1:26-31:-

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

That’s why I said earlier in the week that when we get into wisdom literature, it can seem as though those big themes of the Bible have been laid aside for a while. They haven’t been, but we might need to work a little harder to see them and we need to need to be very wary of preaching wisdom in a way which is purely focused on temporary benefit for us. Proverbs are too often preached as “super-tips” for a better life now only. Be wary of approaching Song of Solomon in a way which only celebrates human sexuality in this life. Watch out for an understanding of Job that gives answers to suffering in this life without lifting our eyes to eternity. Let’s not preach wisdom in a way which only celebrates His gifts without lifting the eyes of our listeners to the wonder of the giver.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 5

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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Continuing the list of areas for special attention, so far we have had beware of self-improvement, beware of making promises out of proverbs, and preach thought units.  Last in the list:

4. Consider what it means to preach a reflective genre… reflectively. We have already seen that wisdom literature requires reflection. How might this impact our sermons in this genre? We need to give serious thought as to how we can encourage reflection in our listeners, even if it is only for the time we are standing up there preaching. Two thoughts on this; firstly avoid information overload. This is true for preaching any genre, but nowhere is it more important that in preaching wisdom.  Don’t bombard people with dozens of different thoughts or ideas; it doesn’t encourage reflection, it encourages confusion, headaches and people to stop listening altogether.

Conversely then, create space. Create space to work out illustration and application – “You cannot serve both God and money” isn’t a proverb, but it is a good example of a relatively short journey from original context to contemporary application. But wisdom like Proverbs 15:5 “A fool spurns a parent’s discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence.” will take some time to unpack. How does it apply for people who don’t have God-honouring parents? What about people whose parents have died or who no longer under their parents’ authority in the way they once were? Does this proverb no longer apply to them? If so, how? And what are the subtle ways we all try to squirm out of correction – wherever it comes from? Be creative, take time to explore this piece of wisdom from as many angles as you can. Finally, create space to think, respond, pray. Why not give people time to do this at some point in your sermon (and not necessarily just at the end)?

5. Identify the central issue of a book. This is crucial. In a book like Job, it is easy to forget that the central tension of the book is presented very clearly in chapter 1, Satan says to God that Job loves God not for who He is, but for what He gives Job. The accusation is that Job loves God’s stuff more than he loves God. And the tension of the rest of the book is, in many ways, an exploration of that accusation – will Job’s faith stand up to the accusation, or not? It’s important to work out everything which follows in light of this. In Ecclesiastes you have to go to the end of the book to find the central issue – (12:13–14) Keep this conclusion as your focal point as you drive those windy roads of Ecclesiastes!

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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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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 10

97LutherLuther was trying to provoke conversation, so these are only provocative thoughts. At the same time, let’s not just explain it away and end up without being challenged. Take the next few, for example:

(81)-82. Not only are the religious ceremonials not the good law and the precepts in which one does not live (in opposition to many teachers);
83. But even the Decalogue itself and all that can be taught and prescribed inwardly and outwardly is not good law either.

Before we get too upset, let’s add another to the mix:

84. The good law and that in which one lives is the love of God, spread abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Looks like Luther is back to his Augustine-influenced thinking, but is it biblical? Would the apostle Paul teach the constraining influence of the love of God in Christ, communicated by the Spirit, so that the Christian life is lived not by the effort of the flesh but by faith in Christ? Absolutely.

85. Anyone’s will would prefer, if it were possible, that there would be no law and to be entirely free.
86. Anyone’s will hates it that the law should be imposed upon it; if, however, the will desires imposition of the law it does so out of love of self.

The sinner’s desire is freedom from constraint, but what about those who seem to like law? Is this a sort of natural godliness? Luther underlines the gravitational pull of self-love on the heart, a love that can manifest in rebellion and in religiosity.

(87-89.) The law is good, and the will is hostile to it and therefore not good. In order for the law to be reconciled with the human will, there needs to be the mediating work of the grace of God to bring the two together. The law does not lead the will to grace, but grace brings the will and law together.

(90-91.) The human cannot love God unless God first gives his grace. That grace is not given to increase good deeds, but because without the grace of God there will never be any good deed, never any act of true love.

(92.) If a person can love naturally without the love of God, then the love of God is superfluous and unnecessary.

Next time we will be able to finish the 97 and wrap up the series of thought provoking theses.  As preachers these theses really poke at the very core of what it is to be human, and consequently, what we are engaging as we prepare and preach.

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 8

97LutherContinuing my preacher’s journey through Luther’s lesser known 97 theses:

68. Therefore it is impossible to fulfill the law in any way without the grace of God.

The gravitational pull of a post Genesis 3 world will always pull us toward a morality that is bereft of the presence of God. This is the tendency we have: to try to be like God, apart from God. Let’s never settle for obedient compliance over genuine relationship with God by His Spirit.

69. As a matter of fact, it is more accurate to say that the law is destroyed by nature without the grace of God.
70. A good law will of necessity be bad for the natural will.
71. Law and will are two implacable foes without the grace of God.

I want to leave these theses rather than summarizing them. As a human being I am naturally in total opposition to God being God. Telling me to behave by his rules will only incite rebellion, or . . .

72. What the law wants, the will never wants, unless it pretends to want it out of fear or love.

Unless the person is fearfully self-protective, or loving self in some way. Thus the written code will gain a variety of responses, from younger brother rebellion to older brother self-righteousness, but nothing on this continuum is actually a good result. Seems hopeless?

73. The law, as taskmaster of the will, will not be overcome except by the “child, who has been born to us” [Isa. 9:6].

Our only hope is Christ himself. Apart from him we are deeply in trouble with a terrible foe. So as a preacher? I must, must, must preach Christ – the only hope. But if I reduce Christ and start to preach law in some way, the result will not be greater godliness.

74. The law makes sin abound because it irritates and repels the will [Rom. 7:13].
75. The grace of God, however, makes justice abound through Jesus Christ because it causes one to be pleased with the law.

Only the grace of God can create a new taste, a new inner relish…hang on, I am drifting into Jonathan Edwards now. God can do what the law never could, stirring the heart with a new appetite for good.

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