God didn’t give us a systematic theology with an index and table of contents. Christ didn’t work with a scribe to give us an abstract set of philosophical and theological truths that we should memorise and apply. Instead, in His wisdom, God gave us the Bible.
The Bible contains a variety of genres. Look at the New Testament, for instance. Here we have a combination of historical narrative and occasional epistles. The theology of the Bible is offered to us in the vivid action of the Gospels and Acts. It is given in the concrete situations of the first century church. As Karen Jobes puts it in her Letters to the Church (p13)
In his wisdom, God gave us, among the inspired writings, the letters of the apostles to specific Christians living in very concrete situations during times that were very trying the Christian faith. Because of that, we get to see how the Christian life was to be lived out in the context of first-century culture, and we can identify the same or similar issues today that challenge us. Rather than giving us a book of abstract philosophy or theology, God’s Word has come in the form of very practical and specific situations. It is another instance of God’s incarnational intent, to be Immanuel, God with us.
So here’s my question for the day: do we make enough effort to communicate the context of the passages we preach? I’ve seen quite a number of preachers who preach texts from the epistles as if they are abstract presentations of truth. They sometimes do a decent job of putting in concrete contemporary applications, but the text itself is treated as abstract truth statements.
God has given us a gift as preachers. He has done some of our work for us. He has given us the section of the Bible that is most likely to be abstract logical argument as occasional writings – that is, specific presentations of the gospel applied to specific churches, in specific cultural milieu, with specific issues at hand. As we re-present these texts to our listeners, before we even get to contemporary application, our listeners will be translating from 1st century concrete to 21st century concrete.
Let’s be careful not to rush past presenting the situation that sparked the writing of the text in an attempt to be relevant. Helping people to see what occasioned the epistle will already be helping them to see its relevance to us.