10 Ways to Half Preach a Text – Part ii

In this series of posts I am offering ten ways that I see preachers half-using a preaching text.  The goal isn’t to critique, but to nudge us all to a higher view of the inspired text, a higher level of diligence in studying the text, and therefore a higher level of impact in our preaching of the text.  So we’ve already considered using the text as an intro to another message, or failing to see how the details cohere, or preaching a message only nominally tied to the text itself.

4. Use the content, but ignore the context.

I use the term use deliberately.  Sometimes the content of a passage could feel used because it isn’t understood in light of its context.  This could be a certain term or phrase that is plucked out of its setting in a sentence and used to make a point.  It could be the whole paragraph or section that is presented without awareness of how it fits in the flow of thought in the book.

I remember a conversation I had with a street preacher years ago.  There are some street preachers that do a tremendous work of communicating the gospel to a busy and distracted world.  This was not one of them.  We got into a discussion about the Bible and I asked him what his view of the Bible was.  “Oh, the Bible is like a treasure chest filled with jewels and treasures that we pick up and show to the world!”  Problem was, he was plucking phrases without context and shouting random references to washing in blood and becoming white as snow, etc.  It didn’t communicate.  It regularly offended (in the wrong way).

That street shouter was an extreme example, but let’s not be lesser examples of the same error.  Let’s be careful to always present a whole text in its context, rather than plucking the “useful” preaching bits and using, or abusing, them.

5. Use the context, but ignore the content.

I suppose this is a less common error, in my experience.  But it is possible.  I guess this happens more in the gospels.  The preacher preaches about the ministry of Jesus in general, but doesn’t present the unique details conveyed by the gospel writer in this particular instance.  (Or the preacher may preach the event accurately through harmonizing the gospels, but fail to preach the inspired text of the gospel in question.)  Contextually it is possible to say Jesus was doing such and such, but if you’re preaching a particular healing narrative, preach it with good awareness of the detail the writer chose to include.

The list will build tomorrow, but feel free to comment on these or other things that come to mind at any point.

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12 thoughts on “10 Ways to Half Preach a Text – Part ii

  1. The NT use of the OT has always been a puzzle to me. Context appears to be ignored.

    An example is the apostle Peter in Acts 2 when he quotes Joel.
    First, he seems to quote quite loosely e.g. the male and female servants (OT); my male and female servants (NT) – why the switch from “the” to “my”? It seems to me that the possessive pronoun makes quite a difference.

    Second he seems to take it out of context. v27 in Joel reads “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame.”

    Can it be argued that the last condition has been achieved?

    As I say, it is a puzzle to me. Does the NT always quote the OT in context? Or is there another way of quoting scripture that I do not understand?


    • Thanks Peter, this is a big issue. There are a variety of theories of how the NT uses the OT. My view is that a lot of people too quickly decide that the NT isn’t using the OT in context and resort to another theory (such as the NT writers were inspired so could do what they want, or there is a deeper meaning that isn’t clear in the OT, etc.) Actually, I tend to find that with more study of the OT, and careful observation of the details in both testaments, things usually become clearer.

      In terms of Joel’s use in Acts 2 (it’s also alluded to or quoted in Matthew 24, Mark 13, Romans 10, Titus 3, etc. so it is a well used text)…I would need to look up the change from “the” to “my” (that could be an issue of how directly God is seen as the speaker in each case, or it could be that Peter was quoting from the Greek OT, the Septuagint as it tends to be called, rather than the Masoretic Hebrew text, or he could be paraphrasing slightly to fit his context more, etc. – a big part of making sense of the NT use of OT involves comparing the Hebrew and the Greek to figure out where the slight differences are coming from).

      There are quite a few elements of the end of Joel 2 (which is actually Joel 3 in the Hebrew text, but that is besides the point), that don’t fully fit in Acts 2. For example, just a few weeks before the sun had been darkened for three hours, but what about the moon turned to blood? At the point of Pentecost, Peter is preaching and explaining the phenomena (specifically the pouring out of the Spirit on “all flesh”) and says “this is that which Joel spoke of…” So the question is, does he mean this totally fills up Joel’s prophecy and it is fulfilled here? Or does he mean, this is part of the package in the sequence of Joel’s timeline (Joel gives a lot of sequential clues, a very clear eschatological map). I would lean toward the latter. There’s nothing in Acts 2 to say that what is described in Joel 2:28-32 won’t be more fully fulfilled in the future. All of that is described as being “before the day of the LORD”, with chapter 3’s events still to follow. So I don’t think the “never again be put to shame” has been fulfilled yet, but it will be.

      The sense that comes through in the early chapters of Acts is that the apostles expected the delay before the return of Christ to be very short. That would make sense in light of Joel and the pouring out of the spirit on all flesh, surely the rest of that section should be happening any week now? Turns out that there have been two millennia and we still haven’t completed that section or the subsequent events of chapter 3.

      Let’s not jump on the bandwagon of some ‘excuse’ for the NT use of OT, but rather let’s keep working at it because usually it turns out that the NT writers were actually using it very well, often in a sort of theme developed kind of way, or in a greater context awareness kind of approach. They were OT saturated Jewish background believers, so the problem tends to be on our end where we want an immediately obvious single verse in its immediate context kind of clarity.

      • Peter, I think the text supports your suggestion that Peter’s citation of Joel in Acts 2 is describing part of a package, with more to come. Verse 39 might fit with that, but certainly verses 33-35 teach that God has begun something which has more to come. The enemies are not yet fully subdued. If we carefully check the context of both the OT and NT, a lot of the “doubtful use” passages become a lot more clear.

        The God who gave us the Old Testament knew what He was going to say about it in the New when He gave the Old. The words He chose in the Old were designed to fit with the truths He was going to connect them to in the New. It would be a mistake to think that the Spirit, in giving the Word to NT writers, came to the OT and said, “Where’s an OT passage I can have Paul (or whoever) cite to make this point?” It is all joined up. Our God is an eternal and sovereign God, and knew the end from the beginning. But I’m starting to preach, so I’ll close. 🙂

    • Hi Peter, I have wrestled with the same question and over the course of preaching every week, which has only been six years, I have found that the authors do not wrench the OT out of its context when they use it. I would recommend a couple of books that might help you with this. D.A. Carson and G.K. Beale’s book “Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament” and another that has been very helpful especially in regard to Apostolic Preaching is Dennis Johnson’s book “Him We Proclaim.” There are many others but these were really helpful. Enjoy, Steve

  2. “.. a text without a context is a pretext ..”

    I find this statement is a pretext. It is quite often used in the context of a closed bible being used to hammer me over the head, rather than in the context of an open bible letting Gods love and grace and mercy flow out to me. “For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life”.

    Is there a simpler solution?

    … a solution that recognises that the NT writers were indeed using the OT very well.

    … a solution that does not involve God micromanaging the whole universe and every single subatomic particle in it nano-second by nano-second.

    … above all, a solution that does not involve me in reading an endless stream of books. I have just finished ‘Lit! A Christian guide to reading books’ some weeks after it was recommended, and am still struggling with ‘The Greatness of the Kingdom’ by Alva J McClain, recommended to me in 2009. I am a slow reader.

    … a solution that recognises that we do not have, and never will have before we die, the complete context for Joel, nor indeed for Peter’s sermon or the other uses of Joel in the NT. That is, we never have the full context for anything.

    I do not have that solution, but I suspect that it includes a context-less use of bible quotations:-
    1: I have just searched Biblegateway.com and find that the ESV does not use the word ‘context’. Indeed, it only appears in the Common English Bible and The Message. This proves nothing. But it is suggestive.
    2: I have read your Saturday blog – I get it delivered into my mail – and was touched by the words “Beauty exalts, but beauty also lulls” : I do not need to know who wrote this, when it was written, where it was written, who it was written for or that it was in the context of the use of the KJV, to gain great benefit from the statement. It can remain with me and instruct me. Forgive me, but I might even be tempted to say that it was ‘inspired’.
    3: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but have everlasting life.” How many well crafted sermons have been preached on this verse without any explanation of who Nicodemus was, that it was spoken in the dead of night to this well educated religious leader … Roman occupation … and all the other elements of the context? It seems that the verse can stand alone. (How few sermons have been preached on the next verse – few can even quote it? “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” John 3:17 is also part of the context for John 3:16.)

    …. and so on. Is there a place for some sort of context-less, theme based preaching.

    • Hi Peter McCallum,I can understand your hesitancy to read more books to tell you how to think. I have a friend that is wrestling with this same issue and I recommended the book by Dennis E. Johnson called “Him We Proclaim” and it really has helped both of us.
      What really led me to wrestle with this was when I preached through Matthew and began to see that Matthew as an OT believer, steeped in the Scriptures, was explaining to the Jews that this Jesus was really the Messiah, who was the fulfillment of the Davidic and Abrahamic Covenant and used the OT scriptures to show them. Matthew is the hinge point between Old and New and really introduces us to the message which is preached throughout the rest of the New Testament books including the book of Acts and Peter’s use of Joel.
      What I am saying is this, while I believe that Dennis Johnson’s book was very helpful both for myself and my friend, you would do well to start by studying the book of Matthew and see how he used ,the scriptures and as I went through it, I found that not once was the scripture taken out of context. So if you want to just use the Bible, I would start in Matthew. Then if you want to study an example of apostolic preaching I would really study the book of Hebrews which is an expositional sermon from an apostolic author and the most OT saturated sermons I have ever read. Those two book, while both difficult books, began to lead me to the position that I currently hold which is that never once have I found that the authors of the NT have taken the OT out of its context.
      I know that this is a very big issue and I would say that it is one of the most important issues we can wrestle with, as those who proclaim the word. Steve Scansen

    • Hi Peter. Is there a place for context-less preaching? I think so. If time and circumstances meant that preaching John 3:16 without reference to context was the best option, then I would do so. Is there a place for context-less preparation for preaching? Absolutely not. My job as a preacher is to understand what the text actually means, not to come up with a blessed thought with my own skill.

      I suppose it comes down to a couple of issues for me – do I trust God’s ability to communicate and do I desire to hear from Him? If the answer to both of these is strongly affirmative, then I will work hard to understand details in their context. I can take phrases and make something of them, as you suggest with the CS Lewis example, but why would I settle for my own limited ability to make something of a text when God made the text a very special something and made it possible for me to discover that meaning?

      I’m not sure what to say of your first point, but the absence of “context” in the ESV doesn’t strike me as being at all concerning. “Trinity” isn’t there either. But both are – the Bible presents the Trinity, and the NT writers demonstrate context awareness in their handling of the OT texts.

      Enough from me for now, but great stuff to be wrestling with. Peter

  3. Thank you, all.

    Nothing I have said above should be taken to mean that I think Jesus or his NT followers used the OT improperly. At present I just think he followed a different set of rules and whilst he was aware of context, as no one else was or is, did not make that the main determinant for his use of those ancient writings.

    I will try to obtain a copy of Carson’s book over the Christmas period or early in the New Year, and make a study of Matthew’s, Jesus’ and the writer to the Hebrews use of the OT. It should take me a couple of years.

    Bye for now.

    • PS:
      I now have a copy of Beale and Carson. Its 1200 plus pages … so my last comment should read – It should take me at least three years.

      As I am now heading toward “injury time” I have to add … DV.

      I note that “We do not review the ongoing debate between (a) those who argue the NT writers usually respect the entire context ,, “. This will make my reading more difficult; especially since they use “usually” rather than “always”. (p xxiii)

      I also note that they are all PhD., whereas I am a simple accountant / mathematician / information technologist. This slows me down quite a bit.


  4. Not aimed at anyone above, but my shy thought on the matter is that anyone who thinks he knows the context of an OT book better than any of the NT writers did, merely shows that he doesn’t know the context of the OT book. The NT use of the OT is God’s commentary on it. It’s okay, and honest, to be puzzled by it at times, but not to stand as critic of it.

  5. HI Peter McCallum, I am glad that you were able to obtain a copy of The New Testament Use of the Old Testament. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading that book straight through, but to read it as a help as you study the NT. I find that as I encounter the OT quotes as I preach through a text, that there are very helpful insights given, that allow me to understand how the authors of the NT, who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, used the passage within its context. I am not saying that everything that is said or written in Carson and Beale is inspired, just that as I press into the context further the Holy Spirit brings understanding to the NT authors use of those OT scriptures. We need to wrestle long and hard and pray for the Holy Spirit to illuminate our hearts and minds so that we can explain the text to our people. Understanding how the OT authors used the context has also helped me be a to know how to relate the passage in practical ways. I hope your get much joy in the journey. I know that there is great joy as I study and the Holy Spirit illuminates the Word of God. As Gordon said above, it is okay to be puzzled by the NT authors use of the OT, but what we need to do is to ask for the Holy Spirit to illuminate us.

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