5 Ways to be a Good Bible City Tour Guide

TourGuide2When you move to a new city it can be very overwhelming.  I remember moving to South London back in the days before my phone knew how to get me to my destination.  I had a huge book of street maps on the passenger seat and I gradually learned to navigate between key landmarks.  I would have loved a tour guide sitting there instead – as long as it was a good tour guide.

I would not have appreciated hearing meticulous details about the front of several houses in an obscure cul-de-sac.  “Turn right into Downing Close.  Pull over behind the white care.  Notice how houses 3, 5, and 7 all have a black gate, but different colour front doors?  Isn’t it intriguing to note how number 5 in particular does a good job keeping the side hedge trimmed and the roses look pretty good too?”

That kind of detail, presented with a dull lack of enthusiasm, would have quickly pushed me back to trusting in my book of maps.

What makes a good tour guide?  And what has this got to do with preaching?

We live in a time when very few people grow up with a good level of biblical awareness. Consequently our churches have a growing population of people who find themselves lost when they open the pages of the Bible.  They need help, and the preacher might be their main “tour guide” to help them get around.

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1. Preacher Bible Guides should believe that their listeners need to journey in the Bible for themselves during the week – a sermon on a Sunday is not enough Bible for anyone.  We must realize how much people need to be in the Word when we aren’t there to preach it to them.

2. A good tour guide knows the big picture and the key landmarks.  It is not enough to know your way around a few key streets, you need to know how the whole fits together and what the significant landmarks are.  In Bible terms this means you need to know the big story, and understand the key landmarks: can you tell the Bible story by key characters (Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Paul), or by key covenants (Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic, New), or by key events (creation, exodus, exile, cross, second coming), etc?

3. A good tour guide knows fascinating details that help to make sense of, and add colour to, the big picture.  It is important to be able to slow down and help someone see the significance of what is happening in a particular passage of Scripture, but not as a cul-de-sac in isolation.  The best tour guides can point to a detail, tell the story, and make the big picture make more sense.

4. A good tour guide knows when to go to a big landmark and when to go to a little detail.  The same is true for the preacher.  Learn how and when to give a sense of the whole, as well as how and when to make much of a detail.  You need to be able to do both, and you need to learn when to do each one.

5. A good tour guide genuinely loves the city.  Nothing worse than good knowledge offered dispassionately as if it actually doesn’t matter.  A good tour guide will help you fall more and more in love with the city and its story and its people and its charms.  How much more is this true for a Bible City Tour Guide?

Believe that your listeners should be discovering more for themselves all week long in Bible city.  Know the big picture and key landmarks, as well as the fascinating details that bring the big story to life, and know when to offer big picture or little detail.  Love the Bible city and the God revealed there.  Put that all together and you are the kind of Bible City Tour Guide that people in our churches are crying out for…

The Story of 3 Great Unions

Union with Christ is becoming a fashionable term in church world.  Some are recognizing the significance of the term, seeing it as the framework in which all of salvation theology makes sense.  Others are using it because others are using it.

Yet the term is used in a variety of ways.  Some will speak of an ecstatic union where the human soul ascends into some sort of beyond revelation intersection with an unspeaking God.  Others will use union with Christ as a label for the legal position achieved by the atonement wherein the sinful soul is counted free and just through association with Christ.  Still others will speak of a true union where the believer is truly united by the Holy Spirit to Christ in a marital relationship.

While the term may be used in these three different ways with varying levels of merit, there are actually three unions we should ponder biblically:

1. The union of God with God. The Bible gives us a glorious glimpse into the Trinity, the perfect union of Father and Son by the Spirit that overflows in creation. When the Fall follows we naturally ask what will this God do?

(The Promise – This God promises to defeat sin and death, to send a deliverer who is the Son, and ultimately to achieve a marriage-like connection with humanity.)

2. The union of God and man in Jesus.  God sending His Son is the great hinge of history. The Son of God remained fully God, while becoming fully man.  This perfect union of God and man in the person of Jesus means that he is fully God, fully man, fully one, forever.  In this person we see humanity rescued and drawn to God at the cross of Calvary.

(The Promise fulfilled – God said He would deal with sin and death, and He did.  So now we can experience the first phase of the fulfillment plan:)

3. The union of God and man in the Spirit. The Son of God didn’t just become one of us to die for us, He also became one of us to enable us to be united to Him in a spiritual marriage.  Now we can taste something of the wonder of being made one Spirit by the Spirit – one with Christ.  One day this spiritual marriage will be consummated at the end of human history!

When we preach, let’s not fall into a mere status presentation of the Gospel, nor a hypothetical ideal version of ecstatic union with God.  Instead let’s keep front and centre this glorious progress of three unions that tell the wonderful story of God’s great plan.


WEST-Union-SliderSince this post made much of the theological theme of Union with Christ, I thought I’d take the opportunity to push your attention towards the growing resources available at Union.  Please be sure to take a look at UnionTheology.org for some great resources, as well as Union School of Theology if you are considering pursuing further education.

The Pathway to Spiritual Maturity

Pathway2The epistle of James is a remarkable document. He was the skeptical half-brother of Jesus who became a key leader in the church in Jerusalem. While Jesus was going through his season of public ministry, James thought he was mad. Then we discover that the risen Christ “appeared to James” (1Cor.15:7). Resurrection from the dead was enough to convince and transform skeptical James. He became a passionate follower of Christ and a leader who longed to see all who called themselves Christian living sold out lives for God.

The first chapter of his epistle starts as he means to go on. He gets right into the nitty gritty of life, but he does not want to simply offer pragmatic instructions.  James’ great concern was spiritual maturity. He wanted his readers to live fully for God.

So he launches into the issue of the various kinds of trials we face in life.  James sees trials as inevitable – for he does not write, “if you face trials,” but “when you face trials.”  James sees trials as painful – for otherwise why would he tell the reader to “count it joy when you face trials.”  The kind of processing resulting in a bottom line evaluation that this is a joyful thing is not an automatic response to suffering.  But James also sees trials as purposeful and fruitful.  Trials lead to steadfastness, which in turn brings about maturity.

That is a great promise, but how can we “count it all joy?”  How do we get there?  After all, most of us naturally will “count it all misery” when we suffer.  How can we get the perspective that James’ is advocating, and thus how can we move toward maturity?

First James counsels the reader to ask God for the perspective, or the wisdom, that is needed in times of trial (see vv5-11).  God is a loving father who loves to give good gifts, including the trials that mature us, so we need only ask.  Actually James really is at pains to underline the importance of pursuing 100% God’s perspective in these times.  Our natural approach will be to make sense of our trials from our own perspective, or with worldly wisdom.  Our natural approach will be to blame our lack of resources, or rely on our own resources to face the things that we have to face.  But James wants his readers to go 100% for God’s perspective.

God wants to give perspective to us in times of trial, and also hope to help us remain steadfast in the midst of it all (see v12).  But don’t miss where he goes next, for this is not describing some kind of Christian fatalism.  Yes God gives good gifts, including ones that feel negative, but God never gives us temptation.  I am more than capable of generating enough of that from my own heart, but it is a comfort to know that God has never once tried to get me to sin.

He gives good gifts like a Father loves to give his children good food.  He gives good gifts like a father loves his child and therefore gives the nasty tasting cough medicine when it is needed.  He gives good gifts – tasty food, nasty medicine, but never poison.  God is consistently and persistently a loving Father, so we should look to Him for perspective and hope in the midst of trials.

But when we ask for God’s wisdom in the midst of our trials, how do we hear from Him?  The end of the chapter shifts from vv19-25 to address the role of the Bible in our journey toward spiritual maturity.

He seems to begin with some slightly random relational wisdom – be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.  Maybe you have worked or lived with someone who is slow to listen, quick to speak and quick to become angry.  It is very difficult.  Maybe you are that person around others? Know that this is a description of natural humanity, or what we are like in our spiritual immaturity.  James is not giving random relational insights, he is addressing the issue of our response to God’s word.  Verses 20-21 make it clear that he is addressing our natural default response of self-protective anger when confronted or challenged by God’s word.

Instead of flaring up in anger when God’s word challenges us, let us instead receive the implanted word of God with meekness or humility.  Notice two things here:

First, the word is “implanted” – which refers to it not being acquired, but natural. James is speaking of salvation and how the Spirit of God plants within us the word of God, through which we are saved. That means that we are now heart-level Bible people . . . we don’t instantly know everything, but we now have a heart-level resonance with the Scriptures. We start to find them beautifully attractive, and personally relevant. The Bible is not just an object to be studied, but a means to an encounter with God to be enjoyed and experienced.

Second, notice the attitude with which we are to receive this implanted word – with meekness.  This is a humility that is not defensive, not self-protective, not angrily resistant, but instead humbly receptive to how God wants to put His finger on issues in our life.

James goes on to describe a further aspect of truly receiving God’s word.  We are also to put into practice what is shown to us as we look intently into the Bible. This is the living word of God that will pinpoint issues in us that God invites us to responsively address.  James wants “doers who act” in response to the Bible. Notice two things in verse 25 that are really important as we mature spiritually.

First, he advocates a persevering approach to gazing into the word of God.  Like a man looking in a mirror, we won’t easily or naturally see ourselves clearly. Instead our inclination will be to see what we want to see in the mirror of the word.  But James wants the readers to really look intently and to get a clear sense of God’s perspective on us.  Seeing ourselves clearly in the mirror of the word of God is vital, but it is not enough.  In fact, to miss James’ point here and focus on ourselves would be dangerous.

Second, notice his reference to the “perfect law” which he calls the “law of liberty.”  This is not just a reference to the standard of God’s written word.  It is, I believe, a reference to the fulfilled law that we find after Christ came – a law no longer written on tablets of stone, but now etched into our newly living hearts, indwelt by the Spirit and characterized by intimacy with God.  It’s not that we must simply receive the word with humility and respond to it.  No, we go into our Bibles for more than information and self-diagnosis, we are to receive the word with humility and respond to Him.

The pathway to spiritual maturity is littered with trials – little ones like losing our keys, and big ones like losing a loved one.  How are we to engage with these trials?  By engaging fully with God.  We should ask Him for wisdom, relying solely on His character and goodness, not simply mixing that in with our self-protective narratives and self-reliant resources.  We ask Him for wisdom, and look to the Bible to hear his answer.

How easily we can make this passage a pragmatic set of suggestions, but really it is an invitation to a sold out, all for Jesus, God and God alone, fully-His relationship.  May we be leaders that seek God’s perspective alone in the trials of life.  May we be those who persevere in His word so that we hear from Him, and act on what He shows us.  Maybe then our lives and ministries will be reflective of His character as James summarizes at the end of the chapter – concern for God’s values and care for others, a genuinely Christlike maturity.

Life Now

Life2We can easily make the Martha mistake.  I don’t mean the Martha in the kitchen mistake though.  At the end of Luke 10 we see Martha graciously rebuked by Jesus for desperately trying to love her neighbor as her first priority, when she should have first loved the Lord and allowed Him to minister to her before she tried to minister to others.  We easily and maybe regularly make that Martha mistake, but I am not referring to that.

We can easily make the Martha in the street mistake.  In John 11 we see Jesus at a key point in his ministry coming to Bethany where Lazarus was ill and then died.  Martha runs to Jesus and expresses her grief, that if Jesus had been there, then Lazarus would not have died.  Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. But now Lazarus was dead and buried, Jesus was too late, and Martha understandably made a mistake.  What was it?

Jesus told Martha that Lazarus would rise again. What do you say to a grieving sister?  Maybe this was just one of those platitudes that we hear at Christian funerals.  Comfort, but distant.  Martha took it that way.  She assumed that Jesus comes to us and points off into the distant future – comfort for the by and by.  She was mistaken.

When Jesus told Martha that “I am the resurrection and the life,” he was not just referring to the far off future.  What she didn’t know was that this person stood before her was about to reinforce the Jerusalem leadership’s decision to kill him.  What she didn’t know was that this person stood before her was soon to enter into death deliberately and with dignity.  And what she didn’t know was that in a few weeks this person stood before her would stand up and walk out of his own tomb as the conqueror of death.

If Martha could have seen the next few weeks, then she might have anticipated more in the next few minutes.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and Lazarus was about to be miraculously resuscitated after four days of stone cold death.

We can easily make the Martha mistake.  We can assume that Jesus comes to us in the tough times of life and ministry in order to point our hearts into the future – that far off time when we will be with him and all the tears will be wiped and the presence of sin dusted away and we will forever enjoy what we were made for, fellowship with the Trinity.  This is all true.  But this is not all.

Jesus comes to us in the midst of hurt, and sorrow, and challenge, and struggle, and betrayal, and fatigue, and tears . . . and he comes to give us life now.

Too many gospel presentations offer only a ticket to heaven when you die. And too many Christians are walking around with hope of comfort tied exclusively to that end of life anticipation.  Jesus is the kind of Savior who comes to us, by his Spirit, in the midst of the mess we experience.  Jesus is the kind of Savior who gives us life now.

Martha misunderstood the physical implications of Jesus meeting her that day.  We can misunderstand the spiritual implication of Jesus meeting us today.

As conqueror of death and Lord of life, what is it that Jesus offers us today as his beloved friends and family?  He offers us hope for the future and a new standing with God, of course.  But never let the good news diminish into a merely status-based future hope.  Jesus offers us the loving intimacy of the Trinity by the Spirit poured out into our hearts reassuring us of God’s love, urging us to call God our Abba.  Jesus offers us eternal life now, which is to enjoy fellowship with God our Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.  Jesus offers us transformed hearts, filled hearts, tenderly loved hearts.  Jesus offers us his presence, his comfort, his concern and his companionship.  Jesus offers us life, now.

I thank God for Martha.  Her mistake in the kitchen in Luke 10 is a mistake I make all the time.  Jesus’ gentle rebuke of Martha resonates deeply as a loving rebuke for me.  And her mistake in the street at Bethany in John 11 is a mistake I make all the time.  I too tend to live my life as if Jesus’ presence is nice today, but the difference Jesus offers lies off in the distant future.  Jesus lovingly corrected Martha’s grieving error by giving her the embrace of her brother that day.  Jesus lovingly wants to correct our similar error by giving us his embrace, today.  That is life, eternal life.  It is not only life forever then.  It is, in the midst of all the mess I experience, life now.

Legalism and Preaching – part 3

Legalism2Legalism is not only possible for Christians, it is likely.  The default leaning of our flesh is toward autonomy. That autonomy can manifest in overt rebellion (antinomianism) or in self-righteous religiosity (legalism), but both are manifestations of a separation of God’s Law from God Himself.

You probably see the label “antinomian” being used. It is a serious charge. It suggests that someone is anti-law and therefore, by implication, pro-sin. It tends to be used of those who don’t elevate the Law as much as they apparently should. Undoubtedly there are some antinomians who are genuinely pro-sin, but I haven’t met many. I have met a lot who might be labeled “antinomians” who do not see the Law as the solution to the profound reality of sin, and who, incidentally, live lives characterized by greater integrity and with more fruit of the Spirit evident than some who like to criticize them.

As preachers we need to wrestle with these issues. We stand and speak not only of how to be saved, but also about living the Christian life. For many those are two separate messages. We are saved by grace, they say, but we live the Christian life by determined obedience to the Law.  Somehow this two-part message should feel very awkward for us.

We need to devour our Bibles and get a sense not only of the instructions in there, but also the source of those instructions.  Jesus seemed to suggest that His way would mean a greater and a deeper holiness, one that would surpass that of the fastidious Pharisees.  Yet we tend to think of the Old Testament folks as having a far more demanding legal code than we could cope with. Are we missing something?  Should we demand more strongly that our listeners keep more laws?  Or is there something implicit in the New Covenant that Jesus instituted that leads to a greater awareness of sin, and a greater victory over it?

The New Testament is clear that this life will be a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit, so perfection is unrealistic.  But is there something in the New Covenant that means we can keep in step with the Spirit, that we can delight to please our God, that we can live lives of greater moral integrity out of a heart-stirred delight rather than through external pressure?

Let’s beware of an inadequate understanding of sin and a wholly inadequate approach to living lives that please God – for that is what legalism is: weak on the problem and a flimsy solution to it.

Perhaps it would do us preachers good to take a book like Galatians and read it through again and again. If we bring with us the question of what does it look like to live the Christian life, what is sin and what is the solution for the believer?, then these questions might gradually open up Paul’s teaching there and bring new life to our ministry. It cannot hurt. Twenty, thirty, fifty times through Galatians would help us all.  Shall we?

Legalism and Preaching – part 2

Legalism2I remember the look on his face. An elder in a church genuinely believed what he said, “we may have problems here, but legalism is not one of them. We certainly don’t have legalism here.”  I couldn’t believe it. You could smell the legalism before you entered the door.

Why do we feel immune? I suspect it is because we excessively overlap our legalism definition with the idea of works-salvation.  It is not just about seeking salvation through obedience. Legalism is also about seeking God’s ongoing favour through obedience. It is about trying to perform in order to stay loved, as well as to get loved.

But why do Christians slide into legalism?  In Paul’s writings he sets out the fight between our flesh and the Spirit.  As Christians we have the Spirit of God united with our spirit, and so we long to please Him. At the same time we are still in the flesh with all its pre-programmed rebellion against God’s good rule in our lives. So we feel a tension within. But to avoid legalism we have to make sure we understand what it means to live in the flesh.

Too easily we can view “fleshly living” as the pursuit of licentious decadence, the kind of wild and lust-charged living we see in certain places and on certain TV shows.  But if we think the flesh is just about wild living, then we are set up for the trap of legalism.  Why? Because we feel safe if we don’t live like “those people,” if we can resist the urge to let loose and do crazy things, then we are obviously living in accordance with the Spirit.  Or are we?

The flesh is defined primarily not by a certain lifestyle, but by an orientation. The flesh is all about me.  It is about autonomy. It is about living my way in my strength.  And that is where we can be sucked into a very fleshly lifestyle that looks very holy.  In my strength, in my own autonomy, I can be a “good” person. I can attend church, avoid unacceptable sins, dress well and look holy.  Instead of living a wild and extravagant overt rebellion, I can live a hidden and self-sufficient religious rebellion.  I can be entirely fleshly, and look very very Christian.

Once we recognize that the core issue in the flesh is not licentiousness, but autonomy, we can start to avoid the legalism trap.  Galatians 2:20-3:3 can start to make sense to us.

Sinclair Ferguson makes the helpful point that both legalism and licentiousness are related in this way: they separate God’s Law from God Himself. Thus they both reveal the human tendency to prefer autonomy. Rather than dealing with God Himself, we can keep God at arm’s length and live in essential separation from Him, precisely by looking to a disconnected Law and give it our self-concerned obedience.

Legalism is not only possible for Christians, it is the default of our flesh in one form or another. Let’s pray for God to sensitize us to the subtle slide to legalism that stirs within all of us.  It’s a slide away from Him and back towards self.

Preaching Christ Reveals the Father

crucifix2Too much preaching presents a false division between Father and Son.  That is, the Father can sound like an angry and distant despot who is grudgingly appeased by the Son’s sacrifice on behalf of sinners.  That is exactly wrong.

Jesus came not only to fulfil the mission of sacrifice, but also to fulfil the mission of revelation. If you have seen Jesus then you have seen the Father.  What does that mean? It means that Jesus died on the cross in our place in total humiliation because that is the heart of the Father for us. It means that in Christ we come to the Father as loved as the Son, not tolerated because of the Son. It means that the Father Himself loves us and hears our prayers.

Let’s not fall into the confusion of negative Father and friendly Son. Jesus reveals the Father to us, His humility, His love, His selflessness.