Same Passage, Same People

Sometimes it becomes necessary to preach the same passage to the same people.  How do you handle that?

For instance, maybe you used a passage in a topical series, or on a special occasion, but then a later series is working through that Bible book and so you need to preach it again.  This happened to me this weekend.  The prayer of Acts 4:23-31 fit perfectly in our current Acts series.  But I preached it as a fitting New Testament conclusion to an Old Testament series on revival from 2 Chronicles less than two years ago.

So it may be the same passage, to the same people, but the series and the situation is different.  In fact, everything feels very different in 2020 than it did in 2018!  Here are four ways to handle this type of situation:

1. Same frame, different colouring. If your outline is a close representation of the passage, one approach is to use essentially the same outline, but adjust the illustrative details, the introduction, the conclusion, etc. (Yesterday my intro, conclusion, application and illustrations were all different to last time.)

2. Same frame, different emphasis. Another approach is to preach the same outline, but to shift the emphasis.  For example, the first time I preached the passage my emphasis was on the actual petition of the prayer – they asked for boldness.  This time my emphasis was on their view of God that led them to pray as they did.

3. Different outline.  It is possible to vary the outline of a message on a repeat passage and still be true to the text.  Effectively this is what I did yesterday.  In my first sermon I used three points to overview and present the content of the prayer relevantly to my hearers.  Yesterday I used a sequence of seven truths as they emerged from the prayer to preach the passage to a contemporary situation.  On this occasion the shift in emphasis naturally adjusted the outline (from their prayer for boldness, to their view of the God they were praying to), but I believe I preached the passage with an expository approach both times.

4. Same message, new context.  There may be occasions where it is appropriate to preach the same message with essentially the same emphasis, the same outline, and the same illustrative material to the same people.  However, this should not be done because the preacher didn’t do the work to prepare for this particular Sunday. Here are three quick thoughts about the same message being repeated to the same congregation:

A. A long time ago.  If it is years later, it can be interesting and helpful.  “On my first Sunday as pastor, twenty years ago today, I preached this message.  I was looking through my notes and decided to preach it again on this anniversary Sunday because the truth of this message is still so important for us all to hear…”  I can imagine that being appropriate and helpful. (Technically, this is very unlikely to be mostly the same people listening!)

B. A recent repetition. If it is a fairly recent repeat, then the preacher is essentially suggesting, implicitly, that the listeners need to hear it again, or maybe haven’t applied its message yet.  Again, you will need to be clear with the reasons for re-preaching your message.  Better they hear your motive than guessing it.

C. A secret repetition. Whatever the time lag, I would suggest not trying to sneak it past your listeners as a new message.  If it is essentially an old message, from old notes, then be honest about it.  You don’t want listeners feeling a weird sense of unidentifiable familiarity, nor do you want a keen listener to suspect you of pulpit foul play, nor do you want the discouragement of nobody having the slightest recollection of it!

Generally speaking, old notes do not equal a shortcut for this Sunday’s message.  A familiar text may require less exegetical work, but be sure that your listeners are getting fresh preaching because you have prepared your heart as well as your message, in anticipation of this Sunday!

The Heart of Jesus Christ for Me – Dane Ortlund

Last week I was delighted to interview Dane Ortlund about his wonderful new book, Gentle and Lowly (Crossway).  In this clip Dane speaks about the heart of Jesus toward us as we struggle in this life.  I am sure you will find Dane to be such an encouragement!

To see the full interview, which is well worth it, please sign up to the Cor Deo Online mailing list and we will give you access when it is released later this week.  Click here to sign up.

Judge Jesus

“Do not judge by appearances.”  Sound advice.  Sometimes people, books, and even foods can surprise you.  But actually that isn’t a pithy proverb promoting discernment in dating or a more investigative approach to shopping.  Jesus said it.  In fact, he said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”  And he said it about himself.

In John 7 we read about the Feast of Tabernacles, the third, and favourite, annual pilgrim feast of the Jews.  The chapter starts with Jesus’ non-believing half-brothers trying to goad him into taking the stage at Israel’s Got Talent and doing some of his miracles to announce himself where it mattered, at the heart of the nation.  He refuses to go to Jerusalem on their terms, but then goes up secretly.  The whole town is talking about him anyway, muttering and wondering if he’ll show.

He does.  In the middle of the Feast he heads into the temple area and starts teaching publicly.  A few verses later he urges everyone to judge him with right judgment (v24).  Let’s note four things that they, and we, should evaluate based on this first part of John 7:

1. Why does the world hate Jesus? In verse 7 Jesus tells his brothers that the world hates him.  In verse 19 he flags the fact that some are seeking to kill him.  We see that hatred all through John’s Gospel, and we still see it today.  Why is Jesus so despised by a world that claims values that Jesus could be seen to champion?  Our world celebrates its own compassion and its action on behalf of the oppressed and hurting – Jesus demonstrated compassion and took action for the sake of hungry crowds, foreigners facing dislike, vulnerable women and children, the lame, the deaf, and the blind.  Our world talks about inter-racial unity – Jesus made a despised Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous stories, fed a crowd of four thousand Gentiles when the disciples didn’t consider that a possibility, and so on.  Jesus could be the figurehead for so many of the values celebrated today, and yet he seems to be hated so easily.  Why is that?

2.  Did Jesus really speak a message from God? In verses 15-17 Jesus explains how he can speak with such learning despite never having studied.  He explains that his message is not his own, but the message of the one who sent him into the world.  Jesus speaks God’s very words?  That is an astonishing claim.  And yet for two thousand years, across every continent, in hundreds of languages and contexts, the words of Jesus have proven to be the key to the human heart.  While he is hated by many, there are also many who have found Jesus’ words to resonate so deeply that they must be uniquely representative of God.  With so many people, in so many places, so massively marked by Jesus, surely it is worth investigating the source of his message?

3. How can Jesus be so pure?  Inverse 18 Jesus claims to have no falsehood.  Again, this is a huge claim.  Every leader you know is flawed.  Every Christian leader you respect is far from perfect.  We know the impurity of humanity because we know the person in the mirror.  We are not as bad as some, but we are still so far from our own ideals, let alone God’s.  We all fall short, desperately short.  But Jesus – not in some later developed mythology, but in a context where his own half-siblings were skeptical and his enemies scrutinized everything about him – Jesus claimed to be without falsehood.  And a few months later, when it came to trial, they couldn’t find any accusations against him.  The Roman authority with no vested interest in Jesus repeatedly declared, “this man is innocent!”  The purity of Jesus is not just a lack of sin, but also a radiant presence of life.  Jesus is captivatingly attractive in his holiness.  What is going on there?

4. What is the significance of transformed lives? In verse 23 Jesus underlines the source of the antagonism that was still rumbling in the crowd: he had healed a man by the pool a few months earlier.  A transformed body walking around Jerusalem stirred the people and the authorities.  And that man wasn’t in any way spiritually responsive. Today we can meet hundreds of people whose lives have been transformed spiritually, personally, temperamentally, morally, etc. (None of us are made perfect, of course, but the change is often undeniable!)

Jesus is hated by the world, claims to speak a message from God, lived a life that was uniquely beyond every reproach, and continues to transform lives all over the world.

Whether you are investigating Christianity for the first time, or are a long-time follower of Jesus, these four questions are well worth pondering.  If Jesus is who he claims to be, and if that is only underlined by the eyewitness accounts of those close to him, the hatred of many, and the transformation of others, then he is worthy of all your faith, your worship, your love.

Sitting Alone

In John 6, Jesus appears to have a public relations disaster.  He starts the chapter with a huge crowd and an event that will become a favourite of children’s Bible story books – in fact, the only pre-passion narrative that makes it into all four Gospels.  But he ends the chapter with a question mark hanging over his core disciples and a poignant reference to one of the twelve being a devil.

How does it all go so “wrong” for Jesus?

The passage begins with a huge crowd gathering with Jesus and a reference to the forthcoming Passover feast.  He takes five barley loaves and two fish (a poor person’s food) and turns it into more than enough (a proper feast).  The response of the people seems to be on target.  They start asking if he is the Prophet anticipated in Deuteronomy 18, and they want to make him king.  From a human standpoint, it looks to be a successful operation at this point.

Overnight Jesus sends the disciples on ahead and takes a creative shortcut across the lake, ready for the morning crowds.  The morning crowds are yesterday’s crowd, plus some others from Tiberias, and they come looking for something.  Jesus cuts through the hype and identifies what they want – another free lunch.  But this is insulting to Jesus, who actually came to give eternal life.  How often do we petition Christ for the petty things, while ignoring the far greater gifts that he wants to give us?  It is certainly not wrong to pray about the little stuff, for he does care for everything, but when we only care for short-lived comforts, while ignoring his greater giving goals, then we insult him.

Along the way Jesus critiques the Jewish idea that Moses had given them the miracle bread from heaven, when in fact it was the Father.  Then, instead of making himself the new Moses that they referred to in verse 14, Jesus makes himself the bread from heaven, sent to save and sustain the people.  He will turn none away, will give them true life, and will raise them up on the last day – a past, present, and future package of assurance from God. (See vv35-40, for instance.)

This only makes the Jews grumble about him.  How can he be the bread?  They wonder if he is talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  Rather than backing away from the physicality of this misunderstanding, instead Jesus goes along with the language of eating and drinking.  (Remember how people have already misunderstood the temple language in chapter 2, the new birth language in chapter 3, and the living water and food language of chapter 4.)

I suspect Jesus wasn’t expecting to be understood in reference to the later ordinance of the Christian church – communion, Lord’s Supper, or whatever your church calls it.  Rather, I think he may well have been thinking of the Passover meal.  The people were expected to eat all the flesh of the lamb, as well as drink all the “blood of the grapes.”  It was a special meal, an “eat-it-all-because-we-are-leaving-in-a-hurry” type of feast.  It celebrated the Passover lamb, provided to rescue the people and let them live in the face of all that was happening in Egypt that night.

Jesus could have been misunderstood as speaking of flesh eating and blood drinking, but I suspect that was not the issue.  Actually, what he meant was also insanely challenging.  Just as God had provided a way for the people to live through the Passover back in Egypt, so now there was a new Passover coming.  This new Passover was for eternal life.  The provision was costly and there was an implicit demand in the meal.  Jesus was effectively saying, “It is all about me, I am giving everything for you…make me your everything.”

Jesus was the whole lamb, the drink, everything.  At the next Passover he would make it clear that his body was being given and his blood was to be shed.  What was most offensive to human sensibilities was not the potential misunderstanding of eating flesh and drinking blood, but instead the absolute nature of Jesus’ offering and implicit demand.  He gave everything, so make him everything.

We humans are not fans of such absolute expectations.  We’d rather blend our options.  The crowds certainly felt uncomfortable and quickly dispersed.  The popular vote was lost in a day.  Maybe ten to twenty thousand people left and just twelve remained.  Jesus spoke truth and they didn’t like it.  He turned to the twelve.  “What about you?  Want to go too?”

Peter’s response is reflective of our situation too.  We have been drawn to a place of belief.  We are blessed not only by knowing Jesus, but also by knowing there is no alternative!  “To whom shall we go?”  Peter’s response is spot on.  “You have the words of eternal life.”  He certainly does.  But those words are not popular.

We live in a world where people live in fear of saying something that will receive the backlash of irrational intolerance and hatred.  To stand for truth is as unpopular as it has ever been, and there is no longer a Christian-worldview majority ready to affirm and support us in these times.  Instead it feels like everyone is fleeing the scene and chasing empty alternatives.  Will we leave him too?  To put it bluntly, where would we go?  This world has no viable alternatives to Christ.

And so we sit, almost alone, before Jesus.  Do we want to follow the crowds and reject Christ and the God he came to reveal?  It would certainly feel easier to follow the population, for the popular vote is never with God.  But honestly, we would do well to follow Peter’s pathway here… “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus gave everything for us to have eternal life.  Will we make him everything and follow him, even if nobody else will?

How Does Preaching Change Lives? – Jonathan Thomas

Here is a great little three minute clip from Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  Click here for the clip.

To see the full interview, which is well worth it, please sign up to the Cor Deo Online mailing list and we will give you access when it is released later this week.  Click here to sign up.

Thank you to Jonathan for the interview for Cor Deo Online – it has proved to be a very helpful series of clips for this site too!

A Purposeful and Proactive Pursuit

At first glance, John 5:1-18 looks like any other healing narrative in the Gospels.  Someone gets healed by Jesus, it’s a miracle, and the authorities aren’t happy.  But in John’s Gospel the writer is more sparing in his choice of healing stories – one child, one invalid, one blind man, and one dead man.  So maybe the story in John 5 is intended to highlight more for us readers than “just another healing”.

John chapter 5 is a strategically placed narrative in the flow of the book as a whole.    But then comes chapter 5 and an incident that seems to spark tensions that will rumble through the next chapters, and the next twelve months, right up to the Passion Week when Jesus died.

In other healing stories we see desperate people crying out to get Jesus’ attention, or going to great lengths to get close to him.  But in John 5 we see Jesus making all the moves.  He initiates a healing with someone who doesn’t know who he is.  And from a human perspective, the response he gets is not great.  This wasn’t a situation where Jesus chose a person he knew would respond well to him!

Notice the three moves that Jesus makes in this story, because he still makes those moves today:

1. Jesus initiates meeting the need of a hurting and broken man.  In verses 6-8 Jesus approaches the man and asks if he would like to be healed. As soon as the man has given his excuses for not being healed, Jesus simply tells him to get up, take up his bed, and walk.

2. Jesus initiates confronting the man over his deeper issue.  The man is accused of breaking the Sabbath in verses 9-13, but he doesn’t know who it was that healed him. (Don’t miss the delight of the authorities at the blessing of the miracle that had taken place!  Actually, we are so used to their reaction that it doesn’t register with us anymore, but it should!)  Then, in verse 14, Jesus finds the man and confronts him over his sin.  We don’t know whether this is referring to lifelong sin, general sin, specific sin, or even the sin he was contemplating, but nevertheless, Jesus knows that he needs more than functioning legs.

Sadly, the man immediately rushes off to tell the authorities that Jesus is the man they should be arresting.  Which sets up the third and most startling moment of initiative from Jesus:

3. Jesus initiates proceedings that will lead to the solution for sin: his own death.  The authorities are upset with Jesus for inciting others to break the Sabbath, but Jesus dies not want to deal with that “lesser charge” – so he just ramps it up to the highest crime possible.  He makes himself equal with God.  What had started as a small misdemeanor, from the perspective of the authorities, is now a full capital crime.  And Jesus is the one who made sure it got to that level.  This was no mistake.  He knew what he was doing.

The tension created in this story rumbles on through the coming chapters and months right up to chapter 12, when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for that first Easter week.

So this story at the start of John 5 is significant in the flow of John.  But is it significant in the flow of our lives today?  It should be, absolutely.

Jesus still takes the initiative, far more than we tend to realise.  How often is he kind to us in ways we have not asked for, or even before we knew him?  Jesus knows what it is to be human in this hurt and broken world, and he is very proactive in initiating acts of grace in our lives.  Sadly, just like the man in John 5, we are also often slow to respond (although hopefully, unlike what we know of the healed man, we have responded to Jesus with faith!)

Jesus still takes the initiative in seeking us out to flag the issues of sin that lie deep within us.  He knows that functioning legs are not enough.  Nor is a healthier financial situation, a fixed family relationship, or whatever other kindness he shows.  He knows us.  He knows our sin.  And he knows how to put his finger on that sin issue to help us move closer to what we should be.  While we may have resisted his pursuit before we were saved, let’s never resist his initiative now that we are his.

Jesus would still take the initiative to instigate his own death – he  loves us that much.  But he doesn’t need to do that.  His death stands as an accomplished, eternity-changing, heart-revolutionizing reality for us to respond to.

He shows kindness to us, he probes deeper to deal with our real issues, and he was willing to die to take care of those deepest issues.  John 5 underlines to us that Jesus is not passive, nor reactive.  He is proactive, initiating time and again in our lives for our good.  Let’s be those who are alert to his initiative, and who are responsive to what he wants to do in our lives today.

Feeling Flat?

When the Covid-19 crisis rolled across Europe in March, everything changed.  Maybe you found the experience overwhelming, or challenging, or perhaps even invigorating.  Somehow, when crisis hits and our adrenaline surges, we tend to lean on the Lord and find ways through the situation.  But after adrenaline there is always a settling period, when it is the most normal thing in the world to feel emotionally flat.  Maybe by now you have arrived there too?

Two Types of Feeling Flat

When we feel flat we tend to have lowered motivation and energy.  We may be doing less, but somehow feeling more tired.  We feel a loss of creativity and initiative.  Flatness is not a new feeling, but having so many of us experience it at the same time is slightly unusual.

“I’m feeling flat” is something I’ve heard a lot recently.  But there is another type of flatness that is perhaps more concerning.  It is the unconscious flatness that we don’t tend to recognize in ourselves – we don’t spot it in the mirror.

Unconscious flatness could be called spiritual coasting.  Coasting is where you disengage the motor of the car you are driving and allow past momentum and present circumstances to roll the car forwards.  This kind of driving is dangerous.  It changes the braking and steering in the car, but perhaps most concerning is that it can give a false sense of security.  After all, the engine noise reduces and the car keeps moving forwards.

We need to respond when we are feeling flat, especially when we become aware of this unconscious flatness, or spiritual coasting.

Responding to Feeling Flat

The typical human response to feeling flat will not be spiritually healthy.  We may default to distraction, to self-recrimination, or to laziness.  That is, we can fill the void with busy work, new pursuits, or entertainment.  We can beat ourselves up with the “I need to try harder!” kind of self-coaching.  Or we can settle into our flat state and get comfortable.  Typical human responses will tend to be self-oriented and spiritually unhealthy.

What should we do when we understandably feel flat or discover we have drifted into a state of flatness?  Our emotions are great indicators of deeper realities in our hearts, and they should be prompts to connect relationally – with others, and with God.

When we feel flat, we tend to pull back from others.  Living through a pandemic only reinforces that possibility – it is a government-mandated withdrawal!  But spiritually we need to connect and fellowship with our brothers and sisters in whatever way we can (even if that means using Zoom!)

Most of all, we need to re-connect with Christ.  We need to spend time with Him, because only Christ can invigorate our hearts and stir life in us.  And yet our default fleshly response will be to pull in the opposite direction.

Let me share one thing about Christ that may encourage you to bring your tired and emotionally flat heart to Him in these days.  I want to point to two passages and focus particularly on what they teach about how Christ cares for the weak and vulnerable.  Does going to Christ mean accessing the ultimate personal trainer who can shout the loudest?  Not at all.

Motivation for Connection

Isaiah 42:1-4 is the first of Isaiah’s famous “Servant songs.”  At first glance it could look intimidating.  After all, three times it declares that this servant of the LORD will establish justice on the earth.  Surely one who is tough on crime will be overwhelmingly powerful and intimidating?  But not so.  Verse 2 tells us that he is not full of himself, nor does he demand everyone’s attention.  And verse 3 describes his way of dealing with the weak:

                         “a bruised reed he will not break,

                                         And a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”

That is the kind of God that motivates me to lift a bruised and tired heart up toward him.  Feeling flat?  Connect with the only one who can be fully trusted with your heart.

That truth is painted in narrative colour in John 21.  The adrenaline of the first Easter has faded and seven of the disciples are back in Galilee, heading out to fish for the night.  Whatever their motivation, I am sure that part of the issue was that they felt flat.  Read the chapter and watch Jesus care for them.  He could have criticized, shouted, corrected, berated, or chastised them.  He didn’t.

Instead, Jesus gently reminds them of their calling to ministry by miraculously filling their nets with fish, again.  He gently reminds them that he will continue to provide for them by lovingly preparing a barbecued breakfast, a God-given meal of fish and bread, again.  He gently re-established Peter’s position within the group by re-affirming his shepherding role.  In this chapter he reminds them of their calling to evangelism and edification ministries, he reminds them of his ability to continue to provide for them, and he even grants Peter his desire to die for Jesus – only this time with a 30+ year warning.  The content of his teaching is powerful and challenging, but his manner is gentle and tender.

This is the kind of God that can motivate us to lift our flattened hearts up toward him.  Dare to connect with the only one who can be fully trusted with your heart.

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I have recently been adding highlights from John’s Gospel to my YouTube channel: