Our Bible Experience

Maybe your new year Bible resolutions have already started to fade?  What we really need this year is not a renewed habit.  What we really need is to unleash God’s Word into our lives and experience all that God wants to do in us.

If our experience of interacting with God in our Bible times is going to really count for anything, then it has to be in the context of real-life struggles that the Bible has something to offer us.

Psalm 143 is a great passage to ponder as we think about our Bible experience this year.  It starts where life is at its toughest, then goes on to describe David’s experience in such an illuminating way for us.  Actually, Psalm 143 is not one of those passages that speaks directly about the Scriptures.  What it does is speak of David’s experience, which can also be our experience as we engage with God through the Scriptures.

In the first four verses David is crying out for God to answer his prayer, but to do so in faithfulness and mercy.  He doesn’t want God to be acting as judge, otherwise he, like all of us, would be in real trouble.  David is troubled by his own sin, and also by opposition from the enemy (see v3).  Verse 4 describes a wiped out David – a man with nothing left to give.  Sometimes that is where we find ourselves: either through our own sin, or the opposition of the enemy, we feel like we have had the stuffing knocked out of us and our spirit faints within.  David writes that his heart is devastated, or laid bare.  He feels like he has nothing left to give.

And so what do we do when life hits us like that?  Where do we turn?  Do we look within, or turn to a philosophy, or throw ourselves into a career or hobby, or perhaps just numb the pain with a substance?  The world really has nothing to offer us.  Of course, as we all know, we should turn to God.  And so from verse 5 David’s experience is described in such a way that it can reflect what our experience could be as we engage with God through the Bible.

I want to share five things that unleashing God’s Word into our lives might bring this year.  Before I do, a comment about Bible character envy.  Perhaps you struggle with this envy at times.  It goes like this: if I had David’s experience of defeating Goliath, or heard God’s voice on the mountain as Moses did, or met with the LORD as Abram did, then I would not struggle in my spiritual life today.  Really?

Perhaps we could reverse the situation.  Imagine we could travel through time and organise a conference for all the Bible characters to attend.  Imagine we could tell them that after their time, in the future the Messiah would come, and then his followers would write more books, and then all the books from the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and the apostles, would all be gathered together and freely available in many languages. I suspect that would be a room full of Patriarchs and Kings and Prophets who would be jealous of us!

So what does unleashing the Bible into our lives offer us?

1. We are rooted in the reality of God’s greater story. In verse 5, David speaks of memory, meditation and musing on God’s past activity.  He had his own story, and he had the stories passed down from his ancestors.  And as we read our Bibles we will be lifted out of the one square metre of our own experience and struggles.  We will be reminded that we are part of a much bigger story that stretches across all centuries and all continents, from eternity past to eternity future, a story that is being written by God himself.  We need that because life has a habit of sucking us into the vortex of our own struggles.

2. We are reminded that our greatest need is God. In verse 6, David describes his awareness of his own great need.  His soul was like a parched land desperately thirsty for God.  Even in our greatest struggles, we have an innate ability to assume we are just being unlucky.  If God would just give us that promotion, or a lucky lottery ticket, or a perfect spouse, or a new spouse, or a new job, or whatever … if we could just get a fair set of circumstances then we would be able to succeed in life.  Really?  When we spend time in God’s Word we are reminded that actually what we need is not financial or circumstantial, it is profoundly spiritual.  We need God.  Desperately.

3. Our responsiveness to God is stirred by His steadfast love. In the beginning of verse 8 David refers to God’s steadfast love – perhaps the key theme of the Old Testament.  You can find references to this proactive, selfless, loyal love on page after page of the Psalms.  And as we read the Bible we are stirred to respond to that love as we see God’s faithfulness to his people, God’s self-giving for those he loves.  We cannot work up faith within ourselves, but as we glimpse God’s steadfast love, then a response of trust is stirred within us.

4. We are redirected to live our lives by God’s good Spirit. The second half of verse 8 speaks of being shown the way to go. In verse 10 David asks for God to teach him to do God’s will, and for God’s good Spirit to lead him on level ground.  When we are convinced of God’s favour toward us then the next step is not only trust, but also obedience.  It may be that unleashing God’s Word in your life this year will mean God takes you to levels of obedience you never thought possible.  Maybe areas of your life that you have tried and failed to fix, and now are ingrained in your rhythms of life, and you feel defeated and resigned to living with the secret shame…maybe that is where the light of God’s Word might shine in the coming days!  Trust Him, and be willing to obey.

5. We are revived by our encounter with God. In the final two verses, David is clearly concerned about his life.  So the request is translated as “preserve my life” in verse 11.  Essentially the “preserve” is supplied by the context, but what he asks for is life.  Whether asking for preserved life or revived life, God is the right person to be asking.  As we engage with God in His Word, the deep cry of our parched souls for life can be answered because God is a God of steadfast love toward us.

Don’t make this another year of Bible reading as an attempted habit.  Make it a year in which you unleash God’s Word into your life and you encounter God in the Bible as never before!

Advertisements

What Kind of Leader?

The first days of the year are typically days of anticipation and planning.  All around us people will be making their resolutions.  Even in the world of Christian ministry it is easy to get caught up the annual cycle of planning and scheming, often with unchecked values driving fine-sounding aspirations.  This year I want to be fitter, better informed, more productive.  This year I want to start a book, finish a book, see the church grow, etc.  All good things, but potentially all reflections of a set of values that may be dressed up in Christian language, but deep down are very much in line with the competitive culture of this world.

How about something a bit different?  This year I want to think about Jesus so much that I become more like him.  That would be a leadership resolution worthy of our investment!

Just in case you like the idea, let’s kick start the year with a few verses from Isaiah 42.  This is the first of the so-called “Servant Songs” – four songs that are clearly speaking of the Messiah himself, and not the nation of Israel as a whole.  This first song speaks of Jesus as a leader.

42 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be discouraged

till he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his law.

Three times Isaiah refers to the Servant’s great task of bringing justice to the nations (Isa.42:1, 3, 4).  This is no mean task.  This calls for all the strength, all the power, all the political acumen, and all the gravitas to achieve such a task.  Surely the passage is going to speak of the Servant’s power, his presence, his charismatic personality, and so on?  Actually, no.  Surprisingly it speaks of the Messiah’s relational tenderness.

1. In the first verse, we see the Trinitarian rootedness of the Messiah.  Here the Father speaks of his delight in his chosen servant.  He speaks of putting His Spirit upon him.  It is easy to bypass this introductory image, but we would be theologically poorer if we did bypass it.  Actually we should be rejoicing that our God is the Trinity.  We should be delighted beyond words that we are not serving a self-serving despot, but instead we get to also serve a God who gives of himself, a God who exists in delightful communion.  Later in John 13:3-5(??) we see how Jesus’ rootedness in his relationship with his Father enable him to give sacrificially of himself as he took on the role of the slave at the feet of his disciples.  The Christ-like leader will always be one whose life and ministry is planted deep in the soil of fellowship with the Triune God.  If God being Trinity does not thrill you, stop whatever else you are doing and lay your heart before God, pursuing the delight that can only be found in fellowship with Him.

2.  In the second verse, we see the Messiah in respect to himself.  The striking thought here is that he does not boldly announce his arrival.  He chooses no fanfare, no elaborate introduction, no impressive biographical details.  We exist in a world of self-promoters, and sadly the church offers little respite from this scourge.  Maybe it will be through spending time looking at Jesus that we will lose our appetite for self-promotion and impressive introductions.  Maybe your leadership is marred by a spectacular obsession with self of which you alone are unaware.  Jesus is refreshingly different.

3. In the third verse, we see the Messiah relating to his subjects.  Just as there is a subtle tenderness and humility in the preceding verses, so that becomes explicit in how he deals with others.  So many in our churches and ministries are bruised reeds and faintly burning wicks.  So many are on the edge of collapse in one form or another.  So easily we can stamp all over the people around us, leaving a trail of crushed spirits and broken souls.  Look past the praise of your strong leadership and ask God for sensitivity toward the weak who you may have trodden on in recent months.  Time spent gazing on Christ will result in a radically different manner with people.  Perhaps if we spent more time with Jesus we would invest less praise in the shooting star heroes of the faith who leave a burning trail of destruction behind them.

4. In the fourth verse, the Messiah’s tenderness is not seen to be a lack of endurance.  His task was great, and yet that did not mean he created casualties.  Tenderness is no reason for giving up, nor is endurance an excuse for hurting others.  As it says in Hebrews 12, we should fix our gaze on Jesus so that we also will not grow weary and be tempted to give up.

Maybe a good 2018 for you is not to be measured in new projects, increased productivity or amplified praise.  Maybe a good 2018 will mean more time spent with Jesus, greater tenderness toward others, and simply pressing on with what God has already given to you.  I don’t know what my year looks like, nor even yours, but I know that if our leadership looks Christ-like, then it will be a year well worth living.

Preaching and Perspectives

When we preach, we present a perspective.  When we preach, we provoke a perspective.  Here are five perspective prompts to help us consider the perspective we give in our preaching:

1. God spoke vs God speaks

We need both perspectives.  We need to know that God has definitively revealed and communicated his very being through the incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation that we can access with confidence in our Bibles.  That canonized revelation is priceless and people need to be confident that we can stake our life and eternity on what it says in The Book.  At the same time we do not have a God who is far away and unengaged.  As we engage with the Bible we are engaging with God in the present.  Some preachers speak only as if God spoke long ago and far away.  Others preach as if God’s voice is heard predominantly today apart from the Bible.  Both extremes are problematic.  God spoke and through that, God still speaks.  Our mission is to offer both to our listeners.

2. My World vs The World

Ever since the Fall we have all fallen inward like human-shaped black holes. We naturally think our world is the whole world, when actually there is a whole lot going on beyond me.  As a preacher you address both.  You speak God’s Word into a personal sphere that God does, in fact, care deeply about.  God’s personal love and concern for each of us is nothing short of astonishing.  At the same time we all need to have our horizon expanded beyond the sphere of self to see there is so much more beyond my life, my issues, my concerns, my comfort. The preacher speaks a message that is intensely personal, yet also expansively global in scope.

3. Past vs Future

People live in the bubble of their present concerns.  Preachers point outside of that bubble.  We point back to the world of the Bible and God’s definitive invasion in the person of His Son.  The incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension are all definitive points in past history.  At the same time we point through preaching into the future to the historical moment when Christ will again enter into our world.  Past events, future events, all shaping our present lives.  Preachers point backwards and forwards and listeners need us to do both.
 
4. Under The Sun vs Under The Throne

We live our lives in light of what we can see, but there is more.  The preacher points to both.  As well as offering divine commentary and insight into the visible world around us, the preacher also pulls back the veil and shows the reality above.  Stephen lived, preached and died in a terrifying whir of political tensions and angry voices, but above the sky there was a reality that he got to glimpse before his death – the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the throne on high. Daniel 7 is such an important passage – while we live in the raging foment of kingdoms rising and falling, terrifying the saints and waging war against them, all the while there is a higher throne, God is on it, and judgment is given into the hands of a human who is there at the side of the throne.  We can live our lives and die our deaths in light of that reality … but preachers need to help people to see what is unseen.

5. Me vs Him

This may be the ultimate perspective issue in preaching.  People naturally focus on themselves and yet do not see clearly.  The preacher shines a light on the true self, and yet aims to draw the gaze of listeners away from self and to Christ.

In all of these ways preachers influence perspective through preaching.  Does your preaching lean one way and not the other in any of these categories?  Is there some perspective shift needed in you so that your preaching can bring about that good in others?

Dig Deeper

digdeeper2Perhaps the hardest thing to know is what you don’t know. One of the huge benefits of formal education is that it tends to open your eyes to what you don’t know. However, most of the time most of us remain blissfully unaware of riches with which we have not yet engaged. This post may be attempting the impossible, but I want to suggest some areas for further study that might be just what your ministry needs to develop to another level. I will not spell out everything, but rather offer some signposts that may nudge you in a healthy direction. Obviously, you may already know more than me about some of these, but that is beside the point. I believe these are fruitful avenues for prayerful study for any of us:

  1. The Fall.  I believe the Fall in Genesis 3 had a far more profound effect on us than we have ever realized. Too many Christians think of sin as being a list of sins. But what about the “non-sin” sins such as self-righteousness and autonomy? Too many Christians think of sin as something they did before salvation with the odd slip up now and again since. But the gravitational pull of fallenness is exerting a huge effect on us all the time.  I believe we would benefit as preachers to prayerfully pursue a full biblical answer to the question, “what is sin?”
  2. “In Christ.”  Far too many Christians, and dare I say it, preachers, see salvation as being essentially only about guilt and forgiveness.  The good news that is offered in too many pulpits is entirely too thin in comparison with the richness of what is actually offered in the New Testament – that is, in the New Covenant.  The context in which our sins are forgiven, and our shame is removed, and our deadness is transformed, and our enmity is reconciled, and so on, is the context of our union with Christ. Lloyd-Jones referred to this as the “ultimate doctrine” and I suspect none of us have been able to exhaust the richness of what it means to be “in Christ” – many perhaps have barely begun!
  3. The Spirit.  Many churches fall into one extreme or another on the Holy Spirit. For some, He is an end in himself, a source of power and a sensational goal to pursue.  For others, He is a reality that deserves a tip of the hat and then is generally ignored (all the while affirming his existence and importance).  Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so Christ-focused?  Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so concerned with communication and relationship?  Have we wrestled with the Spirit’s role in the Trinity?  Is he just another member of a divine committee of three, or is he uniquely involved in the union of the Father and Son? And what is that to us?

And since my self-imposed word count is more than used up, here is just one more bonus:

Covenant.  What kind of covenants does the Bible describe God to establish with us?  Are they the same as contracts, really?

Feel free to let any of these stir a chase in the Bible and in your study. I suspect any chasing you might do on these subjects will not be wasted, but will only enrich and deepen your preaching ministry!

Journey in the Dark

darkness2God delights to transform lives.  There are many ways to depict this journey of transformation, but let’s focus on one example from the Old Testament.  In Psalms 130 and 131 we have a three-picture portrayal of a life transformed by God’s goodness.  In this progression of pictures we can find a helpful perspective as we care for the souls of others, and as we take stock of our own spiritual state too.

These Psalms come in the collection known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). These were probably a collection of songs used by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem three times each year for the pilgrim feasts.  When we think of pilgrimage we tend to think of a difficult journey with a spiritual goal – typically the idea that there is some merit in taking the journey and therefore some benefit. However, the Jewish feasts were actually celebrations of a salvation to which they had contributed nothing.  It was not about earning anything, but about celebrating God’s goodness.

When we focus in on Psalms 130 and 131 we can notice a repeated phrase introducing the conclusion in each Psalm, “O Israel, hope in the LORD!”  Intriguingly this phrase is only found here in the whole book of Psalms.  This at least opens up the possibility that these two Psalms work together in some way.  Then recognition of the progression of imagery underlines the idea that thesecan be read together.  So let’s look at these three images and what they show us:

1. Our desperation for the forgiveness God gives.  In Psalm 130 the writer begins with the terrifying image of being swallowed up by the sea.  He describes the cry of desperation from someone as they sink below the waves of the sea into the darkness of the depths below.  This isn’t a literal situation (unless you are Jonah, of course), but it is a description of what it feels like to realize your guilt before God.  It is a cry for mercy that reaches upwards.

Most people don’t live constantly aware of the gravity of their situation.  Nonetheless, without God’s mercy, all are sinners living in anticipation of horrifying judgment.  Sometimes a glimpse will peak through and the fear will grip them before they distract themselves again.  Without God’s mercy things may not feel bad, but the reality is there nevertheless.  If God were to watch out for our sins in order to keep track of them, if He marked iniquities, then nobody could stand before Him.  But there is great news for the sinner – God forgives.

God forgives sinners, the first step in bringing great peace to the guilty.  He forgives fully, finally, freely and forever.  And when the wonder of God’s forgiveness grips us, we live wide-eyed in awe of God’s remarkable kindness toward the undeserving.  Fully forgiven, forever, really?

2. Our hope is in God himself.  The second half of Psalm 130, from verse 5 onwards paints a second picture.  No longer is it the overwhelming darkness and terror of judgment, but it is the darkness of night that is portrayed.  Having been gripped by God’s forgiveness, the next stage in the transformation of the believer is to discover that we are given so much more than an offer of forgiveness (amazing as that would be).  God gives us His Word (v5), He is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  God gives us Himself (v6).  And with God comes not only forgiveness (v4), but also steadfast love (v7) – the committed self-giving love of God that is ever and always loyal to the undeserving.  He loves us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc.  And with God comes plentiful redemption (v7).  This is forgiveness-plus!

As we grow in relationship with God we discover that He forgives, and He gives so much more – ultimately He gives us Himself.  So we still live in a dark world, but we are like watchmen who have learned over the years to watch for the light of dawn.  Morning always comes.  We live in darkness, but we live with hope.  And our hope is God Himself.

3. Our growth to find peace in the presence of God now.  As the believer matures in the transformation that God’s love brings, we come to the final picture in Psalm 131.  The mature believer is not caught up in their own significance, or in their own ability to make sense of everything.  Almost strangely the image pictures the believer as a child.  How can this be the picture of greatest maturity?

Well this is a weaned child (v2).  That is, a child that no longer screams and grabs for the sustenance they need.  Rather, it is a child that is at peace in the arms of their mother.  We’ve all seen a child who leaves the pile of toys to go and peak in the other room to make sure mother is still there.  We’ve seen a child who wants a story read not so much for the thrill of the tale, but for the security of the embrace.  A weaned child can be in the dark, but all is well, because the mother is there holding them.

A mature believer grows to not only hope for deliverance in the future, but also to enjoy the peace that is found in God’s presence now.  Not self-focused and grasping for things, but content to know that they are safe in God’s embrace.

From the terrifying darkness of despair, to the hope-filled darkness of anticipation, to the contented peace in the midst of darkness – this is the progress of God’s transformation work in our hearts.  God gives great peace to the guilty, because God gives Himself to us!

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…

7 Ideas for Creativity in Series Planning

Number7bI believe in preaching series through books of the Bible.  I do it.  I teach others to do it.  But I think we could all do with some extra creativity when it comes to planning a series.

Andy Stanley makes the helpful point that many messages should in fact be series.  That is, we can try to cram too much into a single message.  This is only compounded when we try to preach a series through a whole book.  After all, we will typically end up with substantial length texts each week.  For the listener this can be both overwhelming and potentially repetitive.

But there are other potential issues too.  Think of preaching through Habakkuk for an example.  It naturally falls into three parts – a question with God’s answer, followed by another question with God’s answer, and then Habakkuk’s final declaration of trust.  But there is a possible problem here.  The first question and its answer is frighteningly negative.  It prompted Habakkuk to respond.  It will prompt us to respond as we hear it. So do we then sit and stew on this for a week before part two of the series?

Keeping with Habakkuk as a focus, how might we do a series with some creativity?

1. Preach the whole in one.  This can make a good introduction or conclusion to a series.  Help people to see the whole picture and not just the parts.

2. Dwell in a specific section.  In Habakkuk you could take the woes of chapter 2 and see them play out in several messages, always rooted in Habakkuk, but letting them probe our world as well as his with more penetration.

3. Chase the use.  Habakkuk is used in some key moments later in the canon of Scripture – not least the quotes of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans, Galatians and Hebrews.  Why not take a message or two to chase how Habakkuk influenced the rest of the Bible?

4. Dig into the sources.  What earlier Old Testament texts form the “informing theology” of Habakkuk’s book?  Perhaps it is worth digging a bit and seeing what could be done with a chase upstream through the Bible to see what fed into his thinking?

5. Place the book in a broader biblical theology.  Habakkuk raises issues about suffering and divine providence.  Perhaps it is worth seeing where his contribution fits with the other key building blocks – the story of Joseph, Job, Romans 8, etc.  This could help listeners place the book in a larger framework.

6. Preach in first person.  Sometimes this is the best way to demonstrate how alive a text is.  Maybe take the audience back there to his world, or bring him to today to make careful commentary on ours.  First person preaching is not easy, but when done well it is also not easily forgotten.

7. Trace a theme or two.  As well as working through a book chunk by chunk, it may be helpful to trace a key theme through the book, and then another week trace another key theme.  Help people to see the beauty of single grains as in a plank, as well multiple grains in the cross-cut text.

With a prayed-through blend of creativity and traditional single passage exposition, Habakkuk could become a more compelling and effective 6 or 8-week series than it might have been as a traditional 3-week walk through.

Ministry In The Tough Times

Harvest3bMinistry is usually challenging. Sometimes it can be brutal.  What do we need for ministry in the tough times?

I have found help from an unlikely source – the book of Ruth.  Nestled after the book of Judges, Ruth is a four chapter gem that is intensely relevant for our lives today.  Why? First, because Ruth is not a story of kings, warriors and prophets – it is a story of very normal people, just like us.  Second, because Ruth is set in a time where the culture around was marked by a growing ungodliness, just like ours.  Third, because in Ruth we don’t see God working in spectacular and sensational miracles, and there are times in our lives when we don’t see God being as obvious as we’d like Him to be. Ruth is a story of God quietly at work in the lives of ordinary people during very challenging times, and therefore it is a story for us.

The book of Ruth is really the story of Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. Naomi suffers extreme devastation in the first verses. Her family moved away from the Promised Land to Moab, and there her husband died, followed by her two sons.  She was left devastated and somehow responsible for her two Moabite daughters-in-law.

The darkness for Naomi was overwhelming. She faced two great problems. One was immediate, the other long-term.  The immediate problem was that without a husband or sons to protect and provide, how would she eat?  The longer-term problem was that of life purpose. In that culture her role was to bear sons and continue the family line. She had borne sons, but now they were dead. An overwhelming sense of shame, failure and hopelessness must have nagged at her.

Naomi’s journey is really the journey of humanity.  In the darkness of life’s circumstances, we live under the cloud resulting from the Fall of Genesis. We have been born into a world that believes the lie that God is not good and He cannot be trusted.  Even as Christian leaders, when life hits us hard we can get to where Naomi was, struggling to trust in the goodness of God.  Her journey is the journey of history, and it is a journey many of us will have to make – a journey of rediscovery of the goodness of God.

In chapter 1 Naomi is so devastated that all she can muster, by way of explanation of her situation, is that the LORD, the Almighty, has brought her back empty, He has dealt bitterly with her. She cannot say that God is good, all she can muster is that God is . . . God.  Maybe you are there right now. Maybe you will be one day.

Praise God that He does not discard us when we struggle to trust in His goodness.  Instead He works, typically quietly and behind the scenes, to tune our hearts to recognize His ongoing steadfast and loyal love for us.  In chapter 1 we see the stunning speech of Ruth.  Sometimes our radar for God’s kindness will be helped by those around us whose commitment to God is a testimony to us in our own struggle.

The rest of the book demonstrates God’s persistent love for Naomi and Ruth in response to the two great needs that overwhelmed Naomi in chapter 1. The immediate need for food is addressed in chapter 2.  At the start of the day Ruth speaks of the possibility of finding favour (receiving grace) from someone that day.  Naomi sat at home with that ringing in her ears until evening.  Then she discovered that God had showered Ruth with grace through Boaz.  Ruth staggered home with a huge amount of barley, and leftovers from her own lunch. And it all began with Ruth “luckily” landing in the field of Boaz.  God was at work, and Naomi started to trust again.

In the next chapters we see Naomi starting to plan for a future legacy via Boaz and Ruth. God had better plans than hers. Boaz turned out to be incredibly godly and he made sure that he followed through with appropriate wedding plans. As the book ends we see a kinsman sitting on the lap of Naomi, provided by God.  The kinsman was Obed, the grandfather of David.

Ruth is the story of Naomi’s journey from ‘God is God,’ to ‘how good is God!?’  It is the story of God persistently and quietly working behind the scenes to help Naomi see His character again. He provided protection and food, and He provided honour in the place of shame, a legacy that would go down through the generations to the great king David . . . and to David’s greater son, Jesus.

Maybe you are facing overwhelming darkness in ministry right now.  Maybe all you can muster is a declaration that God is God.  He’s in charge, but He has dealt bitterly with you.  If that is not the case today, it very well may be one day. How will we come through such times?

The book of Ruth teaches us that in such times God is still at work, even when we don’t see it.  It teaches us that there will be times when it will be the faith of a Ruth, or the godliness of a Boaz, that will preach hope into our hearts.  It teaches us that God will work quietly, but persistently, to not only provide for us, but also to bring about His greater plans of which we are a part.

When the darkness descends we can easily feel like our life and ministry amounts to nothing.  If we are part of God’s great plan at all, then our ministry is just a couple of black threads in a tapestry we cannot see.  But God still has His big picture, and our lives are still part of it.  Naomi could never have guessed that God’s plan in her suffering was really about bringing Ruth from Moab to Bethlehem so she could be in the line of the Messiah.  So we don’t know the bigger picture.

The book of Ruth lifts our hearts to believe that one day, when God reveals the great tapestry of human history, we will see how it all fit.  We will see how our few threads, even the darkest ones, were part of a glorious picture that only God’s goodness could have achieved.

Pray for God to stir your heart to trust His goodness.  Maybe through the faith and godliness of others.  Maybe through the “lucky” circumstances of life.  Maybe through suffering that doesn’t make sense.  One day it will.  And for now prayerfully look to see where God is quietly at work in your life, in your family, in your ministry.  God does not have to be sensational and spectacular to convince us of His goodness, but He is persistently good!

Mishandling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching

Two scrolls3Yesterday we saw three big mistakes that are common in explaining OT material in the NT (click here to go there).  Here are some more to ponder:

4. Obliviousness to New Covenant allusions.  This is a huge problem in Christian preaching today.  Too many people read the New Testament and seem to miss the multiple New Covenant allusions that permeate practically every section of the New Testament. The work of the Spirit, intimacy with God, transformed hearts, life, and so on . . . there is so much more to the New Covenant than simply the forgiveness of sins.  Sadly, too many in our churches seem to think that Christianity is an offer of forgiveness combined with a repackaging of Old Covenant guidelines for living.  I suspect Paul would get sharp with some contemporary preaching!

5. Obliviousness to Old Testament portrayal of God.  Too easily we make a similar mistake with the Old Testament.  We can easily view it as largely a presentation of life under the rule of an angry and distant God.  When we read the New Testament as the arrival of gentle Jesus to rescue us from a hard-to-please God, then naturally we will fail to grasp the richness of the Old Testament background to the New.  It was not Law back then, but grace and truth now only.  John 1:14-18 is speaking of the LORD who pitches His tent near the people and whose glory can be beheld, whose character is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (grace and truth).  The Jesus of the New Testament is not absent from the Old Testament – it was about Him, and He was there.  They did not simply trust in a good promise, but they also encountered the Promiser Himself . . . and now we can meet Him fully!  There are discontinuities between the Old and New Testament, but the character of God the Father revealed in God the Son is not one of them.

How else have you heard OT quotes and allusions mishandled in preaching the NT?

 

Mishandling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching

Two scrolls3Last week we thought about how to handle a New Testament passage that quotes from, or alludes to, an Old Testament passage.  Here are some examples of where mishandling the Old Testament quote or allusion can cause trouble:

1. The Son of Man quotes.  From our perspective it can seem like the references to Jesus as the Son of God are stronger claims than references to Jesus as the Son of Man. Not necessarily. The king of Israel is referred to as “son of God,” but typically the “Son of Man” language points to a very lofty title.  So while there may be occasions where “Son of Man” is referencing humility or lowliness of Jesus, often it points to Daniel 7 and the one standing next to the Ancient of Days who is given authority over everything. Recognising the weight of this title helps, for example, when Jesus uses the title of himself before the Sanhedrin in his trial.  Why does the High Priest react so strongly and assume their work is done? Because he felt the force of Daniel 7.

2. Hardened hearts quotes. There are various passages that quote from the end of Isaiah 6.  It can feel very harsh, even arbitrary.  After all, God was determining that the people would not respond to Isaiah’s ministry?  Before we dump in any theological assumptions and defend such a view, let’s be sure to read the passage in context.  Unusually the call of Isaiah has a five chapter prelude that lays out the state of the nation. They were rebellious and resistant to God.  By the time we get to chapter 6 it is clear that God does not want a “cheap responsiveness” from a people determined to be against Him.  Hence the hardening.  Earlier Pharoah’s heart was also hardened . . . after the three plagues where he hardened his heart against God.  God wants genuinely responsive hearts, and where that is not present, He may bake the rebellious determination to avoid false turns to God (as we see repeatedly in Judges).  Be sure to get the context before imposing a harsh theological overlay on these passages.

3. Where we sit in judgment on “inspired mishandling” of Scripture.  This is a dangerous short cut. It may appear that the New Testament writer is not handling the Old Testament passage appropriately in its context.  Don’t jump to that conclusion though. It is more likely that you haven’t understood the richness of that OT context quite as fully as you could yet.  Saying that the writers are inspired and so can make exegetical errors is a head in the sand option that causes more problems than it solves.  Keep working, it may become clearer in time.  (A classic example might be “out of Egypt I have called my Son…” in Hosea 11:1 which is obviously a backwards look to Israel, not an anticipation of Jesus’ travel as an infant…so Matthew didn’t handle Hosea well?  Or maybe Matthew traced the thematic richness of Hosea and brought that over to Matthew?  It is worth doing the work to find out!)

I will list some more tomorrow. Any OT mishandles that come to mind for you?