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?

 

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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?

Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching – Part 3

Two scrolls2So far we have thought about the need to read the Old Testament and to go back to study the source of a quotation. We looked at a specific example (Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34).  What do we do when we have limited time in the sermon?

1. Do the study yourself, even if you don’t plan to preach about it.  Taking the time to study an OT quote, reference, allusion or whatever will always benefit you. You need to be studying the Bible at a deeper level than you are communicating it to others. Too many preachers try to sound more informed than they are – that is dangerously thin ice to skate on.  Study deeper than you preach.

2. Evaluate how significant a full explanation of the quote will be in communicating the main idea of your preaching passage.  Perhaps you have a passage that is built on a single Old Testament quote and it would be worth taking the listeners back to the quote (you could project it so they don’t get lost flipping pages). It may be worth taking them through a simplified process of pondering the context, the meaning back there, how that carries over and informs the NT passage, etc.  It may be appropriate to be interactive in this process, inviting them to think out loud with you.  There are lots of possibilities, however, this will not be possible or helpful with every OT quote you preach.

3. Recognize that there are multiple levels of explanation.  Sometimes it is possible and helpful to go back and look at the quote in its context. Sometimes that would take too much time, or it would take away too much focus from the passage you are preaching.  It is possible to explain an Old Testament quote verbally in 10 seconds, or 30 seconds, or two minutes, etc.  It is possible to give the bottom line of your study, such as, “if we were to take the time to go back and look at that quote, we would see that the whole section in Ezekiel is a rebuke of Israel’s failed leadership . . . which is what Jesus is critiquing here as he points to himself as the Good Shepherd, etc.”  (This is thinking more of early John 10 and the Ezekiel 34 background.)  You have lots of options, from not even noticing it is a quote or allusion, to doing the full process with your listeners.  Choose appropriately.

4. Remember that your listeners need encouragement to enjoy the Bible for themselves.  While you may not have the time to go back and look, it doesn’t hurt to suggest that people do that themselves. Too often listeners feel the Bible is out of their reach and only the preacher can dispense the goods.  Too often listeners feel there is some kind of subjectivity and magic worked when preachers explain passages.  Encourage your listeners to go digging.  Encouragement combined with some good examples may motivate them to go back into the Old Testament for themselves!

Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching – Part 2

Two scrolls2So when you find an OT quote or reference in your passage, what do you do? Yesterday we started with two basic, but important, points – read the Old Testament a lot, and go back to check the source of the quote (don’t just assume you get what is going on).  Let’s build on that with some exegetical thoughts for our benefit, then next time we can ponder how to preach these passages . . .

3. When you look at the source of the quote, take in the context.  For example, when Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6 to support his own claim to equality with the Father and the use of the term “Son of God” (see John 10:34), what is he doing?  A superficial look might suggest he is just being tricky with words. That is, since there is one obscure reference to humans being called “gods” by God, therefore Jesus could also get away with it.  Not very convincing.  But his argument made their poised throwing arms lower and the stones didn’t fly, so something about his use of this quote was more compelling than such an apparently weak argument might superficially suggest.  Check the whole Psalm.

4. Be aware of the wider Old Testament context, not just the specific section. Here is where Kaiser’s concept of “Informing Theology” is so helpful. What informed the writer of the original passage. That is, what was Asaph aware of that fed into his writing of Psalm 82?  For instance, is it obscure and unique to reference human kings as “sons of God”?  Not really, this is found elsewhere.

5. Grasp the meaning of the Old Testament passage in its context.  It is worth taking the time to understand the OT passage as well as you can. For example, Psalm 82 is a rebuke of unworthy leadership that culminates in anticipation of God himself stepping in to deal with the sin of the earth (specifically the failure of the human leaders).

6. Carry a sense of the whole passage forward to the New Testament quote and see how that fits.  Suddenly John 10:34-36 doesn’t seem like a random verse plucked and used poorly. Instead, it fits as part of the extended argument that has carried over from the end of chapter 9 (and really since the conflict of chapter 5). Jesus is not making a desperate loophole defence of his claim to divinity. He is undermining the leadership of the nation and making a claim to be God who has come to judge and claim the nations as his own!  They would likely have heard the force of the whole Psalm, rather than zeroing in on the short quote Jesus used – that was the link, but it was not full weight of his argument.

Bottom line: It is always worth taking time to study the Old Testament source of later quotations and references.  Always. 

Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching

Two scrolls2Almost every passage you preach in the New Testament will have Old Testament quotes or allusions present. What should we be noticing, and what should we do with them?

A. OT Quotes – these are usually very obvious. They are typically marked in quotes, and often have a quotation formula introducing them, such as “This was to fulfil what was written by the prophet Isaiah,” (then the quote), or “As Isaiah wrote,” . . .

B. OT Reference – this is where the New Testament writer refers to an Old Testament incident. For instance, Jesus referred to Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness (Numbers 21:6-9) while speaking with Nicodemus. It is not a quote, but it might as well be, it is a direct and overt reference.

C. OT Allusion – this is more subtle, it is where the New Testament writer is implying Old Testament wording but without making it a quote.  Peter’s use of language like “royal priesthood, holy nation,” etc (1Peter 2:9) is an example of allusion rather than direct quote.

D. OT Informing Theology – to us Walter Kaiser’s label, informing theology is that previously written material that was readily available to the writer and probably the original hearer/reader, but may take some digging for us to grasp. Sometimes this will be overt, such as Jesus’ speech about being a good shepherd is built on a shared awareness of Ezekiel 34 with his hearers. Sometimes this will be more hidden, such as Jesus’ resistance to Nicodemus’ conversation opener based on an awareness of Genesis 3 that Nicodemus didn’t get (and most commentators seem to miss too . . . is he really saying we are dead if we are without the Spirit?)

What should we be doing with this Old Testament colour in the New Testament text?  Let’s start with two basic but important points before we continue with more suggestions next time:

Important Point 1 – read the Old Testament. The only way to gain familiarity with the literature that the NT writers knew and often assumed knowledge of is to spend time in it. The more you read it, the more the New Testament use of it will jump off the page. Know the whole, and start to recognise the major passages that get quoted or referenced, or alluded to a lot.

Important Point 2 – when studying the New Testament, always go back and look at the Old Testament source for quotes and references. Sometimes do so for recognised allusions and informing theology too. If you don’t do that digging, you won’t fully grasp passages that you intend to preach.

Next time we will ponder further how to study this and then preach in light of it . . .

A Fresh Approach

FreshAir2It is very easy to let past sermons influence your next sermon. The way a passage is traditionally handled can easily become the default way we feel it should be handled again.

Now there is a positive side to this. If a passage is traditionally handled accurately and appropriately, then being fresh for the sake of it is not a good idea. Let’s be traditional all day long if that means handling the Word well.

However, sometimes a good traditional approach can overpower an equally appropriate approach to a passage. For instance, recently I preached from Acts 8 and Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch. As I studied the passage I felt some subconscious pressure to do what I have always heard from that narrative – namely, a brief telling of the story and then a lengthy engagement with a longer section of Isaiah 53. After all, it is a great opportunity to make clear to our listeners what was shared with the Ethiopian Eunuch.

But is there another legitimate approach? I felt there was. Specifically, I wanted to engage with what occurred in this particular narrative. By keeping my focus on the passage in Acts 8 more, I was able to look at God’s sovereign initiative in preparing an individual for an encounter with God’s Word, and how that Word may not be immediately clear, but God is able to bring clarity to it, and when He does, that reader discovers that clarity in God’s Word is more about the Who? revealed than some sense of What-To-Do? that we might anticipate.  Furthermore, seeing Christ clearly is what leads to life transformation. This sense of God’s dealing with individuals and leading them into His Word to find Christ was a rich and unique subject to ponder.

When we come to a passage, let’s remember that this particular passage is unique.  Let’s be aware of how we traditionally hear it presented and be sure that this is the way to go before committing ourselves to it. Recognise that while each passage is saying one thing, it is possible to engage each passage in various ways, several of which may be completely legitimate.

Let Christmas Improve Your Preaching

designI just wrote a brief devotional post stirred by the quote from Pleased to Dwell in the image. You can click here to go to that post. This quote stirs a preaching thought:

How can Christmas improve our preaching?

Think about Moses for a moment. Moses was a great prophet. Not because he was eloquent (he was not). Not because he was confident (again, he was often not). If you boil it down, Moses was a great prophet because we read of how he, time and again, met with God face-to-face. Moses could speak of the God he was representing because he knew that God. It wasn’t just a knowledge of Scriptures or theology, it was a personal repeated encounter with God himself.

Most of us have probably never had the experience Moses enjoyed. But that does not mean we should preach as purveyors of facts. We are called into God’s presence in a way that was not possible in Moses’ day. We are called to know God in a way that was not possible back then.

Christmas has changed things. The greater prophet than Moses, one who has spent far more time watching the Father and hearing his words, the ultimate prophet has come into our world. Jesus not only brings us the ultimate revelation, he has also created the ultimate access. Because we can be united to Jesus by the Spirit, we can boldly approach the heavenly throne at any time. Because we are united to Jesus by the Spirit, we can know the heart of God more clearly than ever before.

Christmas is critical to understanding the ministry we now have. We don’t speak facts only about a distant God. We speak of a God we can know personally. We speak of a God we can meet with day by day and speak with as a man speaks with his friend. And when Christmas so saturates our understanding of everything that we dwell closely with the God who wants to dwell with us, then when we preach we will be able to represent him better than ever before.

Marcus Honeysett: What Does It Mean To Be Human?

mhoneysettMarcus is the director of Living Leadership and an elder at Crofton Baptist Church in South East London.  He has authored four books, including Fruitful Leaders and Gospel-Centred Preaching (with Tim Chester).  Many people have benefited greatly from Marcus’ teaching and writing.  I am thankful to Marcus for offering this guest post on such an important question.  Remember, this guest post series is offered to mark release of Foundations – please do check out FourBigQuestions.com and encourage others to follow @4BigQs on Twitter and Facebook.

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So God created Mankind in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)

The two most foundational things about being human beings are:

  1. That we are creatures
  2. That we are special creatures – made in the image of God

Therefore when God blesses the man and woman, telling them to be fruitful, increase and fill and subdue the Earth it is as dependent beings, not independent ones.

In this dependency is the very foundation of life. Everything broken about the world can be traced back to rebellious, sinful desire to live independently from God rather than dependently upon his fatherly goodness as his dearly loved children.

This means that we are never more fully human than when we are consciously living in repentance and faith. A constant walk with God, is the thing that maintains our life and our joy because we were made for it – and forsook it back at Eden. A daily appreciation and thankfulness for the spilt blood of Jesus Christ is the thing that keeps us conscious of God’s everlasting mercy.

Confessing our sins, turning with hatred from evil, glorying in the cross brings healing and gospel transformation by the Holy Spirit. Why? Because when we do we are acknowledging and celebrating true creatureliness. We embrace our dependency. We delight not in God’s absence from our lives but in the closeness of his presence.

MHEndorse

Repentance Uncompromised

I repentancehave just posted on the Cor Deo site on the subject of repentance.  It is such a critical subject, and it is so often compromised by the way we preach it and practice it.  I hope the post will be helpful to you.

One of the greatest terms in the Old Testament prophets is the word “turn” or “repent.” The prophets spoke to a nation of God’s people who had consistently turned away from God and to others. They turned to Assyria or Egypt for support via political alliance. They turned to their own military might for confidence. They turned to idols for alternative spiritual assistance. So the prophets urged them to turn back to God.

Repentance is at the heart of Christianity. It has to be. And yet it is so often compromised in the way we present it or practice it.

Why is repentance important?

The Bible tells the amazing story of God’s grace in rescuing a sinful and fallen humanity to bring about a marriage between His Son and the redeemed bride. Ever since the fall into sin and death in Genesis 3, the starting point for this marriage has not been two neutral parties awaiting an introduction. The bride-to-be is spiritually dead and existing in overt rebellion against God and His Son.

God has initiated in stunning fashion. He has demonstrated his love for us through the death of His Son. He has paid the penalty for the rebellion, broken the power of sin and made possible a reconciliation between God and man. And as we read the prophets, we are reminded that God continues to work to graciously win the hearts of humanity back to him through providentially guided circumstances – both those that appear positive and negative from our perspective. God not only initiates, but He also pursues in His attempt to woo the hearts of humanity to His Son.

The Bible presents the work of God in redeeming us, the persistence of God in pursuing us, and the character of God in all of this. The character of God is startling to rebels like us. For instance, the prophet Hosea can characterize God as the God of steadfast love and faithfulness who desires that His people really know Him personally and closely. Hosea expressed God’s frustration that these characteristics were not the defining feature of life in Israel (see Hosea 4:1).

In light of who God is and what God has done and continues to do, what is the appropriate response? It is repentance. It is trust.

How do we compromise repentance?

We compromise repentance when we lose sight of God’s initiative. We compromise repentance when we turn the spotlight onto ourselves. We compromise it when we make it a meritorious work that we do.

I imagine going back to the day when I proposed to my wife-to-be. What if I had pursued her, cared for her, shown affection toward her, won her heart and then nervously orchestrated the circumstances so that I could propose to her in the right place at the right time. After my introductory comments, I drop to one knee and propose marriage. I am ready to give myself to this woman forever, to become one with her. I propose and she says yes. Would it make sense for me to follow up with a “well done” to her for saying yes? Absolutely not! That would be bizarre.

But a corrupted repentance will be seen as the responsibility of the repentant. It will be understood as something we are to do that brings with it certain benefits. Hosea saw through a false repentance in Israel.

Israel said the right words and looked like they were doing the right things. In Hosea 6:1 we see that they viewed repentance as turning to God rather than merely turning to better behaviour (a common area of confusion in our day). Their repentance was followed by religious acts of devotion. Remember, repentance is a turn to a person, God, not a turn to better behaviour. However, turning to God will be followed by changes in behaviour. Repentance that involves no turning from sin cannot be true repentance. But it is possible to turn from sin and not be truly repentant. So it was with Israel.

They sacrificed and gave offerings, but there was no steadfast love or true knowledge of God (see Hosea 6:6). In fact, God declared, “they do not cry to me from the heart, but they wail upon their beds and gash themselves for grain and wine” (Hosea 7:14). They turn, but their turn is not toward God (see verse 16). Their response was not what could be expected in light of who God was and what He had done.

What is true repentance?

In the last chapter of Hosea we get a clearer picture of true repentance. It begins with God – His steadfast love and faithfulness, His desire that we should truly know Him. It is His kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). And then what do we bring? Commitment? Determination? Resolution? Do we get ourselves sorted and then come to Him for the reward of His love? Absolutely not! Do we bring promises and declarations that twist God’s arm into kindness toward us? No.

We have nothing. All we can bring are the words overflowing from a heart that recognizes its need of God. We will not trust in Assyria, in horses, in idols. We will not trust in our righteousness, church attendance, ministry involvement, giving to charity, turning over a new leaf, determination to never do that thing again. We have nothing. We come with empty hands. We are orphans coming to a God who gives mercy to the totally undeserving. (See Hosea 14:1-3)

Whether we are encountering God for the first time, or whether we have walked with Him for many years, the truth is the same. Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling. Repentance is not a work I am responsible to do. It is a response to God. It is a turn from every other plan and distraction and lover. It is a turn to Him, whereby in my absolute poverty I cast myself into His arms, trusting Him and only Him. Like an orphan coming home. Like a bride in His arms. Forsaking all others, Him. That is repentance. That needs to be at the core of our lives and our message.