Weight of Evidence Preaching: 5 Lessons Learned

Generally my default approach to preaching is to preach a single passage.  Sometimes I will preach a more topical message where each point is the idea of a text and the points together make up the main idea.  But there is a variation that might be called a weight of evidence sermon.

This is where the main idea of the message is repeated multiple times in the Bible.  So while you may use multiple texts, it is not primarily to build the main idea, but rather to reinforce the main idea.  For example, this past Sunday I essentially preached Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you.”

In one part of the message I quoted Genesis 26:24; Deuteronomy 31:8; Joshua 1:9 and Jeremiah 1:8 – all of which say the same thing in a variety of ways.  I anticipated that I would be able to find examples of the main idea that addressed different circumstances in life, but then in my study found that the “fear not” part of the phrase was either overt or in the context of almost every text I found with “I am with you” or similar phrasing.  So since over 90% of the 30+ passages I looked at had that fear context, I focused the message on God being with us, so we should not be afraid.

I touched down briefly in Hebrews 13:5-6, Psalm 23:4 and Matthew 28:20.  He is with us when threatened by people, when facing death, and in our service for Him – all contexts in which we feel fear.

Here are 5 lessons learned on weight of evidence preaching:

1. This should not be the default.  Typically our goal should not be to touch down in as many different verses as possible.  Padding sermons with unnecessary cross-references is very common and often a detriment to healthy preaching.

2. Be very focused. If the message uses multiple texts, then the main point needs to be very clear and obvious.  Otherwise the multiplied verses will confuse and lose listeners. For instance, there were verses in my list where the world noticed God being with his people and it causing them to fear, or verses that spoke of believers loving one another as the context of God’s dwelling with them.  This message could have lost focus and therefore lost its force.  Be selective in what you preach.

3. Keep their finger on one text.  Preaching is not a Bible sword drill where we try to make people find multiple references.  So I encouraged people to open to Isaiah 41:10, but I projected the text of the other verses used.

4. Feel the force of the frequency.  The point of a weight of evidence message is to help listeners feel the force of the frequency.  Time and again God’s word says this, so we should be sure to hear it!

5. Make follow up study possible. People may respond positively, but make sure the list of passages is available to any who want to study it for themselves.  There is the benefit of the main idea punched home in the sermon, but there is also the possibility of people enjoying the Bible study chase for themselves, if they have the references.

I’d be interested to hear any more thoughts on this approach – both the pros and the cons.

New Year, New You

There is something powerful about turning the calendar to a new year.  People everywhere feel like this is the moment to turn over a new leaf and make some changes that are, perhaps, long overdue.  Join the gym, change your diet, break an addiction, form a healthy habit, read your Bible daily, stay on top of your inbox… whatever personal or professional goal it might be, January seems like the ideal time to start.

I do not want to criticize any New Year resolution, and I wish you well as you embark on change in your life.

However, perhaps we would do well to dwell on something else.  Maybe we have lost sight of all that is new for us as Christians.  Maybe some of our resolutions are birthed out of frustration and we might be helped by pondering more deeply all that is new for us in Christ.

We live under the blessings of the New Covenant: God’s great plan that was anticipated and predicted in the Old Testament, but has now been launched by Christ at his death and is the reality in which we exist as Christ’s people.  As Paul puts it in 2 Cor. 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”  (See also Gal. 6:15) A quick read through the epistles reveals many aspects of this New Covenant that are true for us today.  Here are six to think about – three more individual, followed by three more corporate ones:

 1.  New Life

In Romans, Paul equates the resurrection of Christ with the newness of life that is ours to live today (Rom. 6:4).  What does this mean?  He writes that we are released from the law, no longer held captive, but free to serve in “the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom. 7:6).  What would it look like if I sought to live in this new way of the Spirit, rather than by keeping myself in check via a written code?  Would my life look different?

 2. New and Living Way

In Hebrews, the preacher urges us to move forward into the presence of God by the blood of Jesus, that is, by “the new and living way that he has opened up for us.”  How easily I can get caught up in an exercise fad, or a desired daily habit, while ignoring the wonder of being able to boldly enter into the presence of God in prayer!  If I belong to Christ, then prayer would be the most natural feature of my life in 2020.

 3. New Self

When Paul wrote about the new life we can live, he referred to it as putting on “the new self.”  This new me is no longer hardened and calloused by sin, but instead, through knowing Christ, this new me is a heart, mind, and lifestyle-transforming reality that is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10) That New Covenant promise of a God-given new heart is exciting! I know myself and how easily I can focus on my attempts to tweak a small issue in my life, but ignore the wonderful privilege of true holiness that is mine in Christ.

 4. New Covenant Ministry

Jesus declared the inauguration of the New Covenant at the Last Supper, as Paul describes in 1 Cor. 11:25.  He picks up that theme and really develops the wonder of participation in the New Covenant in 2 Cor. 3:6 where we see that we are actually ministers of this New Covenant – no longer ministers of the letter that kills, but now of the Spirit who gives life.  (See also Heb. 8:8, 13; 9:15; 12:24) Whatever the size of my ministry might be, big or small, the real issue is the quality – and I don’t mean just a comparison of my preaching against yours.  I mean the spiritual quality that makes my feeble efforts in ministry quantitatively different from the impressive work of a highly equipped unbeliever.

 5. New Unity

What Christ has accomplished is not just individually transforming.  It goes much broader than me and my spiritual life.  We are brought together, Jew and Gentile, into “one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15) How easily I take for granted the opportunities to worship with other believers.  Sunday has become a steady part of my weekly routine.  But there is nothing “routine” about unity among a fallen humanity.  What opportunities is God giving me this year to experience this new unity that Christ has made possible on a local and on a global scale?  How can I contribute to the beautiful unity of believers?

 6. New Commandment

It might be good to lose a few pounds, or be a bit more efficient, but I would do especially well to prayerfully pursue the new commandment from Christ in the coming months.  As the light of God’s good news breaks into the darkness of this fallen world, what could be more distinctly Christlike than his followers following his instruction?  How many times every day will I be given opportunity to love others as he has loved me?  (See 1 John 2:7-8; 2 John 5)

So, as we head into this New Year, let us consider all that is new for us in Christ.  Individually we have a new life, with new access to God’s presence and the privilege of godly righteousness that we could never achieve by our own natural inclinations and efforts.  With that we have the privilege of a new Spirit-empowered ministry, united together and loving one another.  If this is the new me that is going into 2020, then the year ahead is already exciting to anticipate.  Any other little tweaks are nice bonuses, but they can’t come close to the wonder of what God has done for me and wants to do in me.

One bonus new…

New Heaven & New Earth – our life is not all wrapped up in the details of 2020.  The truth is that we are waiting for the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells.  (See 2 Peter 3:13)

The life we have to live this year is a life with a new heart, a new and special access to God, a new privilege of holiness, a new Spirit-empowered ministry, a new controlling principle, and a new hope.  We live in a world that is fascinated by what is new and exciting, but let’s not allow that artificial and temporary newness to take our focus away from the wonder of all that is new for us in Christ.

The 2010’s on BiblicalPreaching.net

As we come to the end of a decade I am reflecting on ten years of ministry.  What a privilege!  In these last ten years I have been involved in launching, developing, leading, teaching and preaching.  Along the way I have blogged a lot at times, and less at other times.  One of several reasons for blogging less in the second half of this decade was the need to focus on writing several books.

So now as I look back on ten years of BiblicalPreaching.net … the decade began with a link to a radio interview that included me and Dr Erwin Lutzer (who I enjoyed meeting in 2018).  Then the next posts looked at things that have been staples on this site: how to handle the text accurately, how the theology of a text carries into the message, analogies to illustrate what we are doing when we preach, etc.

Anyway, here are some quick highlights:

1. As we ponder preaching we can improve our preaching.  For instance, here’s a reflection on how preaching became a solo sport.

2. The core of preaching is not homiletical technique, but spiritual vitality.  Here is one New Year post about Bible reading, and another about resolutions.

3. This decade included the end of an era, as my teacher and friend Haddon Robinson was promoted to glory.  Here was the post I wrote on hearing of his death.

4. Some posts have been really fun to write and launch into the ether.  I think the most successful series, in terms of feedback and sharing, has been the 10 Pointers series I ran back in 2015/2016.  Here is one on preaching touchy issues, with links to the earlier posts listed at the bottom.

5. Some posts were controversial.  Probably the one that stands out the most was the one I wrote about Bible reading plans – both sides of the debate seemed to jump on that subject!

6. It is encouraging to hear how people have been helped even by the apparently “no response” posts.  For example, I don’t think anyone commented on this post online, but lots of people did in person – it was a theological reflection on how Satan hates the Holy Spirit.

7. I am looking forward to another decade of blogging about preaching, about the life of the preacher, about the Bible we get to preach, and most of all, about the God we get to speak about.

Thanks for your participation in this site!

Seeing Hope From a Cave

As we live the Christian life, or as we seek to help others live the Christian life, we will constantly battle with the overpowering magnitude of the visible realm.  Life comes at us with trials, temptations, struggles, complexities, problems, and more.  And it doesn’t help to simply preach nice thoughts to ourselves or to others.  When life is overwhelming, then what we need is more than information, we need the transformation that can come from being mentored by Scripture.  Let me give an example.

In Psalm 57 we are told that David was on the run from Saul, in the cave.  Perhaps this was the cave of Adullam at the start of 1 Samuel 22, which comes after the loneliest chapter of David’s life.  Or perhaps it is the cave where Saul came close in 1 Samuel 24.  Either way, David has been anointed, has achieved notoriety by defeating Goliath, but is now on the run with an increasingly mad Saul pursuing him to kill him.  I have never been anointed the king of Israel, and I imagine you haven’t either.  Actually, I’ve never had to hide in a cave or had a mad king trying to end my life.  However, this three thousand year old Psalm resonates with me and with many of us.

We do know what it is to have an enemy of our souls who comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy.  We do know what it is like to have humans opposing us and making life difficult at work, or at church, or even at home.  We do know what is like to feel discouraged, downhearted and even depressed in the face of various trials.  So we are not where David was, but in a way, we feel like it.

That is the beauty of the Psalms.  Even though our circumstances are so different, often we will find the Psalm writer putting his words right on top of our feelings.  In the case of Psalm 57 we have the actual historical situation that David was in.  More often the Psalms keep their specific historical situation in the shadows, allowing their words and images to resonate directly with our struggles in life.

So whether you are spending some time in the Psalm yourself, or preparing to preach it to others, think about these 11 verses as a mentoring experience.  In effect through God’s Word we get to time travel three thousand years to sit in a cave with Dave and hear him processing his frightening situation.

In the first half of the Psalm he cries out to God in light of his situation:

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.

I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfils his purpose for He will send from heaven and save me; he will put to shame him who tramples me.  Selah.

God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!

My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts – the children of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.  (vv1-4)

Then comes a refrain he will repeat later:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (v5)

Let’s notice a few details here, lessons for us from David in distress.

1. In distress he cried out to God. That seems obvious, but how often we don’t cry out!  How easily troubles prompt me to get my head down and press on through the day.  How easily I try to get resourceful and seek to handle the difficulties of life.  Not David, he lifts up his head and cries out to God with specific requests and transparent awareness of his plight.

2. David knew that God’s purpose for his life meant there was hope in this time of trial. Yes, he was anointed to be king, so there was a sense of a guaranteed future.  And I have not been anointed to be a king.  However, if God has a plan and purpose for my life and for yours, which He does, then the current trial will not wipe us out before our time.  We can have confidence for deliverance because until God’s plan for us is complete, then our life here isn’t.  That doesn’t lead to arrogance or over-confidence.  It does lead to prayers like this one in the midst of trials.

3. David knew that God would participate in his situation. Specifically, he declared that great theme of the Old Testament – that God is a God of steadfast love and faithfulness.  God is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  He is a God whose loyal love is toward his people in a loyal way.  Does that sound repetitive?  That’s because it is.  God’s steadfast loyal love is reinforced with the word for his faithfulness.  God’s loyal love is loyal to you and to me!

4. The bottom line of David’s cry for help is faith-filled.  You might naturally expect a “So save me!” or “Bottom line, Lord, defeat my enemy!”  But instead his bottom line is totally different – he wants God to be exalted and his glory to shine forth everywhere!

In the second half of the Psalm, David moves from crying for help to singing in praise:

They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down.  They dug a pit in my way, but they have fallen into it themselves.  Selah

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody!

Awake my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.

For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, Your faithfulness to the clouds. (vv6-10)

And then the refrain once again:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (v11)

Let me add one more lesson to learn from David here before we leave him in the cave.

5. David changes the order of experience. So often we assume that our problem leads to our prayer, which leads to God’s provision and then we will praise.  But David inverts this order slightly. Yes, our problem can and should lead us to pray.  But then David praises in anticipation of future provision of deliverance.  That is a big difference.  Do we only praise with hindsight?  Do we only worship God when we have seen Him do something special?  Honestly, how is that a life of faith?  David leads the way for us in this.  Our prayer to God is an inclination of our hearts in trust toward Him.  As our hearts look to God, we can know that He is bigger than the biggest trial we face, and therefore we can also praise by faith … before we see any answer to our prayer.

This Psalm, like many others, is filled with this lesson for us.  Our God is bigger than every problem and challenge we face.  So by faith we incline our hearts to God in prayer.  And, by faith we can incline our hearts to God in gratitude, in praise, in song … before we see how He will answer.  That is the life that Dave in the cave invites us into as he mentors us through this Psalm.  And honestly, it is a life I want to live in the coming year.  A life with my heart inclined toward the great God of steadfast love and faithfulness, a life where my prayer points my heart to a God whose character and greatness stir my heart to trust, to gratitude, to praise and to song.  God is to be exalted!  We want his glory to be over all the earth!

A Contagious Pulpit

I remember Haddon Robinson saying that a mist in the pulpit will result in a fog in the pew.  It seems so obvious to say it, but there is a strong connection between what is going on in the preacher and what will go on in the listeners.  This is true both positively and negatively.  Here are some examples with brief comment:

Negatively

1. Nerves & Stress.  If you are nervous, they will join you in that.  If you seem stressed, you will put them on edge.  Whatever your preparation has or has not been like, make sure you go into preaching by faith rather than self-reliance, or self-concerned stress.

2. Coldness & Distance.  A congregation is like a dog in this regard: they can always sense if you don’t care for them.  Pray until your heart beats with God’s heart for these people, especially when you sense that indifference and lack of love that so easily creeps in for all of us.

3. Boredom & Disinterest.  Nobody wants to listen to someone who is not particularly interested in the passage they are preaching or the God they are speaking about.  In fact, they won’t listen.  Your disinterest will transmit so that they mentally leave the venue long before you leave the pulpit.

Positively

4. Warmth & Connection.  Maybe you have met somebody so warm and congenial that you found yourself warming to them as the conversation progressed.  The same is true in preaching: your love for them and enthusiasm for the God you speak about will increase their temperature toward you and Him!

5. Clarity of Image.  Whether it is an illustration or the retelling of a narrative, this principle applies: if you can see it, so will they.  Be prepared enough to be able to see what you are describing and you will be surprised how much more your listeners feel like they are immersed in the movie, not just enduring a monologue.  Blow the fog away, describe what is vivid to your mind and it will be clear to theirs, and engaging to their hearts too.

6. Responsiveness & Worship.  This goes way beyond enthusiasm and even interpersonal warmth.  This is about response to God.  If you are moved by the passage and the message to worship and obedience birthed from stirred affection, then that will increasingly be the response of your listeners too.

There are many ways in which we  will infect our listeners as we preach.  What “diseases” do we want to carry to them?

Sanctified Imagination

Some people are very hesitant to ever say anything that is not asserted by the preaching text.  I understand the hesitation and appreciate the desire to honour the inspired text.  However, I think that with care and clarity, there is a place for some sanctified imagination.

Years ago I was preaching Psalm 73 and made a passing remark about Asaph at the transition point in the middle of the Psalm.  I said, “I can imagine him weighed down by the weight of his struggle and kicking a coke can along the street, mentally miles away, until it hit the curtain of the tabernacle fence and he realised where he was…”  It was, to my mind, an obviously contemporary (and therefore anachronistic) way to illustrate the struggle and to set up the transition of coming to the sanctuary and finding a whole new perspective.

After the sermon a lady approached me and helpfully pointed out that Coca Cola hadn’t been invented yet.  I thought she was joking, but actually she was concerned about my adding to Scripture.  When we do add a detail …

1. Make sure it is historically, culturally, and biblically accurate.

2. If it is “just colour,” a little flourish in storytelling for contemporary relevance, then make sure it is obvious that you added it (either say so, or make some kind of visual gesture that will help listeners to get what you are doing).

This Sunday I was preaching John 9 and the story of the man born blind.  At the end of the chapter he is stood before the Jewish authorities with a boldness that stands in stark contrast to the healed paralytic in John 5, or even his own parents.  He is declaring the wonder of what has happened to him, noting that nobody had ever healed a person blind from birth in all of history until that day.

As I told the story I said something like, “I wonder, and this is pure speculation, but I wonder if perhaps he had learned that from the very people he was now speaking to?  Perhaps as a blind beggar he had dared to ask some passing Pharisees, ‘excuse me, sorry to bother you, is there any hope for me?  Has anybody blind from birth ever been healed before?’  And maybe they had lifted their noses in the air and flippantly educated him, ‘Never!’  I don’t know if that had happened, but it could have.  And now he may be quoting their fact back to them! …”

When our speculation is substantial rather than a flippant anachronism:

3. Make sure it makes sense in light of the context and detail given.

4. Be overt and clear that it is speculation.  Don’t give the impression that you have some sort of secret knowledge when you don’t.

These are two examples of the use of sanctified imagination used in preaching a biblical text.  There are other ways, both good and bad, to add colour to the text we are preaching.  Whatever you do, make sure any flourishes work to support the preaching of the text, not to steal the spotlight away from it.

Simple Encouragement

Earlier this year I heard a quote from JRR Tolkien.  After having the completed manuscript of The Lord of the Rings in his office for several years, he finally had it published.  Why?  Tolkien replied along these lines: “It would not have been finished, let alone published, if it were not for the simple encouragement of my good friend, CS Lewis.”

In Ephesians 4:25, Paul urges the believers to be truthful with one another, rather than living on in the falsehood that pervades our fallen world.  The community of God’s people are members of one another in a unique way, and so their mouths should be used to unify through the truth rather than the lie.  A few verses later, he returns to the subject of the mouth.  In verse 29 he urges them not to spray rottenness from their mouths, but rather to only speak words that build up and give grace.  Speaking the truth may be challenging, but building up takes it to a higher level again!

If this is true for believers in general, then how much more should we heed this as preachers.  Preacher, do you encourage?  It is strange to take note of how  encouragement is missing in a lot of preaching these days.

Exhortation is not the same as encouragement.  Yes, there is a need for exhortation, especially when the text calls the original hearers to action and that call remains applicable in the same way to our listeners today.  But exhortation tends to include persuasion with a dash of rebuke.  This may be needed, but it is not encouragement (with its recipe of hope, confidence and life).  Exhortation aims toward the listener, but tends to fire provocation rather than the relational fuel that we humans need in abundance.

Guilt is not the same as encouragement.  It really isn’t the same thing at all, just as a fish knife is not a butter knife.  It may seem like it will achieve the same goal, but generally it is sharper and more likely to provoke instinctive withdrawal rather than the desired goal.  Guilt dresses up as a shortcut to achieving conformity, but the results tend to be short-lived and shallow.  By all means pray for the Spirit to convict your listeners of guilt, He is very capable of that, but don’t go adding guilt into your primary repertoire – you will soon be slipping into legalism when you do.  Guilt aims at the listener, but it does so in an essentially negative way.

Enthusiasm is not the same as encouragement.  Yes, enthusiasm can indeed be contagious.  At the same time, it can merely impress others with your passoin while leaving them unencouraged in their own hearts.  Your enthusiasm does matter, but it is really a heartiness toward a subject or topic, rather than the life-giving heartiness toward your listeners that they need.

Application is not the same as encouragement.  By all means demonstrate how a biblical truth can translate into the nitty gritty situations of life.  People do need that to a certain extent.  But simply applying a text will point listeners to the steps they might take.  They also need heartfelt encouragement to feel warmed toward motivation in that direction.

Your words can urge, convict, enthuse, or offer clarification of application.  But let’s make sure our words build up, giving grace to those who hear, so that they feel our hearty encouragement.  They need it.  We all do.

Think back to someone who has been a real encouragement to you.  How did they do it?  Who can you offer encouragement to personally?  What about other people in ministry like you – is there another preacher or pastor that you can build up with some words today?

Perhaps before you preach again you need to look at the passage and ask yourself, “how is God encouraging me in this passage?”  Pass that on.

Both Bible & Gospel

As I think about preaching I am increasingly convinced that we need to communicate the redemptive relevance of the biblical text.  I am sure that seems obvious, but many fall into one of the following errors and half-measures:

1. Preaching the details and history of the text, without making the redemptive relevance clear.  This could be preaching a text as if it were a historical lecture, or it could be applying a text as if what we need is example to follow and instruction to implement.

2. Preaching the good news using a biblical text, without demonstrating clearly how the message comes from that text.  This could be a theologically brilliant presentation, but if it is unclear how you got there from the passage presented, then you are not honouring the theology of the gospel brilliantly.  You might be a good communicator, your message might be technically accurate in every detail, but if there is a leap from text to message, then you are undermining the foundational reality that God is a good communicator.

3. Preaching our own message with only token reference to the text.  This is the neither/or option.  It uses the text as  launch pad, or as a curiosity, or as a source of wording, but we preach what we want to say, and it is not the message of the text.  If what we want to say is redemptive rather than merely therapeutic or pressuring, then maybe we drift up into option 2.

I think we will tend to drift into one of these options by default.  Let’s be prayerful and careful to preach the redemptive relevance of the biblical text instead.

Preach Don’t Overreach

It is so easy to overreach when preaching.  In fact, I wonder how many thousands of sermons are preached every week that are barely even Christian?

We should point people, via the Word of God, toward God/Christ.  We should clarify not only what the text is saying historically, but also what it means for us today.  We should lead the way in being responsive to God, inviting people to respond to His grace.  We can encourage people to respond and move in the right direction.  But it is not our role to create momentum, nor is it up to us to generate the force to determine speed of change.

It is the same with counseling, pastoring, parenting, etc.  We can orient hearts in the right direction, we can make clear what next steps might look like, and we can travel alongside the person we are caring for … but we cannot push them along at a pace to suit us.

Sometimes God generates an incredible rate of change in a life.  Sometimes forward motion is imperceptible.  As preachers, as pastors, or as parents, let’s not usurp the Spirit’s role and try to force things along.  When we do, we undermine the foundation of our ministry.  Remember the first step?  It is to orient hearts in the right direction, to point people to God/Christ.  Usurp the Spirit and you will quickly point people back onto themselves.

When we turn people toward themselves, toward their efforts, their failings, their discipline, etc., then we can quickly slip out of biblical ministry and into the role of a personal trainer or life coach.  Our calling is higher than that.

Thousands of People

When we read the Bible we tend to gravitate to the “big names” – Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and Paul.  Perhaps there are another fifty characters that get significant attention in our churches.  But there are at least another thousand people mentioned by name, some counts going much higher.  (Forgive me for not researching this number myself for this post!)  Perhaps we too easily skim over these more minor characters that fill the pages of our Bibles?

There are at least three benefits that can come as we focus in on the more minor characters of the Bible:

  1. The fact that they are noticed, noted and named is an encouragement in itself. Most of us don’t feel like major characters in the epic history of God’s great plan as it is being worked out in our generation.  We know we are minor characters.  And if we have our eyes open to see the minor characters in the Bible, then we can be encouraged to know that our small part in God’s big plan also matters.
  2. Whenever we see any detail about a character in the Bible we will tend to see them involved in real life situations (since that is the nature of God’s inspired Word) – and consequently we can see both good and bad examples that can be so helpful for us in our contemporary circumstances. It would be naïve to think that there is nothing to learn from the many examples presented in Scripture, but it would also be a real shame to stop at mere example.
  3. God inspired the Bible so that the characters in it are more than examples to copy or learn from, they are also part of a story that is pointing the reader to God – his redemptive character and plan. The Bible is not a collection of historical tales with good moral lessons to be gleaned.  It is God’s self-revelation to a world that desperately needs what only God can offer.

Let’s look at an example.  Elizabeth only appears in one chapter in the Bible (Luke 1).  It is a story with two or three major characters, as well as two very significant babies, and Elizabeth is relatively minor in comparison.  There is the angel Gabriel bringing a message to Zechariah in the temple, and then several months later to young teenage Mary in Nazareth.  Two very different recipients, in two very different locations, with two significantly different responses.  Then in the second half of the chapter we see two great exclamations of praise – first Mary’s “Magnificat” and then Zechariah’s “Benedictus.”  These two passages are triggered by two events.  For Zechariah it is the birth of his son John, and the reinstatement of his voice.  For Mary it is the declaration of Elizabeth when the two mothers-to-be met.

What can we legitimately learn from looking at Elizabeth in Luke 1?  First of all, let’s evaluate some of the observations we might make.  It is right to observe the details in the text, but not every observation should be applied in our lives.  Some things were specific and not intended to function by way of example for us.  Generally, the more we know our Bibles the easier we will find it to not apply observed details inappropriately.  For instance, the rest of the Bible does not teach people to go into hiding when they discover they are pregnant.  Nor does it support the idea that when a child moves inside the womb we should interpret the significance of that movement prophetically.

However, the rest of the Bible would support several possible observations from this passage:

  1. God hears and answers prayer – even if the years have passed and hope has apparently dissipated, God hears and answers prayer. We should continue to trust in God’s goodness and God’s plan.  (See Luke 1:13)
  2. Every moment matters – Elizabeth, like most characters in the Bible, is offered to us in light of one incident in her life. What about the other 60 or 70 years?  God noticed and noted their blameless living (see Luke 1:6).  While our righteous choices don’t earn, they do matter.
  3. Our most significant role may still be future – Elizabeth supported her priestly husband faithfully over the years. This was her ministry.  But then, out of the blue, came a role she never anticipated – she was to be the mother of the forerunner of the Messiah.  That role is finished, but it is fair to say our most significant moment of ministry may be completely unknown to us and still future.
  4. For those of us who are parents, our most significant ministry may well be the children we raise – This passage, like many others in the Bible, underlines the significance of the children God gives to us. We live in a world that may seem desperate to protect children (at least those who have been born), but it is a world that constantly undermines the value of parenting.  Time in passages like Luke 1 will reinforce our confidence that time invested in our little ones is time well spent.

These are some Biblically supportable observations from the story of Elizabeth.  But these are somewhat at the level of surface observation, even if the points are theologically important.  What does the text itself underline for the careful reader?

Elizabeth stands at the hinge of the story, between the two angelic visits and the two great exclamations of praise.  She is not just the hinge of the chapter, she is the meeting point of the two pregnancy stories.  She was the one who lived in hiding with this miracle child inside her. Surely, she quietly longed for conversation while her husband lived in wide-eyed silence because he had not believed the angel’s words.  Then when the angel told Mary the great news of her soon-to-be pregnancy, he anticipated her need to talk things through with someone that would really understand, and so mentioned that her cousin was also with child.  When Mary greeted Elizabeth there was a leaping of John within, and the Spirit of God poured out on her.  The silence was broken, a great cry came out, and Elizabeth’s celebratory exclamation builds to the climactic point: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

She’d lived with the consequences of disbelief, and now she could not contain her joy at the blessing of belief.  Trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows.  You and I will never have the same role as Mary or Elizabeth (for several reasons!), but that exclamation stands true for us today: let us trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows.  At work, at home, in parenting, in ministry, in life.