Rigor and Response

hardwork2Last week I had the opportunity to interview John Piper.  At one point we were talking about the preacher’s emotional response to the text.  I appreciated John Piper’s perspective on this.

Gordon Fee, as well as others, have pointed out that we don’t want the people in our churches having devotional engagement with the Bible that is not exegetically on target.  And that our people don’t need preachers who are exegetical without being devotional as they study the Bible.  All true biblical interpretation should be devotional as well as exegetical.

But John Piper’s perspective was helpful to me.  Absolutely, the preacher should have their heart stirred in the study.  However, he said, there will be times when the exegetical rigor is not heart-stirring.  You may be wrestling with technicalities in the Greek construction of a sentence for a couple of hours.  You may be wading through technical commentaries weighing up interpretive options.  The exegetical rigor may not be heart-stirring during the process, but the fruit of it had better be heart-stirring!

Do we make sure we are not transitioning into message preparation until we are not only thinking clearly of the passage, but also feeling deeply moved by it?

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?

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 . . .

4 Reasons to Handle the Bible Well

designAny Christian leader will have opportunity to communicate biblical truth to others. It may be a sermon, or it may be in conversation; it may be to a group of Christians, or it may be an evangelistic setting, but we will all communicate the Bible to others. Let’s be sure to handle the Bible well.

What do I mean by that? I mean good basic biblical interpretation. Understand meaning in its immediate context, as the author intended, following the grammar of the text, making sure we see what it actually says, recognizing something of the historical and cultural setting, etc. I mean not imposing fanciful interpretations that make you appear either extra clever, or excessively creative or even downright oblivious to the plain meaning of the text itself. I am not saying we all have to have high level degrees in biblical exegesis before we can speak to others. I am saying we can all do our best to handle the Bible well.

So why is it important to pay attention to how we handle the Bible, whether in preaching or conversation? Here are four reasons:

1. Because of God. A basic assumption that would help all of us is to trust that God is a good communicator. That means that if God chose to inspire a collection of documents, then He would do a very good job. He did. So a personal commitment to handling the Bible as well as possible is an expression of my trust in God’s ability to communicate well. He did not inspire a poor Bible that needs our cleverness, our fanciful ideas, or our creative shortcuts. When we try to improve God’s communication by our own sophistication we insult our God. When we handle the Bible carelessly we demonstrate a lack of value for our God’s communicative nature. Let’s handle the Bible well because of God.

2. Because of the unsaved. Another important point to remember is that people who do not yet know Christ will come to know Christ because of the Spirit drawing them to Him, not because of our brilliant presentations. However, they are evaluating our presentations. If we claim that the Bible was given by inspiration of God, but then proceed to read it carelessly, or elevate our own “codebreaking genius” above a text we claim was given to us by God, then we should not be surprised if some do not take the gospel seriously and view us as being duped by an unthinking religion. When the Bible plays a secondary role to our communicative sophistication (or our sloppiness), those who are trying to evaluate the claims of Christ may be led to feel that it can’t be worth much if we appear to not take God’s revelation seriously. Let’s handle the Bible well because those who don’t know Christ are watching us.

3. Because of believers. Periodically I get to go to the doctor’s office and see the medical expert in action. I might get seven minutes, and I cannot see the screen they spend so much time looking at. I don’t learn much. Periodically I take my car to the mechanic and I might stick around and watch an expert in action. I might get to spend a little time, but I typically won’t see much. I don’t learn much. But every week I sit in a church and watch a Bible expert in action. I might get half an hour, or even more. Sadly, in many cases I would not learn much that would help me handle the Bible well. When we handle the Bible before people, they are looking to our example as well as our message. How we handle the Bible will make a mark on them. Are we setting a good example of observing the passage closely, interpreting accurately, and applying appropriately? Are we demonstrating an attitude to the Bible, and an approach to handling the Bible, that we are happy for our listeners to copy all week long? Let’s handle the Bible well because those who think we know what we are doing are watching us.

4. Because of me. I want to handle the Bible well for my own sake too. I want you to handle the Bible well for your own sake. How silly we must seem when we treat the Bible as if it has limited value, but believe that our clever communication is what people need. The truth is, when we short circuit the process and offer personal proof texts and hobby horses, we steal from ourselves the riches that come from having our nose in the text and our hearts open to the God who wants to meet us there. Maybe my message to others will be limited in value for some reason, but my own time in the Bible seeking to understand it and respond to God will be invaluable for me. Let’s handle the Bible well because even if our communication were to fail, our own time with God in His Word is eternally priceless.

Prayerfully ask God to search you and try you in this area. How are you handling the Bible when you preach? What about in conversation? Attention given in this area will never be wasted effort for those that love God!

2015 Blog Summary

designThis was an intriguing year for BiblicalPreaching.net – thank you for visiting the site! Let me share some highlights and stats with you.

Some of the Series – We began the year with a series of preaching resolutions that stirred some good comments, followed by another provocative series on radars preachers need to develop, and then 10 reasons why your listeners may not be satisfied with the preaching they are hearing. People always seem drawn to Biggest Mistakes series too, since we all make lots! So 10 Listener Fatigues is worth a mention too in a similar vein.

Monthly Opener – At the start of each month I have shared a longer post that has been picked up by the European Leadership Forum.  These included, Overflow Leadership: 2 Vital Ingredients, Jesus Nudges, Cracks are Serious, one that stirred lots of verbal response at a conference – 7 Ways to Guard Hearts at a Christian Conference (with its follow up regarding Guarding Hearts at Bible School, and also at Guarding Hearts at Church).

Book Launch – The end of the summer was given over to another guest series at the launch of Foundations – click here to find out more. Here’s the series intro, plus a couple of highlights for me?  Glen Scrivener on sin, John Hindley on being human, and Jonathan Carswell on a Passion for Books (have you heard about 10ofthose.com starting in the USA now? Please spread the word!).  Speaking of books, I also shared a chapter from Pleased to Dwell at the start of December (how can I nudge people to ponder the Incarnation during the rest of the year – all ideas welcome!)

There were quite a few other posts that seemed to stir response, such as Who Turned Preaching Into a Solo Sport? And probably the one that deserved the least attention, but somehow got quite a lot – Meaningless Chatter.

Most Popular Posts this Year?  Due to some friendly sharing from friends with big readerships, by far the most popular posts were these (can these posts get traction again on twitter? Feel free to share the links!)

10 Pointers for Young Preachers as well as 10 Pointers for Older Preachers

10 Pointers for Seminary Trained Preachers as well as 10 Pointers for “Untrained” Preachers

10 Pointers for Preaching Teams as well as for Preaching Easter, and Special Occasion Preaching, and of course, Evangelistic Preaching.  There was another on Planning a Preaching Calendar, and one on Planning a Series.

There you have it, another year of blogging. So much I didn’t mention, but thanks for reading this far!  What should I write about in 2016?  All suggestions welcome, most suggestions followed!

10 Listener Fatigues

yawningman2When listeners listen to preaching there are many different fatigues that can undermine the effectiveness of our preaching.  If we are aware of these fatigues, then maybe we can craft our preaching with sensitivity to the listeners.  Let’s jump into the list:

1. Genre Fatigue.  Each genre will tend to create a sense of same-ness in a series.  Let’s say you are preaching through an epistle for weeks and weeks.  Eventually, if we are not careful, the default patterns will prove tiring to listeners.  For instance, the description of historical background, the complex sentences in the text, the pattern of explanation and application, etc. can all become a bit too similar week after week.  Look for ways to be creative in such a series so that there is variation.  (Many of the following “fatigues” will help to see how this variation can be found.)

2. Key Text Fatigue.  Many Bible books contain a key text that will tend to be repeatedly referenced throughout the series.  For instance, any series in Colossians should probably reference 1:15-20, and maybe 3:1-4, to make sense of the subsequent sections.  This can get tiring for listeners, especially if the vocabulary of Colossians 1:15-20 is not really understood by the listeners.  Look for ways to reference the key text with variety – simple summaries, variations in wording, different styles of phraseology, but without losing recognition of what is being referenced.  Reference it without the reference.  Don’t always be overt, but let subtlety in reference to the key text be part of the series too.

3. Main Point Fatigue.  A true series of sermons through a book should be reinforcing the main point of the book, not just providing the launch texts for entirely disconnected messages.  But beware that listeners don’t get bored or annoyed by the repetition of the main point.  Keeping with Colossians, it is true that Paul could hardly do more to point us to Christ as the all sufficient one for salvation and growth, but figure out ways to preach the series so that listeners don’t start getting annoyed at hearing that we need to look to Christ in everything.

We’ll continue the list tomorrow…

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition (pt.3)

envelope2And to finish off this series of pointers on preaching epistles, here are the final four:

9. Root imperatives in their own soil.  It is tempting to simply harvest imperatives and preach a to-do list.  Don’t.  Instead let each imperative be felt in its own context, including the earlier sections of the epistle where our gaze was pointed to Christ.  Don’t let application sections become self-focused when they actually are intended to present guidance for what flows from the doctrinal sections.

10. Be clear.  You can never be too clear in the way you structure the message and present the content.  Look for ways to help your listeners follow you, and also follow the author in his thought.

11. Preach the text.  The church has a full history of preaching messages from texts, but instead preach the message of the text.  There is a world of difference.  God inspired the Bible as it stands, He doesn’t promise to inspire every thought that is provoked in our minds as we read the text.

12. Engage in conversation.  Don’t just sit alone with your preaching notes.  Get into conversation.  First, with God.  Second, with others – commentaries and co-preachers, as well as listeners, etc.  Conversation about your sermon will almost always improve your sermon!