Studying the Bible – Learn!

I have completed a series of videos that detail the Learn phase of the Bible study process. Using 1 Peter 2:1-10, I look at the kind of thinking that goes into learning what a passage means. Good observation of the details in a passage will set us up to accurately learn what the text means as we study to determine the original author’s intended meaning. So, what goes into interpreting a Bible passage?

First, Look! We need to take time to notice what is in our passage. Here is a one-video summary of the Look! stage for this passage. So, onto the Learn stage:

1. Context: Historic – When was the passage written? What was happening at the time? What prompted the author to write it? What can we understand about the relevant cultures, the occasion for the writing, the situation at the time? (Click here for the video.)

2. Context: Written – The passage you are looking at sits within a book and therefore there is a written context to consider. What has come before your passage? What flows out from it? To understand a passage, you have to wrestle with the flow of the whole document. (Click here for the video.)

3. & 4. Content: Details – Remember all the details that we spotted in the Look stage of our study? Now we need to seek to understand them in light of the context of the passage. (Click here for the first video and click here for the second video on details!)

5. Content: Flow – How do the details work together in the flow of thought in this passage? It is so important to not only understand details, but to understand them in their most immediate context! (Click here for the video.)

6. Intent – What did the author intend to achieve through writing this passage? Are there clues within the passage, and are there indications within the book as a whole? (Click here for the video.)

After the Look! and the Learn! stage of Bible study, we will then move on to the Love/Live response (what should the text stir?) Here is a one-video summary of the Love/Live phase for this passage.

I will release another series that uses a different passage but focuses on the Love/Live phase instead of the Learn phase as I have this time. Hopefully, that makes sense! Please subscribe to the YouTube channel so that you can see the new videos as they are released.

7 Ways to Mishandle a Bible Story

The Bible is full of stories.  And we preachers are full of ways to mishandle them.  God has richly blessed us with the stories in the Bible.  Each one reveals God’s heart and character. Each story is designed to point our hearts to Him and to stir our faith in His word and character. So, how can we go wrong?

Here are seven ways to mishandle a Bible story:

1. Skip – This is the assume-and-ignore approach.  We can easily assume that everyone knows the story and so we skip the chance to tell the story.  Instead, we put our homiletical energy into preaching about the theological ponderings triggered by the story.  Why do we assume that everyone knows the story?  Actually, why do we assume that what we have to say about it is of more value than what it actually says?  Even if people do know the story, tell it anyway, and let God’s word work in your listeners.

2. Flip – This is the heretical approach.  We can easily misdirect our listeners and end up preaching heresy inadvertently.  Take the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10 for an example.  It is easy to put all the initiative in Zaccheus’ commitment in verse 8.  Then his salvation is affirmed by Jesus in verse 9.  Voila, we are saved by our own commitment to Christ!  Except, we are not.  Jesus had already taken the initiative in verse 5.  Jesus had already rescued Zaccheus.  The exuberant generosity of verse 8 is a response to God’s grace, not a prerequisite for it.

3. Moralise – This is the fleshly approach.  Since everyone naturally tends toward the notion of earning something with God, we can always and easily jump to what Bryan Chapell calls the “Deadly Be’s” – be like, be good, be disciplined.  So with Zaccheus’ story?  In verse 7 the crowd grumbled.  Let’s not be like them, let’s not grumble.  That verse is in the passage for a reason, but that little life lesson is not the reason.  It is there to emphasize the wonder of what Jesus did for Zaccheus.  It is not there to nudge us towards better behaviour.

4. Lecture – This is the historical-and-cultural-lecture approach.  Use cultural and historical insights to bring the story to life, not to cut the story to death.  How did the tax system work at that time?  How might middle eastern hospitality respond to Jesus’ passing through the town?  Where were sycamore-fig trees in relation to Jericho?  Shine a light on the story and keep telling it, don’t end up giving a series of historical lectures trigged by the details in the story.

5. Over-reveal – This is the punchline-first approach.  So with Zaccheus, you might state the first point as, “Jesus came to save the lost, verses 1-4.”  Oops.  In the passage, verse 10 comes as a surprise.  The whole text has worked to point the reader to Zaccheus’ efforts to see Jesus.  Then in the end it turns out Jesus was the one doing the seeking and the saving.  Why give it away at the start?  Do what the text does.  Don’t “tell the punchline before the joke.”

6. Flatten – This is the lifeless-outline approach.  Again, with the Zaccheus story, your points could be mind-numbingly flat: Jesus seeks the lost, Jesus rescues the lost, and Jesus reassures the lost.  Honestly, I’m bored just writing that outline, even if it is fairly accurate.  While it is true that the story develops in movements, it does not mean that the sermon has to sound like a logical progression through completely parallel points. That outline could work, but it needs a serious injection of energy.

7. Lose – This is the too-many-stories-along-the-way approach.  The story of Zaccheus is a gripping little narrative if it is told well.  But if you use every trigger point to tell another story, you will lose it.  I once knew a tax collector . . . I had a short friend once . . . I have a fun tree-climbing story . . . I remember a grumbling crowd in 1987, etc.  Let other illustrative materials be fairly succinct so that the focus remains on the main narrative of the sermon.

How else might we mishandle a Bible story? Biblical narratives are a dream for us preachers – let’s learn to handle them well so that they can do their mighty work in our hearts and those who will hear us!


Click on this image to see the YouTube playlist of videos on Bible handling:

Studying the Bible – Look!

I have completed a series of videos that detail the Look phase of the Bible study process. Using the triumphal entry passage in John 12, I look at the kind of details that we need to notice as we look at a Bible passage. The more closely we look at and observe the text, the easier it will be to accurately learn what the text means in the next phase of our study. So, what type of details are we noticing?

1. Who? – Who is being referred to in the passage? How are they being described? Who do the pronouns refer to? This is the first and, in some ways, the most important detail to notice. Why? Because the entire Bible is primarily a revelation of God and so noticing who is in the passage should get us thinking about God from the very beginning. (Click here for the video.)

2. When? – Are there any time references in the passage? Perhaps a time of day, or a point on the calendar. But it is not just about explicit time references, there is also the whole issue of tenses. Is something written with a tense that stands out – perhaps a reference to the past or the future. (Click here for the video.)

3. Where? – Does the passage refer to any locations? These could be geographic (i.e. Jerusalem), or circumstantial (sitting on a donkey), or they could be out of this world (God’s throne). Notice any details to places or locations in the passage. Do you need to check a map to note a specific location? (Click here for the video.)

4. What? – This is a catch-all question! What is repeated? What seems to be significant? What other details are you seeing in the passage? What key terms are being used? (Click here for the video.)

5. Which? – Which other passages are feeding into the passage you are looking at? These could be earlier Biblical content that is being quoted or alluded to in the passage you are studying. Or it could be earlier passages in the same book that are influencing our understanding of the passage we are studying. (Click here for the video.)

6. How? – How did the writer choose to write the passage? Is it a narrative, poetry, or discourse? At the Look stage, we don’t need to conclude why they did it, but we do need to notice how it was written. (Click here for the video.)

After the Look! stage of Bible study, we will then move on to Learn (what does the text mean?) Here is a one-video summary of the Learn phase for this passage. And then there is the Love/Live response (what should the text stir?) Here is a one-video summary of the Love/Live phase for this passage. I will release another series that uses a different passage but focuses on the Learn phase instead of the Look phase as I have this time. Then another focusing on Love/Live. Hopefully, that makes sense! Please subscribe to the YouTube channel so that you can see the new videos as they are released.

That Succinct Single-Sentence Summary

What is the difference between one sentence and half an hour? That is a key question in preaching.

We work hard to understand a biblical passage. We look at the context, wrestle with the flow of thought, analyse the details, and work out what the author was trying to communicate. Our end goal in studying the passage is to summarize the passage with a succinct single sentence.

However, when we preach, we don’t just say a sentence and sit down. So what makes up the difference? Let’s assume that the single sentence is an accurate summation of the passage. As we prepare the message (the second half of the preparation process), we essentially have two options:

Option 1. We carefully plan how to land that main idea in the hearts of our listeners. What form of introduction will best draw people into the message, making them thirsty for the passage and eager to hear the main idea? When should we present the main idea in the message? Should we repeatedly drive it home using the movements of the message to repeat the presentation of the idea? Or should we create greater anticipation so that once it is stated it will hit deeper? To put that another way, will the main idea be like a series of well placed sniper shots, or will it hit home like a bunker-busting missile? How will we explain the text, prove the points, and apply the truth in ways that reinforce the main idea of the message? In every aspect of content creation, structural formation, and delivery nuance, we seek to make that main idea so clear, transformative, evident from the text and applicationally earthed, that we will genuinely have preached the text before we sit down.

Or . . .

Option 2. We fill the half hour with material that will drown out the main idea. This is where we instead choose to fill the time, not to support the main idea, but at the cost of the main idea. We provide a series of informational segments, background descriptions, vaguely connected cross-references, somewhat amusing anecdotes, random highlights from our exegesis, favourite soapbox digressions, and illustrations that may or may not be well-suited to this particular moment. While most of these could be helpful, if we are not careful they can end up putting down a cover of smoke to keep the main idea from landing. Or we might hide the main idea beneath three or four points that tie to the text, but do not hold together effectively. The listeners will have an array of mini messages from which to select their favourite, but they are unlikely to have noticed the main idea.

While we probably would not consciously opt for option 2, we do so inadvertently when we embark on planning a message without crystallising our main idea first. After all, if you don’t have a sniper bullet or a bunker-busting missile ready to go, surely a random spray of machine gun rounds might hit home?

Moving from the passage to a single sentence is the first half of the preparation process. Moving from a succinct single-sentence summary to a fully formed message is the second half of the process. Let’s be sure to take option 1 as our approach to preaching.


Have you subscribed to our YouTube channel where we are sharing videos to help with Bible reading and Bible study? This will be a key resource for preachers and those we preach to in our churches. Click here to go to the channel and subscribe.

Is Biblical Interpretation Boring?

When Paul wrote to Timothy, the senior apostle urged the younger Timothy to do the work necessary to “rightly handle the word of truth.”  The implication is that it is possible to mishandle the word of truth.  You only need to listen to a few sermons online or visit a few churches to start your collection of scary examples! 

Nuanced technical caveats notwithstanding, it is essential to recognize that every passage says something specific.  Our job as we study is to determine, as best we can, what that something is.  That is to say that each passage has one accurate interpretation.  It cannot mean anything, and it does not mean everything.  It means something.

Once we determine that meaning, that one interpretation, we can then begin to evaluate the many potential applications of the passage.

Here is a video on this specific matter:

But if we are going to talk about the rules and principles of interpretation, then are we not embarking on a tedious task?  After all, who wants to memorize rules?

You could say the same thing about other processes too.  Learning to ride a bike feels tedious, but it opens a new world of adventures for a child.  Learning to drive a car safely can feel overwhelming, but it creates new freedom that is a wonderful blessing.  Learning anything will involve some rules or principles.  The real question is this: is it worth learning?

When we learn to handle the word of truth rightly, we start to see the richness God has put in our Bibles.  We get to understand his glorious message to us.  We get to enjoy the beauty of the divine revelation in all of its literary splendour.  We get to experience the life-change that comes from living a Bible-marked life.  The rules of interpretation sound dull, but they are a means to infinite treasure!  Boring is not the word; let’s try exciting instead!

Check out the video to see which Bible passage I use to introduce this point!

Learning from a Different World

Travel can be transformational. By travel, I don’t mean layovers in airports en route to somewhere else (I’ve unsuccessfully visited some significant countries this way!)  No, I mean genuinely visiting.

Let me share two examples and then make my point for us.

A “Third World Country” – How often have you heard people return from a missions trip and say that the local people taught them so much? It is a consistent message! I remember visiting an East African country and experiencing a completely different life. 

There was the food, the wildlife, the weather, and the transport. The cultural differences hindered my teaching, but then again, they also supported it. There was that more remote tribe where the children could pick out their friends in a picture on my camera. And yet they could not recognise themselves because they had never seen a good reflection before. And there was much to learn from the simple lifestyle, not to mention the sacrificial hospitality. It was like stepping into a different world, and I came home changed by my visit.

A “Second World Country” – I visited an Eastern European country some years ago. We walked past the jail where political prisoners, including pastors, used to be held and tortured. Communism never has room for dissenters, free thinkers or any God except the state. Therefore church leaders and Christians are always a threat. 

I remember asking a man driving me to a meeting what it was like to live under communism. He spoke of how some things worked, but nobody was free. He gave me two examples. He described living in a world where one in three people worked for the government as an informer. It meant that you would never speak openly about politics or religion. You never knew who would inform and lead to your arrest and the suffering that might also come to your family. And he described how everyone would dutifully buy the newspaper, signalling that they were good citizens. But they would never read it because everyone knew it was all government-controlled lies.

I have thought a lot about that conversation over the years. It was like a haunting warning from another country at another time. I often think about how our culture is moving towards that kind of community spying. We now live around people ready to call out anyone who breaks the brand new moral codes related to gender, sexuality and race. And we have technology constantly monitoring every click of the mouse, message from our keyboard or even word uttered by our mouth. And perhaps most concerning is the number of people who digest the messaging disseminated through our news media but don’t realise how controlled the messaging is. It is not hard to imagine our world morphing into another iteration of communism with millions of people naively celebrating such a sinister transformation of society! After all, it always comes out of a crisis for the good of the people.

The bottom line – Travelling to a different culture and meeting people who’ve lived in other times can hugely impact us. It should have a significant impact on us. Insightful lessons that will enrich our lives. Haunting warnings to protect us. If we have the privilege of travelling and go eager to learn, it will change us.

So, what do we do as Christians when we open our Bibles? What happens when we preach the Bible to others? We get to travel to a different world.

1. A different world geographically & culturally – Good bible study and biblical preaching will take our imaginations to the battlefields of ancient Israel, the throne rooms of ancient kings, the living rooms of ancient peasants, and the discussion forum of ancient philosophers. We will visit the Sinai peninsula’s wilderness, the fishing villages of Galilee, the arid hills around Jerusalem, the stormy Mediterranean sea, and strategic cities around one section of the Roman empire.

2. A different world educationally – Good bible study and biblical preaching will take our hearts right into the crowd hearing Moses preach. Or we might join the crowd hearing an Old Testament prophet proclaim God’s message. We might sit on the grass and hear Jesus teach. Or perhaps overhear the apostles announcing the resurrection. We will spend time being mentored by the experience of a young shepherd fighting for his nation, a want-away prophet running from his calling, or a height-challenged tax collector hiding in a tree. Wonderful enrichment for life and haunting warnings await us if we just travel into the Bible with our hearts open and ready to learn.

3. A different world entirely – Good bible study and biblical preaching take us to faraway lands and insightful mentors and, beyond that, give us a glimpse into another world. The Bible is not an old travelogue. We are earthbound and tend to think very “down here” kinds of thoughts. But heaven has broken into our world, and we can hear from the world of love where God is forever reigning, without caveat or coup. We might pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In the Bible, we get not only those words to pray but also the life-changing revelation of what that all means. 

Every day we have the privilege of travel with all its life enrichment, haunting warnings and unique mentoring opportunities. Open your Bible with an open heart. And every time we share our biblical travels with others in conversation or preaching, we can take them with us. Don’t shortchange yourself or others by simply grabbing for an applicational point or a quick anecdote. 

Too many of us visit the world of the Bible like a traveller in transit through an airport. We might pick up a local bar of chocolate in a kiosk, but we haven’t truly been to the country, and our lives show no evidence of impact. What would it look like to really go? To meaningfully visit? To spend time with the people, to see the sights, to be lastingly changed? 


By the way, after going through the Psalms in 2022 on YouTube, I am planning to spend the next months offering short videos related to the subject of studying and enjoying our Bibles. Please let me know, at any time, if you have an idea that would help that playlist become more useful to you or your church!

Work To Really Know a Passage – 7 Thoughts

This might seem like a really obvious thing to say, but I think it needs to be said. We have to really work hard in order to really know a passage before we preach it.

It is very easy to assume we know a passage. It is very hard to recognize how much we don’t know. But learning to think clearly about your own thinking is a critical skill for the preacher.

Here are some thoughts to consider:

1. Knowing a passage involves more than knowing some highlights or landmarks in it. After reading a passage and spending some time in study, you may be able to identify some key features of the passage. You might be able to say that there is the truth in verse 3, and the truth in verse 5 and then the conclusion in verse 9. Do you know the passage? No, you are aware of some highlights in the passage.

2. Knowing a passage involves more than being able to launch preaching points from phrases in it. You might feel ready to preach because verse 3 mentions justification (and you have some things to say about justification), and then verse 5 mentions hope (and you have a nice illustration you want to share about hope), etc. Are you ready to preach the passage if you have some good preaching points ready to launch? No.

3. Knowing a passage involves more than being able to talk about each phrase with theological truth. But what if your preaching content is not illustrations, but rich theological truths? Maybe you have a whole theology of justification that you can launch in verse 3, and then you can make a presentation on sanctification because of a key word that appears later in the passage? Surely if it is rich theological truth, then you are ready to preach? No. Not if the passage is not saying what you are planning to say. Just because wind appears in John 3 does not mean that I should preach about God’s view of changing weather patterns from it.

4. Knowing a passage involves more than reading some commentaries about the passage. It is not a bad idea to have some conversation partners in your study. Other live humans can be super helpful. As can published ones. But even if I can quote from impressive commentaries, it does not mean that I really understand the passage yet. By all means use the best resources you can access, but remember the goal is still for you to understand the passage, not just to have studied things written about it.

5. Knowing a passage involves understanding the details as they work together in a coherent whole. This is where many preachers seem to stumble. They do reasonably well with the details. They speak theological truth. They associate that truth with the wording in the passage. But if they don’t recognize how the details are working together in the passage, they don’t know the passage. Remember, your goal is not to study a passage in order to find a sermon. Your first goal is to study it in order to understand it.

6. Knowing a passage involves understanding the flow of thought in the passage, with an awareness of context. A passage sits in a book, as part of the whole. If you don’t understand how the passage works in the book, how can you really grasp what the passage itself means? So we need to study each passage in its whole book, as well as whole Bible, context. The point is, each passage was written to communicate something specific, and we need to figure that out. Our job is not to generate meaning by creativity, but to find meaning by dogged humble persistence.

7. Knowing a passage means being able to explain it so that the original author would affirm your grasp of its essential meaning. That sounds like a bold goal. It is. That is why we can’t just study until we feel a message emerging. As preachers we can generate messages out of nothing. But God has given us something very specific. And unless we grow in our confidence that it is possible to communicate the essential meaning of a passage to a level where the original author would affirm our explanation, then we will not put in the work necessary to be ready to preach.

Implication? The big implication of this post is simple. Don’t be so confident that you know the meaning of a passage. Study more. Study longer. Study humble. Study persistently. Make it your goal to know the passage better than you ever have before, to be able to handle questions about specific aspects of the passage, and be willing to explain the meaning of the text even to the original author himself…and then start thinking about how you will preach it!

Is Preparation Spiritual?

I think we would do well to clarify our terminology when it comes to asking about whether something is spiritual or not. The world often sees “spiritual” as a mystical quality inherent in certain activities or persons. So the mystical neighbour with the yoga mat is considered spiritual, but the engineer on the other side who plays football and enjoys soft rock anthems is not considered spiritual.

Then there is a semi-Christian version of the word which basically uses it as a synonym for sanctified behaviour. So it is not describing a quality of spirituality being present in something, but rather it just means whether it is appropriate Christian behaviour or not. In this way of thinking it is “spiritual” to pray, but it is not “spiritual” to go and watch the football game.

So let’s consider the issue of sermon preparation. Is it spiritual? Some, with the semi-Christian understanding of the word might affirm that it is spiritual to prepare a sermon – it is appropriate Christian behaviour for a pastor. Others, with a Christianized version of the first, more mystical, concept, might argue that it is not spiritual to prepare a sermon. Better, they might say, to disengage yourself from study and just rely on inspiration in the moment.

What if we cast off confusing misappropriations of the term and think in genuinely biblical terms. What constitutes “spiritual” in the New Testament? Is it not the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit? If that is the “top and bottom” of the issue, then we would have to say that either neighbour could be spiritual, or maybe completely devoid of the Spirit. And praying or watching football could be spiritual, or could also be completely devoid of the Spirit. And we would have to say that either preparing a sermon or choosing not to prepare a sermon could be spiritual, or completely devoid of the Spirit.

I do not doubt that God, by His Spirit, may work wonderfully if I am called on to preach without a moment to prepare. However, I do wonder at the wisdom of abdicating my role as a steward of the ministry if I were to decide to preach as if it were somehow more spiritual to not prepare at all.

My vote would absolutely be on the side of preparing. Wayne McDill, in his 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching (p219), wrote, “The fact is that God has decided to use preachers.  Our laziness does not help the Holy Spirit; it hinders him.  There is nothing particularly spiritual about poor sermon preparation.”

However, preparation is not automatically spiritual, either. Is my confidence in my preparation, my homiletical skill, my gifting, my knowledge, my view of preaching, my teachers, my books? Or is my heart reliant on God, my mind humbly subject to God’s instruction, my attitude one of humility before the Word of God, etc.? My suspicion is that whether my preparation is spiritual or not will be evident in my prayer. It will be known to God and probably more obvious to my listeners than I might think (especially if I am functioning in a state of self-confidence).

If you are asked to preach, prepare. Prepare humbly. Prepare prayerfully. Prepare as if “apart from me, you can do nothing.”

Navigating the Mess

Everything looks lovely down below when flying 10,000 meters above the earth. The land is green, the mountains look stunning, and the sea is bright blue. But real life is not lived from 10,000m up; it is lived down here in the mess of real life. We feel this messy reality, especially when it comes to relationships.

Every engaged couple looks forward to their wonderful married life to come. It is loving to help them prepare for marriage knee-deep in the mess of real-life challenges! The anticipation may be eighteen years of joy and giggles when the first baby comes along, but reality will be much more down to earth. The same is true of friendships, church fellowship, ministry teams, etc. Genuine relationships are much messier and need more guidance than a simple “love one another” or “be kind” (although these instructions are essential, of course).

If only God had given us a little note to offer some guidance in the messy confusion of real-life relationships. He did. For almost two millennia, God has placed a little personal note in his collection of inspired documents. It is a personal letter of twenty-five verses from Paul about a runaway household slave. We call the letter Philemon.

Paul’s Little Letter

Philemon was a relatively wealthy man from Colossae. We know this because his home was large enough to host a church, and he had slaves working for him. He had encountered Paul at some point in time – perhaps while visiting Ephesus. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Philemon was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial person in the new church in Colossae.

At another point in time, Onesimus, a slave working in Philemon’s home, had decided to start a new and illegal life for himself. He stole whatever he could carry and travelled far away to Rome, hiding among the swirl of criminals and runaway slaves who wanted to hide their crimes there. Somehow, in God’s goodness, Onesimus was introduced to Paul. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Onesimus was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial helper to Paul, living under the constraints of house arrest in Rome.

Eventually, the story came out. Onesimus had stolen and run away from Philemon, Paul’s old friend in Colossae. So, Paul urged Onesimus to return and make things right with his owner. Despite Onesimus’ fear of arrest and possible capital punishment, Paul wrote his short letter to Philemon. Onesimus would have guarded that letter closely, treasuring the truth it contained. We should do the same.

Why? For Onesimus, it made a way to do the right thing with hope. For us, the epistle to Philemon gives us hope as we try to navigate the messy realities of interpersonal relationships in the Christian community. Let’s consider briefly two critical realities and then three additional features revealed in this letter:

1. Such a great debt. Paul appealed on behalf of Onesimus, making it clear that Onesimus had become a follower of Jesus and a very useful companion to Paul (v8-11). But did Paul know about the crimes committed back in Colossae? Yes, he did. And he promised to pay that debt in full (v18-19).

When there is sin, there is always a debt. When someone hurts you, even if they did not steal something tangible, they leave behind a debt of hurt, shame, or whatever. Everything in us wants to make them pay. Everything in us wants that debt made up to us in some way. Onesimus’ debt could have cost him his life, but Paul charged it to his own account.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every one of us, Paul had a debt with God’s eternal justice that he could never repay. But Jesus died to pay that debt in full. If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. We can never make the atoning sacrifice Jesus made for us. Still, we can accept the cost of hurt and release others from our desires for revenge or our need for compensation. A Christian community navigates the mess of relationships with plenty of forgiveness – the acceptance of interpersonal pain costs that we no longer hold on the accounts of others.

2. Such a great welcome. Paul offered to pay the debts of Onesimus. He also urged Philemon to welcome his runaway slave as if he were his dear brother, Paul himself (v16-17). Suppose it had just been a promise of debt repayment. In that case, Onesimus could have headed back to the servants’ quarters or, in a non-slave setting, be free to walk away. But Paul asked Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. The guest room, the seat of honour at dinner, etc.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every last one of us, Paul had no business being welcomed into God’s family and home. But Jesus makes it possible for us to be welcomed into God’s family, home, and table of feasting as if we were Jesus himself! Accepted in the beloved Son – what a privilege!

If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. So the Christian community because a place that is uniquely welcoming in a world of simulated tolerance. Hurt and broken people can find the welcome of a true family when they meet Jesus and join a healthy local church. And it is not just at the moment of conversion, either. Continually we forgive one another, and we express genuine love and acceptance toward each other. We navigate the mess of relationships by remembering the Gospel – what has Jesus done for us? And then we look to spill that same goodness toward one another.

If Philemon only pointed us to the beautiful truths of forgiveness and acceptance, it would already be a treasure. But there are at least three more features to notice as you read it. Three more ways that the Gospel shapes us to navigate the complexity of life knee-deep in the mess of relationships:

Connected – Meeting Jesus and joining his family gives us a sense of connectedness that we could never have outside the church. The world strives to achieve self-serving networking. We are brought into the extended family of God. Look at the connections described in verses 1-2 and 23-24. And be sure to pause on the level of connection described in verse 12 – Onesimus: “my very heart.”  We can mean so much to each other because we first mean so much to God!

Refreshing – Look at how Paul thanks God for Philemon’s faith in God and love for others in verses 4-7. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, we almost imperceptibly grow in our impact on others. In a world of people who feel like their existence makes essentially no difference to anyone, we discover that our participation in the body of Christ is a source of refreshment to others!

Giving – Paul would have benefitted from keeping Onesimus with him in Rome. After all, “Useful” (the meaning of the name) had become very useful to Paul. But healthy Christians are marked by Christlike generosity. The Gospel makes us givers, not grabbers. In a world full of grabbing and self-serving, it is beautiful to become part of a family of givers.

How can we navigate the mess of human relationships in the church? None of us lives at theoretical heights of 10,000m. If we are involved in church life and ministry, it is messy. The answer to the question is not a pragmatic suggestion or a simple how-to guide. The answer flows from the reality of who God is and what he has done for us. Let’s allow the book of Philemon to become a treasure in our lives – treasured because it reminds us that the Gospel speaks of how we can be saved and how we can navigate the messy complexity of human relationships.


Brief videos on the Psalms . . . a great book for the mess!

Your Job is to Make Words Clear

When I used to live close to London I sometimes visited the British Library. There you can see some amazing treasures, such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus.  It is amazing to see such ancient books, but they are not the easiest things to read and understand. For one, they were written in uncials: ITISNOTEASYTOREADTEXTWITHOUTGAPSORPUNCTUATION.  Oh, and they are in Greek, just to add to the challenge.

Thankfully we don’t have to read Greek text written in uncials (unless we want to, then praise God that we can access so much!) We are blessed to have the Bible very accurately translated into our language and readily affordable (or free online). They even add in spaces, lower case letters, punctuation, etc. How blessed we are! I suppose I should also mention the chapter and verse divisions, which save a lot of time. And there are the somewhat and sometimes helpful section headings.

But remember that to many people in our churches today, the text feels as inaccessible as an ancient uncial codex! To many, it feels like a big block of text with thousands of words running into each other.

And so the preacher goes to work each week, diligently studying a passage in order to first understand it, and then to preach it. That work moves from the initial simplicity of familiar words, through the complexity of trying to grasp an author’s flow of thought, and out into the warm sunshine of studied simplicity. Hopefully, the preacher is then in a place to make sense of the flow of thought, to identify the major thoughts and to see the supporting role of each subordinate thought. The passage no longer feels like a random set of instructions and assertions.

When we preach our task includes the need to make a string of words clear.  We don’t have to start with an uncial script, but to all intents and purposes, we practically are.  Listeners hearing a string of verses often grasp very little during their first exposure. As we preach we look for ways to emphasize the main thoughts, we look for ways to demonstrate how the “support material” in the text explains, proves and/or applies the main thoughts.  Without technical jargon, our preaching needs to verbally achieve the formation of something like a clausal layout in the minds and hearts of our listeners.  Certainly, by the time we are done preaching, they should not see the text as a string of random words or thoughts . . . it should be much clearer than that!

Preaching goes way beyond clarification of the meaning of a string of words. But preaching won’t go anywhere good if it bypasses this critical element of the task.