Taking a line in the difficult passages
There are some passages in Scripture which are, frankly, very hard to understand. They just are. And sometimes your understanding of them may lead to very different applications, even opposite ones. Take the crying in Ezra 3. Why are the older leaders crying? Tears of joy perhaps? Tears of sorrow? I think the text is ultimately clear in this place (though why they are crying is more difficult to work out). But your answer may lead you in very different directions.
Ezra 10 is a similar passage. You could tie yourself in a lot of knots trying to get to the bottom of this. So, what do you do with it in a sermon? If you were writing a commentary, you’ve got a much easier task. You can spend 10 pages presenting one view and 10 pages the opposing view. Then you can say “at the end, we can’t really be sure.”
But is that ever good enough for a sermon?
I do think a preacher needs to sit humbly before the text and his people need to see him submitting to the text. But a sermon is not a commentary, nor is it a lecture. Therefore, I believe a preacher should prayerfully and carefully hope and trust to come to a conclusion. That is not to say that he cannot reveal his struggles. ‘This is a hard part to get right.’ Nor ever claim to have the final word. ‘As I’ve prayed and considered, this is where the text seems to take us.’
But he won’t have time to do the whole ‘it could mean this, it could mean that’ rigmarole. Nor should he want to.
That’s not preaching, is it? At least, not in my book.
The ambiguity of Ezra 10
Ezra is a book in my bloodstream. I’ve preached through it three times; taught it at Cornhill pretty much every year since I’ve been here; lectured it here and overseas and I’m midway through writing our Teaching Ezra book. And yet, I still think that getting to the bottom of chapter 10 (when foreign wives are put away) one of the hardest parts of the Old Testament – especially in how we make it into New Covenant teaching.
I’ve just finished teaching this year’s course at Cornhill and am reminded that ending with this uncertainty is always unsatisfactory. Of course, that sense might be mitigated if we bundled Ezra and Nehemiah together (as I recommend the students). But our timetable, at present at least, does not allow for that.
I set the students two key questions. First, is Ezra’s response the correct one? Second, what is the New Covenant parallel, if there is one. These are two separate but not entirely unconnected questions.
For what it’s worth, I think the first question is easier to answer. Ezra is presented as the pre-eminent man of the law (e.g. Ezra 7.10). The whole second section leans heavily in this direction. He describes the remedy as “honouring the Lord, the God of your ancestors and doing his will” (Ezra 10.10). The people recognise this is good. “You are right! We must do as you say” (Ezra 10.12) having previously encouraged Ezra “Let it be done according to the Law” (Ezra 10.3).
DA Carson is somewhat more ambiguous than I could be: “Strictly speaking the text itself does not adjudicate between these two interpretations [Ezra is right, or wrong in his actions], though the first of the two is slightly more natural within the stance of the book.”
I want to go further. It seems to me that the text’s thrust and tone positively encourages us to think optimistically about Ezra’s actions. But given that to be the case, we are still left with the perplexing question of New Covenant application. Here are one or two ideas:
- First, the big thing going on is the supremacy of relationship with the covenant God. Nothing must be allowed to trump this. This point needs to be made, though that does not necessarily rule anything in or out in terms of our preaching application.
- Second, we must recognise that a New Testament believer’s relationship to law is not the same as an Old Testament believer.
- Third, there is a seriousness about sin and a ruthlessness about remedy that is reflected in the New Covenant – see, for example, Matthew 5.30.
- Fourth, it is possible to make a case I believe, for saying that these so-called “marriages” are not marriages at all. It is not that they are unethical, they are illegal. Is it possible to say that a legal parallel would be ‘marriage’ to, say, a sister? If someone told you that they were married to their sister, you would reply, ‘No, you’re not.’ The “wife” must be put away.
There are some things in Scripture that are hard to understand. We must not ignore them, but wrestle with them. And when it comes to preaching, I believe, we have to take a line. More of that tomorrow.
Pastoring the elderly
We had an interesting evening about the elderly at church last Sunday with Stephen Hammersley, CBE, the new Chief Executive of Pilgrim Friends Society. Some of the stats are breath-taking in terms of the growth in the numbers of those over 65 and also those over 85 (where dementia becomes a 25% reality).
It occurred to me once again that we are ill-equipped as churches to know how to minister into these situations. Stephen suggested, for example, that the secular care-world is much more advanced in understanding dementia and how to help those who suffer than the church is. In the church, very few people have begun to build any kind of pastoral theology around this huge issue.
Two quotes, in essence saying the same thing, stood out. First Billy Graham: ‘All my life I was taught how to die as a Christian, but no one ever taught me how I ought to live in the years before I die…it is not easy.’ Then John Stott: ‘I knew I had to prepare for eternity, but no-one told me I had to prepare for being old.’
Alongside these we might put the young pastor who, in my head at least, says, ‘All my training I’ve been taught how to minister to the fit and well, no-one ever taught me how to minister to the elderly.’
A glance at the bookshelves confirms the diagnosis. So many, many books on youth work. Some of them really good. So few books on pastoring the elderly (any decent ones at all?).
We need some thinking and help. It’s not just the NHS that has a ticking time bomb because of the ageing population. It’s the church too. Your church, in all probability.
Evangelical Ministry Assembly 2015
Easter has now come and gone and so it’s time to think about summer. In particular, time to get thinking about the EMA. This year’s conference is at the Barbican centre and runs from 22-24 June 2015. We think we’ve got one of the most important and exciting programmes we’ve had for some time. It’s pretty obvious that we’re living in a confused world and, frankly, many Christians are confused too. But when you stop and look carefully you realise that many of the issues we’re confused about are to do with identity. If only we had a more robust doctrine of humanity then some of the identity crises we face would diminish. We’d at least be able to think about them clearly.
So our plan this year is to tackle this important subject head on. Christopher Ash will be leading the morning expositions from some of the central chapters of John’s gospel. Bruce Ware and Tim Keller will be helping us work through a robust theology of humanity and how it relates to communicating the gospel. Reuben Hunter, Andrew Reid and Vaughan Roberts will be taking the closing expositions: Christ incarnate, Christ crucified and Christ glorified.
Our seminar streams are a mix of those for preachers (a preaching masterclass with Peter Adam, preaching Genesis with Andrew Reid, preaching refresher with Jonathan Griffiths), practical (Bruce Ware on the pastor at home, Kathleen Nielson leading a women’s track) and those related to our main topic (Mike Ovey on gender, John Wyatt on beginning and end of life, Tim Keller on crossing boundaries) plus a special seminar hosted by me on breaking down the barriers of race, age and class in church life.
Frankly, I want to go to everything! I hope you can make it. It promises to be an exciting three days together and – as always, the chances to connect with friends, make new ones, browse the excellent bookstore and sing praises to our God are all worth their weight in gold.
John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Preaching
In Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers he describes at one point what you might call the preacher’s glory-moment: ‘an awareness of a power not your own thrilling through the whole of your being … You are a man ‘possessed’, you are taken hold of, and taken up’ (p.326).
Stott, by contrast, speaks of the same kind of moment in I Believe in Preaching in a very different way: ‘The most privileged and moving experience a preacher can have’ is when ‘the preacher is forgotten and the people are face to face with the living God’. His illustrations are telling: the preacher is then like a best man at a wedding or an orchestra conductor at a concert, whose very role is to fade into the background (pp.326-28). Note the key difference here: whether, and to what extent, we should pay much theological attention to the preacher himself, as the man he is at that moment, as a vehicle for what God is doing in his sermon. Preachers need the humility to get out of the way, says Stott (p.328). I think Lloyd-Jones would respond with something like: ‘certainly, get your pride in your eloquence and your cleverness out of the way; but don’t self-effacingly get yourself out of the way: you can’t; you mustn’t. You as a person, not just as a talking-machine, are God’s means at that moment.’
This theology finds expression in the kind of phrases which Lloyd-Jones often used at key moments in his sermons: “I am here this morning to tell you…”. Stott, however, is so concerned that preachers not abuse their authority that he judges it wise not to say “I say to you”, but to stick mostly with the first person plural. In light of all this, I doubt that it is incidental that Stott’s book is called I Believe in Preaching, whereas Lloyd-Jones’ title is Preaching and Preachers. My hunch is that this particular difference between the two men’s views gets close to the heart of things.
Many observations could be made about this, but here is just one. The view you take on this point is massively determined by personality and culture. If you dislike public displays of emotion and come from a culture in which the person who seems to deflect attention coolly away from himself is usually judged to be the better man, then Stott will probably appeal to you. If, though, you are someone who thinks that displays of passion often convey greater truth and authenticity than deliberate coolness, especially when it comes to the things of God, then you’ll probably prefer Lloyd-Jones on this point.
It’s not that Scripture has nothing to say on this – it does. But before we ever get to that, we need to have some perspective on the extent to which our theology of something as personal to us as preaching is driven by our own sense of how we want others to see us.
PT at its worst
I recently heard an online interview in which a good man described the view that preaching is simply good Bible explanation as ‘PT at its worst’. I don’t mind that too much. I know the kind of thing he’s talking about. I’ve heard it a few times myself. PT’s heartbeat is to insist that if a man hasn’t worked to get his text right then he can have all the homiletical skills and emotional force in the world, and it still isn’t good preaching. If that’s taken too strongly in isolation from other aspects of the preaching gift, you will indeed get us at our worst.
However we here never want to push it further than it was intended to be pushed. One way this plays out for us is in what we try to give students at Cornhill, and how we try to assess them as they come to the end, giving advice to their sending churches. We’re not big on pulpit-craft, but we are constantly working on aspects of effective communication, alongside all the central text-work.
Now if someone in the end is not all that gifted at getting to the heart of the message of a Bible-text, we want to tell them so, even if they’re hilarious and inspiring story-tellers. It would in the end be unkind to them and to the church not to. We’re not telling them that they’re useless in God’s hands. If we communicate it well, we’re helping them see where they would be round pegs in round holes, in the Lord’s service.
But what about those students who are terrific at getting to the heart of a text, but who struggle to hold the attention of a body of listeners and fail to project much sense of an encounter with the Lord in and through the preached word? Well, it’s not always easy, but we try to ensure we tell them that we don’t yet see in them the gifts to be the lead preacher in a church. (We are, after all, the Proclamation Trust, not the Explanation Trust.) The Lord may one day grow that gift in them, but we don’t yet see it. If we didn’t communicate that to them, then we would see people leaving Cornhill who will bore congregations rigid but who think they’ve got our stamp of being good preachers. That would be PT at its worst.
Just saying, so you know what to expect if you think of sending someone to Cornhill.
And perhaps it helps us in assessing in our own church families who the next generation of preachers might be whom (we trust) the Lord will raise up.
The Passover sermon
On Good Friday I preached on Exodus 12. I admit that finding new Easter messages each year is both frustrating (I’m sure I’ve preached this sermon before) and exhilarating (isn’t this a wonderful privilege to preach on the cross?). This year I went for the Passover link – I wanted to help people see the riches there are in this typology.
There’s lots that can be said about Exodus 12, including some obscure details that it is possible to read a lot into (for example, the lamb being “guarded” for 14 days). I concentrated on just two verses – 12 and 13 – which give you Jesus’ sacrifice as both judgement on enemies (v12) and substitute for sin (v13). Rich, indeed.
But where do you go for application? This is where your biblical theology helps out. For the Passover takes you two places:
First, it takes you to the Lord’s Supper and so it takes you to a call for thankfulness. Then it takes you to 2 Cor 5.7 which is not just a proof text that “Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed” but links that truth to a call for gospel living. In full, “For Christ our Passover Lamb…”
An amazing truth. With deep implications.
Tracing themes in the Old Testament
One of the ways to preach Christ from the Old Testament is to see how he is the fulfilment of the many key themes that run throughout the Bible’s pages. This is rich picking for the preacher or Bible teacher and one of our issues is that we simply don’t know the themes well enough: what to look for? But here’s a simple solution: read Hebrews.
Just pause and think. I wonder if every major theme is covered?
- Revelation (chapter 1)
- Humanity (chapter 2)
- Moses (chapter 3)
- Land (chapters 3-4)
- Priesthood/high priesthood (chapters 5-7)
- Covenant (chapter 8)
- Tabernacle/Temple (chapter 9)
- Sacrifice (chapters 9-10)
- Faith (chapters 11-12)
With application at the end. It’s a masterclass of course with each segment segueing in the next. I love it – one of my favourite books of the Bible (am I allowed that?). And rich ground for the OT preacher. It would not be a bad discipline to read Hebrews through before getting ready to preach any OT book.
A tale of two sermons
A fortnight ago I heard two sermons in the space of just a couple of hours. Well, I say, sermons, but one was on the radio and was a pretty poor attempt. Both quoted 1 Cor 15. The first was from the Bishop of Leicester. It drew heavily on the reburial of Richard III (what a lot of nonsense!). Death comes to us all, said the speaker. True enough. “For in Adam all die” he said. Brilliant, I thought, we’re going to get the rest of verse 22.
It was not to be. Instead, we just got the burial of Richard III as a reminder that we all die and that – launching straight to 2 Cor 12.9, “My grace is sufficient for you” – that when people we love do die, God gives us sufficient grace to get through.
Never mind the leap of logic (I did not love Richard III and so his death doesn’t make me too sad). It was a wilful omission. To say “For in Adam all die” and NOT to say “so in Christ all will be made alive” is more than carelessness. It is obfuscation.
How thankful I was, therefore, to sit in a quite different sermon just a few minutes on where 1 Cor 15 was also quoted, but fully, together with gospel appeal and gospel comfort.
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
Amen and Amen.
The Spirit’s exegetical masterclass
I was reading John 21 this morning – appropriate stuff for Easter time. This is what I read:
22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumour spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
It’s one of those places where the Spirit himself does some exegesis for us. What I like about this particular moment is that the inspired text encourages us not to make texts bear what they were never intended to do.
For sure, without verse 23, we would have interpreted verse 22 the same way – but because of history, not because of exegesis. We would have said something like, “Well, we know John lived to an old age and died, and that Jesus hasn’t returned” so we would not make Peter’s mistake and load the text up.
But if we had been first Century Christians, would we really have had that insight? I doubt it. So here is the Holy Spirit’s Exegetical Lesson – take care not to load onto texts weights that they cannot bear.
Mark 13.7 anyone. For starters?