The big idea and aim of the Big Idea and Aim
Anyone who encounters what we do at Cornhill quickly discovers that we’re rigorous in training students to come up with two sentences for any Bible passage that they’re teaching or preaching: a Big Idea (a.k.a. BI, or Theme Sentence) and Aim Sentence.
This practice sometimes raises some good questions, and here are a couple of them.
Isn’t it more formulaic than Scripture itself?
Of course any set of disciplines can be turned into a lifeless formula by the petty-minded, but I’m pretty insistent that our insistence on BI and Aim does not drain the life from Scripture, but actually leads the preacher to be listening out for it.
- The BI boils down to this: what is the passage actually talking about?
- The Aim boils down to this: why are these things written here in this way in Scripture?
‘What?’ and ‘why?’. These are the two key questions that precisely help the preacher not to impose his favourite framework on a text, but to discipline himself to listen for what God is actually saying there.
That’s why, for myself, I fight a little shy of asking early on in my preparation questions which presuppose looking for a certain kind of content. Some books recommend this: e.g. one good contemporary writer suggests looking for what he calls the ‘Fallen Condition Focus’ of each text. It’s far from a terrible question, but I’d always rather start with, and persist with, ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ - questions which steer me, if I follow them faithfully, to listen to this text in its own right.
What’s the basis of ‘BI and Aim’?
Well, you can find theological answers to that question. But here’s a good general answer, from God’s common grace in human life:
Every time a person uses language, that language has two inseparable features: propositional content and inter-personal action. More simply: every time we open our mouths or tap on our keyboards, there’s content (what I’m saying) and intention (why I’m saying it). These two can be analysed separately, but they never actually exist separately; they’re two ways of describing what we’re doing when we communicate. (In a previous life I researched this a bit, and should anyone be interested it’s grounded in a solid philosophy of language.)
That’s why we get Cornhillers going on both BI and Aim from day one of Cornhill. Focus on BI without Aim and you’ll get lectures pretending to be sermons; focus on Aim without BI and you’ll get lots of heat and little light. All language, including the human language that Scripture is written in, always has both. ‘BI and Aim’ is simply our way of expressing a desire to read Scripture in a way that’s faithful to how God has made us and our language.
Exegetical reflections on Luke ch.24, part 3
The final section, vs.36-53:
Three rather odd things happen here, and I think that working away at these, in the way Luke has described them, gets us heading in the right direction:
1) When Jesus appears to the disciples (v.36), they’re all startled and frightened and think he’s a ghost. Yet only moments earlier they had seemed convinced of his resurrection (v.34)! The repeated language of ‘ghost’ (vs.38-39) suggests what’s going on: they are not fully convinced of the complete physical reality of the resurrection. After all, at the meal-table with Emmaus Two it seems that he disappeared before anything was actually eaten (vs.30-31).
2) The climax of Luke’s account of Jesus providing the disciples with evidence of the reality of his resurrection is… he eats a mouthful of fish while they watch (vs.40-43). Rarely has such a mundane act had such theological clout! But see this as Jesus’ response to their thinking he’s a ghost, and Luke’s point begins to emerge: the climax of the evidence of the resurrection is the demonstration that the risen Christ was as fully human as he was before his death.
That’s not often a key point that folks like us have drawn from the resurrection, but it does seem to be Luke’s. In his resurrection, and then at his ascension, Jesus left no part of his humanity behind. We who are in him can be confident of heaven, because (among other reasons, of course) one human being has blazed the trail and gone there ahead of us.
3) In vs.50-53 it is rather clear that the Father took Jesus up into heaven while he was part-way through blessing them. Why didn’t he wait just a few minutes for Jesus to finish his blessing?! Wouldn’t that have been an encouragement for the disciples?
It’s a strange thing. Is Luke’s point that Jesus is continuing to bless his disciples from heaven, even though he is not with us physically - that his unfinished blessing is unfinishing? That fits, I think, with his promise to clothe them with power from on high (v.49). His physical disappearance does not end the blessing of his presence with them; actually it allows for it to continue in a much more powerful way.
I feel I have only scratched the surface of Luke 24. But again I’ve been reminded that working away hard at what Luke has actually said, and trying to stick with the question ‘why has he chosen to say this?’, yields rather more fruit than I see when I first read through such familiar verses.
Exegetical reflections on Luke ch.24, part 2
Now to the famous Emmaus Road, vs.13-35.
Much more than this could be said, but here are a couple of thoughts:
1) Central to this event as Luke tells it is the contrast between what the Emmaus Two expected of the Messiah (vs.19-24), and what Jesus says the Messiah actually had to do (vs.25-27).A careful contrasting of these two portions gets us to the heart of things, I think. They expected that he would do for their nation the very things that they themselves wanted done for their nation: sort out the Romans, and renew the nation’s life and status. In their expectation, God’s plans just happened to include the things that they themselves wanted.
Jesus, though, uses Scripture to describe God’s plan for the Messiah entirely without reference to the redemption of the nation which so concerns them. For Jesus, it is all about the Messiah’s glory, which had to be preceded by the very suffering which the Emmaus Two thought proved his defeat. If we expect God to work in ways that will also just happen to lead to our glory and comfort here and now, most of us will be disappointed in him. But if we expect that he will work to bring the Messiah glory - and that through suffering, as throughout Scripture - then he will never disappoint us.
2) How is it that they came to recognise him at the breaking of the bread (vs.30-31, 35)? Most evangelicals reject any overt reference to the Lord’s Supper, and have sometimes wondered if the disciples noticed the nail-marks in his hands at that point. Luke, though, makes no reference to that, so that can only be guess-work. What Luke does describe is Jesus acting as host at a meal at which is he technically a guest (v.30). That points us in the right direction, I think. Twice before, Luke has used similar words to describe Jesus hosting a meal: the feeding of the five thousand (9.16) and the last supper (22.19). In the first of these, he is the host who provides for the Lord’s people in the wilderness, and in the second he is the provider of the atoning sacrifice for sin.
This suggests that Luke is showing us that the risen Christ was recognised as risen when he was seen to be the Provider who was still among his people. Faith in the resurrection is therefore not just faith in a miracle, but is trust in Jesus as the provider of all that his people need to cover their sins and to sustain them.
Exegetical thoughts on Luke ch.24, part 1
At the recent PT Summer Wives Conference I gave three talks on Luke’s final chapter, ch.24, and to be honest I found the prep a real wrestle. Preachers know that feeling mid-way through the prep for something like this: “I don’t think I’m going to have anything useful to say. Shall I just pick something that promises to yield easier fruit instead?”.
However some things did come to strike me quite forcefully, and I share them here, over the next three days.
First up is vs.1-12.
Luke seems to have narrated this in a way that stresses two things:
1) The disciples were simply not expecting the resurrection (vs.1-3, 11), even though they had heard Jesus predict it (v.6), and even though some of them had themselves experienced his miraculous healing power personally. The latter point is presumably why Luke goes out of his way to name the women in v.10, since some of the same women are also mentioned as having been healed in 8.1-3.
That gives huge comfort to Christians who find our message of a risen Christ met with incredulity.
2) This is really the same point, but now put positively: belief in Christ resurrected is given through divine revelation that first of all humbles, and then gives insight into and remembrance of Christ’s words (vs.4-8). (This theme will also continue into the next section: vs.16 and 31-32.)
I began to think that this explains why Luke ends the section with Peter as a partial exception to the disciples’ lack of expectation of the resurrection (v.12). The last time Luke showed us Peter, he was in a position rather like that of the women at the tomb: humbled, forced to remember Jesus’ words, and confronted with the truth of those words (22.60-62). If that’s right, then Luke is showing that human reception of the news of the resurrection requires our humbling - and those who have been humbled by God are more likely to be open to believing it. On reflection, I have found that to be largely true of ministry as I have experienced it.
The working wife
I was at the recent PT Summer Wives conference, invited along as a speaker. We had a panel question time on wide-ranging issues of ministry, and the perennial question arose of whether or not a pastor’s wife ought to do paid work out of the home. There are of course strongly argued views both ways on this, so we wanted to pick our way through it carefully.
One helpful way in which the question was framed was this: aren’t we in our constituency in danger of promoting a 1950s cultural model of the housewife (main job: cook and clean, and make sure house and kids are spick and span and dinner is ready for hubbie’s return home), and pretending it’s biblical?
A good question. There is no doubt that danger is real, and we may well at times have fallen into it. As is often pointed out, the wife of noble character in Prov 31 is rather more like a home-based businesswoman than a 1950s housewife, and the ‘busyness at home’ which older women are teach to younger women (Titus 2.5) is very likely to be much more akin to that, than akin to a post-Industrial-Revolution cultural model of house-wifery. That itself doesn’t answer the question about pastors’ wives going out of the home to earn money, but it certainly shows that easy answers won’t do.
I wonder if it is especially in marriage-roles and family relationships that we are likely to slip unawares into largely cultural rather than biblical patterns without noticing, precisely because such things seem so ‘natural’ to us. It is really only those who believe that Scripture is the living voice of God who can gain a true perspective on themselves and their culture from outside, which is a great mercy and a great challenge.
Which brings me to the paucity of public praying. We’re preaching through Ephesians at the moment. Compare the glorious end of chapter 3 and what Paul prays for the Ephesians to what passes as public prayer in most of our churches. Ouch. Subject. Content. Depth. Profundity. We’re found wanting in every area.
Lord, teach me to pray [publicly].
Describing prayers? Just stop it.
I heard someone praying on the radio the other day in a corporate worship service. Only he wasn’t really praying. He was describing praying. And this passed for the petitions of the people. The prayer went something like this.
“We pray God would bring peace in the world. We pray God would heal Aunt Lucy. We pray God would provide funds for the new organ.” That kind of thing. Even when such prayers contain better sentiments that are more focused on Scripture (as I think prayer should), this is still not really a public prayer. To describe to a congregation what one might pray for, rather than praying to the living God himself, is more than a missed opportunity. It is madness. We have access to the Father by the Son, with the Spirit himself helping us. Why would we not want to address him? I can’t understand it.
And this isn’t just the liberals on the radio. I’ve heard evangelicals do it too.
Please don’t. It’s not actually praying, hadn’t you noticed?
New director of the PT Cornhill Training Course
The Trustees of The Proclamation Trust are delighted to announce the appointment of Nigel Styles as the new Director of the PT Cornhill Training Course. Nigel is currently senior minister of Emmanuel Church in Bramcote, Nottingham, a church established 9 years ago. He is also Director of Training for the Midlands Gospel Partnership. Nigel is married to Lizzie and they have six children.
Nigel will officially take up his post from Summer 2016, but in the meantime he will gradually increase his involvement with the Proclamation Trust. Until next summer, the Associate Director of PT Cornhill, Tim Ward, will be Acting Director.
The Cornhill Training Course is part of the ministry of The Proclamation Trust and has been training men and women for word ministry in the local church, and in particular preaching, for almost 25 years. It has established a strong reputation as a robust and thorough preparation for church ministry and we are delighted that the appointment of Nigel will continue this focus and approach.
Nigel will work closely with the other PT directors: Adrian Reynolds (Director of Ministry), Carrie Sandom (Director of Women’s Ministry) and Neil Watkinson (International Director). Please join us in praying for the continued ministry of the PT Cornhill Training Course and the wider ministry of The Proclamation Trust. Please also pray for Nigel and Lizzie and their family, as well as the church family at Emmanuel, as Nigel transitions to this new stage of life and ministry.
Preaching with spiritual power
Ralph Cunnington has written a very important book examining the relationship between word and Spirit in Calvin, assessing – as he goes – John Woodhouse and Stuart Olyott who might be both described, perhaps, as representing two extremes. I loved this book when I first read it and remember it got me thinking very deeply and, again, feeling my prayerlessness when it came to preaching. I’ve just received a copy as it is now published, and a quick scan reminded me why I liked it so much. It is a book of historical theology and – therefore – there are footnotes. But overall, an exciting read for every preacher and well worth some of your time over the summer.
“Preachers do not need to enter the pulpit anxious about whether God will accompany his word. He will, and preachers must be confident of that.”
Of course, there are a wealth of caveats, what-ifs and whys and wherefores behind that statement, but it remains a confidence for every preacher and – as Ralph points out – a spur to prayer, not a reason for lacking in it. Well worth eight of your English pounds.
Dick Lucas sermon jam
Given we’ve been talking about Dick, it’s surely worth reposting this sermon jam from the guys at St Peter’s Dundee. “Nobody too far orf.” I love it.