Context and application
I explained very briefly yesterday how texts rightly understood in context bring a sermon a power that it cannot have otherwise. This is, I guess, “rightly dividing the word of truth.” But I want to go further and say that this context also drives application. Take just one of those texts from yesterday’s passage: “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here.”
In my teenage Bible this is underlined a few times, highlighted too, but I’m not sure I ever bothered to understand it in context. It’s an obvious truth, as a standalone verse. It is about the difference that being born again makes. It is about how significant the change is. I could make a sermon out of that!
But the context makes you think quite differently, even about application. The context is Paul defending himself against the super-apostles: Paul doesn’t mind even if they claim he is out of his mind, for – if so – it is for the Lord’s sake. And though the super-apostles are assessing Paul from a worldly point of view (in terms of the spectacular that he lacks) he will not be drawn into the same slanging match (2 Cor 5.16). Why? Because even his detractors, if saved, are new creations! The old has gone, the new has come.
Suddenly there is pointed application. This is about how Paul relates to others, especially those who are his detractors. To paraphrase the late Bob Horn, he “starts with generous assumptions.”
And so must we.
Context and power
I preached at the London City Mission thanksgiving service last week, on 2 Cor 5.21-6.2; not a straightforward passage at all, but I hope I did it justice. Preaching it is complicated by the fact that the passage is jam packed (or ram packed, per Corbyn) of well known texts: “Christ’s love compels us….”, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…”, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors….”, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” and so on. In fact, per column inch, there are more “poster verses” here than almost any passage I’ve preached recently.
It’s easy to get distracted by these, especially as we have often ripped the texts out of their contexts. We thus often end up conveying Bible truths but hanging them on verses that Paul (in this case) intended for a different meaning – what some people call “the right message from the wrong text.”
I am convinced that, under the sovereignty and power of the Spirit, the power in preaching lies in allowing the text to say what the text says. In other words, using the text to say something it was not intended for, even when that something is a glorious Bible truth, must rob the sermon of something. After all, I could equally shoehorn something that was wrong onto a text and make it sound genuine. Where’s the difference? – only that one is a truth and one a falsehood, neither is using the text as it was intended. The only guard therefore against falsehood and imposition is to use the text, in its context, as it was intended. That’s where the power lies.
A short break
As I mentioned yesterday, I’m taking a three month sabbatical from mid November to mid February. I need to rest, refresh and spend time with the Lord every day, but this concentrated burst will help me greatly as I seek to minister to others. There’s nothing particularly spiritual about sabbaticals: I don’t think you can make a Bible case for pastors to have them particularly. They fall into the “godly wisdom” category.
At my last church I had written into my contract that I accrued 2 weeks for every year worked to be taken with agreement of elders. This meant that after five years, I could take a 10 week study break. It also meant that if things were tough, I could take an earlier break. I liked that practice, although others work well too.
This time around there are no grand plans. No Masters to complete or books to write (though there are some projects that require some attention). No, the main project is my soul and I shall be prayerfully planning a timetable that will deliver not letters after my name, nor books with my imprint, but for a soul that is nurtured and cultivated. “O that my soul could love and praise him more, his beauties trace, his majesty adore, live near his heart, rest in his love each day, hear his dear voice and all his will obey.”
Last call for Autumn Ministers
Our Autumn Ministers conference runs from 7 to 10 November this year. We’ve got Christopher Ash on Ruth and some other inputs on application as well as the normal mix of fellowship and rest! The autumn ministers conference is always smaller than the others, so it has a very different feel from, say, the Spring (where we have 120+). This is more intimate and restful – deliberately so. Do come and join us if you can.
I’m taking a sabbatical from mid November and this is my last conference of 2016. I’d love to see you there. Book here.
The leader and his tongue
We’re off on a Cornhill+ study conference this week with a small handful of students. The aim is to do so some focused work and praying on Christian leadership. Steve Wilmshurst and I will be leading our happy band and this year we’re joined by Andy Upton to come and assist. These are normally precious times: the honour of teaching others and learning and growing myself.
This year I’m leading a session on the tongue: i.e. our speech. I’m convinced this is a much neglected topic when it comes to leadership (which seems to focus so much on the doing of leadership). But speech is at the heart of what it means to be a leader. I take it that’s why James 3.2-12 follows James 3.1. “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” is then followed by James’ well-known words about what we say.
These two must not be divorced. Of course, there are general truths for everyone about speech, but James is particularly concerned to connect leadership and control of the tongue together and we must not break the link. Paul has the same concern for leaders, “Set an example for the believers in speech…” (1 Tim 4.12).
I find this a challenging area. Here are some diagnostic questions to help.
Is my speech wholesome? All Christians are called to speak words that are pure.
Is my speech hypocritical? Too many of us are one thing to some, and another to others.
Is my speech hasty? The Scriptures counsel us to think before we speak.
Is my speech constructive? Paul is strong on this in Ephesians – only speak what builds others up.
Is my speech true? Gossip, slander – these are serious sins which the pastor must put to death.
God help me.
Leadership and La Vuelta
It’s been a while since my last cycling illustration and – I hear you cry – “how much longer must we wait before the next?”. Never fear, here we go. This last week saw the culmination of the third Grand Tour cycling race – La Vuelta (basically the tour of Spain). It’s one of the three-week mega-rides of which the Tour de France is the most famous.
Last week the Sky pro-cycling team had a really, really bad day. It’s unusual. They are normally all over the tactics and their policy of marginal gains (making leaps forward by taking lots of small steps) is well documented. Indeed, over the first week and a half of the tour, the Sky team made small improvements until they were looking like real contenders.
And then, in one day (in fact in a few short minutes) they blew it.
It was sad to see, but a sobering reflection of the reality of Christian ministry. Take leadership, for example. Church can really be a slog. We make very small gains, incremental really, which taken together – we hope and pray – lead to the glory of God. But as leaders we can have one bad day which blows it all.
Or let’s get more personal and think about battling sin. Many church leaders battle sexual sins – lust, pornography and so the list goes on. We battle day in, day out, making – it seems – very small gains. But one day can blow it all. That could be deadly to ministry.
What is the antidote? 1 Peter 5 is very helpful: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” The antidote is fourfold:
- We must think of ourselves with sober judgement (Rom 12:3) taking care lest we fall. I need to keep reminding myself of my besetting sins and my inclination to them.
- We must be alert against our enemy. He is prowling around looking (let’s be honest) to devour YOU and we need to be aware of his wiles.
- We must exercise faith. Easy to write, hard to do, but in part at least this means feeding our souls with the means God has given us to deepen faith: prayer and the word.
- We must realise we are not alone. The family of believers around the world are sharing the same sufferings. In fact, working out sanctification in the community of believers is an essential step to fighting sin. “Confess your sins to one another.”
Then listen to God’s gracious word: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”
Marriage and ministry
Just a few places are left on our marriage and ministry stopover in October. The Wiltshire venue is now full, I’m afraid, but we’ve room for 3 or 4 extra couples with Wallace and Lindsay Benn at Hothorpe Hall Mon 24 Oct – Tues 25 Oct. These are important retreats for those who are married and in ministry. If it’s difficult to get away when it’s only one of you, it’s doubly so when it’s both! Yet, it consistently scores as one of our most valued conferences, so why not try to make time if you can? We’ve deliberately planned it for school half term holiday (for most) as couples tell us it’s easier to arrange child care then rather than in the normal routine of school life and so on. You can book here.
And if you can’t make it, watch out for a new title what Mrs R and I wrote – Glorious Union: flourishing in marriage and ministry will be available from 1 November and if you order now, it comes with free postage!
1 Timothy: what kind of book?
We’re close to finishing a series on 1 Timothy at church. It’s been – I think – a really helpful reminder of what church is all about. The book is sometimes rather harshly described as a “church manual” which makes it sound (to most) the least exciting book in the whole canon. Of course, there will be some people who read their fridge-freezer operating guide from cover to cover before plugging in, but most of us know how our Smeg works and the thick multi-language guide generally stays in its cover. Until things go wrong. Then, naturally, we’re all over it.
And so it is with 1 Timothy, people think. It only comes out when absolutely necessary. Well, if that’s your view, I could forgive you for thinking how dull it must be. But the metaphor is all wrong. If we must use a metaphor such as this, then 1 Timothy is not an operating manual, it’s a sea chart for a rocky shore. On my wall, I have such a chart of the Thames Estuary, where I grew up. It’s detailed, complex and – this is my point – absolutely indispensable. After all, some “have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith.”
No sailor worth his salt would put to sea without a chart. And no church worth its salt would neglect such an important book.
The Gospel Transformation Bible
There are many study Bibles, of course. Many. And many of them are good (with a few not quite so hot). One of my favourites is particularly underrated, I feel. Perhaps that is because it is relatively unknown. It is Crossway’s ESV Gospel Transformation Bible. Catchy title, I know. But behind the slightly clunky title is a remarkable resource. Edited by Bryan Chappell and Dane Ortlund, this Bible has contributions from the likes of Kathleen Nielson, Dave Helm, James Hamilton, Mike Horton, Greg Gilbert, Iain Duguid, Colin Smith, Bruce Ware, Kent Hughes, Kevin DeYoung and Mike Bullmore – in other words, a long list of people we would know and trust.
But what makes it stand apart is the focus of the study notes which have one basic aim – to show how each portion of Scripture fits in with the big story and comes back to Christ. Then, alongside this, there are really helpful application notes. Bryan Chappell explains this in the introduction:
“The goal… is twofold (1) to enable readers to understand that the whole Bible is a unified message of the gospel of God’s grace culminating in Jesus Christ, and (2) to help believers apply this good news to their everyday lives in a heart-transforming way.”
What this means is that the GTB is a really useful resource to put into the hands of Bible study leaders, occasional preachers and Sunday School teachers. They can’t hope to have extensive libraries on their shelves, but as one-volume books go, this is worth its weight in gold. You don’t see it in bookstores very often, but tenofthose.com have a load at ridiculously cheap prices (£70 bibles for £9). I’m not being paid to promote them (though I would take the cash!). I genuinely believe that – even if you don’t use the ESV text – this is a really helpful book. At these prices, you could buy each of your Sunday School teachers a copy as a Christmas present.
Well, why not?
Frameworks and the text
I am greatly enjoying reading through Progressive Covenantalism (ed. Wellum & Parker) at the moment. It’s a thoughtful, careful collection of esays steering a course away from some of the madness associated with New Covenant Theology towards a more academically rigorous framework. A review will be forthcoming! But one paragraph caught my eye. We’ve long said at PT that one of the key things that a preacher has to do is to make sure that his framework does not affect his interpretation of the text.
Some have interpreted this to mean that we don’t like any framework. That’s patent nonsense. Everyone has framework (even “not having a framework”!). Rather, we are keen to say that the text must be in the driving seat. In his contribution to the book, Jason Meyer makes this point with slightly more finesse:
“In Greek mythology Procrusteus was the son of Poseidon. He had an iron bed that he offered to weary travellers. He used hospitality as a torture trap. If travellers were too short for the bed, he would stretch out their bodies to fit the bed. If they were too tall for the bed, he would cut off the excess length of their legs.
“Theological systems can become a Procrustean bed. If the text does not want satisfy our system, we can stretch the text to say what we want. If the text says more than what comfortably fits our system, we can cut off what we wish it would not say.
“I am not denigrating theological systems. On the contrary, theological systems can sharpen our understanding of the whole counsel of God but only if they do not first determine our understanding of God’s word. Therefore, theological systems should always be paired with theological self-awareness. We must be up front with our theological commitments, taking them to Scripture. The Bible does not belong on the bed. The Bible is the bed. The Bible alone has the authority to serve as the Procrustean bed for all our thinking. If we love the Bible more than our theological systems, we will be eager to measure our systems with our theological thinking.”