New Testament ‘controls’
Sometimes a New Testament text sheds light on an Old Testament passage or book. Well, not just sometimes, quite often! It raises the question of how this can shape our preaching of the Old Testament passage. It seems to me there are two opposite kinds of mistake we can make.
The first is the classic academic Old Testament scholarship error of refusing to read an Old Testament text as part of the whole Canon of Christian Scripture. I am sometimes alarmed by how supposedly evangelical commentaries slip into this. For example, Hebrews 1:10-12 make it clear that some of the closing verses of Psalm 102 are spoken “of the Son”. Despite this important truth being ignored in some commentaries, it is both significant and instructive, and will shape the way we preach the Psalm.
The second is to jump too quickly from the Old Testament passage to the New Testament ‘control’ and effectively just to preach the New Testament text, rather than using the New Testament text as a ‘control’, to direct our exposition of the Old Testament passage but not to dominate it.
An example I found helpful was to use James 5:11 as a text to illuminate and shape a concluding sermon on the book of Job. James tells his hearers they have heard of the steadfastness of Job and also the compassionate and merciful purposes of the Lord. I found these two foci made a natural structure for expounding Job 42. I hope they did not dominate Job 42, but helped to open it up so that God’s voice was heard through Job 42. My attempt at this may be found either in Out of the Storm (IVP) or Job: the wisdom of the Cross (Crossway).
I struggle to speak simply. Although I regularly exhort the Cornhill students to convey their meaning with simplicity, I myself default to complexity in my own homiletic preparatory labours. (Yes, ok, I enjoyed concocting that dreadful sentence!)
I had a little example this morning, when making final changes to my sermon for Christ Church Mayfair, our home church.
I jotted down my opening sentence a bit like this; well, actually it wasn’t quite as bad as this; I have complexified it, even hammed it up a bit to make a point:
“The fundamental subject matter of this Psalm is summarised in the concluding two verses.”
That is true; and it is what I wanted to say. But I stepped back, looked at it, listened in my mind’s ear to what it would sound like, and thought, “That sounds as if it is being read out from a clumsy civil service draft document, or a technical commentary.”
So I tried again:
“What this Psalm is about is summed up in the final two verses.”
That was better. “What this Psalm is about” is colloquial, but gets what I mean across more directly than “fundamental subject matter of…”. And “final” and “summed up” are closer to how most people speak than “concluding” and “summarised”. But it still sounds a bit like a commentary, albeit a more popular one.
How about this?
“The last two verses sum up the Psalm.”
That’s a lot sharper, isn’t it? The shift from passive to active does a lot. I reckon it says in nine crisp syllables what had been twenty-four heavy Latinate syllables. Now I can say this and not feel as if a printed commentary is using me as a ventriloquist’s doll.
Worth labouring to be clear and straightforward, I reckon.
Why should the Big Idea govern the main point of a sermon?
Suppose a pastor, knowing the state of his congregation, sees that in Sunday’s bible passage there is some truth he judges they badly and urgently need. OK, it is not the main point of the passage, but he is sure it is what they most need. Is he not justified in making this subsidiary point in the passage into the main point of the sermon? Indeed, is this not his pastoral responsibility, to use his God-given intuition and knowledge of his congregation in this way?
Such an argument is plausible but dangerous, at least for regular week by week expository preaching. There is nothing wrong with selecting a topic for a one-off sermon and applying this particular bible truth because it seems to be timely and appropriate. But we must not pretend it is exposition. One of the great benefits of exposition is that we let God set the agenda, we give God the microphone, we trust that God knows best what we need to hear, that if we give our congregations a balanced diet of systematic consecutive exposition working through bible books, we and they will over time be built up in godliness and faith. So let’s not lose our nerve; let’s have the courage to make the main thing in the passage the main thing in a faithful expository sermon. Apart from anything else, it will save our churches from having too often to endure the bees buzzing round in the pastor’s bonnet.
Must there be a Big Idea?
Along with many others seeking to train in expository bible ministry, we at the PT Cornhill Training Course make “the Big Idea” one of the key pillars of our training strategy. For every bible passage, we ask our students to work hard to express the one central truth of the passage in a clear and concise sentence. If you come across one of our students on a bad day, you may well find them tearing their hair out trying to find the wretched Big Idea!
But are we right? OK, so it’s often a helpful exercise trying to find a Big Idea; but what if there isn’t one? Must there be a Big Idea for every bible passage? Or, to put it another way, is the whole “Big Idea” thing an arbitrary creation of Cornhill and other like-minded training methods?
It’s a fair question and a good one. What lies behind it is the whole business of coherence. If you, as a sane and rational person, say something to me, I will generally make the assumptions, first that you intend to say something coherent to me (rather than whimsical or random “Alice in Wonderland” speech) and that you succeed, at least approximately, in saying something coherent. Suppose I have had a ten minute ‘phone call with you, after which a mutual friend asks me what you said. She is not asking or expecting me to repeat what you said verbatim; what she wants is the main content of what you said, put more briefly (“I got the job,” “I have been promoted,” “She said yes” or whatever it may be). If this is so with fallible human beings, how much more ought we to make the assumption that God intends, and succeeds in conveying, a coherent message in his word. In which case I may reasonably expect to be able to find the main point of what he says.
We must be sensible about this. It does depend on wise divisions of passages in a bible book; some divisions fit better than others with the underlying structure. And some passages may have a tighter Big Idea than others. But it is a reasonable assumption that God is not making random disconnected statements, but rather speaking with coherence. That’s what the Big Idea idea is about.
Learning to lament
Lamentation is “one of the chief duties of the Christian in declining times. Christians are to weep over the sins of the church, the transgressions of the nation, and the fearfulness of the judgment to come.” I read these words by Philip Graham Ryken in his Preaching the Word commentary on Jeremiah, commenting on the words, “Teach one another a lament” (Jer.9:20).
I was struck and humbled by this challenge. It makes me think again about why we preach the Psalms. So many of the Psalms are laments, not only for individuals but also for the dire state of the people of God and the misery of a world under God’s curse. I do not by nature know how to lament in a godly way, and I take it that these Psalms are one of the main ways in which God can teach me to do so. In our preaching of the Psalms of lament, let us deliberately and explicitly tell our congregations that our purpose is that we may be equipped to know how to lament the way God wants us to lament.
Face to face
“And all the sterile wonders of movies and television and radio will fail to wipe it out – a living man in communication with a living audience”
I was moved by those words from the American writer John Steinbeck, in his little book Travels with Charley. Steinbeck gives a touching description of meeting a lone travelling actor in, I think, Wisconsin. This man is not a particularly good actor, but he perseveres doing his shows before modest local audiences in small town America. Steinbeck comments how this very human meeting of “a living man…with a living audience” will always have about it a quality that cannot be rivalled by “the sterile wonders of movies and television and radio”.
I like that. Does this not transfer to preaching? I think it does. Preaching is the week by week living interaction of a living loving praying pastor with a living needy congregation? He may or may not be impressive and successful in the world’s terms. But he is a loving human being face to face with living human beings. Let us learn to value this unimpressive activity very highly and never to think that telecommunication or recordings can ever replace it; set side by side with face to face preaching, these other things are indeed “sterile” for all their technological wonder.
I am preparing to preach John 2:13-22 this Sunday. In some ways it is quite a simple passage. The exegesis is not too difficult. Nor is the central point, that Jesus is the true Temple, the presence of the living God on earth. That his pure zeal for his Father’s house and his bodily resurrection show that this is true. And so on.
But the question I have been grappling with is this: so what for today? I don’t want to leave us simply marveling that if we had been around in the right place at the right time, we could have rubbed shoulders with the presence of God on earth – wonderful though that is. So I have found myself thinking about how the church of Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, is the Temple of God on earth, at least the Temple under construction. And thinking how we ought to respond to that.
I won’t tell you here what I’ve come up with, not least because it may change between now and Sunday when I preach it at Christ Church Mayfair. I’m not sure I’ve got it right. I know the commentaries don’t help much with this kind of question. But I know it is very important, and can make the difference between a bland or banal sermon and an insightful and incisive one that has real pressure and impact to it. It is this hard thinking that makes sermon preparation such intense work, and inseparable from our involvement as pastors with people.
Keep it focussed!
A Sunday away recently brought home to me afresh how very important it is not to overload our sermons with cognitive content. The sermon had five long sub-points to the first point. All worthy. All true. But far too much for me to grasp or hold on to (and I am trained to listen to sermons; it’s my job).
At Cornhill we sometimes use the crèche test. A young mother has left her baby in the crèche for the first time; during the sermon she is paying at most 30% attention, because she is worrying about her baby. When she goes to the crèche at the end, a crèche helper asks her about the sermon. If she says, “Well, it all sounded good and worthy, and he said a lot of things, but I don’t really know what he said” it’s a failure. If she says, “I missed a fair bit of it, but the big thrust was this…” (and gets it right), and the big thrust of the sermon is the main thrust of the passage, hey presto! the whole exercise looks more promising.
It reminds me to make sure I leave enough of my preparation on my desk and to work hard at keeping a clear focus to the sermon, and to work hard to make sure the main focus of the sermon is indeed the main focus of the passage. Easy to say. Hard work to do.
Back to Basics
Last week I was at “The Basics,” a pastors conference run by Alistair Begg and hosted by Parkside Church, Chagrin Falls, near Cleveland, Ohio. This is a wonderful example of a church to whom much blessing has been given by God, giving generously to encourage pastors of (mostly) much smaller churches. Under Alistair’s faithful ministry over the past thirty years (so far), Parkside has grown remarkably. In addition, the “Truth for Life” radio programmes (broadcast from hundreds of radio stations in the USA) have spread the blessing of his ministry far and wide.
The 48-hour conference is, in many ways, modeled on our Evangelical Ministry Assembly, and is a good example of how to run a straightforward conference for the focused encouragement of pastors in their leadership and – in particular – in their preaching ministries. There is no hype or razzamatazz; just straightforward preaching, generous hospitality, and plenty of time for personal conversations for encouragement. Most of the pastors there seem to be from smaller churches, and some of them needing to be tent-makers. They – like us – face the uphill challenge of commending the gospel of the Lord Jesus in a culture which is moving fast away from real Christianity.
Alistair Begg gave us helpful pointers to why and how we might preach Ecclesiastes, and a moving exposition from Ecclesiastes 12. Gary Millar gave two perceptive and pastorally sensitive expositions from the Elijah narratives in 1 Kings 18 and 19. A feast for hungry pastors.
Oh, and the weather: we had a tornado the first evening. We don’t get that at EMA.
Gifts and grace
Here is the second of J.C.Ryle’s applications from Luke 10:17-20.
Gifts… are very inferior to grace.
Ryle is commenting on Jesus’ words, “…rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Whatever gifts God may give us, whatever successes in gospel ministry, it is “a far higher privilege to be converted and pardoned…and to have our names written in the register of saved souls.”
Gifts, such as mental vigour, vast memory, striking eloquence, ability in argument, power in reasoning, are often unduly valued by those who possess them, and unduly admired by those who possess them not (my emphasis).” We need to remember that “gifts without grace save no one’s soul… He that has gifts without grace is dead in sins… But he that has grace without gifts is alive to God, however unlearned and ignorant he may appear to man.
In vintage Ryle style he ends like this: Without the marks of grace,
a man may have abundance of gifts and turn out to be nothing better than a follower of Judas Iscariot, the false apostle, and go at last to hell. With such marks, a man may be like Lazarus, poor and despised upon earth, and have no gifts at all. But his name is written in heaven, and Christ shall own him as one of His people at the last day.