Serving Undiluted Wine
I am working slowly through 2 Corinthians in my Quiet Times in the mornings, and was this morning reading chapter 2, verses 14-17. The scholars struggle with the transition from the end of verse 16 to verse 17, and I can see why. At the end of verse 16, in response to the awesome responsibility of being a minister of the gospel, Paul exclaims, "who is equal to such a task?" ("Who is sufficient for these things?"). Who indeed, if our words are an aroma among those who are being saved, to move them on from life to life, and an aroma among the perishing, to hasten them on their way to perdition? What an extraordinary burden and responsibility! What eternal consequences hang on our preaching!
New staff appointment at PT Cornhill
I am very pleased to announce that Dr Jonathan Griffiths will be joining the PT Cornhill teaching staff in September 2012, in time for the next Cornhill year. After studying theology in Oxford, Jonathan did a Ph.D. in Cambridge in New Testament. Jonathan is Canadian and is married to Gemma. They have two children, Teddy and Arabella. Jonathan and Gemma belonged at Spicer Street chapel in St.Albans. For the past three years Jonathan has been assistant minister at Christ Church, Westbourne. We look forward to welcoming them to a period of service with the Proclamation Trust.
Every time I teach Esther at Cornhill I am reminded of the dangers of unwarranted moralising, by a series of published bible study notes on Esther. The author of the notes assures us that ‘In the book of Esther we see the lives of several characters played out. There are those people who are selfish and prideful, seeking only personal recognition, and there are those who risk everything for others and choose integrity in the face of great opposition. Esther is a book about developing godly character.'
So, for example, the purpose of the study on Esther chapter 1 is ‘To show that respect between individuals is built through mutual regard and appreciation rather than through demanding respect or controlling another.’ And Esther 3 is about evaluating the advice we receive, the purpose of the study being, 'To discover how to evaluate the counsel we receive from others and to give good advice.’ The problem, as Barry Webb points out in his excellent 'Five Festal Garments, is that such moral conclusions have to be imported from outside the text.
I think our natural tendency away from gospel and towards moralising, is aggravated by bible studies where the unit of narrative is too small. We are faced with a short section of narrative and we feel we have to learn something definite from it – definite and distinct from what we are later going to learn as the narrative develops. And so, in desperation, we import some morality from outside. I learn two lessons. (1) Bible studies on Old Testament narrative are difficult and need careful handling/leading, and (2) make sure the chunks of narrative are sufficiently long to learn what the narrative itself is teaching.
X Marks the Spot: Preaching Chiasms
I have had an exchange of e-mails with a pastor-preacher I greatly respect, about how best to preach a passage where the structure is chiastic. We were not sure, but between us had three suggestions.
- Beware seeing chiasms everywhere. As my friend said, beware chiasm-mania. Reading texts can become a bit like "Where's Wally?" – there just must be a chiasm somewhere, if only I could find it! Well, maybe there isn't. I have to say that this has let me off the chiasm-hook many times; I am just blind to them!
- Even if there is a chiasm, don't call it that when preaching; it will only mystify most of your hearers and send them away thinking how clever the preacher is, rather than how wonderful the word of God is. If it's really clear, why not just call it something like "a sandwich-like structure"? Everybody knows a sandwich.
- If it's really clear, experiment with different ways of preaching it. Although I almost always preach a text in the order it is written (after all, that is the order in which we read it and hear it), I did try preaching Deuteronomy 30:1-10 by taking each layer in from the outside, ending with the turning point, the climax and key point in verse 6 (as David Jackman often says, "the turning point is the teaching point"). Well, actually, I preached verses 1-6 in order, and then went more quickly through verses 7-10 noting that they made more or less the same points as verses 1-5 but in the opposite order for emphasis.
Simplicity in Preaching
I have been reading a wonderful forthcoming book by Derek Prime about Charles Simeon, and loved this, from Simeon, about simplicity in preaching: “The distinguishing mark of the religion of Christ is its simplicity, and its suitableness to the condition of all men, whether rich or poor, wise or unlearned. It is not to our credit when people listen to us and remark how clever we are; whereas it is greatly so when they say, ‘Now I understand.’” I hope I can learn to preach clearly and simply – not simplistically or with banal waffle, but clearly so that my hearers understand.
Introducing the 2011 EMA books (3)
Our Day 3 stage recommendation for the EMA is Fred Sanders Embracing the Trinity (as it's known in the UK). It is also sold under its US title, The deep things of God: how the Trinity changes everything.
The author argues persuasively that evangelicals are deeply and profoundly Trinitarian, and yet we have let out "trinitarian-ness" (horrible made-up word by me!) drift into the background, with some dangerous consequences. He argues that we should learn to be Christ-centred without being Father-forgetful or Spirit-neglectful. Some of his chapters are hugely stimulating in getting us to make the persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit explicit when talking about central subjects such as salvation, union with Christ, and prayer. We have been discussing a chapter a week on the Cornhill staff team, and finding our thinking challenged and sharpened. Warmly commended.
Psalms commentaries that take the New Testament seriously
I preached on Psalm 102 last Sunday (you can listen here). It is a wonderfully surprising Psalm, because at the end, quite suddenly and out of the blue, the voice speaking changes from the Psalmist to God. From verse 1 to verse 24 the Psalmist has been crying out to God in his distress and hanging on to the promises of God. And then (from verse 25), God says to the Psalmist that famous quote we know from Hebrews 1, ‘In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth…’ It would be easy to assume this was still the voice of the Psalmist addressing God. But the LXX (translated of course well before Christ) understood that these final verses were addressed by God to his Messiah. And Hebrews says they were right. We hear here the Father addressing the Son, who is identified as the speaker of the Psalm. This unlocks a proper reading of the Psalm, as the prayer of the Son with the answer of the Father, and therefore a prayer that believers pray as men and women in Christ.
What has been interesting to me is how few of the dozen or so commentaries I have consulted take this New Testament control seriously. Of those I have read, only these three do so:
- Derek Kidner Psalms – the little IVP commentary first published in 1973, much too short, but gold dust
- Michael Wilcock Psalms (IVP Bible Speaks Today, 2001) – I have only dipped in to this so far, but it respects the New Testament wholeheartedly and seems full of insight
- Geoffrey W.Grogan Psalms (Eerdmans, 2008) – an excellent work both on the theology of the Psalms and then on individual Psalms.
Of the non-evangelical commentaries, I have often found the following helpful. Both are from a Lutheran stable. They are critical in an old-fashioned kind of way, but because they come from a vigorous theological stable, often have valuable insights. Although they ignore the NT control for Psalm 102, elsewhere they are not afraid to make Christian comments:
- James L.Mays, Psalms (John Knox Press Interpretation series, 1994)
- Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms (Fortress Press, 1993)
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Do you confess your sins – and not just in theory?
I am in the middle of preaching a little series of five sermons from the so-called Penitential Psalms at our home church (get them here) and it is doing me good (whether or not it is doing good to anyone else). I am tackling Psalms 32, 38, 51, 102 and 143.
When preaching Psalm 32 to start the series I was struck by how many of us take confession of sin for granted in our Christian lives. Of course we confess our sins, we think. But do we actually make a regular, even daily, discipline of deliberate, intentional, specific confession of sin to God?
I am ashamed to say that for me this is a discipline that has fallen by the wayside, and – having preached about it – I thought I would do well to put it into practice. It is doing me good. I am trying at the end of each day to set aside a few minutes to confess my sins aloud to God my Father. Often I find that my first thought is to wonder if I have much to confess. I sit there with my mind a sort of complacent blank. But as I ask God by his Spirit to show me more of my heart, it is not long before I am convicted of all sorts of deep and ugly things in my heart. I want to be one ‘in whose spirit there is no deceit’ (Psalm 32.2), and if I am to be that kind of man, I need to let the Spirit search my heart day by day, and to reappropriate with wonder and joy, the forgiveness the Lord Jesus has won for me. Psalm 32 teaches that the blessing of forgiveness is intimately connected with the practice of confession, and I commend it to you.
Geneva Bible prologues
450 years ago, a group of English Protestant scholars exiled to Geneva during the terrible reign of Mary Tudor completed a translation of the Bible. Dedicated to the new (and Protestant) Queen Elizabeth I (“whom God has made as our Zerubbabel”!) it went through more than 150 editions, was the first Bible printed in Scotland and the version taken to America by the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower.
I have just been reading the new edition of the Prologues (‘A Reformation Guide to Scripture’ Banner 2010) to write a review for Evangelicals Now. The Prologues are typically just a page or two of introduction for each Bible book, with an introduction and footnotes giving the meaning of unfamiliar words (e.g. that “grens” are “snares or traps”). This has been beautifully produced by Banner and contains a wealth of insights into how the Reformers understood the Bible.
There are some gems of concise and perceptive summary. I particularly enjoyed this start to a paragraph about Job and his Comforters: “In this story we have to mark that Job maintains a good cause, but handles it evil; again, his adversaries have an evil matter, but they defend it craftily…” Brilliant.
Two qualities stand out for me. First, every Bible book is related clearly and explicitly to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Prologues come from people for whom the genuinely Christian nature of the Bible is deeply ingrained, and it shows. And, second, unlike almost all academic commentary, the prologues often include pointers to how we ought to respond. For example, after introducing the four Gospels, we read that they were written so that “hereby we are admonished to forsake the world, and the vanities thereof, and with most affectioned hearts embrace this incomparable treasure freely offered unto us; for there is no joy nor consolation, no peace nor quietness, no felicity nor salvation, but in Jesus Christ, who is the very substance of this Gospel, and in whom all the promises are Yea, and Amen.” All in all, it informs the mind and warms the heart. Warmly recommended.
Why Psalms are not like hymns
I have been reading Michael Lefebvre’s enormously stimulating book Singing the Songs of Jesus [Christian Focus, 2010]. It is full of thought-provoking and perceptive comment on the value of the Psalms and – in his well-argued view – why we ought to sing them as well as read and preach them.
In one chapter (chapter 5) he addresses one reason why we struggle to sing the Psalms, which is that we expect them to function pretty much like our hymns and songs. To do this, he argues, is like trying to hammer a screw into a piece of wood. Hymns and songs tend to be declaratory, giving us conclusive statements, typically of praise and affirmation of the greatness of God. But the Psalms do not function like this.
True, they often end with praise, and the whole Psalter is structured to end with a paean of praise. But the characteristic motion of the heart in the Psalms is not declaration but rather meditation. They force us to engage and feel the conflicting emotions, affections, perplexities and struggles of faith and in so doing, lead us finally to affirmation and praise. So, for example, ‘the Psalms are designed to help people who don’t always feel like praising begin by meditating on the mess the world is in, and only through a full and robust process of meditation, to come out with praise.’ Lefebvre argues that we ought not to jettison this often painful process of meditation and settle for the conclusion in our hymns and songs. So, he says, we need to sing the messiness of the Psalms. It will do us good. I agree.
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