Hebrews 6: make sure you ask the right question
Next week I've got to preach Hebrews 5.11-6.20 which includes the nutty section on apostacy. It's easy to get really distracted by this section and miss the strong exhortation to maturity that comes before and the confidence the writer expresses about the Hebrews themselves – in other words, whatever else you may think about Hebrews 6.4-6, the writer is confident: "we feel sure of better things, things that belong to salvation." And later on, "we have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…"
So, the writer is not answering the theological question, "Can I fall away?" or even "If I fall away, will I be able to get back?" Preachers do well to remember that. Nevertheless, it is a perplexing part of the passage and with our Sunday evening congregation where I'm going for a simple approach, it needs an illustration to help people understand why it is here and what purpose it is serving. Here's what I'm going for.
See the sign? What do you think when you see this sign? I guarantee that you are not asking, "If my car goes over the edge will I be able to get it back onto the road again or is it the end for my car?" No! Of course not. Instead, you're saying "I am going to make pretty darn sure I don't go anywhere near that edge." And after you have passed the danger zone you breathe a sigh of relief and say "I'm glad that sign was there and I didn't let myself get too close to the quayside." That is essentially the purpose of the warnings throughout Hebrews. They are not answering theological questions about one of the five points of Calvinism. Rather they stand as stark and sober warnings to be heeded. I'm hoping that this simple illustration will help me keep to the main thrust of the passage and not get too sidetracked by this vexing issue.
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.
Preacher, find a friend
I've just returned from the Spring Ministers Wives conference for….wives. But some of the teaching from Proverbs (from Vaughan Roberts) was very pertinent to preachers. In fact, Vaughan was encouraging the wives to make sure their husbands had friends. Here are Vaughan's main points/outline together with some Proverbs to follow through. The reality is that many pastors cut themselves off from friends (either deliberately or through negligence). I'm unlikely to last the distance if I let myself get in such a state.
1. True friendship is close
Proverbs 18.24. We need close friends but be discerning (Proverb 13.20) and be deliberate
2. True friendship is constant
Proverbs 17.17. Proverbs 19.4. Proverbs 25.19. Proverbs 27.10.
3. True friendship is candid
Proverbs 29.5. Proverbs 27.5-6.
4. True friendship is careful
Don't speak too quickly. Proverbs 16.28. Proverbs 17.9. Proverbs 20.19.
Say the right thing at the right time in the right way. Proverbs 27.14. Proverbs 25.20.
5. True friendship is Christ-centred
For Christ forgives our greatest failings and Christ meets our deepest longings.
The idol of novelty
I'm just reading Derek Tidball's excellent Preacher Keep Yourself from Idols. There's an excellent chapter on novelty as an idol with a paragraph which goes to the heart of preaching:
It should be axiomatic that no sermon should make a secondary issue in the text its main theme. Yet the thirst for novelty often pushes preachers to do just that. To preach, for example, about good parenting on the basis of the parable of the prodigal son is to miss why Jesus told the parable. If we want originality we can do no better…than to study the text carefully. To continue with the prodigal son for a moment, we should be asking why Jesus never told a parable about 'a prodigal son'. His introduction reads, 'There was a man who had two sons' (Luke 15.11). How does that impact our preaching? Perhaps we should be preaching on the question, "Which son was the prodigal?"
Worth the price.
More like this:
Spring Ministers Conferences
I'm away at the moment at the Spring Wives Conference at Hothorpe Hall at the moment and we're having a great time. Well, the wives are having a great time. Vaughan, Jonathan Carswell and I are the only boys so we asserting our manliness by talking in deep voices and going off to hit a few balls on the driving range during a break.
Which reminds me to say what a great joy these conferences should be and are. Many of the wives testify that coming away and learning together is a key part of their ministry year. It's the same for the ministers conferences too, though many of us tend to think in terms of "who's speaking" or "what are the workshop subjects" rather than, "I'll make that a regular part of my year." I think the wives are much more liberated about this than us men!
Our spring younger ministers conference is now full, but there is space on our senior ministers conference. I'm not going to tell you who's speaking; be more like your wife!! You can book online here.
The benefits and pitfalls of expository preaching?
Well, you might not agree with Dr Peter Masters of the Metropolitan Tabernacle on everything. I'm pretty sure he doens't agree with everything about us. Nevertheless, there are some important points he makes in this article on expository preaching. The first half is the strongest and well worth a read. After promoting the cause of expository preaching, and rightly so in our opinion, he sounds an important negative warning:
Another disadvantage that often accompanies expository preaching (whether consecutive or not) is that the method of the preacher somehow steamrollers down the method of the Holy Spirit. The preacher comes at the text in a certain logical way, examines it, and then lays out his points, his applications, scarcely noticing what the style of the text is. He treats it as a didactic passage even if it is an historical narrative or a parable, or a graphic miracle. The preacher puts everything through his expository ‘mincing machine’ regardless, and his presentation is exactly the same in every sermon. He has failed to follow or adjust to the method of communication employed by God. Expository preaching can easily degenerate into a bullying, mechanical process, even a clinical procedure, stripping out the story-form or other diversity of presentation featured in the text.
God save us from the mincing machine. BTW, a very helpful book on this subject is Preaching with Variety.
Rugby, red zones and the holiness of God
This morning I started teaching the first year Cornhill students the book of Leviticus. Whilst God’s holiness is clearly one of the most important themes in the book, there is a difference in the way it is talked about. So in chapters 1-16, the focus seems to be more on what we might call ‘zonal’ holiness, whilst in chapters 17-27 the focus is more on ‘character’ holiness. We tend to be more familiar with the former than the latter.
As we’re in the midst of the 6 Nations rugby tournament (come on, England!), I used an illustration from the king of sports to show the Cornhillers the difference between zonal holiness and character holiness. In rugby, ‘the red zone’ is the area of the pitch between your opponents 22 metre line and try line. That is the key area in terms of attack and defence. And in the Bible – especially in Exodus & Leviticus 1-16 – zones are very important. So God is the One who inhabits the red zone, the holy zone. And when God chooses to meet with His people, those places become holy. Places like Eden. And Sinai. Which is why God had to put strict limits on who can enter the zones He establishes. Or as Hebrews puts it, ‘the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood’ (Hebrews 9:6-7). And when we understand that, how glorious it is to read later, that ‘we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus’ (Hebrews 10:19). So brothers and sisters, through the blood of Jesus let us enter and enjoy life in the ‘red zone’.
Prayerful dependence in preaching
There's a lot of nonsense written (and spoken at conferences) about what PT believes about preaching. Generally speaking, we don't respond to it. But for those who are a little doubtful and for all who are not, here's an excerpt from Christopher's forthcoming book about how the Spirit continues the work of Jesus in making the Father known. It's his conclusion about prayerful dependence in preaching – and every preacher should be convicted:
A prayerful dependence upon the Spirit is bound to affect the way we preach and teach. There will be about our preaching something of the spirit of one who has been listening and who is praying as he preaches. There will be an earnestness and passion. He will be doing much more than just a cold explaining of the Bible text. But we must not mistake an apparently passionate style with the ministry of the Spirit. For the Spirit is Sovereign. We cannot enlist his support by preaching in a particular style, just as we cannot guarantee his work in our hearts by listening with a particular technique or in a particular place or manner. He blows where and when he wills and we cannot constrain him. Our prayer is not a kind of magic wand to bring the Spirit. Magic, after all, is a way of using supernatural power with me in charge; I wave the wand. But I am never in charge of the Spirit. Our prayer is to be a genuine expression of heartfelt and utter dependence upon him to work, for until and unless he opens blind eyes and softens hard hearts, the Father will not be made known. Charles Spurgeon used to advise his students to prepare as though it all depended upon them, and then to do what he did as he ascended the pulpit steps, saying under his breath the words, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life.”
Christopher's new book will be published in the summer.
More like this:
The ability of Jesus
Just reading through and studying Hebrews at the moment. It's amazing stuff. Moreover, Peter O'Brien's excellent Pillar commentary is a good guide through. I've got to the end of chapter 4 and O'Brien reminds that "Jesus is able to….." is a key idea in Hebrews. Nothing to do with preaching, perhaps, but good for our souls to reflect on the supreme and superb ability of Jesus:
- For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested (Heb 2.18)
- For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4.15)
- He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness (Heb 5.2)
- Therefore He is always able to save those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to intercede for them (Heb 7.25)
Here is the video of the preachers Q&A from the Preachers Weekend. The answers are particularly geared towards those with an occasional ministry, such as elders or lay people who preach from time to time. Vaughan Roberts and Adrian Reynolds answer. Unfortunately, the still from the vimeo site makes it look like I've got constipation. I can assure you – it gets better!!