PT Cornhill – apply now
We've just started taking applications and doing interviews for Cornhill 2011/12. The PT Cornhill course continues to address a unique need – practical preaching and teaching training. Of course, we believe preaching is a spiritual task – but the call to every preacher is to be an unashamed workman; it is naive to suggest that training has no part to play – and that is where Cornhill can serve the local church. This year Cornhill is twenty years old, each year training some 50 men and women for ministry in the church. Perhaps there is someone in your church who could benefit from it? Here's a short (30 second) trailer we have made for the New Word Alive bookstall. It is brief but contains the essence of what PT Cornhill is all about. You can apply online now.
April Fool? No – I’m too busy seeking wisdom
I suppose today there should be some suitable April Fool joke – just enough truth to be almost believable, but shocking all the same. You know the sort of thing – Adrian is made Bishop of Ely, Christopher retains National Badminton Mixed Doubles Title – that sort of thing. But truth is that I'm too tired and emotionally drained to come up with anything really good in that line. I feel a bit more like Hamlet:
When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but battalions
That’s when I need to read James. I find the opening verses both a challenge and a help. Here’s the challenge:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
It’s a hard word, isn’t it? I can just about endure trials, or be patient during trials, but consider them joy? Forget it. Too hard. Too painful. Too stress-inducing. Too spiritual! I know that Romans 8.28 is true, but – please – can I think about that when I come out the other side? Sure, I know that when I look back I’ll see that it was all for my sanctification. But not now, okay?
It’s a hard word – and as you can see – a word in season, a word I need. So that’s why I need James’ help too, not just the challenge:
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
These verses are a kind of birthday card text – the one you always put in a greetings card. And I’m sure they are great verses – but I don’t think they’re simply about wisdom. The context links them directly to the openers on joy and trials. The wisdom in view is not about care plans for my elderly in-laws (though I do need wisdom for that). The wisdom in view is knowing that these trials are for my ultimate good. And boy, is that wisdom I need!
I’m no April Fool. I need wisdom. And so this is my prayer.
Who’s the leader now?
Who leads your church? No, who really does? I was reminded this week that church members are required to obey their leaders (Hebrews 13). But who, in reality, is leading the church? This issue arose as I discussed an article I'd written with a much wiser older colleague (of the Lucas variety). In the article, I argue for strong leadership from the pastor when it comes to issues of singing (you'll have to wait for our 2011/12 resource guide for the full article, I'm afraid). Dick wondered whether the previous generation's battle of pastor vs choir had simply been replaced by pastor vs drummer. Possibly. In fact, almost certainly in some places.
But I wonder if the issue is deeper and is, at its heart, the question of who leads. So here are some illustrations, none of which (it won't surprise you to know) are made up:
- a church member who contributes a large proportion of the church's income threatens to withdraw support unless he gets his way. Who's the leader now?
- a church member who should really be a leader but is not (because he's too difficult) hijacks a church vote through loud and aggressive arguments. Who's the leader now?
- a bullish worship leader chooses the songs he wants rather than accepting the authority of the pastor. Who's the leader now?
- a cliquey group make plans without the wardens/elders knowledge and then propose them in an unexpected coup. Who's the leader now?
And so it could go on. What gives rise to these situations? The answer must be two fold:
- it may be a problem with church members who are unwilling to recognise their leaders' authority
- it may be a problem with church leaders who do not display servant hearted leadership or lack the courage to be leaders
In both cases, as it happens, the resolution of the issue lies with a leader. And, ironically, both require the leader to lead – either by tackling graciously the problem in the member or by tackling robustly the sin in his own heart. Both resolutions are required of most leaders most of the time. So, in your church, who's the leader now?
Melchizedek the greatest priest
Sometimes the arguments of Scripture are really quite straightforward, even when (on first reading) they seem quite daunting. Here's the next part of Hebrews where the writer is showing how great Jesus is by aligning him with the priesthood of Melchizedek rather than the priestly line of Aaron (the tribe of Levi). His argument is really very nice. The lesser pays tithes to the greater – and ultimately everyone in Israel paid tithes to Melchizedek. Therefore, he is the greatest OT priest. This is the argument of Hebrews 7.4-10. I quickly sketched out a picture because the last time I taught this (in true Rolf Harris) style, I got a whiteboard and drew these pictures to explain my point.
Can you see what it is yet?
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)
More like this:
The British Museum – possibly the best thing about London?
I love living in London – and one of the best reasons is that it is the home of the British Museum. Look – I've got to be honest, when I was young I thought the BM was the dullest place in the Universe (second only, possibly, to The Royal Opera House, somewhere else I now love). But now I'm older and wiser and – importantly – spiritually alive, I realise that the British Museum is a feast for a believer.
OT great Walter Kaiser wrote an interesting article back in 2005 about the 15 greatest biblical archaeological finds (it's still online here). Most are in Israel, one or two are squirrelled away (e.g. some of the more fragile papyrii). But a surprising number of the finds are in the BM. Yep! You can go and see them. I believe the Bible to be true because of faith in the Scriptures. But to see archaelogical finds that confirm its veracity, sometimes against all the historical odds, is amazing. (As an aside there has been a recent BBC series about how the Bible's history is all poppycock).
If you can't get to London (or even if you can and want some help) there is an excellent Day One travel guide. These little guides are superb and this one, in particular, stands out. It's written by Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson who know what they're talking about. (They also do guided tours – more information here). I'm on my sixth or seventh; I keep giving them away as I want people to go and see the stuff too!
Yes, faith is what gives us confidence in the Scriptures (see for example Hebrews 11.3) (try explaining that to an unbeliever!). But, in God's goodness and graciousness our faith is confirmed and helped by such things as archaeological discoveries. Each year we send our Cornhill students to visit the BM for precisely this reason. Amazingly, their preaching is helped too! Go and see the Cyrus Cylinder and then try and preach Ezra 1 without mentioning it! You can't! (I loved it so much, I bought a copy. The Cyrus Cylinder is currently on tour, but if you pop into my office you can always see the other one!).
OK, I'm getting boring now. But if you stop by London for any reason, let me encourage you to visit the BM and take a tour.*
[As an interesting aside, Professor Donald Wiseman died last year (read his obituary here). Donald was linked for a time with the British Museum and his influence can sometimes be seen in the wall plaques desscrbing certain finds in biblical terms. Sadly, my friend Clive Anderson tells me, these are gradually being removed and biblical references erased.]
* Do watch out for tours being conducted by Jehovah's Witnesses. Stick to Day One tours or buy the guide from the bookshop and have a DIY tour.
Good communicators: the proof of the pudding
None of us here have written anything about that book yet, primarily because we haven't read it apart from a few sample chapters doing the rounds. But I was very struck by something my good friend Dave Bish wrote about communication in his review. We spent a little while discussing it over lunch yesterday and it's worth repeating.
He's known for being an outstanding communicator. I think he's fun with words but probably not actually that good a communicator. When challenged he argues he's misunderstood, which can only happen for so long before you have to ask why. His style is very accessible (though having only 150 words per page grates after a while). He constantly asks questions and rarely answers them which while provocative is a bit annoying.
Just what makes a good communicator? I guess this is an oft-asked question, and oft-answered. Many of the standard answers will be do with rhetoric – style, illustration, engagement – all that sort of thing. I don't want to belitte any of those in particular; we encourage our students here to think about each of them carefully. But I wonder whether good communication at its heart is about content, not style. Of course, the style may help convey the content well. But without content there is nothing to communicate and therefore no good communicator.
I think this is the burden of all the preaching vocabulary in Acts. It is interesting that all the variety (proclaim, preach, reason, argue etc) comes from the description of what is being done. There is no vocabulary for style. There are no adverbs, in other words. Paul is not described as arguing winsomely or preaching humourously. That is not to say that such attributes were not present. I'm sure Paul was not dull (despite the Troas moment!). But he was a good communicator, humanly speaking, because of what he had to communicate. May that be a lesson to us.
Religion heading for extinction say mathematicians
Well, they didn't say exactly that, but that's how the BBC news website is reporting it (you can read the report here). Not surprising – as it makes for a nice headline. But halfway down the report is the real interesting part.
"The idea is pretty simple," said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. "It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility."
Well, that is certainly a simple idea – essentially it seems that this is a rather posh way to say what we've always said "a crowd attracts a crowd." There is clearly some anthropoligical truth in that statement, truth that is echoed in the thrust, say, of Acts 2.42-47. And we shouldn't belittle it.
But theologically it is dangerously flawed. Genuine Christianity (as opposed to nominal) grows not through numbers attracting numbers for social cachet but by men and women and children believing the message. That faith comes from God himself and so church growth continually bucks trends and statistics. In countries where the gospel seemed dead, there are remarkable awakenings (e.g. China). Sometimes, great things start from just one man or woman (e.g. some of the great missionary pioneers) who even in their lifetime are dismal failures.
Thankfully, we don't need to be scared by such mathematical shenaningans. Even the smallest church can be used by God for extraordinary things and our glorious confidence is that the word of the Lord does not return void.
Try putting that into an equation.
Useful Hebrews commentaries
I'm just preaching on Hebrews at the moment and there are lots of commentaries to choose from. Here are some I've found particularly useful:
- the best one volume commentary seems to be Peter O'Brien's Pillar volume. Not cheap, but very thorough.
- O'Brien does reference FF Bruce a lot. Some find him a bit superficial, but he does deal with most of the issues. The revised version is better.
- Ray Stedman's smaller volume in the IVP New Testament Commentary series is perhaps one of the best short commentaries.
- For a simple accompanying book, Stuart Olyott's "I wish someone would explain Hebrews to me" is hard to beat, though sometimes the application feels a little straightjacketed. We have sold this en masse at church to accompany our series.
- Leon Morris has contributed the volume to the Expositor's Bible Commentary and so this is a useful addition if you can get hold of it separately.
On the other hand, there are some excellent commentaries that are harder to use when preaching. Chief among these is John Owen's excellent set – very thorough and containing a series of thematic lectures as well as verse by verse exposition. But, on the whole, they are too dense to be of practical use to a preacher unless he has a lot of time to read around. Shame, because there's gold dust here. I've also got Westcott (hmm), the CFP focus on the Bible volume by Walter Riggans (not one of the strongest), Let's Study Hebrews by Hywel Jones (better) and one or two smaller volumes which tend to skip over quite critical trains of thought. You really need a comprehensive commentary.
So, if it was going to be just one it would probably be Peter O'Brien.
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.