Just in passing
Some of the most extraordinary truths in Scripture are mentioned almost in passing. Take Ephesians 1.11-14 for example. This was my passage on Sunday and it stirred me greatly. As you almost certainly already know, Paul is first of all talking about himself as a believing Jew before pointing out to the Gentiles that they too have been included in Christ. That’s why he repeats the language of predestination (v.11 compare v.5) and being chosen (v.11 compare v.4) and why he switches from the “we” language to “you” language at verse 13.
But as he points out that he, as a Jew, was amongst those who were first to believe he says the most profound truth about God’s sovereignty:
“[He] works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”
Just let that sink in! Now, in the context, he is talking about his salvation, but his description of the providence of God encompasses “everything” not just the salvation of some Jews. How do you do justice to such a truth when it is mentioned as though in passing? Here are one or two ideas:
First you could make more of it than the passage does: it could become one of your teaching points. This, I guess, is an obvious temptation. I worry about his approach because it damages the delicate balance that the Spirit has inspired and detracts from the main point Paul is making about inclusion.
You could slow up and just preach the verse. I think this is a good approach as long as it is not the normal one. Most of us preach one verse at some time or another (especially in short evangelistic contexts). There is much to be said for it and it is quite a skill. We get the students to do it here from time to time and they often struggle with it. You can still be expository doing one verse, by the way: you’ve misunderstood expository preaching if you think it needs long passages.
You could use it to inform the rest of the service. This is what I did last Sunday, at least in part. We used it to help us pray and I did a short kids’ talk. We sung a Colin Buchanan song about God being in control and then sung a grown up one too: Sovereign Ruler of the Skies. That way the service held together well and we got as much truth from the passage as we could, even though the message was not skewed away from the Spirit inspired balance.
That – of course – requires the preacher to be the leader too, or at the very least work closely together. Which is a whole different topic.
Some recent additions to our media resources
We keep adding additional old resources to our media pages, as well as new material from conferences as they occur. We’ve just added audio from last week’s wives conference here.
Can I highlight some others which might be of interest? In slightly similar vein to last week’s To Fly, To Serve – but specifically about preaching – are these three talks from David Jackman on putting together an expository sermon.
Our back catalogue now includes almost all talks from past EMAs, with recently additions including lots from Dick Lucas, and some from John Chapman, Peter Jensen, and David Jackman. If you’ve not explored our resources pages, why not give them a go? We hope the filtering system is easy and self-explanatory. We’ve also been working to improve the indexing. If you choose talks on a particular book, they’ll be listed with overviews of the whole book at the top, followed by others in chapter order – for example, if you filter to Romans, you’ll get two overviews (from Dick Lucas and David Cook), and then lots of talks chapter by chapter. If you want to filter further – to just one speaker, or just one conference, for example – then you can choose another filter from the top.
We’ve quite a few more talks to add from the archive, so we’ll hope to build up better coverage of some bible books and some topics where we’re currently a bit thin. Watch this space.
When the word provokes
Scripture is useful for all kinds of things. And we must expect our preaching to sometimes teach, sometimes rebuke, sometimes correct and sometimes train in righteousness so that God’s people are thoroughly equipped for every good work. But increasingly we live in a culture where people crave and expect affirmation. People want to hear something good and encouraging; they don’t want to hear words of correction. Even on The Voice the most awful contestants are affirmed.
Not surprisingly, this echoes in church life. A good sermon – people say – is one which builds, encourages and affirms. I happen to think that preaching which holds out Christ to people should do this a lot. And – for sure – it is easier for preachers to be negative than positive and we want to work hard at presenting the tone and application of the text.
But increasingly, I see people reacting badly against rebuke and correction – even though these are part of the Spirit’s stated aim of the Scriptures. I saw this in action just the other week when I sat under a message which gently rebuked (appropriately so, I thought). It really stirred up a storm. What should have happened is that listeners should have thought, pondered and prayed through what they heard to see if it really did apply to them and, if it did, respond humbly with repentance and a crying out to God for help to change. Instead I saw a lot of negative response. “How dare the preacher….” Interesting.
Deep down, people (and we too, probably) don’t want correction and rebuke. We want warm affirmation. I’m not saying all preaching needs to be tub thumping sin-bashing. It needs to reflect what’s in the text. But we also, as preachers, need to help people respond to those harder sermons when God is changing us into the likeness of Christ.
How do we do that? One idea – just one. We need a little more after the sermon. Not just a closing song. We need to help people through humble repentance step by step because it is so alien to the world. The rather abrupt endings to many of our services do not really help people fight this battle with the world.
To fly to serve part 4
If you’re bored with my metaphor, I’m almost done. I’ve just got to land the plane. Step 4. Your long haul flight is useless without a safe landing. You can be as careful as you like, but if you descend too quickly and hit the deck (or too slowly and miss the runway), the flight is a disaster. An ending can be short and quick – a bit like landing at my local airport, London City. Or it can be a bit longer. But it is still only the landing. It is not the level flight where all the distance is covered.
Your job is to get the passengers safely to earth and at the right destination. Don’t spend the whole of your level flight working towards Manchester, only to land them in Brussels. That won’t do. And the captain takes them right to the gate. No “you can walk from here” like some kind of cut price airline. This is British Airways!
And no presenting anything new. The descent and landing are not, generally speaking, the place to learn new things. They simply bring the truths already learnt to land safely and helpfully.
That is the work of the Bible teacher or preacher. Captain Extraordinary. Four Rings.
To fly to serve part 3
By now, I’m thinking I deserve a BA discount. Any takers? My metaphor may do wonders for the long haul travel market. Step 3 is in level flight. This is where the most part of the journey happens. To listeners it may not seem as glamourous as take-off, nor landing. But in fact, the pilot knows that the distance and direction is covered by the largest portion of the time – time spent in level flight.
This is where the Bible speaker gets the truth from the page and applies it to the hearers’ hearts through their minds. It needs to be understood first, and then – because it is understood – it needs to be felt. What helps?
Structure helps. A pilot needs a flight plan. There should not be too many legs and, like take-off, not too many abrupt changes of direction. In fact, each change should flow naturally from the last. Gentle turns rather than steep banking. I recently flew back from India and we changed direction – slightly – only twice. Whether you have 3 points or 0 points is not really, well, the point. Rather, there should be natural and gentle progression.
Balance helps. People want and need a smooth flight. That will get them to their destination calm rather than agitated. So, for example pace is key. Don’t spent 20 minutes on your first 5 verses and 5 minutes on the next 20. No one wants to be on a flight like that. They’ll worry whether you are going to make it to your destination. And avoid turbulence. Have you ever talked to someone after a long distance flight? What do they say? “A bit bumpy.” Even when it mostly smooth. People remember the lumps and bumps and so – on the whole – you don’t want any lumps and bumps.
Preparing for the end also helps. Don’t leave all your application until the end for example. That’s too much to load into the landing. A careful and wise pilot gives passengers regular updates to show them where they’re going. He tells them the time and weather at their destination, so that when they get there, they’re all ready for it.
And by the end, people should be with you. This is key. Level flight draws people in and helps them to understand the passage and feel the emotion it is supposed to stir in us.
To fly to serve part 2
You may already think I am making too much of my extended metaphor – in which case, take a week off from the blog and come back next Monday. But I have found that when we are training men and women to be Bible teachers – in limited amounts of time – it can help them have a simple illustration which works at many levels, a parable if you like. Yesterday we saw how the pilot needs to be clear on the destination. Today:
Step 2:Take off. How you start really counts. Imagine your transatlantic flight on the runway. Probably some passengers are nervously excited, anticipating the journey. Others want it to be over already. Others still are dreading what might happen. The take-off is key. Your job is to get the plane in the air so that the long, demanding work of being gripped by the text can start.
So, you need to build up speed quickly. Many Bible speakers make this mistake. They spend so long in the take-off that the plane never gets anywhere. Dick used to call this waggling on the tee before he embraced my plane metaphor (only joking!!). And the take-off needs to be appropriate – it gets you going in the right direction. Your listeners don’t want a funny story that has nothing to do with the text. The careful pilot accelerates quickly down the runway and then climbs quickly to his cruising altitude and direction. He avoids abrupt turns. Sure, if he climbs too quickly he’ll stall and crash. But too slow and he may not clear the trees.
Those who teach others need to begin well. What this looks like will vary according to audience, but most of us cannot get away with the John Owen approach, “As I was saying last week….” The start needs to relate to the whole in terms of direction. It must not overwhelm the whole – there is a long journey ahead. And the start is only the start: don’t make it more than it is – necessary to get the plane in the air, but it is not the journey itself.
Talk Shmalk: for the purposes of clarification
My post today is about more than preaching. I love the language of preaching and hate it when people introduce me to say I’m going to ‘explain the Bible’ or ‘give a talk’: I happen to think there’s something very special about preaching (theologically). I’ve written about that many, many times.
However, in my posts today (and this week) I was trying to help a broader range of people than just preachers: hence the language of ‘talk’. There are lots of teaching opportunities in church which – I don’t believe – are appropriate to call preaching: they are not the church gathered under the man of God bringing the word of God. These might be a small group talk, a women’s meeting, a youth group, a CU meeting: I used ‘talk’ to encompass all of these and more. The language was not the point of the post, and I hope that’s obvious.
Oh, and by the way, ‘sermon’ is not in the Bible either. In fact, it’s from old French meaning ‘talk.’ Voila!
To fly to serve part 1
This week I’m at one of our wives’ conferences and I’m taking a short seminar on giving a bible talk. To be honest, this is not something we talk enough about. Sure, our key priority is to get the passage right. But whilst bad exegesis cannot be corrected by good delivery, good exegesis can be seriously undermined by poor speaking. On the PT Cornhill training course, we devote time to this – including questions of introduction, structure, application and so on.
In my short seminar I don’t really have time to develop these ideas in great detail so over the years I’ve developed an extended metaphor to help teach some basic delivery and construction skills. The metaphor is that the Bible speaker is a long haul pilot. British Airways have played right into my hands with their new advert – so this approach is now called “To fly to serve”.
I’m going to spend a few days showing you my seminar – not because you, Mr Preacher, probably need it. But you may – I trust – find it helpful as you train men and women in your church to give good Bible talks and occasionally to preach.
There are four steps.
Step 1 is to know your destination. In many ways, this is the exegesis part. The pilot’s task is to know where the plane is scheduled for and to take the passengers there safely. A preacher or Bible teacher is not a stunt pilot – there to show off his tricks. Nor is he a combat pilot – out to shoot down whatever enemies hove into sight. He has a flight plan and must stick to it. And he has to take his passengers to the appropriate destination safely and smoothly.
And the pilot is employed by the airline. Put it like this: the pilot doesn’t load up the plane and then say “right, where shall we go?” No. The text in the talk determines the destination, and so step 1 of giving a Bible talk is to understand the text to understand the destination. This is what we normally call our exegesis work – understanding the text and, fundamentally, understanding what the text is about.
Only once this is known can the pilot plan his flight and load his plane.
For the love of God
This year I’ve returned to an old favourite in my morning devotions – Don Carson’s two volumes For the love of God. I say two volumes, but I’m only using one at a time. Based on McCheyne’s Bible reading programme I’ve been gripped afresh by the Donster’s insightful comments. I really believe these are a great gift for any thinking Christian and can even act as a kind of simple two volume Bible commentary.
These days, you get a daily feed live from The Gospel Coalition blog. I use them in Logos Bible software where they’re £12 each. For a while I think there were free copies knocking around the Interweb, but I’m not sure whether they were legit or not. There’s also an iOS app, though mine stopped working with the last iOS update. I’m glad to report that it seems to be back up and working – my favourite part of it is that when it opens it says “DA Carson would like to send you notifications.” The app is slightly annoying because it’s always a day behind (as with TGC blog).
However you read it, this is a great resource which, despite its age, stands the test of time and is worth recommending to your church.
That Friday feeling
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about post sermon blues and my own struggles in this area. But the truth is that my preaching crises are not limited to after the sermon. And for me, Friday’s are the days that bite. That’s partly because I used – as a regular joe-pastor – to have Saturday off. Friday was the last full working day on my sermon(s). I would often wake early on Friday worrying things around in my head like a dog worries a bone.
I was saved from this particular Friday feeling by listening to a sermon from the US by CJ Mahaney where he confessed his own struggles with Saturday night feelings (I was much ahead feeling this way on a Friday!). This is the same feeling that makes a preacher go over and over his sermon on Saturday night (and Sunday morning), never satisfied with it.
I found, purely by experience, that a sermon reworked on a Sunday morning was virtually never improved. Indeed, quite the opposite. Thoughts that had been clearly gathered and arranged over the course of several days cannot – generally speaking – suffer the rearrangement half hour that Sunday tinkering brings.
But the issue goes deeper. For my Friday crises (and Saturday and Sunday crises) reveal a lack of confidence in the Spirit of God to do the work of God. If I have prayerfully and carefully prepared, I need to be able to place my sermon before the Lord and commit it to him. He will do what he will do. Sometimes (and you may think this is stupid, but it helped) I would even physically lay out my manuscript on the desk a bit like Hezekiah. I am the workman, nothing more. I do my work. I plant. I water. Sure, but God gives the growth and this truth and this truth alone saved me from the Friday feeling.