It’s the gospel, isn’t it?
(to be repeated in an Indian voice).
I'm just back from India and, as always, such trips are good for my soul. For one thing (amongst many), I see more clearly there than I do walking the streets of London this fundamental truth: it's the gospel.
In the short while since I last visited India the rich have got noticeably richer whilst the poor (to my eyes) have got at least more numerous, if not poorer. Multi-billion aid packages make little difference. Open corruption is endemic.
Yet the gospel changes. And so what India needs is not, primarily, aid programmes, social justice initiatives and orphanages (though there is merit, of course, in all of these). No, what it needs is the gospel. And the gospel changes people and society is improved as a result. This is the priority of the gospel above every other (sometimes very worthy) causes and is the reason preaching is so key in the church.
In our affluent western society where so many people are so nice I'm afraid we can quickly lose sight of this fundamental truth. Come with me and visit India and you will see things more clearly.
It's the gospel, isn't it?
London evenings with a talking donkey
If you live or work around the London area, why not come along to our three London evenings on the book of Numbers? These are designed to unpack a Bible book, with a particular focus on teaching it to others (though they are suitable for all Christians). In years past, we regularly ran these evenings, but for various reasons they've been packed away in the cupboard. However, for 2011/12 we've put them back on the timetable and are kicking off this autumn with studies in a book that many Christians (and Bible teachers?) know little about.
The dates are Wednesdays 5/12/19 October and each evening runs from 6.30pm through 9pm starting with a light supper. The cost is £12 and you can book here. I will be teaching on this first series as Numbers is my thing (at the moment!). It would be great to see you. Why not also encourage some of your other church teachers or potential teachers to come along? It's a great low-cost way to learn and grow together. If you want some flyers, contact the office and let us know.
BTW, I'd just like to point out that the talking donkey is a character in Numbers, rather than the teacher….!
An essential part of any preaching any passage is to ask why it is there in the first place. It's not always obvious. Take Numbers 15 Numbers 11-14 begins to describe the terrible downward regression that is the rebellion of the first wilderness generation – a rebellion which leaves no family untouched and even affects Moses, Joshua, Miriam and Aaron. Chapter 16 continues this sorry tale with the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. So chapter 15 is a bit, well, out of place, surely? More laws? Tassels? What's going on?
Those who believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture must always ask why a passage is where it is, because even if it seems odd to us, it is never a mistake. This is how Iain Duguid introduces chapter 15:
The essential ingredient of a good story is sequence: a plot in which one event follows another in an orderly way, and every element plays its part in advancing the story line. Ever since Aristotle, it has been generally accepted that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that these elements should normally be closely connected to one another. To be sure, we are perhaps more plot-driven in our culture than at most times and places in history. We tend to be impatient with slow-moving novels, and we expect our stories to evidence a tight narrative structure. A book like Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which contains a whole chapter that simply describes the view over fifteenth-century Paris from the roof of the cathedral, quickly makes us seek out the abridged version. Yet even that chapter has a function within the larger narrative of The Hunchback, giving the book a gothic, overdecorated tone that matches the architecture of the cathedral itself.
So why is chapter 15 here? Duguid again:
Numbers 15 is primarily about different kinds of sacrifices. The connection between the various sections of this chapter and what precedes this chapter becomes clear when you understand the purpose of these sacrifices. Israel’s sacrifices served a number of different functions in their religious life. Some sacrifices provided atonement for sin, others paid tribute to their heavenly overlord, while still others were the means of enjoying table fellowship with their covenant King. In this chapter, all three purposes are present. The opening section focuses on the meal aspect of these sacrifices (vv. 1–21), the offering of the first dough functions as tribute to the King (vv. 22–26), while the remainder of the section on offerings discusses which sins can be atoned for and which cannot (vv. 27–36). The case study of the man gathering wood on the Sabbath is included at this point as an example of a sin that cannot be atoned for, and then the chapter closes with the requirement that the Israelites wear tassels on their garments as a reminder of their covenant God (vv. 37–41). As we will see in our next study, this last section sums up the theme of the whole chapter, describing the obligations that flow from a relationship of grace.
Top Numbers Commentaries
For those who have been asking, here are the commentaries I have found most useful in studying and preaching Numbers. They fall into two categories, what I call analytical (i.e. verse by verse) and devotional (normally based on sermons).
Analytical (my first choice)
- I have found Timothy Ashley's NICOT volume of great help. Clear, whilst engaging with the text. For an evangelical perhaps one criticism is that there is a lot of discussion throughout about sources and later additions, whether or not they are genuine and so on.
- Gordon Wenham's Tyndale volume is brief in relation to the size of the text, but remarkabky rewarding even so.
- I also like the New American Commentary (this volume is by Dennis Cole). This is a variable series, but I found some helpful stuff here, even though it wasn't my first go-to.
- Iain Duguid's Numbers volume in Kent Hughes Preach the Word series is full of brilliant insight and warm application. Also available as an ebook.
- I also like James Philip's contribution to the Preachers Commentary series (itself a bit mixed).
Interestingly these are both Scots! Also worthy of a commendation is Martin Pakula's briefer but helpful devotional commentary.
Preaching with a manuscript
It sometimes seems that preaching without notes is something of a holy grail for preachers. I dispute this. To think that somehow preaching can only be powerful and Spirit filled if we're not bound by notes is something of a denial of the character of God and his modus operandi. To take this to its logical conclusion, why prepare at all, if this is the case. The Cornhill course is a waste of time and study time preparing a text is worse than useless.
Of course, we believe that the Spirit is at work as we faithfully pray and study and prepare – and he is able to work whatever our notes approach. True, for some, a less bound manuscript may be useful. For others (oh yes!) a more rigid manuscript might save your church! I usually use a full manuscript but preach from highlighted words in each paragraph; however (for no spiritual reason) last Sunday I preached without notes. Both can work in the right setting and environment.
Anyhows, seeing as many seem to want to extol preaching without a manuscript, I thought it would be good to reference a good article about the benefits of preaching with a manuscript. See here. H/T Challies. By the way, you'll notice that halfay through he says that one of the best things he gets is that each sermon of his is evaluated. Again, this does not quench the Spirit, but rather helps us to be the faithful expositors we always long to be. I heartily commend it.
Why preachers must embrace missions
I happen to think that missions is an imperative for the church and, thus, not something that a church leader can choose to ignore. But a church is quite able to be committed to missions without its main preacher being so. I think that’s a shame. I’m just en route back from South Asia where I’ve been spending ten eventful days (a bomb and an earthquake in one day alone) and here are three observations why preachers should be committed to and involved in the work of missions:
- Missions aids our understanding of the text itself. So much of our Bible reading and Bible study is culturally bound. It’s only when you see the Bible being taught and understood in different cultures that you can throw off some of the shackles and limitations of your own. Visit a culture where people really do go into ministry for money (1 Peter 5.2) and your understanding of that chapter will be greatly transformed, for the better.
- Missions aids our understanding of the goal of the text. One of the great themes of the Bible is the ingathering of nations to worship the living God. You see that in every church to a certain extent, but truth is most of us are rather mono-cultural. See the world and see the goal of God’s great mission more clearly! It may sound stupid but it wasn’t until I walked down to the River Ganges and saw Hindus worshipping the river and washing away their sins that the lostness of the lost really hit me.
- Missions aids our application of the text. Human hearts differ little across the world and across cultures. But we are often blind to the particular worldliness that infects our hearts from our own culture. Seeing Christians in another culture opens eyes to worldliness both in them and in us. And seeing that worldliness and calling it out for what it is means our application of the gospel of grace is that much sharper.
Preachers should be committed to the work of missions. For the gospel. For their preaching.
Paul’s guide to applying Numbers
How do you go about applying a book like Numbers? There is a wrong path, of course. We might call this moralising. It's where one takes a story in the Old Testament and simply wrenches it out of context and applies it directly. An absurd example would be not cutting our hair, because, after all, that's where Samson's strength lay.
In our hearts we know this is not the right approach, so we fall back on the biblical theological approach, which Jesus himself endorses. The Emmaus Road discourse, as well as some key passages in John, remind us that, ultimately, the story of the Bible is the story of Jesus. it is all, in some way, about him and takes us to him.
But too many preachers stop there. As a result, preaching becomes dull (yes, even about Jesus!) because, effectively, that only is one thread of application, and you can't survive or grow on just one, albeit significant, line. It's interesting to read then, what the Apostle Paul says about interpreting the book of Numbers, or (at least) the wilderness wanderings.
1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”[a] 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test Christ,[b] as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. (1 Corinthians 10).
Spot the applications?
- Do not be idolaters
- Do not commit sexual immorality
- Do not test the Lord
- Do not grumble
So, whilst we should avoid moralising, we are naive and narrow to think that there is no exemplary role for the Old Testament. Of course, the skill of understanding it and weaving into the bigger narrative of the story of Jesus is not straightforward, but we are not being faithful to Scripture if we ignore it.
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Geddit?
What should a preacher make of a passage such as Numbers 7.12-83 which contains a long list of offerings brought at the consecration of the Tabernacle? Each tribe is represented in an identical formula and with identical offerings. Is such repetition really necessary? Again and again and again and again (unite, Status Quo fans…)
Some Bible translators think not. The Good News Bible, The Contemporary English Version (these two are very similar) and the Living Bible all redact the text and give us summary statements instead – you can click here to see how the GNB does it.
It’s tempting to go with them. Modern people like us have little time for repetition of this nature. But no.
The author wanted the cumulative effect that results from a reading of the account of the twelve individual offerings (Timothy Ashley, NICOT, Numbers)
The text wants to give equal recognition to each of the tribes. Every tribe is equidistant from the tabernacle in the center of the camp. Every tribe contributes exactly the same offering to the tabernacle. No tribe has any claim to the divine center of power than any other. This affirmation of tribal equality is a powerful claim. (Dennis Olson, Interpretation, Numbers)
[The author] wants you to understand that there was an overwhelming outpouring of love on the part of each and every one of the tribes of Israel that cannot be captured in a few words or phrases. Only a full rendition of the details will give an adequate sense of what is transpiring here (Iain Duguid, Preach the Word, Numbers)
That raises several questions:
Should I preach this passage in a series on Numbers? I contend that the answer to that is YES. After all, it is here for a reason and who are you, like the GNB editors, to redact it out?
If I preach it, what should we read in church? It would be very tempting to read one section and then say “and that was repeated another 11 times.” Of course, reading the whole thing would take an age, and yet….. I think I would make time for reading it (with some explanation or possibly some congregational involvement).
Illustrations and Paul’s wife
The world tilting gospel
I've just finished reading Dan Phillips' latest book, The world tilting gospel. Dan is part of the Pyromaniacs blog team (always thoughtfully provocative). The book is essentially an introduction to what it means to be a Christian in the world based on the fact that the early church, without buildings, organisation, the internet and even (get this) social media, turned the world upside down. Now, Phillips argues, things are reversed. It is the world which is turning the church upside down.
This is a clearly written book. Its first half is really devoted to explaining why the gospel is needed and what it is. Clear, careful and helpful for any new Christian, or, indeed, as a reminder of what has sometimes been neglected or even forgotten. But as a Christian of many years, I found the second half to be particularly useful. It is essentially an extended study on what it means to grow in holiness (positively expressed) or to put to death the flesh (negatively expressed).
[I particularly enjoyed four very helpful pages on understanding Romans 7, so much clearer than the technical stuff lots of commentaries tie themselves in knots with.]
Scripture won't let me pretend that the flesh is my 'note from God' excusing me from the work of growing in holiness, and of seeking the Spirit's enabling to keep Christ's commands. But if I pretend it isn't real, and put myself in tempting situations that I know will exacerbate my particular fleshly weaknesses, I'm foolishly putting myself at hazard and asking for some serious humiliation. So I battle. (p249)
There is also, as you might expect from someone who comes from the MacArthur stable, some very clear and helpful teaching on the work the Holy Spirit does in the believer.
Show me a person obsessed with the Holy Spirit and his gifts…and I will show you a person not filled with the Holy Spirit.
Show me a person focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ – never tiring of learning about him, thinking about him, boasting of him, speaking about and for and to him, thrilled and entranced with his perfections and beauty, finding ways to serve and exalt him, tirelessly exploring ways to spend and be spent for him, growing in character to be more and more like him – and I will show you a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit. (p273)
I found this book a great help in my own personal battle of putting to death the deeds of the flesh and I think you may too.