Being led to the New Testament from Genesis
I’m teaching a course on Genesis at the moment at Cornhill. This morning we were asking what the right lines are to draw from Gen. 22.1-19 (the offering up of Isaac) to the New Testament.
(I like to speak of drawing lines ‘to the New Testament’, to indicate that we need to come forward both to God and Christ and to us. The NT itself draws applications from the OT both to God and Christ and to us, and therefore so should we.)
As regards coming to God and Christ from 22.1-19, the initial thing I wanted the students to see is that the passage is more interested in Abraham than in Isaac. That already suggests that it’s not central to this passage to make much of Isaac as ‘carrying wood on his back up a mountain to his sacrificial death’; that’s a true point, but a subsidiary one.
Once that is clear, Abraham emerges as a foreshadowing (type) of both the Father and of Christ. He is primarily a type of the Father because he is willing to give up even the son he loves deeply (Rom. 8.32 comes to mind). That pictures for us the provision of a sacrifice that the Father will ultimately give.
Abraham is also (a little less obviously, I think, but truly) a type of Christ, since the passage stresses his obedient trust in God in being willing to give up what is most precious to him. Of course his obedience, unlike Abraham’s, actually led to a real death, even his own.
As regards coming to us from 22.1-19, Heb. 11.17-19 gives us a solid basis for taking Abraham as a model of embracing God’s promises through times of testing.
There is such richness in the way God has caused this Scripture to be written so that it points forward to the New Testament. No single sermon can do justice to all of this, and the preacher will have to be ruthlessly selective. But the preacher who sees these things and ponders on them will never be short of solidly text-driven applications, however often he returns to such well-known passages.
Preaching crucifixion and resurrection
Over recent months I’ve posted occasionally here on Galatians, although I’d forgive you for not noticing as it’s been very occasional. Galatians is a letter which in various contexts I’ve kept coming back to. One thing I’ve particularly been helped to see is the way that cross and resurrection are held together in the letter.
That’s seen in the ‘top and tail’ of Galatians. It begins with an explicit mention of the resurrection (‘God the Father, who raised him from the dead’, 1.1), followed by the cross (‘Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age’, 1.4). At the end of the letter we get the two again, but now in the order cross-resurrection: ‘the world has been crucified to me and I to the world’ (6.14), followed straight after by ‘what counts is the new creation’ (6.15), a clear allusion to resurrection. In other words, at the top and tail of Galatians, we find (as it were) cross-language enclosed within resurrection language, with the two linked closely together. The opening speaks of them in terms of what Christ does for us; at the end, it’s expressed as what Christ does in us.
We get something similar in the famous verse 2.20: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.’ There’s crucifixion in the first phrase, and immediately Christ who is alive in the second phrase.
A couple of short-ish books by Richard Gaffin have particularly helped me to see this: Resurrection and Redemption and By Faith, Not By Sight. Gaffin is a fine scholar, who reckons that our union with Christ in his resurrection is at the heart of Paul’s understanding of salvation – without at all denying how crucial the atoning work of the cross is. Many folks, if asked about ‘the heart of salvation’, would go to cross rather than resurrection, and that for some good and understandable reasons. And then (stereotypically) we perhaps rather tack the resurrection on at the end. But maybe, at least in Galatians, cross and resurrection are different aspects, in profoundly linked ways, of God’s one glorious act of salvation in Christ, both for us and in us.
Feeling the provocation
Some of the most profound things God says to us in his written word are expressed in simple words and short sentences. That is especially true of the end of Matthew 11, which I’ve recently come to in my daily reading. They are well known words, of course. What I particularly noticed this time around was the way in which things which at first sight aren’t easy to reconcile are just set out side by side for us.
First off, Jesus praises his Father for being pleased to reveal ‘these things’ to ‘little children’ (vs.25-26). Then in the very next verse he speaks of himself as the one who chooses to do the revealing, so that we can know the Father (v.27). Such wonderful, loving co-operation of Father and Son, so that the Father may be revealed to us. It’s when I notice the seeming contradiction (exactly who is choosing to do the revealing here?) that I am drawn into wonder of what is being said to us here, and to praise the Father the way Jesus does.
Then comes the well-known apparent illogicality of vs.28-29: what the weary and burdened most desperately need is a yoke to be put round their necks by Jesus. What the burdened need sounds quite like another burden! Moreover, Jesus wants to put his yoke on us because he is ‘gentle and humble in heart’. We would hardly expect the truly gentle and humble to go round encouraging others to saddle themselves with a yoke.
Simple observations, I know. But these things provoked me (I think that’s the right word) as I dwelt on them this morning. That is surely part of God’s intention in speaking to us in such provocative ways. I naturally assume that in my weariness and burdenedness (is that a word?) what I need is more ‘me-time’ and chillaxing. In simple and jarring words, Christ provokes me to see that that isn’t so, at least not at the root of things. May the Lord preserve us, both in our own feeding on his word and in our feeding of others, from being so dull that we fail to be provoked by the sheer direct simplicity with which he often speaks.
Keeping it simple in Galatians
I’ve got the privilege of preaching through the first part of Galatians right now. Last Sunday was 2.11-21. It’s glorious, but not straightforward: with vs.11-14 a decision is required on just what the men from James were saying and why, and there are quite a few knotty exegetical questions in vs.15-21 that need to be untangled. If I short-circuit those things, I’m likely to miss the cutting edge of this particular passage. I tried to do that work while also keeping things simple, but am not sure I succeeded.
So it’s a relief this morning to turn to preparing 3.1-6, which seems much easier. One simple point runs right through it: the way Christians should seek to go on securely in the Christian life is exactly the same way they started – by believing what they heard, with no falling back on ‘works of the law’.
There is, however, a however. Paul moves from Christ crucified in v.1 to God giving his Spirit and the Galatians receiving the Spirit in vs.2-5. I think my sermon will likely be too trite if I don’t work on the link between cross and Spirit that Paul makes here. He seems to think that if we’re misunderstanding how to stay secure in our on-going lives in the Spirit, then the root is that we’ve forgotten the effect of the cross. That’s probably why he began the letter in 1.4 by ascribing a strikingly wide effect to the cross (‘to rescue us from the present evil age’). I want my sermon to be as simple and direct as the passage is. But I don’t want a cheap simplicity that misses the crucial theological links that Paul draws.
To work, then.
Thoughts for Preachers on 2 Peter, #4
A final thought on 2 Peter. This time it’s a difficulty of application.
Peter spends a long time in ch.2 spelling out three things about the false teachers themselves: their destructive denial of the return of Christ, the depraved conduct they engage in, and the ways they try to entice believers into the same. My initial problem in applying that is: I struggle to think of many people who fit exactly that description and who are causing problems for the people I preach to. There are plenty who hold official teaching positions in churches who deny the return of Christ: just round the corner from most Bible-based churches there will be a church where that denial can be heard from time to time. The problem is that most of those preachers are thoroughly decent people who give themselves in love and service to their communities. So in preaching 2 Peter, just who am I to relate this to in our world?
Here’s my not very profound thought. In our particular world right now there may not be many obvious individuals who have in themselves all the features set out in ch.2. But there is no doubt what happens morally in churches and denominations which consistently deny the return of Christ as judge. (And of course you effectively deny something if you refuse ever to speak about it, or if you reinterpret it into something else, as liberalism regularly does with biblical truths about Christ.) What happens is: those churches and denominations end up before long going along with the world in its approval of gross immorality. That is rather obviously happening in major denominations right now. What Peter says in ch.2 of individuals may in our world be more observably true of churches and denominations. But the principle is the same, and the same sharp application is valid and timely.
Thoughts for Preachers on 2 Peter, #3
More on 2 Peter, this time on one of the letter’s tricky verses. What on earth is the second half of 2.10 saying about the false teachers?! ‘Bold and wilful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones’ (ESV).
Problems, as commentators like to say, abound here. Who are these ‘glorious ones’, and how are they being blasphemed? Jude 8-9 speaks in similar terms but with more detail; if the two passages are talking about the same thing, then the beings whom the false teachers are speaking about are rebellious angels, and what they’re doing is arrogantly pronouncing their own judgment on them. (That would fit, speculatively, with their denial of the return of Christ as judge: if he’s not the judge, they’re free to take judgment on angels into their own hands.)
NIV points in this direction: ‘Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings’. This seems pretty likely, but to call such condemned beings ‘glorious ones’ as Peter does still seems odd.
What is the poor preacher to do, who can’t write a PhD on the problem before Sunday? Well, 2.10b is obviously an example of the false teachers’ despising of authority in 2.10a. What we do know clearly about these false teachers is that they despise the authority of the apostles who proclaim God’s promises about eternal salvation and eternal condemnation that are coming with the return of Christ. Whatever these false teachers are saying precisely about whatever glorious/celestial beings, it looks in the context like it’s part of the same attitude. And seeing that, the preacher can press on in confidence.
Thoughts for Preachers on 2 Peter, #2
Let’s come to the end of 2 Peter. The final two verses are a terrific summary of Peter’s whole message to the believers:
3.17: Don’t be carried into error and fall from your security.
Peter’s writing to believers who are faced with people who claim to be Christian but who are teaching that there will be no return of Christ and so no final ultimate act of judgment from God. Such people then enjoy throwing themselves into depravity and encouraging others to follow them.
Peter warns: if you follow that error about Christ and so indulge in lawless living, you will ‘fall from your secure position’. That phrase clearly refers back to the same truth put the positive way round in 1.10-11. The warning is stark. A clear departure from truth, expressed in godless living, leads to eternal destruction.
3.18: But grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ.
Verse 17 was “don’t do this!”. This verse is: “do this instead!”. And growing in godliness, as a true expression of true knowledge of Christ, is still what Peter’s talking about. See how he linked godliness with knowledge of Christ that way in 1.8; see how the command to keep fighting for growth in godliness tops and tails the letter, and is linked with the return of Christ and being found ‘at peace with him’ (1.5; 3.11, 14).
There are a number of different good ways to plan out a preaching series on 2 Peter. It’s no bad thing, though, to end by majoring on the summarising commands of these last two verses. It can help drive the heart of Peter’s aim home with some simplicity and power.
Thoughts for Preachers on 2 Peter, #1
I’ve had the opportunity to preach and teach 2 Peter in a few settings in the last eighteen months. So here follow four blog posts that might be helpful for others on this rich little letter.
It’s very clear that Peter is strengthening the believers against destructive teaching and depraved conduct, as he calls it in 2.1-2. He expands on it pretty graphically throughout ch.2. Most likely the same people are described again as ‘scoffers’ in 3.3-4, who explicitly deny Christ’s coming again in glory. It’s easy to see how this false teaching matches up with their depraved conduct, since they can live how they want to if Christ is not coming again as judge. Peter reminds the believers sharply how God has spoken about coming final judgment and acted in judgment in many ways in the past:
• in the revelation of Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration, which Peter takes as a demonstration of Christ as the final judge (1.16-18)
• in OT prophecies (1.19-21)
• in his acts of judgment and salvation in the OT (2.4-9)
• in the flood (3.6)
• in Paul’s letters (3.15-16 – referring, it should be noted, specifically to what Paul says about judgment and salvation on the last day).
I think this helps us feel the sharpness of the opening of the letter. When Peter talks about God’s ‘very great and precious promises’ (1.4), he surely means something quite specific: God’s promises that there will be a final day of ultimate judgment on the ungodly and of salvation of the righteous, all done by Christ at his return. I think that explains why Peter says that God gave these promises ‘so that through them you may participate in the divine nature’, i.e. share God’s moral nature: if we hold firm to belief in Christ’s coming again, with all that that entails, we will continue to strive to grow in godliness and Christlikeness.
Are you allowed to preach just on a single verse at Cornhill?
Well, yes, you are. Indeed we actively encourage students to learn how to do so wisely. Of course there were some good reasons why in recent decades many preachers moved away from the frequent single-verse habit of their predecessors:
• it could readily lend itself to preaching verses out of context;
• done as the staple diet, it prevented consecutive exposition through whole books;
• it assumed greater Bible literacy in congregations than is now often the case;
• preachers could rather easily choose to preach on just their favourite topics.
There have been some real gains in this shift, and it’s wise to try to hold on to them. But when students ask (as they occasionally do) ‘how can I preach on a single verse and still do all the things Cornhill trains me to do with the text?’, that’s probably a signal that we need to work at not losing the ability to preach well from a single verse. Choosing a single verse as your text is, after all, doing nothing more radical than just opting to preach on a pretty short text. There are of course still some dangers out there into which the unwary and lazy may fall:
• preaching the context rather than what my text actually says;
• conversely, preaching my text without controls from its context.
However there are some benefits from occasional single-verse preaching, when done well:
• less time is normally spent in the sermon on text-explanation, leaving more time for application – whereas many of our sermons are imbalanced the other way;
• it can summarise the heart of the message of a complex book or chapter in a single verse (debatable examples of whole-book summaries, for my money, are Galatians 5.5; James 4.4; 1 John 5.20);
• in speaking situations where brevity, crystal clarity and directness are essential – funerals, short evangelistic talks, Christmas services, etc. – a single verse may well be the most sensible way to go.
Christ our pattern
Some powerful words from the pen of Donald Macleod, in what seems to have been an address to the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland:
‘The Christ whom we are trying to follow and trying to emulate made himself nothing. He became a nonentity. It was not what he was, but it was what he looked like, what he allowed men to think of him and how he allowed men to treat him. He obscured his deity beneath humanness and ordinariness and suffering and even death. He didn’t look great or clever. He had none of the trappings of popularity. Instead, he was despised and contemptible: a non-person. That is a hard road. But for the Christian it is the only road: one on which we are willing to renounce our rights, to be misunderstood, to be damned with faint praise, to serve and yet be deemed absurd failures by those we are trying to help… ‘What upheld Christ? What kept him going? A sense of duty, of course, and love for lost men and women. But there was something else – what the Epistle to the Hebrews calls ‘The joy set before him’. That has become very unfashionable today. But Christ was not ashamed to derive strength and courage from that great prospect – the prospect of glory with the Father – which lay before him. Neither should we be ashamed of it.’ (From Glory to Golgotha, pp.157-58).
Macleod of course has a strong understanding of what Christ has done for us that we cannot do ourselves (see his new book Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement). But in the above quote he challenges me deeply to take Christ as my pattern too. Sometimes I am what Macleod calls an ‘absurd failure’ because, well, I can be a bit absurd and I often fail. But other times we are judged to be absurd failures simply because we are following our Lord. Then he challenge for me is: will I be ashamed to find my joy in precisely the same thing that the Lord Jesus chose to find his joy in?