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.
Why context matters…
If PT made rock, it would almost certainly contain the word CONTEXT.
You can't think about context enough if you want to handle the text faithfully. Here's a very brief example:
The priestly blessing of Numbers 6.22-27 asks for the Lord to bless and "be gracious."
OK. But what's the context? The context is LAW. Do this, do that. Don't do this. Don't do that. In fact, as one commentator puts it, the blessing ends the whole law section which began in another book – Leviticus 1 – Numbers 6.
So the context of a prayer for God's GRACE is LAW. See how the context shapes the text? Despite the setting, grace is still needed (a fact that the narrative of Numbers that is about to begin will bear out clearly). God's blessing cannot be earned by keeping the LAW. Hence, the prayer for GRACE.
Autumn Ministers Conference 2011
Now you're back from holiday and nice and relaxed, why not think about joining us at the Autumn Ministers Conference at Hothorpe Hall. The dates are Monday 7 – Thursday 11 November starting at Monday tea-time and running through to Thursday lunchtime. This year we're got Carl Trueman coming to teach on the important subject of how we preach the Trinity in the Old Testament and we've coaxed Dick out of conference retirement to give his expositions for expositors. Dick is still remarkably sharp and these will be, as always, a great treat, help and encouragement for preachers. We've also got Charles and Tricia Marnham to help us think through issues to do with parenthood (not just for parents!) and our preaching workshops. It promises to be an exciting time together. Even if you haven't been for some time, why not plan to join us? And if you've never been, you would also be very welcome. Why not think about coming with a ministry friend as a way of developing local relationships? Perhaps there is someone serving close to where you live and he would benefit from your fellowship and the break away? We look forward to seeing you. Book online here.
Preacher, don’t forget the little words
We don't normally post on a Sunday, not being a work day, but I've just finished preaching 1 Thess 2.12-13 in a Hindi language service and I've been vivdly reminded of the importance of what we used to call conjunctives but the educationalists now insist we call connectives – the little joining words. There are lots of them in Greek which sadly are not always translated (though the new NIV has restored many). Take these particular two verses. Paul is not praying two prayers, one for love and one for holiness. These are not mutually exclusive characteristics. In fact, they are mutually dependent. Love AND holiness. You cannot, I suggest, have one without the other. A sermon of two points (as mine was) might be in danger of giving this impression. And so the preacher must think hard about the connectives and how to present them in his message if we are going to be faithful to God's word.