What do you do with those total destruction passages?
Numbers has a bit of everything – law, story, poetry, prophecy – which makes it an exciting book to read and preach. But it also means that the tricky issues raised by OT preaching ALL come up in Numbers, not least of which is the herem holy destruction like that against the Midianites (Numbers 31). If you're preaching these sorts of passages, you've surely got to talk about the issue and understand it for yourself. One book I've found very helpful is Show them no mercy which includes an excellent chapter by Tremper Longman III on this very subject. It is in the 4/5 views series produced by Zondervan . I found it useful for understanding the issue myself and also understanding what other people think, even if some of them are far from being mainstream evangelical views. Worth the £8 it costs.
Why context really does matter
A bit more banging of the drum.
Have a quick look at Numbers 30. Woah! One verse on oaths for men and 15 on oaths for women. Or, more precisely, why oaths for women can always be overridden by their fathers or husbands. Not very 21st Century. In fact, totally demeaning to women and a good illustration of how regressive Christianity can be.
Well, that is certainly one way to read it. But think again. Think about some context, both immediate (in a section of the book where women have their rights extended) and historical – where women had few rights if any.
Now this passage is transformed. It's a liberation – can you see it? Women can take oaths just like men, and except in certain circumstances they are binding too.Women are protected too. OK, husbands and fathers can – for a short while – nullify their vows, but after that, the oaths are confirmed and they are legitimate before God.
Quite a different reading (and, in this case, I would suggest, the proper one).
Yes, I know we say it a lot. But content really does matter.
A new start: recommended audio
Here is the audio from Vaughan Robert's talk at our Spring Wives Reunion last week. It's based on Luke 6. Although some of the application is targeted specifically at the wives, it's really good stuff for anybody in ministry, especially those who find it a struggle to get going after the summer break. I sat through the talk and thought it was very helpful indeed: faithful exposition matched with warm application. A great way to start the week and the term.
Playground friends for pastors
Today, Isabel (7) proudly told dad that she is to be a playground friend. What does that mean? "I have to help people who are arguing and make sure everyone has someone to play with." I take it that "helping people with arguing" doesn't mean developing their rhetoric and sharpening their arguments, but rather, breaking them up! It's a good idea, and not only for schoolgirls….
Being a pastor is a lonely calling – even in a large staff team there is an inherent lonliness about being in ministry. That's why getting together with other pastors is such a good idea. There are a number of ways of doing that, of course. Traditionally, fraternals fulfilled that task – but they often become too big or focused on discussing issues, so there is not the fraternity that pastors crave and need.
I'm a great fan of small preaching groups. 5 of 6 pastors from different churches, but from a locality can meet together every few months and use the opportunity to preach their sermons to one another. There are a number of obvious upsides to this:
- first, and most importantly, it will feed the souls of those who are listening
- having a sermon critiqued is humbling but, more importantly, sharpens your own preaching in a way feedback from a congregation rarely will
- critiquing someone else's sermon will sharpen your own exegetical and hermeneutical skills
- this kind of intimacy and trust will develop good friendships which can last and be fruitful
So, yes, I'm a fan of small preaching groups. 4 or 5 good friends encourgaing one another.
But how's it going to start? That's where the playground friends come in. Perhaps you need to be a playground friend and make sure people in the playground are happy. Why not start a group?
Summer Wives Reunion
Yesterday we had our spring wives reunion and a great time it was – not too formal, just a chance for those who come on the spring conference to get together and encourage one another. We've also planned in a reunion for the summer wives conference. If you're a younger minister and your wife attended this conference (or if you're a younger minister and she didn't, but she would like to 'try it out') then why not encourage her to book in for the 16th November. Lunch included! Book online now.
A different kind of funeral?
Funerals always seem such a miserable send off. A poorly attended mid week meeting or, worse still, 90 years of life crammed into 15 minutes at the Crematorium. So here's what we used to do at our old church (BTW, I realise that this wouldn't work in many larger churches, but be creative).
- The old approach. A dear saint dies and the Friday funeral is attended by a scattering of church members who are not in work and the family. We struggled to get any musicians – all at work.
- The new approach. A small family commital by the graveside or in the crematorium on, say, a Friday. Then, a Sunday afternoon service for the whole church (replacing our evening service) which is the memorial service. Good singing. Good music. A full church, and a proper thanksgiving for the life of N by the whole church family to which he or she belonged. The family are moved by the support of the congregation – follow it with a church tea for everyone. It can be good to make these events part of the ordinary church life. No coffin to preach over. All the kids can come. It all seems so…well, appropriate. Could that work in your church?
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.