A month in Philemon
For 2016, I’m setting myself a slightly different Bible study challenge – this is my personal devotions I’m talking about. I’ve selected 12 short Bible books and I’m going to study one a month. My aim with each one is to memorise it (at least for the month, we’ll see how recall goes!), read it through every day, write it out several times and study it slowly. These are not sermons, not yet anyway. This is just personal study. For 2015 I did a few things, including a Bible in the year and some longer books. For this year, I want to get deep into shorter texts. It’s a different discipline, you know. I’m discovering that, even a week or so in. Reading and re-reading countless times really makes a difference. I’m finding questions I want answers to that I would never have thought to ask. It’s not a long time each day – just 20 minutes or so. But it’s fruitful and stimulating. I encourage you to give it a try.
And this month I am mostly studying… Philemon.
Encouraging and Rebuking
Most preachers have a basic tendency, I think, to feel more comfortable either rebuking/exhorting or encouraging in their preaching. That will be to do with the complicated mixture of background, culture, personality, theology, hopes and fears that make up the person that each of us is. If you’re not sure which way you go on this, those who hear you regularly can most likely tell you. It’ll be the tone you often default to when you’re freewheeling or when your mouth is on autopilot or when you’re busking it a bit due to lack of preparation.
My hunch (and I might be wrong) is that significant elements in our evangelical culture lead a larger number of us to be more natural rebukers, or at least exhorters, than encouragers. Certainly, whatever our natural tendency is, we’ve got to be especially alert to when our preaching text is calling us to do what comes less naturally. The encouragers are likely to blunt the hard edge of biblical commands; the rebukers/exhorters are likely to turn God’s indicative statements into commands.
This came to my mind today when doing some work on the parable of the sower in Matthew 13.1-23. A sermon was naturally forming in my mind (and you’ve heard and maybe preached it a thousand times on this parable) that urged Christians to focus on all the elements of soil-types 2 and 3 that still lurk in us. Fair enough: there is plenty there that pushes the preacher to urge believers to persevere. But Jesus ends with the very wonderful v.23 describing the fruitful soil – this one ‘hears the word and understands it’ and ‘produces a crop’.
In just about every church where this could be preached there are believers hearing the message who have proved not to be soil-type 2, because they’ve endured through trouble for more than a while; nor are they showing many signs of being soil-type 3, because their evident desire is to press on with Christ through all the cares of this world. This passage surely demands that the preacher describe such people (probably the majority, in any healthy church), and say: “You’re doing the right thing. Press on. The fruit is evident and is growing. God is graciously giving you the ‘abundance’ that Jesus promised (v.12).” So, for such people, if I’m only going to make one application to them in my sermon, it should surely be not, ‘You know you’re being choked by the cares of the world, don’t you – stop it!”, but, “You show every sign of being a good and faithful servant. What a joy and grace that is!”.
What is a ‘central’ truth?
All movements and cultures have stories that they tell in order to define who they are. One of those central stories for British conservative evangelicalism is the account of a meeting in Cambridge in 1919. You probably know it. A man called Norman Grubb asked, “Does the Student Christian Movement put the atoning blood of Christ central in its teaching?” After a little deliberation among SCM delegates the answer came, “Well, we acknowledge it, but not necessarily [as] central.”
This story has been recounted countless times in print and in teaching. It has served as a community-defining tale, especially among conservative evangelical Anglicans and those strongly influenced by the evangelical student movement. Its use may be waning, but it can still often be heard.
There is much in it to be very grateful for. In practice, one key slide away from biblical Christianity into liberalism has been an unwillingness to make much of the atoning blood of Christ, which usually leads in the next generation to outright rejections of anything resembling penal substitution. We must remain grateful to all those who have stood firm against such popular shifts.
However… from the perspective of nearly a century later, I think a good case can be made that we need to ask what sense has been made of the word ‘central’ in that story. More importantly, what is the right biblical sense in which the atoning blood of Christ ought to be ‘central’ to us?
In conversations with others, it seems to me that there is a growing number of evangelicals who think that we have too often taken ‘central’ in that regard to mean, “What I should talk about most strongly almost all the time when I talk about sin, Christ and salvation”, and that this can lead to biblical unbalance. Other wonderful and ‘central’ aspects of sin, Christ and salvation – the incarnation, Christ’s active obedience, the resurrection, union with Christ, adoption, definitive sanctification, among others – then only get air-time if they can be related in some subservient way to penal substitution. These truths are confessed, but not in any meaningful community-defining way.
Such evangelicals, and I am one of them, agree entirely with the brave people of 1919 against the SCM that penal substitution is indeed ‘central’. But they think that, in proper biblical perspective, it is ‘central’ not in the way that a building’s foundations are uniquely central to the edifice (take any other part of the building away and the whole thing can still stand, but take that one part away and the whole thing collapses). Instead it is ‘central’ more in the way that any individual part of a fishing net is central to the integrity of the whole (rip away any one of a number ‘central’ parts and the whole net is fatally compromised).
No proper evangelical wants to foster a generation of Christian preachers who start to sit loose in any way to the atoning blood of Jesus. But a vital and glorious Bible truth is not rightly valued if it is so asserted as to eclipse other central and related truths, and many think that such a thing has often happened in the last century in our circles.
Book Review on ‘Teaching 1 & 2 Thessalonians: From Text to Message’ by Angus MacLeay
When I was first given Teaching 1&2 Thessalonians – the first book from this series I had encountered – I expected another commentary from the pastoral mid-range style of the Tyndale and Bible Speaks Today series. It is a similar length and appeared to have a similar emphasis on practical application. Reading the book it quickly became apparent that this was not the case and to judge it in comparison to other such commentaries would not only be unfair but to be asking the wrong questions and looking for this book to provide something it was never intended to. This was a most pleasant surprise.
If you are looking for a commentary that will deal with a text verse by verse and maybe even touch on how best to translate the original languages, then this is not the book you are looking for. If you are looking to start a sermon series on 1 and/or 2 Thessalonians, this is without a doubt a five star, must-buy book.
From the highly concise introductions to the general themes of the books and the well-crafted choice of sermon series outlines, this handbook to your future sermon series provides preachers with an excellent tool kit to get them started. Whereas many commentaries often lose sight of clear structure and thematic progress in a biblical book, making it hard to sculpture a sermon series, this book keeps such concerns to the front making sure that from start to finish a sermon series has a definite pace and constancy.
Especially helpful are the parts of the book dealing with illustrations that provide a ‘way in’ to a topic and ideas for applying a text to the lives of the congregation. Helpful bullet-point summaries are provided at the end of each chapter asking the kind of questions the congregation and preachers need to be thinking about based on the teaching. These applications and illustrations are especially helpful for ministers who are either more generally academic and often forget about ‘real world’ application, or on the other hand ministers who are (likely) too young to have had the life experience needed to illustrate and apply all such passages to the lives of people usually much older than they are.
In sum I could not recommend this book highly enough. Having come across such a resource I doubt that in future I would ever embark on preparing an expository sermon series without first consulting a book from this series.
Emmanuel Church, Saltburn-by-the-Sea
This review originally appeared in the Autumn 2015 edition of ‘Churchman’, p.279-280.
Published by Church Society
Too much Bible?!
A provocative title for this post, I know, but it’s a thought I get from a comment that Garry Williams makes early on in his very fine book His Love Endures For Ever: Reflections on the Love of God (IVP, 2015). Garry notes that we will live in an age in which we are deluged with information, and then says:
‘For the Christian the deluge can include Bible information. We may have woeful gaps in our Bible knowledge, but at the same time Christians in church cultures focused on expository preaching receive a lot of Bible teaching. Conscientious Christians might hear two passages preached on a Sunday, another passage at a midweek meeting [or insert whatever your church does with the Bible midweek] and then might study seven more in their own daily readings. They may hear still more texts expounded if they listen online or download sermons and talks. That is a lot of Bible, and it can foster an unreflective approach to Scripture. No sooner have I listened to one passage expounded than my attention is called to another, and the plates soon fall to the ground because there are too many spinning at once.’ (pp.15-16)
Garry goes on to say that this is a potential downside of a very good thing: lots of Bible preaching/teaching and lots of access to it for Christians. But I think he has put his finger on something important which is not often noticed in our churches. My own experience of reading Garry’s book is a case in point. At the end of every chapter, each on a different aspect of the love of God, he wisely includes a short meditation with questions and a prayer. He urges the reader not to rush over these. I found it very hard not to do that. I wanted to jump on to the next chapter, to gain a new insight into God’s love from another part of Scripture, both for my own learning and (frankly) to have something impressive-sounding to drop into future conversations and teaching. (I hope, for my own selfish sake, that plenty of other readers would find the same difficulty.)
In this aspect of our lives we have probably been more deeply shaped and trained by the distracted and distracting culture of our day than we realise. If I’m going to help any other believers around me let any parts of God’s word sink deep into them rather than simply letting lots of God’s word just wet our skin, I’ve got to be fighting against this cultural habit in myself.
Quite a lot may be at stake here. It’s often when we do what Garry recommends that we come to experience in our inner being the truth that God is at work in and through his Word in the power of the Spirit. If we don’t encourage ourselves and others to give time and space for that to happen before consuming the next slice of Bible-learning, we may unwittingly be raising believers who have been taught to believe and repeat that God’s word is powerful but who below the surface aren’t quite convinced because they rarely allow themselves (or are allowed) space to experience it in their souls.
The expository wood and the exegetical trees
Welcome back Mr Preacher! Here we are, a new year, a new opportunity to serve, a chance to make some resolutions? Yawn! There are only so many lists of resolutions you can read, so instead here is something I read over Christmas that challenged me afresh when it comes to preaching. It’s not telling you anything you don’t already know, but is a useful reminder. It comes from a book I’m editing on 123 John, written by Mervyn Eloff and due for publication in June 2016. It’s a great read and in his section on 2.28-3.10, Mervyn makes a very important and always timely observation about two great extremes to avoid, especially in complex passages. This is advice I want to particularly take on. Let me invite you to do the same. In other words, just the one resolution this year!
‘Given the exegetical and theological complexity of the passage, it is perhaps easy to fall into one of two errors. On the one hand, we may be tempted to gloss over the passage and to preach our theological framework, thus failing to show our hearers how the passage itself makes the points which we want to make. On the other hand and in a genuine attempt to let the passage speak, we may find ourselves and our hearers bogged down in the detail of the text and so end up missing the expository wood for the exegetical trees. Thus as we approach what is a difficult passage, we are reminded both of the necessity of hard work in the study and of the importance of weighing carefully which work is to be brought to the pulpit and which is to be left behind closed doors. And here perhaps more than anywhere, we will benefit from a clear statement of the theme and aim of the passage as a guide for exposition.’
In a nutshell, make sure you give your people the expository wood, not the exegetical trees!
Happy Christmas to you all
Christmas is a busy time for preachers. Few of our congregation will be working on Christmas Day and yet, even though the nature of our sermons on 25th December may be different, they still require (or should!) the same careful work and prayer and they still demand the same energy and emotional investment. I’m not actually preaching on Christmas Day this year, but I remember what it is like. So, Mr Preacher, chances are your Christmas may not be as relaxing as it is for some others, at least not at first. But our heartfelt prayer is that you do get time for rest and fun and that the wonder of the incarnation grips you afresh. “For you know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that you through his poverty might become rich.” See you in January!
The six graces
I’m preparing my Christmas carol service from 2 Corinthians 8:9 this week – one of my favourite Christmas texts. It’s well known territory, but I’m trying to resist the idea that I know the passage and can preach this particular text with my eyes closed. So, back to first principles, and some textual work on the whole chapter.
As I’ve done that, I’ve been struck by the six graces. We tend to think of five graces (from Greek mythology: charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility). But in fact there are six, according to the Holy Spirit. There they are in chapter 8 verse 7. “But since you excel in everything: in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you – see that you also excel in this grace of giving.”
The strong implication is that alongside giving as a grace (a gift), these other characteristics should be seen in the same way. That’s a rather challenging list, is it not? It’s a good example of how preaching too fast through a passage can sometimes soften the things the passage says in the detail. I’d want to preach 2 Cor 8 as a unit, certainly. But I think I’d want to come back to some of the detail too.
For when I pause and think of how I live, here is real challenge. Faith? Speech? Knowledge? Complete earnestness? Giving?
There’s a book in there somewhere, I know. But more importantly, there’s something to help me pray, confessing my sin and crying out to God the Spirit to conform me to the image of his Son. Amen and amen.
In other words
I was greatly helped this week by reading a section of Job; Job 33:19-28. It’s part of Elihu’s first speech to Job. Christopher Ash persuasively argues that Elihu should be read as speaking truth to Job, in contrast to the three other friends.
Elihu addresses himself to Job’s complaint that God is silent (v.13). He asks Job to consider someone who is ‘chastened on a bed of pain … they draw near to the pit’ (vs.19, 22).
He says this of such a person in vs.23-26:
Yet if there is an angel at their side, a messenger, one out of a thousand, sent to tell them how to be upright, and he is gracious to that person and says to God, “Spare them from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom for them – let their flesh be renewed like a child’s; let them be restored as in the days of their youth” –
…then that person can pray to God and find favour with him, they will see God’s face and shout for joy; he will restore them to full well-being [or perhaps: to righteousness].
This is a beautiful picture, ultimately, of the mediatory, ransoming work of Christ. From one perspective, it only expresses truths which are already substantially familiar to a Christian who knows Mark 10:45 well. But how kind of God to breathe it out and preserve it for us, because of the way in which those truths are expressed:
• it’s addressed to someone feeling on the very verge of death, wondering why God seems silent;
• the long conditional clause (‘yet if there is an angel… and [if] he is gracious… and [if] he says to God’) powerfully conveys a sense of deep longing for such a mediating messenger from God;
• how rare such a mediator seems to be (‘one out of a thousand’);
• the graphic language of being ‘spared’ from going ‘down to the pit’;
• the sudden calling to God that he has ‘found a ransom for them’;
• the new reality this opens up for the sufferer: they can now pray to God and be sure of finding his favour, and they may now see God and shout for joy.
In our own Bible-reading, as well as our preaching, these are aspects of the work of Christ and its fruits to dwell on and draw richly from. A devotional time on this section felt very different and led to some different prayers than one on Mark 10:45 might, and so too should a sermon on it.
Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds
…is the title of a book of family devotions based on the Heidelberg Catechism, written by Starr Meade and published by P&R. It contains a year’s worth of daily material, and for a while now has been used most evenings chez Ward. Each day has a paragraph to read, and a short Bible text look at. It’s led to at least one entertaining conversation in which Ward Junior was appalled that one of his youth leaders had not heard of the Heid Cat.
Now different kinds of evangelical will have their own view on the particularities of the various Reformation creeds and catechisms. Some love the way that these traditions anchor us and prevent various slides into unbiblical short-sightedness. Others are sniffy about them because they worry about exalting the theological traditions of men too highly.
Whatever one’s view on that, this book has been good for our souls. Could I make a case that it’s a bit unbalanced here and there, with a bit too much on this or rather too little on that? Sure I could. But our noses have been rubbed in topics that haven’t often come up in other family Bible-aids we’ve used – the Lord’s Supper, and the keys of the kingdom, to name two – and we’ve been provoked to talk about things in ways we haven’t before (‘so when Jesus is proclaimed to the youth group this week, the door to heaven is being opened to some and closed to others’. That gives an angle on the weekly kids’ meeting that opens your eyes a bit.)
Even the very first question gives an angle on Christian truth and its effect that is not one of the regular ‘go-to’ expressions in our corner of the church:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ.