‘Bible handling’ is a phrase often heard around these parts: preachers need to be good ‘Bible handlers’. Unfortunately for me (and this says more about me, I readily acknowledge, than it does about anything else) the phrase most easily brings to mind a bizarre image of a preacher as a lion-tamer, holding a stick out to fend off a big book that’s trying to bite him. If I dwell on this too long I also picture that vicious book with sharp teeth in Harry Potter that needed a firm strap round it to stop it attacking you.
However of course (as I need to remind myself, in order to erase those images from my mind) it is a biblical phrase. Do your best, says Paul to Timothy, to present yourself to God as someone ‘who correctly handles the word of truth’ (2 Tim 2.15).
So what is correct ‘handling’ of the word of truth? The immediate context is our best guide. And in that context we have a number of elements packed tightly together:
• direct application of the truth: an instruction to Timothy to warn the people ‘against quarrelling about words’ (v.14);
• the teaching of sound truth about Christ and us: an instruction to Timothy to remind God’s people of these things (vs.11-14a);
• the preacher’s own godliness and soundness: instructions to Timothy to flee evil desires, pursue godliness and avoid ‘stupid arguments’ (vs.16-26).
Teaching sound truth; applying it pointedly where it’s needed; guarding one’s own soundness of teaching and life.
It looks, in context, as if I need to have a firm eye on all three if I am to qualify as one who ‘correctly handles the word of truth’.
What we’re talking about when we talk about preaching
On the second page of his new book on sermon application (Cutting to the Heart, IVP) Chris Green says something that you might think ought to shock us. He says that, in his experience of training young preachers, they found far more resources to help them with text-work than with sermon application. He concludes: ‘I noticed that it wasn’t just their pastoral inexperience that made them dry and unapplied – they actually had an assumption that being dry and unapplied was what they were supposed to be doing.’
It’s worth reading that quote again (the italics are his, by the way). Not many of these young preachers will have been explicitly taught ‘your job is to be dry and unapplied’. Although a few teachers have in fact sometimes been heard to say something like that about application, the argument hasn’t been hugely influential. Yet somewhere along the line a large number of the men whom Chris has trained have imbibed the notion. How did that happen?
There’ll be a number of answers to that, but Chris points us to one: they’ve been given far more training resources on exegesis than they have on application. And of course any diligent disciple will naturally assume that what his teachers and mentors talk about most is what they really value, and what they don’t talk about much doesn’t really matter. Perhaps a generation of preachers who are now old enough to be looked up to by younger men assumed that good application is vital, but didn’t talk about it much. And of course, as we know from other areas, what one generation assumes, the next often denies.
These older preachers may well be terrific appliers of Scripture in their own sermons, but if that’s not something they talk excitedly about at length when they talk about preaching, the younger men are not likely to notice it. (Someone said to me when I came to Cornhill: Don’t forget that the things the students will remember most about your teaching are the things they see you get excited about. Wise advice.)
So a question for all of those old enough to be training young preachers, including those who pastor smaller churches and have maybe just one young man they’re trying to bring on as a preacher… Those we train will draw equally strong conclusions from what we don’t talk about as from what we do. You don’t have to deny something outright to be heard to do it down.
Is it vital to bash your head against a text for as long as it takes to discern what it says, not what your framework says? Of course it is, a thousand times over. But if that’s what I talk about most of the time when I talk to younger preachers, if that’s the only thing about preaching I’m heard to get excited about, the preachers I turn out won’t be what they should be.
I am a Springboard Champion
I once climbed onto one of those 1m springboards at the swimming pool. Quite a sight, I can assure you. But good fun and absolutely brilliant for getting from point A to point B. No turning back. Which is like a lot of preaching really, which pretends to expound a passage (A) but really only ends up at point B.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’ve prepared a sermon on Ephesians 5.21-33. I’ve just (with Mrs R) taken a conference on marriage, we’ve written a book about one (admittedly particular) aspect of marriage, I’ve done marriage enrichment conferences in Yorkshire of all places (Northern Powerhouse!). And I’m just reading another (yes, another!) book on marriage. So marriage is in my head, usefully so.
But it’s quite tempting to preach the Ephesians passage and say all sorts of things that are right and biblical only not in the passage itself. So what, you say? It’s not like it’s false teaching. What’s wrong, for example, with expounding the idea of submission by going to 1 Peter 3? At one level, if it’s a Bible study, for example, there’s nothing wrong with that.
But a sermon is an exposition of the text and is a recognition that the Spirit has inspired these words written in this way. I have the liberty to go to 1 Peter 3 if it helps clarify something in the text, but to fill in what I consider to be the blanks seems the height of arrogance and will end up with the ultimate springboard. As a passing point, all my sermons on marriage will also sound the same. Ever heard preachers like that?
No, the discipline of expository preaching is staying in the text and letting the content, shape, structure and theme of the text shape the sermon. As it happens my Ephesian passage is rich, very rich. There’s no need to feed it from elsewhere, even if I felt it was needed. And that’s where the power lies. The power is always, textually speaking, in letting God set the agenda. That’s my high calling.
I was never very good at diving anyway.
I’ve just finished reading Bill Bryon’s latest book “The road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island.” I used to like Bryson. I liked his infatuation with meaningless, yet intriguing trivia (ask my friends). I liked his slightly ironic way of writing. I liked his love of Britain (which is undiminished). All that and more. Yet he has, I’m afraid to say, become an angry old man. Very angry, indeed, and in places, expletively angry (if that is an adjective: looseness with the English language being – ironically – one of the things he gets angry about).
Notes from a Small Island was a fascinating travelog: laugh out loud funny. Its sequel is like a series of Wikipedia entries strung together with occasional humour and lots and lots of anger. It’s all rather disappointing, and in the unlikely event that Bryson ever reads this blog, I’m inclined to deliberately misspell the next sentence. Its only fair.
There are a lot of angry pastors. I mean, a lot. Sure, there’s lots to get angry about – sin for one thing, and the way that it breaks things. But it seems to me that many pastors are just angry about stuff, period. I see that ugly temptation in my own heart all too clearly, especially as I get older. I get angry about false teaching. I get angry about sinful behaviour. I get angry about scurrilous accusations (although, of course, never ones I make myself).
I know there’s a good kind of righteous anger, but – frankly – that’s mostly a cop out, for I’m rarely really concerned for the Lord’s glory more than my own or my ministry or my church. So – despite all the excuses – my anger is mostly, if not entirely, sinful. And it is ugly. Boy, is it ugly.
You see, angry preachers do not serve their churches except, very often, to make others angry too. And that is no kind of service. Rather, “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger.” It’s a tough calling, but one every preacher must embrace without question.
Review of NIV Audio Bible app for iPhone
I’ve been testing and using both versions of the new NIV audio Bible app sold by Hodder Faith. This app is designed to accompany the excellent audio Bible narrated by David Suchet. This is not the place to review that particular resource, other than to say his reading style is quite superb (apart from his quirky pronunciation of ‘Colossians’!). In terms of audio Bibles there’s nothing else quite in this league.
The iOS app (Hodder tell me an Android version may be released in the future) marries the NIV text with some additional functionality. More of that in a moment. If you already have the NIV audio Bible on your device (either downloaded direct or uploaded from the CDs) then the cheaper £2.99 app is for you. Wonderfully, this automatically senses whether you have the audio files and then links them through on installation, a process which worked perfectly for me. The more expensive version (£19.99) contains all the audio files, but otherwise has exactly the same functionality. Just beware, in terms of installation, you should expect to use 1.4Gb for the full version and 207Mb for the smaller version (though this requires the audio files which, bizarrely, are 2.3Gb on my phone).
So what do you get? At its most basic you get the NIV 2011 text linked through to David Suchet’s excellent audio. This is a useful resource on its own. However, there is more. The text display functions are – to my mind at least – very useful. You can, for example, turn off verse and chapter numbers making a more true-to-life reading experience (something I happily recommend, the app calls this ‘reading view’). There are also other text features that you’ll find in other Bible apps (red letter text on or off and so on).
There is also a powerful journaling function allowing you to add notes and bookmarks to the text – useful, for example, if you make sermon notes. If you have other Bible apps, you will get the same functionality there; I consider this therefore a useful rather than stand out tool.
However, it is in the synchronization between text and audio that this app really stands out and what makes it a winner for me. In my Bible-in-a-year reading, for example, it’s helpful to ring the changes by listening not just reading. In our small groups where we’re reading through the New Testament together, it makes a change to have one of Paul’s letters read to us, rather than us stumbling through the text.
I’m a big fan of the NIV audio Bible and this excellent, clean app has just made it better and more easily accessible. I am very happy to recommend it wholeheartedly.
This review first appeared in Evangelicals Now, an excellent Christian newspaper!
Public reading of Scripture round two
So, here’s a thought. In many of our churches, we have reading rotas for public worship. I like hearing different voices, so I’m broadly in favour of this. But I’m also keen to do my own reading for the sermon for two reasons.
The first reason is practical. I want to read the reading the way that I – having studied it and prayed over it – believe it should be read. There is a tone or pace or emphasis I want the reading to have which befits how it will be expounded. Someone else reading the passage can (sometimes) actually work against this purpose. I know many preachers feel the same.
The second reason is theological. Do you notice how Pastor Timothy is required to commit himself to both the public reading of Scripture and to exhortation (1 Tim 4.13)? I suppose you could argue that being committed to the public reading does not mean he actually has to do it himself, but that seems to go against the grain of the passage where everything else is precisely about what Timmy must do himself. Seems odd if the public reading is not included in that list.
I wonder why that is? We cannot precisely be clear, but it must be something to do (especially in light of pastorals) with the way the Scripture itself is the thing (2 Tim 3.16-17) and preaching itself is only preaching if it is preaching of the word (2 Tim 4.2). For Timothy to publicly read Scripture shows the congregation how he himself sits under it and it is his master too.
Can encouraging others to read and being committed to public reading yourself be reconciled? I think saying that having others read is your commitment is a fudge. There’s an easier way, which most evangelicals would do well to heed. It’s a radical idea and I call it two readings. You do one. Someone else does the other.
Way out, huh?
PS I’m no Anglican expert, but I think you’ll find that in an old book called The Book of Common Prayer.
Pronunciation, public reading and the mountain
Have you been to see Everest yet? I can’t say that the film holds much attraction for me; but then you may be completely unexcited about the Lance Armstrong movie The Program, which I can’t wait to get to the cinema for.
Bizarrely, my nephew is a vicar in the parish in Hove where George Everest (1790-1866) is buried and he tells me that there are occasional visitors to see the headstone. Even more bizarrely, he never even saw the mountain itself, but had his name attached to it, almost by accident (George that is, not my nephew, although come to think of it, I don’t think he’s been to see the mountain either).
However, the most bizarre thing about the whole incident is that the boy George didn’t pronounce his name the way we do. It’s not Ev-er-est. But Eve (as in Adam)-rest. So there. Try that one out at dinner parties! I feel sad for poor George. No one is really going to care, are they, and we are not going to start pronouncing the mountain with a different emphasis.
And, of course, it simply doesn’t matter very much. Which – in a roundabout way – brings me to the public reading of Scripture, round one. There’s a bit too much preciousness about how words in Scripture are pronounced in certain circles; what would it really have sounded like, that kind of thing. I think some of that discussion is a load of tosh – as though anybody I know pronounces David with anything other than an Anglo Saxon gloss.
When it comes to public reading we want clear voices and annunciation, good and even pace and tone. I think precise pronunciation comes well down the list, if it even makes it at all (especially given that even scholars are a little uncertain). All of which is to say, let’s prepare people well for public reading, but let’s not add burdens to them that don’t need to be added. It’s an unnecessary mountain to climb.
Marriage & Ministry: developing passions
On our stopover this week, we spent an hour thinking through how we develop passions, not quite as sexual as it sounds! I mean passions in its broadest sense: a love for God, a love for each other and a love for others. These three ingredients are essential in marriage and ministry and spouses should be constantly praying and thinking through how they cultivate these in themselves and nurture them in their partners.
Perhaps it seems like an obvious list, but it is no less radical for that. We know that loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, is a constant battle. We know that loving our partners (husbands loving wives, Ephesians 5; wives loving husbands, Titus 2) is always a stretch. And we know that a ministry which is devoid of love for others will end up being cold and fruitless.
You don’t need a B-list preacher like me to explain to you what these three elements look like: you’re constantly ministering these truths to others. So go on, Mr & Mrs Preacher. Over to you. Where is your marriage and ministry strongest? Where is it weakest? What needs to be your priority for prayer?
Marriage & Ministry: addressing pressures
“Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?” If you are serious about ministry, then the answer to that question will always be “Yes” – “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” Are there pressures in marriage? There are. Are there pressures in ministry? There are. Are there pressures that come precisely because you are both in ministry and marriage? There are.
Like the privileges, these will be largely dependent on circumstances and seasons. Your pressures are not mine; and mine are not yours. In just a few lines I can hardly help you work these all out, other than to say the same gospel truths you apply day in and day out to other people’s lives are the same gospel truths which you need to preach to yourself and apply to your own lives.
But those in ministry often have a more significant problem: it is being honest about and identifying the problems in the first place. We (perhaps subconsciously) persuade ourselves that things are better than they are and that habitual sin (in particular) is just a passing phase and my temper/lack of patience/porn habit/alcohol problem/Facebook addiction (delete as applicable) will soon go away.
And yet it does not. And so a spiral starts and our marriages and our ministry get out of control. How do we arrest the decline and break into this spiral. Here’s one idea. Mr Preacher, carve out some time with Mrs Preacher. Plan for it. Then each of you list three of the biggest pressures on your marriage and ministry. Try to be specific: don’t just say “not enough time” – if you identify general malaise, you’ll only ever come up with general solutions and you’ll not get very far.
Compare your list. You may be surprised at the similarities – that gives you some idea what to work on. You may be surprised at the differences – that in itself is telling you something. Then apply gospel truths and realities to these issues. Work out some gospel grace-filled solutions, plan some baby steps; pray together. That will be a start.
Oh, and please can I say, on behalf of those you serve and your family, if you need help, please, please, please, swallow pride and seek it out. It may be one of the best things you ever do.
Marriage & Ministry: cultivating privileges
There’s a whole heap of self pity going on when it comes to ministry and marriage. For the most part, ministers and their wives have it pretty good. Yes, that’s right: there are countless privileges which we would do well to remember, joys in both marriage and ministry that many do not have. These are going to depend on your particular circumstance, of course, but a useful discipline for any ministry couple is to name them. Yes, write them down and thank God for them. Keep your list and then when you feel under pressure, get out the list and rejoice all over again.
Some of these joys will be common to other married couples but will have a particular flavour. All married couples (I trust) enjoy some kind of sexual intimacy, right? But a ministry couple where the wife is at home, can grab an hour at lunchtime every now and again, sidestepping the perennial marriage conflict “I’m too tired.”
Some of these joys will be peculiar to those married and in ministry. Again, these will be highly dependent upon your own circumstances, but God has graciously given you a front row seat for the work he is doing in other people’s lives; that’s a precious grace which we must not ignore.
So, as the old song goes:
When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will keep singing as the days go by.
This should always be the Christian attitude of course and the glorious combination of marriage and ministry is no different.