Themes to get straight on in Galatians, part 1: the Spirit
I wrote in a recent Proclaimer about the overall aim of Galatians. I’m following that up with a couple of posts on two significant themes in the letter. The first seems to be quite often overlooked: the Spirit. If you were forced up against a wall and required to identify just one single theme as central in Galatians, it could arguably (and maybe controversially) be the Spirit. He appears frequently; I count 14 verses: 3.2, 3, 5, 14; 4.6, 29; 5.5, 16, 17, 18, 22, 25; 6.1, 8.
Here’s how Paul’s argument with regard to the Spirit in Galatians seems roughly to run:
· all Christians have received the Spirit, and have done so through believing the message rather than through doing works of the law (3.2-5).
· Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, with the particular purpose of enabling us to receive the Spirit (3.14).
· As God’s sons, what we have been given by God is the Spirit of his (true) Son (4.6).
· Since this is the life we now have, the only right and safe way to progress in Christ is now not by any law-observance, but by living both individually and corporately in line with the Spirit (all the references from 5.5 to 6.1).
· What awaits us on the last day – either destruction or eternal life – will be the just outcome of whether we have placed our energies and hopes in the new life that the Spirit of Christ brings, or in measurable, attainable human actions (such as circumcision and food laws) (6.7-8).
In tracing the Spirit through Galatians, I’m want my preaching on the more well-known ‘headline’ theme of Galatians – which is justification by faith – to weave the theme of the Spirit into the heart of my messages as inextricably as the Holy Spirit himself wove it into the letter.
I am preparing to preach John 2:13-22 this Sunday. In some ways it is quite a simple passage. The exegesis is not too difficult. Nor is the central point, that Jesus is the true Temple, the presence of the living God on earth. That his pure zeal for his Father’s house and his bodily resurrection show that this is true. And so on.
But the question I have been grappling with is this: so what for today? I don’t want to leave us simply marveling that if we had been around in the right place at the right time, we could have rubbed shoulders with the presence of God on earth – wonderful though that is. So I have found myself thinking about how the church of Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, is the Temple of God on earth, at least the Temple under construction. And thinking how we ought to respond to that.
I won’t tell you here what I’ve come up with, not least because it may change between now and Sunday when I preach it at Christ Church Mayfair. I’m not sure I’ve got it right. I know the commentaries don’t help much with this kind of question. But I know it is very important, and can make the difference between a bland or banal sermon and an insightful and incisive one that has real pressure and impact to it. It is this hard thinking that makes sermon preparation such intense work, and inseparable from our involvement as pastors with people.
Keep it focussed!
A Sunday away recently brought home to me afresh how very important it is not to overload our sermons with cognitive content. The sermon had five long sub-points to the first point. All worthy. All true. But far too much for me to grasp or hold on to (and I am trained to listen to sermons; it’s my job).
At Cornhill we sometimes use the crèche test. A young mother has left her baby in the crèche for the first time; during the sermon she is paying at most 30% attention, because she is worrying about her baby. When she goes to the crèche at the end, a crèche helper asks her about the sermon. If she says, “Well, it all sounded good and worthy, and he said a lot of things, but I don’t really know what he said” it’s a failure. If she says, “I missed a fair bit of it, but the big thrust was this…” (and gets it right), and the big thrust of the sermon is the main thrust of the passage, hey presto! the whole exercise looks more promising.
It reminds me to make sure I leave enough of my preparation on my desk and to work hard at keeping a clear focus to the sermon, and to work hard to make sure the main focus of the sermon is indeed the main focus of the passage. Easy to say. Hard work to do.
The purpose of Galatians
I’m doing some work in Galatians at the moment. It’s a tough letter, as you know, over which several big debates rage. And the preacher can’t avoid taking a view on some of these fundamental questions, if he’s going to have deliberately sharp and text-driven applications, as he should.
The big one is the question of the letter’s overall purpose. Which of these questions is Paul primarily answering in Galatians:
1) how does someone join the people of God?
2) how does a believer go on securely as a member of God’s people?
As I read two of the best recent big commentaries, Tom Schreiner goes mainly with #1 and Doug Moo with #2 (I simplify, of course). Now, which of these the preacher of a Galatians series plumps for, or which of them he unthinkingly assumes, will determine the direction of a great deal of his sermon applications.
For what it’s worth, I’m persuaded of #2. Three key bits of evidence from the letter that persuade me in this direction are:
i) The beginning and end. 1.4 and 6.15 speak explicitly not of forgiveness or rescue from divine wrath but of delivery from this present evil age and of being part of the new creation.
ii) The explicit purpose of 3.1-6. The issue at stake seems not to be whether or not Christ is an effective entry-point for Gentiles into God’s people, but about whether they need to add law-observance to that faith in order to be completely/securely delivered on the last day.
iii) Chs.5 & 6 are the climax of the whole argument: righteous living, which is necessary for security/confidence as a believer, is produced by the Spirit who comes to those who have faith in Christ, and not any more by law-observance itself (I phrase this carefully, lest I accidentally become antinomian). If you go with option #1, chs.5 & 6 seem instead to be a less satisfactory add-on: don’t abuse the truth of justification by faith; let the Spirit produce his fruit in you.
Whatever you think of this detail, my preacher’s-lesson is simply: the less well thought through a preacher is on the letter’s basic aim, as he dives into a series on some/all of Galatians, the more his applications along the way are likely to be blunt, repetitive and predictable.
How much history do you need?
I'm starting a teaching series at Cornhill this morning on Ezra, one of my two specialist subjects. (I always felt it was good to have two, just in case I got through the first round of Mastermind.) We've got four weeks of getting our fingers dirty in the text, but we'll spend a good deal of today wrestling with some of the back story to make sure we have got both biblical and historical context spot on. But how important is that?
- I want to say it is more important for the preacher than it is for the hearer, certainly at a detailed level. In a book like Ezra, if you are going to wrestle with the detail of the text rather than just, say, the thrust of where each passage is going, you need to have done this work. It's the only way you will ultimately make sense of some of the divinely inspired commentary that is found within the text itself. Bible books are individually inspired to be part of the canon and so should not be read in splendid isolation. Here's an example. Go look up Ezra 4.2 and the enemies' claim to worship the same God "since the time of Esarhoddon." That's a scriptural story and in order to understand what is going on you need to have some grasp of 2 Kings 17.24 ff. So, I'm not ashamed to spend some quality time making sure the students get the back story right. It will be instrumental in getting the text right.
- But here's the thing. This is not the same as ensuring all our congregations understand the entirety of the back story. Many preachers make this mistake. It may be born out of pride: "Look what I've discovered and want you to know I know." It may be born out of a misunderstanding of preaching. "Let me tell you everything there is to know." Both are misplaced, Rather, we need to give our people enough back story simply to preach the message of the text. In Ezra, for example, it will be useful for folk to see a continuity between 2 Chr 36. It will helpful to say "this is right at the end of the time of Daniel: they've been in exile 60 years or so." That's good context. But it probably doesn't need a whole heap more.
Put it this way: what the preacher needs to know as part of his preparation is not what the congregation need to hear as part of the sermon. They are not and must not be the same thing.
What the parishoners think the clergy think the parishoners think the clergy do
Made me smile. A little. Too much golf to be close to reality.
Just a thought…
It's Bank Holiday Monday today in the UK (again, we get two in May). That means the office is empty. But here's an extraordinary thought, gleaned from my "Daily Trivia Calendar" – yes, such a thing exists and I LOVE it.
There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth.
How to make the most of the EMA
The EMA runs from 8-10 July. We plan it as a conference, albeit a big one. But it is more than a conference. You could do a lot worse than coming along and sitting in the sessions, raising your voice in praise with 1,300 other church workers. But, graciously, God has made it more than that. Here are a few ideas:
- you can make the most of the EMA Bookstore. This year we will have 1,200 titles, of which some 150 will be brand new and ones you have not seen before. As part of this we stock at least three different kinds of level of commentary for each Bible book. You will find books that are good for you, and books that are good for your congregation. We want you to invest in both! Every book is discounted and there are some fantastic offers. The Bookstore opens early and closes late, so come and make the most of it.
- you can make the most of friendships. It is great to bring a friend or meet a friend at the EMA. We all get so busy in ministry that it is sometimes hard to carve out time for others and to develop ministry mates. The EMA is a great opportunity to do that. Breaks at the EMA are relatively short, but we've provided meeting points so it is easy to meet up. Why not arrange a breakfast or end of day coffee to develop those friendships which might otherwise be neglected?
- you can make the most of networks. Lots of the conservative evangelical world comes to the EMA. It means that the three days are a great opportunity to arrange to see others who, for example, are planting near you or working on something you're working on. These don't need to be deep friendships to be meaningful meetings.
- you can make the most of investment opportunity. These days "investment opportunity" sounds like an email from a North African widow who needs help wit her $20,000,000. But, in case you didn't know, that's just a sham. However, we should be investing in new generations of leaders, and I am wholeheartedly behind the idea of inviting along future leaders. I did so last night with a young guy in our church. Some of you will know that my lovable pastor, Pastor G, took me along to the 1994 EMA and there was no looking back.
All of this. And more. It's a conference too, you see.
Free accommodation for the EMA
We've arranged some free accommodation for those coming to the EMA, each with a Christian family local to central London. If you're planning on coming and need somewhere to stay, please do get in touch. Alternatively, if coming to the EMA is prohibitive because you have nowhere to stay, here's a way to make it happen. Either way, please get in touch with us via firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll be only too happy to help.
Back to Basics
Last week I was at “The Basics,” a pastors conference run by Alistair Begg and hosted by Parkside Church, Chagrin Falls, near Cleveland, Ohio. This is a wonderful example of a church to whom much blessing has been given by God, giving generously to encourage pastors of (mostly) much smaller churches. Under Alistair’s faithful ministry over the past thirty years (so far), Parkside has grown remarkably. In addition, the “Truth for Life” radio programmes (broadcast from hundreds of radio stations in the USA) have spread the blessing of his ministry far and wide.
The 48-hour conference is, in many ways, modeled on our Evangelical Ministry Assembly, and is a good example of how to run a straightforward conference for the focused encouragement of pastors in their leadership and – in particular – in their preaching ministries. There is no hype or razzamatazz; just straightforward preaching, generous hospitality, and plenty of time for personal conversations for encouragement. Most of the pastors there seem to be from smaller churches, and some of them needing to be tent-makers. They – like us – face the uphill challenge of commending the gospel of the Lord Jesus in a culture which is moving fast away from real Christianity.
Alistair Begg gave us helpful pointers to why and how we might preach Ecclesiastes, and a moving exposition from Ecclesiastes 12. Gary Millar gave two perceptive and pastorally sensitive expositions from the Elijah narratives in 1 Kings 18 and 19. A feast for hungry pastors.
Oh, and the weather: we had a tornado the first evening. We don’t get that at EMA.