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 email@example.com. 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.
The sermon: a cultural oasis in a Christian’s week
This is from David Wells’ recently published God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love Reorients our World:
‘the rapidity with which the whole of the media-filtered, technology-delivered world is changing. It never stands still long enough for us to take our bearings on it. What is important and what is not, what is weighty and what is ephemeral, what is tragic and what is trivial, meet us with about the same intensity. It becomes hard, sometimes, to tell which is which. Our world blurs amid the rapid flow of facts, factoids, images, voices, laughter, entertainment, and vapid commentary. We slowly lose the capacity to see the connections between things. Life seems to have no shape. It looks like a sequence of fast-moving random experiences with no center and little meaning. Not only does a Christian worldview disappear; the very capacity for such a thing becomes tenuous. How then will we hear this other music from another place [i.e. the voice of God]? How will we hear the Drummer’s beat above the sounds of this world?’ (pp.184-85).
In this cultural context, simply to stand and proclaim Christ from the Scriptures every week uninterrupted for a stretch of time, relatively free of technological gimmick and change of image or topic every thirty seconds, will itself have a cultural impact. It will be an oasis in the week for the Christian, in which the blur of information-flow and entertainment-options is deliberately stopped, and in which that which is most significant in the world is relentlessly portrayed to them.
Indeed, if Wells is right that our world makes it especially difficult for people to give meaningful shape to their lives, then weekly preaching is likely also to be the crucial place in which, over the weeks and years, a coherent Christian worldview is built up in their minds and souls. And, at the risk of getting too grandiose, it may well increasingly be, as a result in part of such preaching, that young Christians find that they can articulate and defend a consistent worldview in a way that very few of their unconverted peers can.
I'm working slowly through Job in my devotions, making much use of Christopher's forthcoming Preaching the Word volume (available at the EMA). I've got as far as chapter 16 where Job replies to Eliphaz.
Then Job replied: “I have heard many things like these; you are miserable comforters, all of you! Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing? I also could speak like you, if you were in my place; I could make fine speeches against you and shake my head at you. But my mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring you relief. Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away."
It is a mark of a disciple of Jesus and an heir and successor to Job that, even as we long to be comforted, our hearts contain a matching longing to bring comfort to others in pain. Faith turns us outward even in pain.
Man’s search for something…
Mrs R and I reading The History of the World in 100 Objects, one short chapter each night before sleep. Or, rather, I am reading Mrs R a chapter each night. Who said romance is dead? Neil McGregor, the author and director of the British Museum is no particular friend of Christians, I don't believe. But some of the early chapters are intriguing, especially the discovery of very old (however you count) stone spear heads in the North American continent. What is amazing about these finds, apart from their antiquity, is the way they spread south very quickly. McGregor (as you may recall from the BBC Radio 4 series if you heard it), calls upon Michael Palin to explain this movement:
I've always been very restless and, from when I was very small, interested in where I wasn't, in what was over the horizon, in what was around the next corner. And the more you look at the history of homo sapiens, it's all about movement, right from the very first time they decided to leave Africa. It is this restlessness which seems a very significant factor in the way the planet was settled by humans. It does seem that we are not settled. We think we are, but we are still looking for somewhere else where something is better – where it's warmer, it's more pleasant. Maybe there is an element, a spiritual element of hope in this – that you are going to find somewhere that is wonderful. It's the search for the perfect land – maybe that's at the bottom of it all.
Interesting. Or, as Mrs R said as she nodded off, "he has put eternity into the hearts of men,"