Some introductions are just too long. They may seem worthy on the page, engaging even. They may seem important to the overall thrust. They may give you the opportunity to tell the story you've been wanting to tell. But sometimes they are just too long. If so, they end up serving the opposite purpose for which they were intended: they do not engage nor provide a hook. Too long and they – by contrast – alienate and disengage the hearer. Whilst doing some research for a forthcoming chapter I am writing at the superb Dr Williams's Library (more of that another day), I came across this excellent quote about John Howe's preaching (1630-1705). He was much loved by his congregation, but even they found his introductions difficult:
Dear good man, he spends so much time in laying the cloth that I lost my appetite for the main course.
Salutary. For some of us, at least.
And after the Bible reading…
…that’s where the sermon usually comes in our services, maybe with a hymn or song in between if you like that kind of thing. I wonder, though, whether the goal of comprehensible proclamation means we should sometimes tinker with this standard procedure, and allow the preacher a few minutes on his feet setting the scene for the reading of the passage, so that the congregation will better understand it when it’s read, before he then launches into the rest of the sermon.
This is something I have done occasionally, and I found myself wanting to do it again recently when preaching on chs.2 and 3 of Hosea (or rather Hosea 2:2-3:5, as I think that the natural break is after 2:1, as in the NIV, rather than at the end of ch.1, as in the ESV). I found myself looking at that passage, thinking: If this is read without introduction, I suspect that all but the keenest with the best memories will spend most of their time not so much taking the reading in but wondering who this ‘mother’ and ‘wife’ is 2:1, who the people with bizarre names are (2:23), and so on.
I’ve known some churches that have encouraged the person reading the Scripture in the service to give a sentence or two of introduction before the reading, either composed themselves (having rightly appointed to that task only people with a decent knowledge of Scripture), or else given to them by the preacher. I’d prefer to take this to its logical conclusion at let the preacher do it his way.
You might be able to bring some deep principles to bear on this seemingly small issue: shouldn’t Protestant principles lead us to have Scripture simply read publicly, before someone steps up to interpret and proclaim it? Should Scripture appear ‘wrapped up’ in commentary like this, rather than in a sense appearing in its own right in our worship?
But my concern is pragmatic: to promote the greatest possible comprehension of and engagement with the word of God in public worship. And that is a great Protestant theological principle too.
Encouragement for preachers
I wonder if we have so over-reacted to the mystical and the subjective-emotional in preaching, that we see it now in terms of dispensing Biblical knowledge rather than pleading with God in prayer and men in proclamation to change lives in time for eternity. ‘Preach the Word’' has become ‘Explain the Bible’. There is a difference. Systematic Theology is essential. Biblical Theology in the whole sweep of the Bible's big picture from Genesis to Revelation, in Kingdom and covenant, is deeply enriching. But they are not the way God wrote the Bible and to let them govern the sermon, rather than the text of Scripture as written is to end up speaking about the Bible rather than letting the Bible speak. One is the words of men; the other the Word of God. Not observing the text, but listening to God; not cool analysts, but passionate hearers.
Encouragement for preachers
It's always good to be reminded of what is going on when we preach. Do we really grasp this enough? I'm not sure we do. For if we did, wouldn't our praying and our preparation and even (dare I say it) our preaching be different? This time it's CK Barrertt, and what a stirring and awesome thought this is as you begin your week's preparation:
With the cross, God instituted the office of reconciliation, the word of reconciliation…; in other words, the preaching itself belongs to the event of salvation. It is neither a narrative account of a past event, that once happened, nor is it instruction on philosophical questions; but in it Christ is encountered, God's own word to man is encountered…
Encouragements for preachers
Some golden nuggets this week for Bible preachers and teachers. All taken (or, rather quoted in) a forthcoming PT title on preaching to the affections. First up, Richard Baxter, himself quoted by Packer in A quest for godliness.
‘In the name of God, brethren, labour to awaken your own hearts, before you go to the pulpit, that you may be fit to awaken the hearts of sinners. Remember they must be awakened or damned, and . . . a sleepy preacher will hardly awaken drowsy sinners. Though you give the holy things of God the highest praise in words, yet, if you do it coldly, you will seem by your manner to unsay what you said in the matter. . . Speak to your people as to men that must be awakened, either here or in hell. Look around upon them with the eye of faith, and with compassion, and think in what a state of joy or torment they must all be for ever; and then, methinks, it will make you earnest, and melt your heart to a sense of their condition.'
What kind of fellow are you?
Sometimes it's good to just laugh a little. Some preachers need to do this a bit more. So, what kind of fellow are you?
Just one way?
Is there just one way to preach a passage? No, says John Woodhouse:
Have you ever had the experience of working your way through a book of the Bible one year and then coming back to it another year and saying “oh, I got it all wrong.” I think it’s rarely the case that you got it all wrong. It’s that the Scriptures are so rich there is rarely one issue they’re dealing with. There isn’t one way of expounding a biblical book or a biblical passage. Any one exposition can never plumb the depths of the riches that are there. We’re not looking for the answer. But we’re also trying to avoid subjectively coming to the text. We have to let the text control us, but we have to realise that the text may lead us in several different directions and two different expositors may come up with different things. Don’t think there is just one way.
Middle of the road preaching
Helpful comments from our very own Dr Jonathan on 2 Timothy exhortations that – almost certainly – qualify the command to "preach the word"
Formally it is possible that verse two provides a list of separate and distinct instructions (preach the word, be prepared, correct rebuke and encourage) with only the final two elements of the list showing the manner in which the list of instructions (or perhaps even just the final instruction) should be carried out. This is possible, but the central importance that Paul assigns to the charge to ‘preach the word’ by placing it at the front of the list and directly after the solemn preface to the charge suggests that this instruction is indeed the central instruction, and is supported by the instructions that follow in verse 2. More than that, the charge to ‘be ready in season and out of season’ is not a an instruction that can stand alone. On its own it would beg the question, ‘Be ready to do what….?’ The answer must be, ‘To preach the Word’.
Given that this second instruction supports and modifies the central instruction to ‘preach the word’, it seems right to take the rest of the instructions of the verse as functioning in the same way. All that having been said, the final two elements of the list are not verbs, but nouns that identify characteristics that are to mark the proclamation, so there is some distinction here. It would be possible to amplify the meaning of 4:2 with the following paraphrase: ‘Preach the word; be prepared to do this in season and out of season; in your preaching ministry, correct, rebuke and encourage, and do so with patience and careful instruction.’
Paul reminds Timothy that his preaching of the word should involve three vital elements; he must ‘correct, rebuke and encourage’ (4:2). Timothy must use the word as it is designed to be used (see 3:16) to correct wrong doctrine with true doctrine and rebuke wrong behaviour. The dangerous situation currently at Ephesus (2:16-18) and on the horizon for the future (3:1-9) means that these aspects of Timothy’s preaching ministry will be of vital importance for the protection of the church. Paul takes the trouble to remind Timothy of the need to include correcting and rebuking in his preaching ministry because it would be all to easy for him to leave it out. It is, after all, personally uncomfortable to correct and rebuke others. It will not make Timothy popular. But the Bible gives him both the authority and the means of carrying out this vital aspect of his task.
Just as it would be easy in some circumstances for a preacher to neglect to correct or rebuke the people under his care, so too he could fail to ‘encourage’ (preachers will probably be naturally disposed toward either correction or encouragement and need to aim for faithful balance). The biblical language of ‘encouragement’ carries not only the nuance of comfort but also of urging and exhortation. The preacher must not only correct wrong belief and action, but must then positively spur the people on to right embrace true gospel doctrine and living.
There is both negative correction and positive encouragement. Jonathan goes on to point out that most preachers will find one of these easier than the other and this will then tend to dominate and characterise their ministry. "Oh, he's a great encourager we might say" or "He's able to nail sin and its ugliness in us." You almost certainly know which you prefer. But we need both. For the truth is there is too much preaching which is warmly useless. It encourages us all the time but lacks the punch of Scripture. And there is too much preaching which only ever beats its hearers up (such preaching requires little skill, by the way). It rebukes and corrects without every providing the necessary encouragement.
Both are needed. Middle of road.
Through all the changing scenes of life
I'm just working on editing Teaching 2 Timothy written by Jonathan Griffiths and have just enjoyed reading his chapter on Paul's famous exhortation to "preach the Word." Interestingly, the 1984 NIV capitalised Word here (unlike, say 2 Tim 2.15). It only does this – as far as I can tell – when it explicitly refers to the divine logos. I think that capitalisation is probably a mistake here, given the context which immediately follows. And – indeed – the 2011 NIV removes the capitalisation. However, that is all by the by.
I'm struck by Paul's qualifying comments. Preach the word….
In season and out of season. Commentators slightly worry about the ambiguity of these words:
- are these in seasons and out seasons for Timothy himself? Is Timothy to keep preaching, even when Sunday seems a real burden?
- are these in seasons and out seasons for the Ephesian church? Is Timothy to keep preaching even when the church seems less receptive?
- are these in seasons and out seasons for the society and culture into which Timothy preaches? Is Timothy to keep preaching even when the message of the gospel is unpopular and profoundly counter-cultural?
It's difficult to reach a conclusion from the passage, and personally I am comfortable with the ambiguity. In the wider context of 2 Tim, all are possible, (2) and (3) are likely. There's no issue, I can't think, with presenting to congregations the whole depth of application that flow out of this little phrase.
Through all the changing scenes of life,
in trouble and in joy,
the praises of my God shall still
my heart and tongue employ.
Women in Ministry audio and video
The talks from the Women in Ministry conference with Kathleen Nielson and muggins here are now online. Audio and video is available here. Kathleen was speaking on Genesis and I was doing Ezra as part of our overall theme of OT narrative.