Honoring the Context from which OT Quotes Are Taken

Context-is-King

If you ever preach on 2 Corinthians 9:1-11 and the subject of giving to the Lord’s work, you’ll encounter a quote from Psalm 112:9 “He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever” (2 Corinthians 9:9). Whenever your preaching portion quotes Scripture, it helps to read the immediate context from which the quote was taken. What can you expect to gain? Usually a bit more than simply, “The NT author quotes from Psalm 112 in order to add credibility to his argument.”

In the case of Psalm 112, verse 1 tells us, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments!” Verse 7 says, “…his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.” And verse 10 contrasts him with the “wicked man.” So, when Paul addresses the Corinthian Believers about their giving habits, he’s addressing people who are like the God-fearing man described in the Psalm.

This is important because when Paul says in v. 8, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you…”, God is able to and does do so for the kind of person described in Psalm 112. The obedient Christian is like the righteous man in Psalm 112. The 2 Corinthian preaching portion assumes some readers will exhibit the kind of fear/saving faith described in Psalm 112. I find it very helpful to use the immediate context of Psalm 112:9 (e.g., verses 1, 7, and 10) to make a connection between faith in Christ and, in the case of 2 Corinthians 9:1-11, cheerful, bountiful giving.

Does your upcoming preaching portion contain any OT quotes? If so, honor the immediate context in which the quoted Scripture is found and reap the theological benefits.

Preach well for the sake of His reputation.

Randal

Preach Christ and Celebrate Communion on Non-Communion Sundays

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How often does your faith-family celebrate Communion? We take part in the Lord’s Table the first Sunday morning of every month. That means the Table is empty three and, sometimes, four Sundays each month. It’s decorated for worship, but devoid of bread and cups.

A week ago this past Saturday morning, I had the privilege of joining with our Elders and four guests to examine a young man, Jeff Kauffman, for the Gospel ministry. During the ordination council, Jeff talked about his desire for having communion more often than what they are currently doing in his church. What surprised me was what he said about what he had experienced during the years he worshiped with us.

He mentioned that, despite holding Communion only once a month, our church was hearing about Communion each Sunday. It was almost like Communion each Sunday because of my transition from the teaching time to the Cross. I had never thought about how my Christ-centered interpretation and application (faith-first) allowed us to celebrate Communion on non-Communion Sundays, despite the “empty” Table.

I guess that is one unexpected benefit of preaching Christ as the way to explain and apply all Scripture. Each non-Communion Sunday morning, our congregants see Christ crucified even though the Table is missing bread and cups. Do you ever wish your church would celebrate Communion more often? Think about how preaching Christ this Sunday can provide the next best thing. More than once I’ve said on one of those off Sundays, “If we were celebrating Communion this morning, we would…”

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal

The Value of Linking Sin With Unbelief

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There is an organic connection between faith and obedience. That means there is also an organic link between unbelief and disobedience. I learned this from reading Hafemann’s book, The God of Promise and the Life of Faith.

So, if it’s true that every act of disobedience is first and foremost an act of unbelief, then we attack disobedience by attacking unbelief. For instance, in Luke 12:22-31 Jesus teaches us not to worry. The sin of worrying is a good example of this approach because in v. 28 Jesus addresses His worry-wart disciples as, “O you of little faith!” Our lack of faith in God’s ability to take care of us is the root cause of worrying. So, in order to repent of the sin of worrying, we need to link that sin to our unbelief.

When I worry, I’m saying to God, “God, I don’t trust you.” Doesn’t that sound worse than saying, “God, I worry about ________”? Imagine having to tell God face-to-face that you don’t trust Him.

Unlike the sin of greed, which is rarely, if ever, confessed, worrying appears to be the sin that is frequently admitted, but rarely conquered. It might help if, instead of giving five ways to be worry-free, we link worrying to unbelief and talk about reasons why we can trust our Heavenly Father.

Use this approach with other sins that are censured in your upcoming preaching portions. Ask how sin X links with unbelief. Explore with your congregants how a particular sin links with unbelief. If the sin is unrighteous anger, how does unbelief fuel that emotion? You want to repent of worrying? Increase your faith. You want to repent of anger? Increase your faith in what God has provided in Christ and His Spirit.

As you practice this approach each Sunday, you will help everyone attack the hidden sin behind the visible sin. Instead of only providing advice to keep anger in check (and that’s probably all our “five ways to curb anger” are), you will also get to the heart of one’s relationship with Christ.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal

C. S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale, 2013)

Some of my readers enjoy reading C. S. Lewis and biographies in general. If that’s you, you will enjoy Alister McGrath’s book, C. S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet. I am not an avid reader of biographies, but I’m glad I read this one. As usual, Lewis’s own insights did not disappoint. However, I also found McGrath’s insights very helpful.

Here are a few things that captured my attention:

“An emotionally unintelligent father bade his emotionally neglected sons an emotionally inadequate farewell” (p. 24, describing the situation of Lewis and his brother as they were being shipped off to school only two weeks after their mother died! Like all of us, Lewis brought baggage with him when he went to work.)

“Lewis is a failed poet who found greatness in other spheres of writing” (p. 64. I didn’t expect that! I guess I figured someone like Lewis succeeded at everything. It gave me some hope.)

“His maiden lecture, given on Tuesday, 14 October at University College, was attended by a mere four people” (p. 108. Wow! What a way to start your professorial duties!).

One of the more interesting features of the book was information about Lewis’s relationship with Tolkien: “Tolkien was a niggling perfectionist, and he knew it. Indeed, his late story, ‘Leaf by Niggle’–which deals with a painter who can never finish his painting of a tree because of his constant desire to expand and improve it–can be seen as a self-parodying critique of Tolkien’s own difficulties in writing. Someone had to help him conquer his perfectionism. And what Tolkien needed he found in Lewis….it is no exaggeration to say that Lewis would become the chief midwife to one of the great works of twentieth-century literature–Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings” (p. 130).

You’ll also enjoy reading about Lewis’s arriving at saving faith: “In Surprised by Joy, Lewis sets out the series of moves which led him to faith in God, using a chessboard analogy. None of these is logically or philosophically decisive; all are at best suggestive. Yet their force lies not in their individual importance, but in their cumulative weight. Lewis portrays these, not as moves which he made, but moves which were made against him. The narrative of Surprised by Joy is not that of Lewis’s discovery of God, but of God’s patient approach to Lewis…. ‘Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat’” (pp. 136, 138).

Read well. Preach well.

Randal

How Many Minutes In Your Sermon Are Actually Spent Preaching?

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My mentor, Dr. Haddon Robinson, used to talk about two angles on preaching. One, the preacher talks to people about the Bible. He functions much like a history teacher. Two, the preacher talks to people about them from the Bible. He functions as a theologian for the church. The first angle is heavy on explaining the ancient, biblical world. Congregants learn lots of interesting information, if they happen to like history. The second angle is heavy on applying that ancient, biblical Word. Congregants learn how to enter God’s world being portrayed by that ancient, sermonic history.

In his book, A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel, Lischer writes, “After several years in an academic environment, theological students and teachers start preaching about the text rather than letting God preach through the text” (p. 46).

As I wrestle with preaching portions and develop sermons each week, I catch myself sounding too much like a history teacher. As I listen to sermons, I hear the vast majority of minutes devoted to teaching history. I fear that many people are listening to the History Channel each Sunday.

Think about your own preaching style. How many minutes in your sermon are actually spent preaching? How many minutes are spent giving a history lesson? Now, it’s true, biblical theology is conveyed through biblical history. So, part of preaching is telling parishioners what God did back then. The question is do we retell the history from the stance of the theologian who shows how Scripture functions for the Church. Ortlund said of one of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, ”Eighty percent of the sermon is application…” (A New Inner Relish, p. 53). 80%!

Here’s some ways I avoid contributing to the History Channel each Sunday:

  • My introductions include a brief statement about what the preaching portion is intended to do to the Church (the shape or form worship takes when life is applied to that Scripture).
  • My perspective is always on us and our lives, even when I’m retelling the fruits of exegesis.
  • After minutes delivering biblical history, I remind us again how it’s shaping us.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal

Pastor, Scholar, or Both?

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How do you see yourself? More of a pastor or more of a scholar?

I’m fortunate each year to study with pastors from all over the world who are both pastors and scholars. They are pursuing advanced degrees partly because they enjoy studying hard. But I also rub shoulders with pastors who do not see themselves as the scholarly type. If you see yourself like that, you need to read John Piper’s segment of the little paperback, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor. Professors will enjoy Carson’s take on how the professor functions for the Church.

Piper writes, “[God] did not have to give the church a book….So the very existence of the Bible as a book signals that the pastor is called to read carefully and accurately and thoroughly and honestly. That is, he is called to be a ‘scholar’….If I am scholarly, it is not…because I try to stay on the cutting edge in the discipline of biblical and theological studies. I am far too limited for that [Piper is very open about his limitations in his, largely autobiographical chapter]. What ‘scholarly’ would mean for me is that the greatest object of knowledge is God and that he has revealed himself authoritatively in a book; and that I should work with all my might and all my heart and all my soul and all my mind to know and enjoy him and to make him known for the joy of others. Surely this is the goal of every pastor” (pp. 66-67).

When you put it like that, surely this is our goal. Let me give you two ways to move in that direction if you don’t see yourself functioning as the scholarly type:

  • Subscribe to a scholarly journal, read at least two articles and the book review section in each issue. I enjoy BibSac, JEHS, and Preaching journals, but there are many good ones to choose from .
  • Make reading in biblical and theology studies a regular part of your week. There is a lot of pressure on us to read only church growth or practical ministry material. Find authors that will stretch your ability to think theologically.

Study hard and preach well for the sake of His reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal

paintbrush

I’m always looking for broad brush strokes that explain what Scripture is and how it functions for the Church. This helps keep the purpose of my sermons in line with what God is doing in His Word. Here’s how Robert Jenson explains Scripture in two broad categories:

“think of Scripture as both an encompassing narrative of the Creator’s history with his creatures, and as torah, his gracious communication of what is good for participants in that history.” (p. 34 in, It’s The Culture, First Things, May 2014, Number 243).

Hope this helps you convey theology from narrative or torah this weekend. Preach well!

Randal

First Things 34

Use your Pre-sermon Prayer to Aid Sermon Application

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On ninety-nine out of a hundred Sunday’s I will say a prayer right before I read the preaching portion aloud with our faith-family and right before I preach. (The only time I wouldn’t pray right before preaching is when someone else prayed or we sang an appropriate pre-preaching prayer)

A few weeks ago it came to me that I should ask our Lord to help in the application that we’re about to cover in the teaching time. So, in anticipation of preaching Galatians 5:24-26 I prayed something like: “Father, help us crucify our flesh during this teaching time and afterwards…”

I’m not sure how you word your prayers for the congregation prior to preaching. Maybe you’ve experienced thinking about sermon application when you prayed after the sermon was over (“Father, please help us apply this Scripture to our lives, [because, either you ran out of time, or didn't think through a specific application?]“). Try wording your pre-sermon prayer in such a way that you aid sermon application. The possible benefits?

  1. God may answer our prayer and prepare us all for a proper response to the particular revelation contained in the preaching portion.
  2. Our congregants hear early on how the preaching portion applies and may be more ready to respond when application proper is being communicated later in the sermon.

I’m curious as to whether or not you word your pre-sermon prayers in conjunction with the sermon application.

Preach well for the sake of His reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal

What Kind of Questions Are You Asking This Sunday?

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I just completed three weeks of learning with some excellent Doctor of Ministry students. One of the things I was watching for during their in-class sermons was the kind of connection they were making with their listeners, one of which was me.

More than once, a question was asked in such a way that did not get any reaction from any listener. In other words, the preacher asked a question, but was not wanting or expecting an answer. They asked the question while looking down and did not wait for any response. They quickly moved on to the next statement in their sermon.

I strongly believe that asking the right questions in the right way is one of a preacher’s most important rhetorical devices. So many good things can happen pastorally when we take time to bring our listeners along with the right question asked in the right way (the right way meaning, asking the question in such a way that your listeners know you want them to think and answer quickly).

Last weekend I preached James 5:13-18. One scholar reminded me that James asks over 20 questions in 5 chapters, a lot of questions for that little letter. When you’re studying James, take a look at the kinds of questions he asks. One thing I learned is that James was aiming for an immediate response. For instance, in James 2:4, after telling us not to show partiality, he asks, “have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Yikes! We want the Holy Spirit to do just as much convicting during our preaching as was happening when James was first heard. Asking the right question in the right way may be one way to achieve that goal.

So, how many and what kind of questions are you asking this Sunday?

Preach well for the sake of His reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal

“We wouldn’t expect to see that”: An Example of Unconventional Exegesis

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When I first saw this photo, it took me by surprise. Normally, whenever I see a camel, it’s always in the desert. Every once in a while I encounter a similar phenomenon when studying Scripture for sermons. I find that whenever I point out the unexpected, it helps me understand and communicate what God is saying.

For instance, 2 Corinthians 9:6 contains a proverb about giving: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” That proverb or principle is followed up in verse 7 with instruction on how to give. I would expect God to say something like, “Each one must give bountifully…” But that’s not what He says. Instead, God says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart…” I didn’t expect that. It seems risky. What if we don’t decide correctly?

I find that pointing out the unexpected is an effective way to help the faith-family understand what God is saying. It gains attention and often helps clarify meaning. When you read a proverb, whoever sows sparingly…and whoever sows bountifully…, anyone who values the harvest (what is reaped) will decide to sow bountifully.

Anyway, look for places in your preaching portions for such unconventional exegesis. Along with your usual study of background, definitions of key words and phrases, grammar and syntax, look for opportunities to highlight the unexpected.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal