Preaching the Intention of Difficult Texts

Yesterday morning, I preached the end of 1 Corinthians 13. Calvary Bible Church of Mount Joy, PA is a typical non-charismatic, revised dispensational church that expects to hear that the phrase, “when the perfect comes,” (cf. v. 10) refers to the completed New Testament.

You might recall from a recent post about preaching through the head covering section that I find it helpful to warn congregants up front as to what they won’t hear. That’s right. Won’t hear.

In yesterday’s case, I wanted to prepare them for my not spending much time on what “the perfect” is, when it “comes” and what “the partial” is that “will pass away.”

My reason: because that whole discussion is not vital to preaching the intention of chapter 13. And I am intentional about preaching the intention of the Text. I’m not so concerned about preaching the incidentals of the Text.

So, I was delighted to recently read Walton and Sandy’s, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority, and learn how the Bible is authoritative. Along the way of explaining how oral cultures passed down authoritative teaching, the authors review one main contribution of Speech-Act Theory: understanding “that communication is an action with particular intentions” (p. 41).

Speech-Act Theory provided us with three helpful categories of communication, all of which affect preaching God’s Word.

God’s Word involves:

  • locutions–the genres, words, sentences, and grammatical structures
  • illocutions–what God intends to do with those words (instruct or make a promise)
  • perlocutions–the response God anticipates His hearers to experience as a result of His Word (think application).

The middle one–the illocutions–is most important when preaching difficult texts like 1 Corinthians 13:10. W and S write, “The important point is that if we misread the illocution, we are likely to also misinterpret, because understanding the illocution provides the doorway into interpretation” (p. 42, note 5).

So, when preaching difficult texts, texts with exegetical pitfalls, focus on the intention, not the incidentals. Imagine a congregation that “knows” what the perfect is, when it arrives, what the partial is that will pass away when the perfect arrives, and yet has no love.

Before Sunday, nail down the illocution, the intention, of your preaching portion so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Focus On Intention, Not Meaning (although they’re connected)

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I’m currently nearing the end of preaching through the Judges. The series is titled, The Salvation of Stubborn Hearts. A constant battle every Monday morning is discovering the intention of these narratives. How do these narratives function for the Church? That’s the question. And it’s more important than asking what a narrative means.

I’m assuming that when you try to identify a narrative’s meaning, you’re thinking about what it meant (past tense). As soon as you ask what a text means (present tense), you inevitably enter the realm of intention.

Earlier today I read an EHS paper written by one of my LBC colleagues, Greg Hollifield (Memphis campus). He was exploring how texts signal their intention. If you ever preach through Judges or any other OT narrative, for that matter, you will find yourself constantly thinking: “I know what’s happening in the story, but I’m not sure how it functions for the Church (you might word it in terms of how it applies).”

As you know, we have to know before Sunday. Preachers live in the realm of intention. Worship during the sermon can be defined as the Believer’s response to the revelation of God. That response coincides with the text’s intention.

So in Judges 2:6–3:6 the narrator supplies his sign of intention: “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord…” (v. 2:10). Everything that happens after that, the people’s idolatry and God’s angry, but gracious response, is a result of His people’s meager theology.

The narrator determines the intention of the sermon which, in turn, determines corporate worship. When it’s all said and done, we can’t suffer from meager theology and live for the glory of God. We urge ourselves to study God and put His ways into practice. That’s the only way to keep a congregation from becoming “Canaanized.”

Way before Sunday, nail down the intention of your preaching portion. That’s more important than knowing what your text means.

For His glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Expository Lecturer or Expository Preacher? Which one are you?

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You may have seen this picture. There’s two ways of looking at it. You can see the left side of a young woman’s face looking away from the camera or you can see an old hag looking sideways at you. If you can’t see both, don’t panic. The post may still be helpful.

Years ago I learned from Haddon Robinson that there were two ways to look at preaching. I paraphrase it this way:

Preachers don’t talk to parishioners about the Bible. They talk to parishioners about them from the Bible.

Last Thursday afternoon I enjoyed the privilege of meeting with other preachers and teachers of Scripture to talk about a strategy of keeping our sermons aimed at the listeners. In other words, how can we function as preachers, not lecturers when we’re trying so hard to be biblical.

  • Review your style and see how many sermon minutes are spent talking to our listeners about the Bible. You’ll be surprised how many.
  • In the introduction, tell your listeners how your preaching portion is intended to facilitate worship (what will this Scripture do to them). Don’t wait for the “application” section.
  • Throughout the sermon, repeat and restate that intention. Usually we think about repeating and restating major points or major themes. Don’t let them forget that God is speaking to them.
  • Include background material sparingly. David Buttrick wrote, “The gospel is not biblical background” (Homiletic, p. 347). Some of us need to be reminded of that. My rule is: only give background information that is absolutely necessary for understanding the meaning of your preaching portion. If you use that rule, you will discover you can save precious preaching minutes.

Before Sunday, while you’re working on your sermon manuscript, check your stance. Is it mostly “about the Bible” or “about them from the Bible”? Expository preachers never let congregants forget that God’s Word is aimed at them for the sake of His reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Preach a good sermon, will ya?

Randal

Bolstering Faith: The Big Picture of Sermon Application

The big picture concept.

One thing that helps me prepare for each Sunday sermon is reminding myself of the big picture. It’s easy for me to get lost in the exegetical details and even the specific application of a preaching portion. For example, preaching on Titus 2:11-14, I could think that urging us all to welcome the grace of God as a personal trainer to transform us into the image of Christ is sufficient. That is what that Text is saying and doing: the grace of God trains us to say “no” to two things and say “yes” to more things.

But, there’s a bigger picture than that. In Luke 18:1-8 Jesus asks, “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That’s what God is looking for now and later: saving faith, sanctifying faith. A good proof-text could be from Hebrews 11:6 “But without faith it is impossible to please him…”

Before Sunday, look at your application (locate what your preaching portion is intended to do to the Church). Ask how faith in Christ is linked to that application.

In the case of Luke 18:1-8, for instance, making sure we’re praying when Jesus returns inevitably means making sure we believe the Gospel. We pray to the degree we believe. Luke said, “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” What do you think is the condition of my faith if I have lost heart? Right. If I’ve lost heart, I’ve lost faith first. Or, you could at least say that I’m struggling with my faith when I’m very discouraged.

One way to think of this is:

Every act of disobedience is first and foremost an act of unbelief.

That means in order to attack disobedience, we should first attack unbelief. The opposite is also true: every act of obedience is first and foremost an act of faith. So, to urge obedience, we should first urge faith.

Preach well for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:21),

Randal

Keeping the Sunday Goal in Mind on Monday Mornings

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Years ago The Mammas and the Papas sang,

“Monday, Monday….Every other day of the week is fine, yeah. But whenever Monday comes…you can find me crying all of the time….Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day….Monday, Monday…it’s here to stay.”

If you preach each Sunday, you can relate to the song. You know that Monday means starting all over again (or, Tuesday, if you take Monday’s off). I find it helpful to keep Sunday’s goal in mind each Monday morning. Since that goal is   corporate worship during the teaching time (Believers responding to the revelation of God), my goal for Monday morning’s study time is always more than initial exegesis.

I recently began rereading Kugel’s, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. In explaining the method of ancient interpreters, He writes, “Reading Scripture, and doing what it said, was now the very essence of Judaism–and in it’s wake, Christianity. But what did Scripture mean, and what was it telling people to do?” (p. xii).

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now

That’s my Monday morning study goal: Reading Scripture–in my case, I’m currently preaching through Luke’s Gospel–praying and studying to learn what it means and what it is telling God’s people to do.

So, on a Monday morning when I’m studying Luke 16:1-9 (Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager), I want my initial exegesis to yield something like this:

“Lord willing, we will worship on Sunday morning by being as shrewd with God’s money as that dishonest manager was with his master’s accounts.” (cf. vv. 8-9 “…make friends…by means of…wealth, so that…”)

Long before Sunday, look at your preaching portion with the goal towards understanding what it means and what it is telling God’s people to do.

Preach well for the sake of God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus,

Randal

P.S. If you’re interested in reading and preaching in the Old Testament, you will find Kugel’s insights helpful (that’s an understatement). I find myself saying, Why didn’t I see that?!, more often than I like to admit.

Fight the Urge to Be Exhaustive (and exhausting?)

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I remind myself regularly, “Lord willing, we’ll cover that another time in another Text.” I’ll say that to parishioners periodically on a Sunday. It’s one of the benefits of preaching to roughly the same listeners each weekend. We do not have to worry about being exhaustive in every sermon.

 
If you’re a bit neurotic like me, you might be thinking: “That sounds like an excuse for shoddy sermons.” But that’s not my reason. Take, for instance, Luke 9:18-20 which contains Jesus’ crucial question, “Who do you say that I am?”, and Peter’s confession, “The Christ of God.” That paragraph begins in verse 18 with: “Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him…” I had to fight the temptation to elaborate on Jesus’ prayer life.
 
I fought that temptation because Luke provided no commentary; just the fact. Although Jesus’ prayer life–like yours and mine–was crucial to His relationship with God, it was incidental in this scene. On that particular Sunday I intended to communicate what God was saying through Luke and Luke wasn’t saying much about prayer. Here’s why often, less is more:
 
1. Less is often more because covering less leaves more time on Luke’s theology and intention for the Church. I’m finding that, as I develop as a preacher, I am consistently cutting out incidental, biblical data from my sermons. The longer I preach, the more I realize the need to spend more time on the parts of a preaching portion that contain theology that functions for the Church.
 
2. Less is often more because covering less also leaves more time for application. I can’t tell you the number of times I look at the clock on Sunday and wish I had an extra five minutes. Those extra minutes could be used to make sure we all know how to implement the theology when we leave church.
 
Obviously, this is not the only way to approach preaching in church. But in your attempts to be biblical, consider the value of accomplishing more by covering less.

Does Worship Stop When Your Preaching Starts?

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We have our work cut out for us if we are going to keep congregants worshiping when the sermon starts. Think about it.

Who leads worship in your church? When people hear the term, worship leader, who do they think of? In most churches, most people now equate worship with the singing, not the preaching. In most churches, the sermon follows the music and singing. If parishioners equate worship with singing, what do they think is happening during the sermon? Years ago congregants were asked what segment of the worship service made them feel closest to God. The number one answer was moments of silence. Last place went to the sermon. As I said, we have our work cut out for us.

Several months ago I decided, in light of this reality, to tweak my approach to sermon introductions. My goal was to help people realize that the teaching time is a time for worship, too. Actually, I started with my prayers that I say prior to our public reading of Scripture. In that prayer I ask God to help us worship during the sermon. I ask Him to help us move from knowledge to appropriate response. Worship is, after all, the Believer’s response to the revelation of God. Then, I decided that most Sundays, after the public reading of the preaching portion, my introductions would begin with some variation of: “This is God’s Word. We worship this morning by responding to (fill in the blank with a summary of the scene in Luke’s Gospel, for instance).” At the end of the introduction, I’ll state the response that the preaching portion is intended to create.

For instance, in Luke 9:1-9 we read Jesus’ ministry description He gave to the original Twelve. So my introduction might begin with: “This is God’s Word. We worship this morning by responding to Luke’s record of when Jesus sent out His first official disciple-makers.” (Note that responding is different from learning about.) Then, my intro might end with: “This is a time for us to evaluate whether Jesus is accomplishing His mission in the world through you and me.” Throughout the sermon and especially at the end, we’ll talk about the small, but vital part we’re playing in God’s disciple-making program. We’ll make sure everyone is urged to join this ongoing mission.

I don’t want worship to stop when the preaching begins. I know you don’t, either.

Consider the Value of Faith-First Application

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Faith-first application is my term for sermon applications that call for Believers to believe some aspect of the Gospel before asking for life-change. This application approach is the result of reading the Gospels and Scott Hafemann’s book, The God of Promise and the Life of Faith. When you read the Gospels you hear Jesus asking in Luke 8:25, “Where is your faith?” In other places you hear Him address His disciples, “O you of little faith” (cf. Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; Luke 12:28). Jesus could have easily addressed other issues, such as their anxiety in Matt. 6:30 or their fear in Matt. 14:31. But He addressed their faith.

Scott Hafemann’s book helps show that faith in the promises of God leads to obedience. He also states, of course, that the opposite is true–that unbelief leads to disobedience. So, if it’s true that every act of disobedience is first and foremost an act of unbelief, then I must attack unbelief in my efforts to attack disobedience. And the opposite? I must urge faith first, before I try to urge righteousness. 

I know you know the connection between anxiety and little faith and between fear and little faith in our examples above. That’s the point. Jesus touches on our little faith because He knows that when faith grows, righteousness also grows. The story of Jesus calming the storm challenges our faith. Take a look at your sermon application in yesterday’s sermon or the one you’re creating for this coming Sunday. See if there is a way for you to feed the faith of your congregants. See if you can make a connection between their faith and applying their lives to your preaching portion.

There is a fringe benefit to this approach to application. Faith-first application eliminates commonly heard self-help moralism by connecting faith with practical application, making the latter distinctly Christian.

Preaching That Matches Jesus’ Sense Of Urgency

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I learned from Jesus’ application of His own parable of the four soils that every teaching time in church is urgent. He teaches us in Luke 8:18 “Take care then how you hear…” This is Jesus’ primary application, after He showed us four kinds of hearing of the Gospel. This means that every sermon requires immediate action or attention. I’ve identified four kinds of hearing that take place in faith-families (I’m sure you can add to this): Congregants can

  1. hear and not understand.
  2. hear and don’t care.
  3. hear, understand, care, but not change.
  4. hear, understand, care, and change.

Jesus’ stern warning in v. 18 has helped me realize how important it is each Sunday to explain why it’s important to hear and respond to God’s Word. In an earlier post I mentioned how Jesus continually divides us all into two categories. In this case, we have the have’s (“…for to the one who has, more will be given…”) and the have not’s (“and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”). Your theology will probably dictate how severe the warning is (loss of rewards–demotion, versus loss of spiritual life–destruction). Either way, I want to be sure my preaching matches Jesus’ sense of urgency. I do not want to be guilty of allowing parishioners to “think” they have what they don’t have.

Preaching Two Kinds of Faith

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Recently, I was preaching on Psalm 112 and emphasizing the aspect of fearlessness in verses 7-8, “He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid.” In my search for images for that Sunday’s slides, I came across this saying:

 

“Let you faith be bigger than your fear.”

 

After thinking about this for a moment or two, I realized that this kind of thinking betrays a lack of understanding of biblical faith. What struck me harder was the fact that the saying seemed to preach so well. I could hear myself saying something like this in an attempt to apply our lives to this Psalm.

At the risk of nit-picking, let me suggest that genuine faith in Christ is, by nature, stronger than fear. To tell someone to let their faith be bigger than their fear is actually telling them to exchange less-than-saving/sanctifying faith for genuine faith. So, it’s actually not about letting faith be bigger; it’s about explaining how faith in Christ conquers fear. That exercise in theological exegesis will help our congregants be the kind of person described in Psalm 112, which is what the Psalm is intended to do.