Preaching Ruth’s Christo-centric Narrative (part 2)

If you’re planning on preaching any Old or New Testament narratives these days or in the near future, my approach to Ruth may help.

For instance, (1) the entire narrative begins with a sovereign God allowing (bringing?) a famine, multiple male deaths in the family, but also good news that food was now available (vv. 1-7). It’s an example of the judgment God’s people could expect if they disobeyed Him (cf. Lev. 26:19-20).

Remember that all OT narratives meaning something within the context of the blessings and curses announced in the Covenant.

(2) Ruth’s decision to follow Naomi and her God is crucial to the story (vv. 8-18, 22). Our congregants need to hear that only the God revealed in Christ is the source of all truly good things in this life. That’s especially important in a time when an estimated two-thirds of Christians believe that many religions can lead to eternal life and half of all Christians believe some non-Christian religions can lead to life eternal. Of course, our parishioners are probably not trying to be Christian and Hindu, let’s say. More than likely they, like us, try to be Christian and still allow our affections to land on more sophisticated idols.

(3) Finally, we read this candid reaction of Naomi to all the “bitterness” the Lord brought into her life (vv. 19-21). So many tidbits. Naomi’s not recognizable (v. 19). She knows exactly what God has done to her (v. 20 “…the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me”). A great opportunity for us to explain a theology of trouble/discipline (cf. Heb. 12:3-11), the purpose of the “bitter.”

And, if you’re wondering about how to get from Ruth 1 to the Gospel, you might think: on the cross, the Almighty dealt very bitterly with Jesus (v. 20) and the Lord testified against Jesus and brought calamity upon Him (v. 21) because of our sins.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Preaching the Theology in Judges’ Civil War


In these posts I am trying to provide strategies for preaching difficult narratives found in the book of Judges. What makes them difficult, you might ask? Well, they’re long Old Testament Narratives. But, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know you can trust the genre. That could be your New Year’s resolution:

In 2017 I will trust the genre.

Trusting the genre in Judges 20:1–21:25 means identifying the major rise in the story’s action. The tribes of Israel send men through all the tribe of Benjamin saying: “…give up the men, the worthless fellows in Gibeah, that we may put them to death and purge evil from Israel” (v. 13a).

You may recall that the worthless fellows performed Sodom-like sins in the previous chapter.

When Benjamin refuses, the civil war begins. The narrative takes it time to describe how the civil war unfolded and how the “good guys” suffered multiple defeats before the victory.

Don’t allow yourself to get bogged down in all the detail. The theology is conveyed by the narrative structure, but not in all the detail. Allow the broad strokes of the narrative to preach to the church:

There is a tragic, but necessary kind of unity as God’s people combine to discipline their brothers (20:1, 8, 11).

There is also a tragic, but necessary kind of discipline (20:12-13, 18, 23, 26-28, 35). When God’s people decide to remain in sin, God instructs His non-sinning-at-the-moment people to act on His behalf. You can make canonical connections to God’s judgment on sinners (such as Matt. 11:20-24 or Romans 1:24, 26, 28) and also to God’s judgment on professing Christians who refuse to stop sinning (such as in 1 Corinthians 5 and Matt. 18).

A welcomed, yet messy expression of compassion occurs in 21:1-23a. The judgment on their brothers did not create ongoing animosity.

Finally, there is hope for future spiritual success in 21:23b-25 when rebuilding takes place and things almost seem to be normal again. The emphasis on “inheritance” points to future spiritual success that we enjoy in Christ.

This section is one of the best places to teach the church about the holiness of God and the need for discipline.

Preach well so He receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


P.S. If you are interested in how Judges is put together, you might like to know that the book is ending where it began. It begins and ends with Israel asking God, “Who will go up” to fight against____? The problem is the first question addresses going up against God’s enemies. By the end of the book the question addresses going up against their own people! An entire tribe has morphed into the morality of the culture.

Preaching Both a Bad Example and Christ from the Wicked City of Gibeah in Judges 19


In these posts I am working my way through the book of Judges to provide a strategy for preaching difficult narratives.

Whenever you preach through the book of Judges–a very brave thing to do, by the way–you will discover that there are no judges. But there are lots of people doing what was right in their own eyes. The theological reason is provided in 19:1 “In those days, when there was no king in Israel…” What could a king do?

Well, a certain kind of king could teach and enforce the ways of God among the people of God. That would put a stop to the terrible wickedness that we read about in the city of Gibeah. And, of all things, Gibeah was home of God’s people, not a “city of foreigners” (cf. 19:12). They were “Benjaminites” (v. 16). None of us readers are prepared for how wicked God’s people have become.

The story revolves around a Levite and his concubine. Davis says that “he was heading for Sodom-in-the-land-of-Israel.” The parallels between Judges 19:22-28 and Genesis 19’s famous story are numerous. What starts off with no hospitality (Judges 19:15) ends up in what might be the worst scene in all the Bible (spoiler alert: except for the Cross, of course!).

The Levite gives his concubine to “the men of the city, worthless fellows” and she is raped and killed (v. 22, 25). His insensitivity is unbelievable (v. 28). And then, the Levite follows that up with the unthinkable: “he took a knife…divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel” (v. 29).

The chapter closes with the people’s reaction: “consider it, take counsel, and speak” (v. 30).

If you ever preached this chapter, one challenge is to help a church realize that it could get this bad. This is how bad things can get when God is not worshiped, when American individualism fills the hearts of people in the pews. Bad example? Yes.

A bigger challenge is to see the grace of God-in Christ in this narrative. That happens when we point out that the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a worst crime than anything Sodom or Gibeah experienced. And, of course, it is Christ’s broken body that makes it possible for Believers to experience the kingship of God in the power of His Spirit. Preach Christ? Yes.

Preach well for the sake of His glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


P.S. I read the post and wanted to draw attention to the preaching strategy, how the narrative conveys theology for the Church.

First, the theological statement that drives the entire book is found in v. 1 (“no king”).

Second, the whole story revolves around God’s people, not pagans.

Third, the varied sins of God’s people are on display, including the most heinous ones.

Fourth, there is a clear reference to redemption in v. 30 (“the people of Israel that came up out of the land of Egypt”).

Finally, if you are inclined as I am to show how such a ghastly narrative points to Christ, look to the parallel between the concubine and the Cross.

Hope that helps.


Preaching the Chapters in Judges That Have No Judges

A beaker filled with water to which oil has been added, demonstrating insolubility of oil in water.

When you arrive at Judges 17 you encounter a lengthy narrative that has no judge. What it contains is a mixture of spirituality and idolatry. Like oil and water, the two don’t mix. But, evidently, mixing the two is very tempting.

A recent example were the defeat speeches of both presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton, and her running mate, Timothy Kaine. I was surprised that both speeches contained quotes from the Bible.

Ancient examples are found in Judges 17-18 and the personal story revolving around Micah, his mom, his idols, and their priest.

A theological, interpretative key can be found in 17:6 (also 18:1) “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That’s the general problem. The specific problem must be identified from the narrative. The specific problem in this case is the religious confusion, the mixture of the spiritual and the idolatrous.

How’s this for a strange mixture: “his mother said, ‘I dedicate the silver to the Lord…to make a carved image and a metal image” (17:3). Those idols end up in Micah’s house. And Micah is very interested in spiritual things, like having a priest (vv. 7-13). The chapter ends with Micah stating, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest.”

One way to preach the theology of these chapters is to point out the other ways in which key characters create their own brand of worship. Davis asks, “Does this not parallel the contemporary mood…that worship is…a very individual affair, a matter of sheer personal preference, and like your toothbrush–a very personal thing?”

You’ll find more of the same in chapter 18 when Micah’s priest gets kidnapped and more idols are highlighted.

These chapters provide an opportunity for us to challenge each other to make sure we check our tendency to worship God and coddle our idols. And you’ll have to spend time, of course, on the remedy found in 17:6 and 18:1, our need for a King and what it is about King Jesus that creates a people who do what’s right in God’s eyes, instead of their own.

I hope this helps you make sense of a couple of difficult chapters in Judges. Preach them well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


One Last Angle on Preaching the Samson Narrative


In my series on Judges, The Salvation of Stubborn Hearts, I titled my final message on the Samson narrative: Samson, the Judge Who Shows Us Our Spiritual Struggles.

Webb describes Samson as “a testosterone-charged male behaving badly.” You can see that in the repetition of key phrases and also from Samson’s un-judgelike actions in these chapters.

First, look at the repetition in 14:3, 7 “right in my eyes,” a phrase that will become very important at the end of Judges. This is not good.

Second, look at the repetition of “their god…our god…their god…our god” found in the victory celebration of Israel’s enemies (cf. 16:23-24).

Then, the entire section is filled with un-judgelike actions. For a long time we see no evidence of Samson fulfilling his duties as a judge who would deliver Israel from the Philistines. Webb says, “He has wined and dined with the Philistines and tried to intermarry with them instead of ridding Israel of their rule.”

And, then, there’s all this playfulness in chapter 14 between Samson, his first wife, and the men of the city.

And what about Samson’s tryst with a “prostitute” in 16:1 or loving Delilah in 16:4.

All that tells us he forgot the fight. All that functions like a mirror so we can look at ourselves and make sure we’re not like Samson.

Thankfully, the Samson narrative also shows us our God will not allow Samson’s foolishness, stubbornness, or rebellion to thwart His plan for delivering His people (see previous post).

Samson, the Nazarite, broke his vows. Israel, of course, also a holy people, followed suit. But not our Savior, the Holy One of God (cf. Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). And, by faith in Him, we continue to experience cleansing and sanctification from our own stubbornness.

I hope these last few posts have helped you make sense of how the lengthy Samson narrative functions for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Preach well!


Preaching the Unique Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Samson


A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the preaching the unique circumstances of Samson’s birth. This week I’m focusing on the end of his life. The Samson narrative in Judges is very important to the theology of the book. When I preached through the book of Judges I chose to devote two messages to his life.

If you read the first Samson narrative post, you saw the parallels between Samson’s birth and Jesus’ birth (both involving prenatal instructions about the unique children). When you come to the end of Samson’s life, more parallels exist and this is a critical observation for the Christ-centered expositor.

For instance, Webb writes,

“rejected by his own people, arrested and handed over to their enemies, tortured and made a spectacle…until at last his calling is consummated in his death. But in dying he destroys Dagon, the god of Israel’s enemies.”

Amazing isn’t it.

What I like about that quote is not just the listing of all the parallels, but the fact that everything focuses on the plot of Judges: how God rescues His people from their enemies.

Several weeks ago while teaching for a day in Lancaster Bible College/Capital Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program, I selected a narrative from Judges (the infamous, Jephthah’s Tragic Vow). I asked the class to identify the subject of the narrative. Then, I pointed out the tendency to overlook the primary action of the book and individual judge narratives.

What do we learn about our salvation from the death of Samson? That’s the focus of theological interpretation. And the answer? Our salvation was secured through the death of our Judge Jesus. Judges 13:7 states, “for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death.” And it was Samson’s and Jesus’ death that won the victory for the people of God.

Next time, I’ll list some of the ways Samson shows us our spiritual struggles. He does function as an exemplar at times, but most importantly, Samson shows us a picture of our Savior’s victory-through-death.

Preach that message so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Preaching the Unique Circumstances Surrounding Samson’s Birth


One of the highlights of preaching through the book of Judges is reaching the Samson narrative.

[If you haven’t seen Sight & Sound’s production of Samson, you would enjoy it thoroughly. Their imaginative exposition is always insightful.]

Two things are unique about the Samson birth narrative:

(1) God’s people are incapacitated. Judges 13:2 says, “And his wife was barren and had no children.” There was no courageous judge on the horizon. God’s plan for redeeming His world often included couples who could not conceive children. Think of these famous names: Sarai, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth. In his excellent little commentary, Davis writes,

“hopelessness…where there is no human energy or ability to serve as a starter.”

Samson is going to be a miracle baby. God would miraculously place him on history’s stage and use him to deliver His people from the Philistines. Our situation is so dire that we can never achieve deliverance in our own strength and ability.

(2) God demanded a special (read, holy) judge. Verses 4-7, 12-14, and 24-25 record instructions delivered to Samson’s mother about what she was to eat and drink during her pregnancy. All because Samson would “be a Nazarite to God from the womb” (v. 5). Those instructions are restated three times in the chapter to signal their importance.

Added to the miracle is a strong dose of holiness. The savior of God’s people would be set apart to God throughout his life, “a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death” (v. 7).

This is the kind of savior God sent for His people; this is the kind of Savior, of course, that He ultimately provided in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s no surprise that when the angel arrives in another nativity scene such as Luke’s gospel, we have similar circumstances.

These prenatal instructions guide our worship. We don’t encourage, “Be like Samson,” or “Don’t be like Samson” in these early scenes. Maybe later in the chapter. For now it’s simply telling God how much we love Him for rescuing us from our tendency to leave Him for other loves.

Preach well for the sake of His reputation in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21),


Preaching the Highly-Offensive Jephthah Narrative


Our God revealed in Scripture could very easily be credited with this quote. If you’ve read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, then you know there is plenty of God’s Word that is offensive to our modern and post-modern sensibilities. That is especially true in the Judges 10 and 11 narrative often referred to as, Jephthah’s Tragic Vow.

You probably know the gist of the story: Jephthah vows that if the Lord gives him a military victory over the Ammonites, then he would give as a burnt offering whatever (whomever?) comes out of his front door to greet him upon his return from battle (cf. 11:30-31).

Horror of horrors, we discover in v. 34 that Jephthah’s only daughter is the one that comes out to greet him!

In the middle of expressing to her the great trouble that is happening he says, “…and I cannot take back my vow” (v. 35).

I remember screaming at Jeph’: “What do you mean you can’t take back your vow?!?! Of course you can and you should!!!!” And because he didn’t take back his vow, we receive one of the most offensive looks at the extreme cost of our salvation.

And that angle is very important if you are going to preach this narrative beyond the moralizing that goes something like: “Christians are careful about making rash vows to the Lord unless they cause tremendous heartache…”

Along with being careful whenever we make deals with God, this narrative is an opportunity for us all to express our gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice of God’s only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The parallels in the story are telling: Jephthah is a picture of…

  • our despised and rejected Savior (vv. 10:17–11:11)
  • our Savior who wins the victory for us (vv. 11:12-29)
  • the extreme cost of that victory (vv. 11:30-40 and the sacrifice of Jephthah’s only child).

It doesn’t solve all the problems of the offensive narrative, but maybe this angle will help you help your listeners give thanks for God’s costly free gift.

Preach well for the sake of His glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Preaching the Ugly Pictures of Human Nature in Judges

Studio portrait of mid adult woman looking into broken mirror --- Image by © Harry Vorsteher/Corbis

The picture of God’s people in the book of Judges is not pretty. For instance, in Judges 8:1, 4-6, and 8 there are three examples of insubordination. One commentator, Block, says “Even in victory Israel remains her own worst enemy.”

And often, even Israel’s best leaders, like Gideon, paint an ugly picture of our spiritual condition. Friction abounds in these stories and Gideon often flies of the handle, as they say (whoever “they” are?).

So, if and when you preach on Judges, be prepared to show your flock how difficult it is for God’s people to experience peace among themselves. Both leaders and laity have to work hard at being Spirit-controlled so the work of God can flourish among them.

In the case of the latter part of chapter 7 and into chapter 8 self-centeredness and rage are on display. It’s not a pretty sight. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, Gideon pulls the stunt recorded in 8:27 “And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city….And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare…”

Well, you’d think God would fiercely judge them all for this. But instead, we read of His grace in 8:28 “…And the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.”

I don’t understand this, but I’m sure glad God is patient with us. I am so thankful He gives us victories in the midst of our spiritual ineptness.

Anyway, be prepared to get some pretty nasty-looking looks of our condition in the Judges, but also of God’s grace. And preach it all so He receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Preaching Gideon Vs. Midian As A Paradigm For Salvation


If and when you preach through Judges, you will discover that God spent a lot of biblical real estate on the Gideon narrative. God gives tons of detail on Gideon versus Midian, probably because that contest functions as a paradigm for our salvation. Gideon is a highly unlikely military leader; his victory over the Midianites was a highly unlikely victory. That’s the point.

You’re familiar with how unsure Gideon was about God’s plan and how he asked God more than once to confirm the plan with a miracle (“the fleece”). Where’s his faith anyway?! It’s comforting to see how God did not chastise Gideon for his doubts. No lecturing; just confirming. Of course, Gideon’s example is not instruction for us to “go and do likewise.”

But the key to the narrative and its theology is God’s instruction to Gideon to whittle down his army, “lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.'” (cf. Judges 7:2). This is one of those examples of how the narrative provides a huge clue to meaning.

And be careful how you explain the Lord’s way of decreasing the size of Gideon’s army. God doesn’t tell us why the “lappers” are chosen, but not the “kneelers.” Whatever God’s reason, His intention was to take away any cause for Israel to boast in their strength. So contrary to many preachers’ explanations, the 300 who are selected are a sign of weakness, not strength. Plus, note that they take “trumpets” (v. 8, 22), not spears or bows. The soldiers were turned into fierce instrumentalists!

But God gives His people the victory over the Midianites. And it’s a great reminder of the fact that our salvation is all of God and none of us. We have a strong Savior who continually delivers us from overpowering forces that threaten to undue us. He graciously saves and sanctifies us. He does it all by Himself so we can only boast in the cross of Christ.

Preach well for sake of His reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).