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

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

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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

Creating Saint-Sanctifying, Seeker-Sensitive Sermons: Working Towards A Balanced Approach

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A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of conducting a preaching workshop at Lancaster Bible College. Our afternoon focused on creating saint-sanctifying, seeker-sensitive sermons: working towards a balanced approach. This post begins a short series on this important topic. Lord willing, I’ll be conducting this seminar in detail at LBC’s campus in Greenbelt, MD on the afternoon of April 3, 2014.

The topic is important because:

  • Seeker-sensitive approaches continue to be very influential and many of us feel some measure of pressure to adopt effective methods.
  • We are creatures of extremes which means some of us might be out of balance (too seeker focused or too saint focused). Or, to put it another way, maybe you have totally dismissed the seeker-senstive approach or you have bought into it whole-hog.

First, let me ask you to analyze your own approach and setting. Do your sermons and approach lean more towards being seeker-senstive or saint-sensitive? What percentage of your listeners on an average Sunday morning would declare to you that they are non-Christian (an important question as we search for balance)?

Alright, let’s look at areas of theology and ministry that are affected by this discussion.

Theology: What did Jesus mean when He said, “Anyone who has ears to hear, let him hear”? Does a certain kind of sermon create ears that can hear?

Hermeneutics: Is the standard approach to reaching seekers the best way to read the Bible? Is, for instance, the “five ways to manage your anger”-type sermon the best interpretation of Scripture selected to support such a sermon (yes, my selection of the word, “support,” is loaded).

Homiletics: Have we paid so much attention to the interest of our listeners that we have forgotten the listener’s spiritual condition and need for theology (as opposed to self-help [defined as moralistic improvement from Scripture apart from faith in Christ)?

That being said, it is not my intention in this series to debunk seeker-senstive, topical preaching. I do want to help bring some clarity to what it means to be seeker-senstive. I especially want to show from 1 Cor. 14:23-25 that we should be and can be more seeker-sensitive with an insider-directed message from God’s Word.

1 Cor. 14:24-25 gives us hope: “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”

So, the only way to be seeker-sensitive is not creating an outsider-directed message and delivering it on Sunday morning. We know from v. 22 that these words were “for believers.” Be assured that your sermons aimed at the saints have the potential to reach the outsiders who join us each Sunday morning. More on how that happens in future posts.

Preach well for the sake of Christ’s reputation in the Church/world.

Preaching Theology From Jesus’ Hyper-Humiliating Birth

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This past Sunday I reached the zenith of my creativity. Some of you know that’s not too high. But anyway, I outlined Luke 2:1-20 using Christmas hymns:

1. O little town of Bethlehem (vv. 1-7)

2. While shepherds watched their flocks (vv. 8-9)

3. What Child is this? (vv. 10-12)

4. Angels we have heard on high (vv. 13-14)

5. Go, tell it on the mountain (vv. 15-20)

I know some of you creative folks are laughing, but this was a huge accomplishment. But, that’s not important right now…

Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life–the incarnation–highlights Mary’s statement in 1:52 “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” For instance, in Luke 2:1-2 we read of mighty rulers who will soon lose their thrones. In v. 4 we read again of Nazareth, the town with a nasty reputation according to John’s gospel. In that same verse we read of Bethlehem, which, according to Micah 5:2, was too little to be the birthplace of a ruler. Both Nazareth and Bethlehem are examples of the exaltation of those of humble estate. And, then, of course, we have Jesus being laid “in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (2:7).

In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Yancey writes, “it seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstance possible for His entrance.” Rarely, if ever, does one celebrate humiliation. But we do these weeks! Jesus laid in a feed box, possibly a depression in the cold ground in a cave or stable. You can’t get any more humble estate than that! The highest level of mercy took the highest level of humility.

And, then, there’s the presence of shepherds. I don’t know of any other class of people more despised in Jesus’ day, but more adored in our day during Christmas time. It’s not unusual that they were working the graveyard shift that night; it is highly unusual that God saw fit to send the Angel of the Lord to them. Another example of God doing what Mary said in Luke 1:52, exalting those of humble estate. And besides making sure we all believe the message of the angel of the Lord and the Christmas angels, the shepherds provide an example for Christians to follow. They heard God’s message, believed it, and shared it. Who else could God have told who would have responded like the shepherds? Imagine God sending His messenger to royalty, announcing that a Savior, a Lord was born? Imagine august Augustus’ response. No, it’s best for us to take our place with “those of humble estate.”

Dangerous Christmas Sermons!

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I’ve never looked forward to preaching at Christmas time. Then R. T. France made it worse: “There is a significant mismatch between what most Christmas congregations expect to hear and what Matthew and Luke were primarily interested in conveying in their opening chapters. They did not write to tell the story of how Jesus was born….do congregations today either need or want to be convinced from Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah promised to the Jews….Is this what our Christmas congregations have come for?” (pp. 39-41 in his chapter, Preaching on the Infancy Narratives, in Preaching The New Testament).

For the past several years, I’ve started my homiletics classes with an audio clip of the introduction of an infant narrative sermon. The preacher introduces us to lessons we can learn about marriage from the interaction between Mary and Joseph as a result of Mary’s visit from Gabriel. Well, what do the infant narratives mean for the Church?

Well, certainly, at times Mary and Joseph are good examples to follow. We should emulate their faith. We should follow their devotion to God. The focus, however, seems to be on the information we receive about Jesus and His mission. Jesus is God’s promised Messiah who will do exactly what God said He would do. You know that and most of your congregants know that. Christmas sermons are a great time to urge us all to believe the descriptions about Jesus. Christmas sermons are a great time to help us all evaluate the extent to which our lives reflect faith in Jesus.

Along with misguided moralizing (e.g., lessons on marriage), Christmas sermons are also potentially dangerous because we can get so immersed in the details of the Story, we forget why Luke, for instance, included them in his Gospel. Gabriel told Mary that her Son would “be great” (Luke 1:32). Ask your parishioners if they believe that He is great. Ask them if their experience shows evidence of having such a great Savior.

What aspects of preaching at Christmas time are easy for you? What aspects are difficult?

How To Thicken Your Sermon With Theology

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One of the many definitions of the word, thin, is lacking an important ingredient (Reader’s Digest Oxford Complete Wordfinder). Usually, more than a few times a year I listen to sermons in class that fall into the class of being thin. What always strikes me about those sermons is, rarely is the problem not enough exegesis. Usually, it’s a problem of not enough theological thinking. On August 13, 2013 I published a post, Add Theological Thinking To Your Exposition, and said I’d add some examples from the Gospel of Luke. Here’s one and it shows, again, how important it is to move beyond exegesis.
 
In Luke 8:19-21 Jesus makes obedience the sign of being in the faith-family: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” This is another example of having to come to grips with Jesus’ gospel. Jesus sure sounds like we’re saved by our obedience. It requires thinking through the difficult relationship between faith and works. Jesus doesn’t tell us why obedience to the Word of God is necessary for family-of-God-status. I believe we should make that theological move in our sermons. At some point we must say to our parishioners, “Jesus’ family members are those who obey God’s Word because relationship precedes responsibility, but relationship does not preclude responsibility” (cf. p. 190 in Kuruvilla’s excellent book, Privilege The Text!). When you complete that thought (“…because…”), theology has thickened the sermon. Your communication is commensurate with Scripture’s portrayal of the nature of salvation. Of course, since Luke 8:19-21 doesn’t contain the answer to your question, you’ll have to look elsewhere in the Canon to find one.
 
Take a look at your preaching portion for this coming weekend and see if there are gaps that exegesis alone cannot fill.

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.

Preaching Jesus’ Gospel in the Gospels

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If you read some of my earlier blogs covering the book of Isaiah or Joshua, you may have noticed that my approach has been different in Luke’s Gospel. Because many preaching portions in Luke are straightforward, I’ve been trying to point out hermeneutical issues that can be applied to many sermons on many Texts. One of those issues is explaining why salvation by faith includes obedience. Or, to put it another way, why does Jesus require obedience when we’re saved by faith?

For instance, in Luke 8:21 Jesus teaches, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” That sure sounds like obedience is a condition for salvation. Jesus doesn’t explain His insistence on obedience. I believe this is another example of needing to add theological thinking to our exegesis/exposition.

Throughout the Gospels, I find myself getting uncomfortable with Jesus’ discipleship demands. I anticipate the reaction of some of my listeners who can’t reconcile anything that even smells like works in a saved-by-faith system. Of course, that’s a sign that they misunderstand saving faith and the Gospel. That’s why we need to continually explain the theology of Jesus in a Text like Luke 8:21. Whenever you encounter Jesus’ discipleship demands (or the many imperatives in the NT epistles, for that matter), plan on taking a moment to explain why salvation by faith includes obedience. It’s a great opportunity to explain how salvation includes new desires and capacities that prove that the presence of LifePlus. I came up with the following summary/explanation: When Jesus died for sinners, sinners who die with Jesus die to sin. I’m sure you can think of other ways to put it, but the important thing is actually putting it out there so we can better understand the Gospel and be sure we’re living it out. Evidently, Jesus didn’t want any confusion about who’s in and who’s not in the Kingdom of God.

Add Theological Thinking To Your Exposition

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I’m in the final stages of editing my manuscript, Preaching With Greater Accuracy, and will soon send it off to Kregel Publishing. I have come to appreciate the fact that exposition of Scripture often involves answering questions that are implied in a preaching portion. Implied, but not spelled out. If the preaching portion doesn’t have an answer, that means the rest of Scripture must provide an answer. That process is what I refer to as theological thinking. An example is Psalm 139:23-24

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

One implied question in v. 24 is, if perchance God finds some grievous way in me, what does He do about it? How does God lead me in the way everlasting after searching deep within my sinfulness and seeing what’s there? The Psalmist doesn’t answer that. I believe, as expositors, we need to answer that. An important segment of the sermon involves showing how Scripture provides an answer. I want to allow the theology of the rest of Scripture to inform my understanding of the Psalm.

How would you complete this sentence: “After searching my heart and finding some grievous way in me, God can lead me in the way everlasting because…”?

Lord willing, in future posts I’ll show other examples of this from Luke’s gospel.