1. The Sovereign Who Denied Himself (Phil 2:6)
2. The Servant Who Emptied Himself (Phil 2:7)
3. The Savior Who Humbled Himself (Phil 2:8)
1. The Sovereign Who Denied Himself (Phil 2:6)
2. The Servant Who Emptied Himself (Phil 2:7)
3. The Savior Who Humbled Himself (Phil 2:8)
It has been reported that Peter Enns, Walter Kaiser, and Darrell Bock will publish a Zondervan counterpoint book on “Three Views on the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament” (forthcoming 2008).
The majority of our Bible is narrative. My own unscientific observation is that most expository preaching does not come from these narrative portions. Theologically minded expositors tend to gravitate toward epistolary literature because it is assumed (falsely) that it has a more “natural” feel and way of outlining itself making for more easily preached sermons. However we should not give up so easily on what God has authoritatively inspired as His Word. Our congregations miss out on a balanced diet of God’s counsel if our sermons tend toward myopic readings of the text and exclude narrative.
Over the next few posts I want us to think about one segment of narrative preaching. I will focus primarily on narratives that are found in the Gospel accounts but some of what I say here can be more broadly applied to other narrative portions as well. I am not trying to exhaust this subject but I simply want to get us thinking about this important aspect of gospel preaching.
What makes gospel narrative different?
There are at least three characteristics of gospel narrative that distinguish it from other biblical genres as found in the gospel accounts (such as parables, prophecy, etc. although there can be overlap of these genres). There will also be overlap between these following characteristics since they all relate to the central motif of the story.
1. Unity: Narrative weaves together the unity of Scripture and the message of each Gospel. In one sense, each story stands on it own and can be preached as an individual story, such as the squabble over the Sabbath in Matthew 12. However, each narrative is tied to a context wherein the author is expressing a larger theme and purpose. For example Matthew 12 is tied to the preceding context in chapter 11 where the rejection of the Messiah is highlighted and followed by the chapter 13 parables where the Messianic rejection reaches a thematic climax in Matthew. So on the one hand each story is an individual unit but we also need to keep in mind that there is a larger context. Multiple narratives are often tied together to support a larger theme or theological point. Matthew is a prime example of this as he uses narrative to introduce the central sermonic features of his Gospel account (I will explain this in more detail in a later post). So we need to ask questions in our study: What function does the individual narrative play in the Gospel in which it appears? How does this narrative pericope support the larger theme and storyline? How is the story under investigation connected to other stories in the near context?
2. Theology: It is probably self-evident that narrative does not develop theology the same way a wisdom passage or an epistle would. We should not assume that narratives do not teach theology or that we are relegated to preach only the main theme of a gospel from every story. I think there is an unbalanced tendency among some schools of thought to emphasize larger theological themes and ignore more nuanced theological points and even applications. For example, it has been pointed out by numerous writers that such a tendency is built-in to the foundations of the biblical-theological/redemptive-historical movements of preaching. It is healthy for us to be reminded that while narratives teach us about “creation, fall, and redemption” they also teach a lot more. The theology of a narrative is developed through the progression of a story rather than through precept or outright principle. Our example above using Matthew 12 (along with Matthew 11) has a similar theological point to Romans 9:30-33 yet these two passages are stated and developed in vastly different ways. Paul essentially states the point while Matthew illustrates the point over two chapters by recounting the historical rejection of the Messiah by the Jewish leadership. We’ll look at how to recognize the theology of a narrative and its application in a subsequent post. For now, I simply want to point out the obvious as a starting point.
3. Theme: Each narrative communicates a big idea or more accurately a “theme.” I have always secretly struggled with the bold assertions of some homileticians who confidently assert that each passage has only one “big idea.” A whole community of publications has arisen around this principle and I’m not always sure it helps the expositor. I don’t want to split hairs over this issue but it might be accurate to say each narrative has a theme and that theme cannot be separated from the larger theme of the gospel account in which it appears. One should also be careful not to import one gospel writer’s usage of a story into another writer’s usage of the same or similar story. For example, we have to ask “Why did Matthew place a narrative in a particular location in his account?” I would contend that each gospel writer has structurally thematic concerns for every narrative that is included in his account. To state it more baldly, the narratives are not simply compiled haphazardly or thrown into a gospel without careful thought to its placement. Each individual narrative pushes the focus back to the larger theme of the book. Narrative is structured in such a way that every feature supports this theme.
In my next post I will examine how we can unpack gospel narrative in our study and preaching.
According to Paul, God is on a mission to “destroy the wisdom of the wise” (v. 19). The means by which He wages this war is the simplicity of the message of the cross. In contrast to those who seek miracles that point to the authenticity of the message and those who continue to search for human wisdom, Paul simply preached “Christ crucified” (v. 23).
Moreover, Paul gives us the reason that God is on this mission, and he bases this reason upon the message developed by Jeremiah. It is as if Paul is expositing for us the passage we have considered in part 1. His conclusions are the same as Jeremiah:
First, God destroys boasting in man because God Himself and His message about Christ will only be understood by those who have true wisdom.
Consider the following verses from 1 Corinthians 1 (with Jeremiah 9:23–24 in mind):
26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, 29 so that no man may boast before God. 30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31 so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Jeremiah had rebuked the entire nation for their faulty, human wisdom, for their presumption upon the strength they believed they had in the covenant, and for their worldly pursuits. Yet, he also encouraged them to pursue the things that honor God—loyalty, justice, and righteousness—things that their spiritual condition would not allow them to accomplish without His intervention to provide them with true wisdom.
Similarly, according to Paul, the calling of God is not found in human wisdom, might, or wealth but only “in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (v. 30). It is only through Christ that faithfulness, justice, and righteousness can be found.
As a result God accomplishes His purpose, namely, that “no man may boast before God” (v. 29) and “so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (v. 31). The reason, then, that a lost world refuses to embrace the message of the cross is the same reason that Jeremiah’s message was ignored—they have confidence both in themselves and in deceptive, comforting words of man-made religion.
Furthermore, as pastors and teachers and Bible students, we must be careful not to place our glory (the basis for our ministry) in our knowledge rather than our Lord. Knowledge puffs up…builds an ego. Be careful that you consistently pursue knowledge of God that begins with “the fear of the Lord,” a knowledge that recognizes His authority and that responds with proper worship.
Second, God destroys boasting in man because the message of the cross will only be embraced through the work of the Spirit of God.
Turning to 1 Corinthians 2, but not leaving the same idea, Paul now applies his thinking to his own preaching ministry.
1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, 4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
Paul’s point, then, is that his methodology of preaching the Gospel reflected his dependence upon the Spirit to bring these things to bear upon the mind of his listeners.
In Jeremiah’s day, the Lord gave him a message to speak that the people would not listen to. In fact, the Lord told him that would be the case: “You shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you; and you shall call to them, but they will not answer you” (7:27). In fact, the Lord told Jeremiah not to pray for this people, because He would not hear him (7:15).
This is a theme that runs through the prophets, beginning even with Deuteronomy. God was so fed up with their rebellion, apostasy, and refusal to listen to His prophets, that His determination to judge them was certain. He would not relent. Therefore, no matter what the prophet said, the message fell upon infertile ears and hearts. Without the breaking through of God’s power, there would be no acceptance. The reason there would be no acceptance is because their hearts were calloused, unable to hear and receive this message.
As a result, the Lord promised later in Jeremiah that He would take things into His own hands (see Jer 31).
He would provide them with a new heart.
He would make a new covenant with them.
He would give them the ability to know Him and to be His people.
Paul picks up on this truth in the verses before us.
Similarly, we who are given the privilege of proclaiming the Gospel should pay careful heed to this warning. Not only was our own calling dependent upon the Spirit who gave us the wisdom to know the things of God, but also our message must rely upon God to intervene in the hearts and minds of those who hear us. In other words, we must be careful that our words and/or our presentation be clearly dependent upon God’s intercession.
False words will be readily received if presented in an appealing way. Moreover, an appealing presentation might very well breed false conversions. Even more, if you are relying upon your own abilities and talents to build the ministry in which you are involved, then you are really fighting against Christ in the building up of His church.
Paul seems to be saying in this passage that true boasting in God comes by mean of the demonstration of the Spirit of God, not through human argumentation or novelty or ingenuity. It is only when the message is received clearly through the demonstration of the Spirit of God that true boasting can take place.
To be honest, it is no surprise that the people consistently rejected the message of Jeremiah. After all, he was speaking the truth, no holds barred, right? Why would they believe him when they were hearing a more palatable message from the other prophets? The point of Jeremiah, then, is consistent with Paul’s point here—without a breaking through by the Spirit of God, the message will not be received, because “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (v. 14).
In the next two posts, I want to raise and answer the following questions: How should your knowledge of who God is and the way that He works reflect itself in the way you preach and minister the Gospel? [In addition, I’m hoping my comments will contribute to the ongoing discussion here and elsewhere about the use of the OT in the New, especially in part 2.]
Before answering that explicitly, I want to show you a negative example in the leadership of Jeremiah’s day. Throughout the book of Jeremiah, a picture is painted of a stubborn and rebellious nation made up of unfaithful and deceitful individuals. This poor spiritual condition extended from the least of them to the greatest. However, from the text we find that Jeremiah’s primary message was against those who were supposed to lead the people. From prophet to priest to king, the nation was corrupted:
“For both prophet and priest are polluted;
Even in My house I have found their wickedness,”
declares the Lord.
Thus says the Lord of hosts,
“Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you.
They are leading you into futility;
They speak a vision of their own imagination,
Not from the mouth of the Lord.”
But your [i.e., the king’s] eyes and your heart
Are intent only upon your own dishonest gain,
And on shedding innocent blood
And on practicing oppression and extortion.
These types of quotes could continue, but suffice it to say, as a result of sorry leadership, the people continued in their sinful practices. Unfaithful leadership led to unfaithful people. This is particularly evident in chapters 7–9. There is something here for each one among the nation. Jeremiah paints a picture of the people of the nation as ignorant, presumptuous, and greedy … faithful to what they had been taught. These chapters lead up to these well-known verses in chapter 9:
23 Thus says, the Lord,
“Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and
let not the mighty man boast of his might,
let not a rich man boast of his riches;
24 but let him who boasts boast of this,
that he understands and knows Me,
that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth;
for I delight in these things,”
declares the Lord.
First, according to v. 23, the Lord warns the people that they have no reason for boasting in themselves.
Each of the warnings here parallel a significant problem within the nation, be it a problem with knowledge, presumed strength, or pursuit of riches.
1. They were ignorant of their God.
They failed to listen to true prophets (7:25–26) and therefore provoked the Lord with their idolatry (7:30–31; 8:19). They refused to know the Lord (8:7–9; 9:3, 6) and therefore forsook His instruction (9:12–14).
The people of Jeremiah’s day assumed they were wise, i.e. that they had and understood the truth. Yet, those among them who were supposed to be keepers and purveyors of the truth of God had distorted it, making it into a lie.
At the root of their problem lay this issue of wisdom. They had distorted the words of the Lord to such an extent that they had become wise in their own eyes and were relying upon the wisdom of a leadership that was not teaching the Lord’s Torah, His instruction, correctly. The issue in Jeremiah’s day was an issue with the spiritual leadership of the people. Thus, those who were to be shepherds of the people came under judgment from the Lord. Consider these words in Jer 23:1–2:
“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord God of Israel concerning the shepherds who are tending My people: “You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds,” declares the Lord.
It comes as no surprise that a majority of the people gladly listened to the dainty words of the false prophets. After all, with those words came a sense of security and blessing and rest. Those were the things that the entire nation desired…rest and blessing in the land. And these were the very things that the false teachers promised.
Naturally, then, the people and the nation began to trust in their knowledge and power and wealth, things that they believed would bring them protection and security. Yet, the message of the false prophets was merely superficial.
2. They presumed upon the covenant.
The people of Jeremiah’s day assumed they were able in and of themselves to rule selfishly over others. Moreover, they wrongfully assumed that the temple automatically brought strength against their enemies.
They willingly trusted in the deceptive words of the false prophets (7:4, 8; 8:8–11) and therefore presumed upon the covenant (7:4, 8).
Moreover, the people of the nation had the audacity to assume that God would protect them no matter what they did. Since they were part of the covenant and since they were in the temple, they presumed upon that fact and lived their life inconsistently with Torah. That is, they oppressed others; they shed innocent blood; they went after other gods. And all of this occurred before the eyes of those who were supposed to know better. Even the priests and the prophets practiced deceit.
Ultimately, then, Jeremiah’s words to the “strong” were an open rebuke of their pseudo-strength and the pseudo-confidence it bred in the leadership and the people.
3. They greedily sought after dishonest gain.
Several verses in Jer 7–9 refer to the rich man (cf. 7:6, 11; 8:10). The people of Jeremiah’s day assumed that their riches would sustain them and that the acquisition of wealth could be done by any means. They wrongfully assumed that even in the temple they could seek wealth without consequence. As a result, they were consumed with worldly pursuits.
As a partridge that hatches eggs which it has not laid, So is he who makes a fortune, but unjustly; In the midst of his days it will forsake him, And in the end he will be a fool.
These three pictures of the people are the complete antithesis of those who truly know their God. As it was, Jeremiah never convinced them. Why? Because those who are wise in their own eyes, confident in their own strength (or in a false strength, an illusion of security), and consumed with worldly pursuits will never understand and know their God. For this reason, then, Jeremiah spoke the words of v. 24.
Lest they think that their status as the nation called by God would bring protection and security, Jeremiah warns them that there was no reason for them to find peace in their wisdom, might, or wealth. What is more, this principle applies on both a personal and national level.
Second, according to v. 24, the Lord instructs the people that the only basis for their boasting is in a proper understanding of their God.
Rather than finding glory in a presumptuous view of their own wisdom, strength, and wealth, the people were to find glory in one place—Yahweh. True boasting, the Lord says through Jeremiah, should only be found in one’s true knowledge of Him, for He is the one who acts with loyal love, who acts as a just judge, and who provides the standard of righteousness.
Moreover, true wisdom on the people’s part would demonstrate itself through the exercising of these things. But here’s the problem…
Mankind, left to his own devices, will never be able to face his Judge faithfully because mankind is not righteous. Mankind will never meet that standard. So what is man to do? Well, Jeremiah had the answer in Jeremiah 31. If man is to exercise lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness, he will need a new heart and a new mind.
Each of the three things in v. 23 is a barrier to true faith. Those who are wise according to the standards of the world refuse to hear the simplicity of God’s Word, for their wisdom has blinded them to the things of God. Those who presume to be wise based upon the teaching of liars also refuse to hear the truth of God, for their minds have been deceived. Those who are confident in their own strength refuse to abandon their own efforts to save themselves, for their earthly strength has made them calloused to the things of God. Those who are rich and consumed with worldly pursuits refuse to leave the security of this world, for their acquisition of wealth has consumed their life.
Each of the three things in v. 24 is a characteristic of God that men should pursue. Yet, each of these is only obtainable through the work of God on man’s behalf. This is one of the overarching messages of the prophets: Man needs God to intervene and provide him with a new heart.
It is no surprise, then, that the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1–2 turns to this passage in Jeremiah when comparing the wisdom of the world with the foolishness of the Gospel preached. This connection and the implications that Paul makes from it for the ministry are important, but they are also for tomorrow…
Yesterday, between our morning services, one of my dear friends from church was standing in the lobby looking troubled. I approached and asked how she was doing. She was not doing well. She had just received a phone call from her dad. Her brother is connected with Y-WAM in Denver. He had just dropped his roommate and his roommate’s girlfriend off at the dormitory. Fifteen minutes later her brother got a phone call; the girl’s life and another friend had been taken and his roommate was in critical condition with a bullet in his throat.
In God’s providence I was preaching on prayer that morning. We took some time to pray for these events at the beginning of the second service. It was a sweet time of koinonia.
As an encouragement to the pastors who read this blog, sometimes tragedies like the one in Nebraska or the fires in SD or floods in Indonesia escape our attention because they are too far from home. But when those events come close to home, we are quickly sobered to counsel and prayer. Let the events of tragedy that come into our purview cause us to pray for those affected. Let us exhort the people under our care to pray for those who are devastated by these tragedies. We simply never know if and when those events might come to our doorstep. At those moments we’ll covet the prayers of our brothers and sisters in Christ across the world.
Please keep this dear family in prayer and especially the families of all those who lost children in this heinous act. At moments like this I cling to 2 Cor 1:3-5
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.
I am leaving Friday morning for Russia. I will be teaching a seminary class called “Preaching the Gospels and Acts” all next week. As some of you know, we had a very difficult trip last year (I would rather not relive the details here) so please pray for me and a fellow leader who will be traveling with me. If we have a good Internet connection, I may try to post some pictures and updates. I hope the rest of the guys will keep our readers entertained while I’m away.
“and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which
I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” (Ephesians 6:19-20).
“praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:3-4).
“Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you” (2 Thessalonians 3:1).