Archive for February, 2010

In defense of local church pastors

This coming Sunday morning I will be addressing “the Attitudes of a Godly Congregation.”  Those spiritual leaders who faithfully serve you in your local church should not be neglected.   

According to the text, A)  Biblical shepherds work diligently among the flock of God. B)  Biblical shepherds exercise faithful spiritual oversight. & C) Biblical shepherds provide timely biblical instruction.  In light of this we should appreciate them and hold them in the highest regard.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.

Hebrews 13:7-9, Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited.

Hebrews 13:17, Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

In defense of “celebrity bible teachers” (some of them anyways)

One of the common targets conservative bloggers and pastors like to take aim at are those quote on quote, “celebrity bible teachers”.  I’ve always argued that “celebrity” is probably not the best word to use when describing these giants of the faith (men like Piper, Mohler, MacArthur, Sproul, Carson, etc).  If you’ve ever lived in Los Angeles or New York City you know how “real” celebrities are worshiped and followed.  Have you ever watched a movie premier before?  The last time I checked out the magazine rack at the grocery store the tabloids had zero interest in following around R.C. Sproul or John Piper.  The only time a pastor finds himself in a large magazine is when he does a Ted Haggard or if he makes the masses feel good about themselves like Joel Osteen does.

The conservative Christian community may take a larger interest in what certain well-known and well-respected bible teachers have to say but that is often because they’re uniquely gifted communicators and are top notch students of the Word.  For example, when Al Mohler writes a commentary piece on his blog it normally expresses my own personal convictions on the topic, only he says it in a much more memorable way.  Praise God for the way He’s chosen to gift various persons in His church.  I am grateful God has determined to bless certain men of God with larger platforms that they might preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified to even more people.  If it is ultimately about making mature disciples and advancing the kingdom of God shouldn’t we all rejoice in such developments?

Something tells me during the days of the early church that children raised in Christian homes looked up to their own heroes of the faith (Abraham, Moses, David, Hebrews 11); and I imagine Titus and Timothy viewed the apostle Paul the same way I view my spiritual mentors in the faith.  Any Christian who is worthy of the name “hero of the faith” possesses the same heart attitude as Paul in Philippians 3:17, Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. 1 Corinthians 11:1, Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.

Obviously some people divide themselves into divisive Christian cliques (“I’m of Paul, I’m of Peter, I’m of Barnabas”) but that is not the fault of those godly men.  Still others stop attending church altogether because they sit at home on Sundays and listen to their own “personal pastor”.  Those persons are immature and are outside of the will of God.   I’ve heard all the celebrity pastors mentioned above say just that.  “We’re not your pastor!  God’s will for your life is that you plug into a local church and that you submit yourself under the leadership of those godly men.  We too are men of clay, sinners saved by grace, worship Christ alone, etc, etc.”

Some people attack celebrity bible teachers because they assume that to be popular by default indicates compromise.  Others believe that to be popular is to be proud and I could go on and on.  The fact that Pastor Steve Lawson is willing to come to a little town in Illinois to minister to my congregation says the exact opposite thing.  The fact that John Piper recently spent time ministering to a group of prisoners in Africa says the exact opposite thing.  Need I provide more examples?  As far as we know these humble servants of the Lord are working out their salvation with fear and trembling.  We love these “jars of clay” because they help us understand the truth better.  We imitate their examples because they themselves are running hard after Christ.

Application and preaching

Peter Mead of Biblical Preaching is hand-down my favorite blog on the dynamics of preaching. Peter is constantly encouraging the faithful exercise of biblical preaching and for that I am thankful. See his recent thoughts on application linked below:

Preaching NT Narrative (characterization)

One of the most natural ways to develop narrative is through its characters. Ryken observes that “it requires more literary education to acquire the tools of plot analysis than it does to interact with the characters in a story.”[1] I think we identify with characters easily because we understand what it is like to feel the loss of a cherished friend (John 11:35), the panic of a desperate situation (Matt 14:15–17; Acts 27:14–44), or the joy of new life (Luke 1:67–79). What makes NT narrative unique is that it takes common experiences and sets them along the backdrop of God’s unfolding redemptive plan.

It is important for preachers not to develop the characters of the Bible into psychological case studies. Sermons  emphasizing “Three Lessons from Peter’s Denials” or “Five Leadership Lessons From the Life of Paul” are not always misguided. However, when approaching NT characters in this way, there is great temptation to preach a preconceived agenda rather than the meaning of the text. One must remember more significance is being conveyed than the mere temporary matters experienced by the characters. There is a redemptive story line binding together each scene and character with a God-oriented focus. Specifically, the preacher exposes this by tracing the theme of the individual author through the account. Kaiser rightly concludes that “the interpreter’s and expositor’s attention must be centered on God’s role in the narrative. This reminds us that all efforts to concentrate on the human character in a story while failing to locate God’s actions in the narrative are wrong . . . bypassing the point that the author was making.”[2] This is not to say that practical, ethical, and moral applications should not be included in the exposition but that all applications made are connected to the redemptive shape of the text.[3]

Bowman demonstrates how characters are typically used in a biblical story.[4] His analysis reveals that the interpreter must go the extra mile in his study and show how each character is used within a narrative passage.

First, a character’s own actions and interactions with others will help find the central motif in the narrative. Matthew notes a parenthetical aside concerning John the Baptist (Matt 11:2–6) when John sends word to Jesus to request clarification. Undoubtedly, John realizes he will soon give his life for the faith (cf. Matt 14:3–12) and wants to be assured he has not fallen prey to a case of mistaken identity. Jesus confirms His own divine status to John by the miraculous works he has done (Matt 11:5). However, John’s question is not the main point of the larger narrative. Contextually, John’s faith and humble dependence are juxtaposed with the unrepentant cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Matt 11:7–24). Matthew uses the two accounts to demonstrate different responses to the same Messiah. This example shows that a character’s actions are often part of a larger purpose within a narrative.

Second, a character’s own speeches will help develop the theology and central message of a narrative. In the book of Acts, Luke uses pivotal sermons and short speeches to show the progressive and transitional nature of the burgeoning church. From Peter’s powerful sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:14–36) to Paul’s ministry to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:8–28), the reader is introduced to many examples of a maturing and expanding church. Through every successive sermon, speech, and dialogue in Acts the central theme (Acts 1:8a) is progressively developed. The expositor should pay close attention to how an individual character’s speech is used to teach theology (e.g., Acts 2:29–36), to show progression in time (e.g., Acts 20:31), and to indicate transitions in the larger narrative (e.g., Acts 7:1–8:3).

Third, speeches of one character often highlight the importance of another character. In NT narrative, the focus is obviously on the person and work of Jesus, the Messiah. For example, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is a Christ-centered sermon highlighting the fact that Jesus was/is the long-anticipated Messiah from the Davidic lineage (Acts 2:14–36). The same point is made in a different context through Gabriel’s angelic speech to Mary (Luke 2:26–38). Practically, a preacher can look for a unifying theme or central theological idea within such a speech.

Without characters, there would be no story. For this reason, preachers should be careful to develop the characters as the NT author intended and not in a way that promotes an outside agenda. Characters serve the overall point of the passage even if they are a prominent figure in the story. For example, it is reductionist to say that the point of every NT narrative is Jesus is Lord. While that is an overarching theme of the NT, the individual writers of narrative have taken pains to develop such themes by drawing out the manifold implications of such truth. One of the primary ways the NT authors accomplish this is through characterization. Expounding these nuances through preaching will help to reveal vivid contrasts, hidden motives, and highlight progressive development in the larger storyline.

[1] Leland Ryken, Words of Delight, 71.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, 70.

[3] Others have made a similar point about preaching redemptively from the OT. See Ligon Duncan, “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament,” in Preaching the Cross, Mark Dever et al., eds., (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007), 64.

[4] Richard G. Bowman, “Narrative Criticism: Human Purpose in Conflict with Divine Presence,” in Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Gale A. Yee (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 29-30. See also Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching, 69.

Discipleship Lab (Winter Olympic Version)

Part of our constant grooming as pastors is to develop the gene of the “generalist.” Reading and observing widely is a skill set we all need to hone. The Discipleship Lab series will be devoted to the crumbs that fell to the floor while scouring essays, resources, lectures, and conversations. Enjoy!

  • A day in the life of a jihadist, what do they eat for breakfast? (here)
  • Vincent Van Gogh wasn’t that crazy (here)
  • King Jong “license to” il is nuttier than you originally thought (here)
  • Zinsser addresses “What is Good Writing?” (here)
  • Frontline reports that we are a digital nation. Like duh IMO! (here)
  • That “Chernyshevsky of individualism,” Ayn Rand, continues to be deconstructed (here)
  • Are too many students going to college? (here)
  • Pop Mechanics shows how to fall 35,000 feet….and survive! (here)
  • Walter Frederick Morrison died at 90, if you ever caught a Frisbee behind your back, you can thank him (here)
  • Guess who said, “I’d buy a Mac, if I didn’t work at MS”? (here)
  • Learn how to tie a bow tie (here)

Preaching NT Narrative: Don’t Flatten Out the Gospels!

Let’s say you’re getting ready to preach John 18:1-11. During your study, you pull your Harmony of the Gospels off the shelf and you notice that the apostle John fails to include some key details that are recorded in the parallel accounts in the Synoptics. For example, although John does record how Peter cut off the ear of the slave (John 18:10), he fails to mention that Jesus then “touched his ear and healed him” (Luke 22:51). This important detail, you decide, cannot be neglected during your sermon. In fact, when you come that point in John’s narrative, you not only cross-reference Luke 22:51 and proclaim the power and compassion of Jesus as demonstrated by this miracle, but Luke’s account of the healing actually becomes a key point in your sermon, perhaps even the “high point” or focus of your entire message. Is this a faithful way to preach NT narrative? I would argue not.

Now don’t me wrong—I love my Harmony of the Gospels. In fact, I use it so often that it’s falling apart. But at the same time, harmonization can be abused when we preach the Gospels. My concern is this: If you’re preaching a passage from one of the Gospels and you blend into your sermon all the information found in the parallel passages, oftentimes the end result is a flattening out of all the Gospel accounts so that each of them is made to say exactly the same thing as all the others. In doing so, I fear that you miss out on the distinct contribution that each Gospel writer is trying to make in the context of his own Gospel. As Paul Lamey suggested in an earlier post, it is good to use outside details to provide the larger context and a glimpse into the culture, but keep in mind that the Gospel writer’s meaning is found sufficiently in the text itself.

Take John 18:1-11: If the healing of the slave had been crucial (or even necessary) for John to communicate what he wanted to say in his Gospel, he would have included it. He was an eyewitness of the healing, and he most certainly remembered that it took place. So it obviously was not needed for the point he was trying to make in the context of his own Gospel. Therefore, to the degree that the healing becomes a central point in your sermon, to that same degree you have departed from “message” of the biblical writer and substituted a different message in its place. And that’s not expository preaching.

Preaching NT Narrative (simple plot structure)

The idea of plot may bring back memories of slogging through literature assignments from school days gone by. However, understanding the plot can be the preacher’s best friend. Simply stated, plot is the arrangement of “events”[1] or “incidents.”[2] Additionally, Greidanus explains that “narrative consists of the arrangement and interrelationship of the narrated events” (emphasis mine).[3] Therefore, plot is different from the setting in that plot reveals the interconnectedness of the various scenes. Mastering the plot of a narrative will help to build anticipation, suspense, and an appreciation for the unified message of Scripture.

The goal of the plot is to move the story to a place of resolution. Plot accomplishes denouement by pulling together the various scenes into a unified message. A plot can be simple or complex depending on the amount of excursions the text takes before it reaches a conclusion. Understanding the plot structure does not have to be difficult, but it is important. Stories move forward; therefore, the preacher must be able to build anticipation for what happens next. E. M. Forster noted that a narrative “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.”[4]

The key to understanding plot is recognizing the various features that form the narrative. This is accomplished by locating the beginning, middle, and conclusion of the narrative. Simple plots are the most common in NT narrative.

Following Jeffrey Arthurs[5], we can illustrate simple plot structure in the narrative of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1–35.

  1. Background (15:1)
  2. Conflict (15:2–5)
  3. Rising Action (15:6–12)
  4. Climax (15:13–21)
  5. Resolution (15:22–35)

Probably the most important aspect of charting the plot of a narrative is showing unity. Some believe plot is intended to expose a unity of character or action,[6] but I prefer an emphasis on unity of meaning or message. Characters and actions can be uneven throughout a story, but the message is what remains constant. Plotting the structure of the narrative shows how the authorial intent of the message is developed and packaged through the story by the author. After marking off the scenes of a narrative, the preacher can begin to take note of how the plot structure brings together the “inner dynamics”[7] of the larger story. The plot reveals and moves the action to its intended conclusion. Understanding plot can also help build anticipation in preaching because it reveals the location of pivotal developments in the story. Practically, strengthening this area of our preaching will help familiar narratives come alive to our hearers. Davis is right:

Biblical narrative is laced with ‘shockers,’ whether major or minor. Sometimes we may be so familiar with the flow of a biblical story that we fail to be surprised when we should. We need to cultivate a ‘first-time-reader’ frame of mind. Usually biblical surprises prove instructive.[8]

[1] Leland Ryken, Words of Delight, 62.

[2] Aristotle, Poetics, 6.8.

[3] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 203.

[4] E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), 35 quoted in Leland Ryken, Words of Delight, 63.

[5] Jeffrey D. Arthurs, “Preaching the Old Testament Narratives,” in Preaching the Old Testament, ed. Scott M. Gibson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 76.

[6] Ryken, 67.

[7] Ibid., 65.

[8] Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh, 19.

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