What the text means versus what the text meant

What the text means has to come from what the text meant.

Sometimes we are too quick to jump to application in our preaching without even understanding what the text even meant in its original context. What the text means for us today is contingent upon understanding what the text meant in its original context. When we bypass this, or give it only cursory attention, we not only do an injustice to the text, we fail our people by failing to explain adequately the meaning of the text.

For example, I am preaching through Paul’s Epistle to Philemon right now. In the opening verses (1-7, but especially 4-7), Paul talks about Philemon’s dynamic and exemplary Christian character. He explains how Philemon had faith in Christ that influenced how he lives and that Philemon’s faith brought joy and encouragement to the saints, especially Paul.

I anticipated a possible objection from the congregation, namely, how could someone be such a good Christian and own slaves? This is a reasonable question and one that must be address.

Without going into detail, I explained the differences between slavery in the Greco-Roman world and the antebellum American South. But then I let this lead me to my point about this conundrum: Philemon has an opportunity to be counter-cultural in the best sense. I didn’t excuse Philemon but I tried to put the hearers in Philemon’s situation. Philemon has every right in light of his culture and under the law to demand the return of Onesimus and to exact punishment for Onesimus’ wrongs against him. But Paul wants Philemon to demonstrate the love and grace of the Kingdom by exercising forgiveness, the same “good things” that Philemon has himself received from God (v. 6). This is what the text meant.

My application (what the text means) was that we, too live counter-culturally when we live out lives of grace, love, and forgiveness when the world has different standards of behavior. I spelled this out using several examples drawn from everyday life.

Notice three results of preaching the text this way.

(1) By exploring the original context, I was not only true to the text, I was able to explain the background of the NT, information that will be helpful for the congregation in understanding other NT texts.

(2) My application was more grace-driven and Christ-centered than if I had simply preached against slavery or talked about human trafficking or something similar.

(3) I am able to demonstrate clearly how the application came from the text. I drew a line directly from the situation of the text to the situation of the hearer. This means that I avoid any challenge that I have read into the text or placed a legalistic burden on those who heard.

One of my foundational rules for preaching is “Preach the text.” If you don’t do the work to understand and explain the text, then if you manage to properly apply the text, it will only be by accident.

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Preaching the text versus preaching from the text

I’ve heard many sermons in my day that made important, truthful, relevant points from the text of Scripture but that I would still say fell short of actually preaching the text.

What I mean is that the text was the starting point or the jumping off point for thoughts that, as truthful, relevant, and necessary as they were, had little relation to what the text was actually saying. I don’t think that Paul, or Peter, or John, or Luke would have recognized the logical connection between these points and the text.

Mark Dever has defined expository preaching as preaching where the main point of the text is the main point of the message. (See Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, p. 40-42.)

These sermons I’ve mentioned failed to do this. These same sermons could have been preached from the writings of a philosopher, or from a novel, or from an episode of a television program, or a movie, or a joke, or anything because they were really a loosely connected collection of thoughts.

I note that these types of sermons never seem to have a big idea or main point or homiletical proposition or whatever you call the theme that binds the sermon together and brings it to its logical conclusion. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

The proposition (as I was taught to call it years ago) is supposed to be driven by what the text is actually saying. The main theme of the text leads us in our development of the big idea or proposition which in turn drives the rest of the sermon.

This ensures that our sermon is not a disjointed collection of thoughts (remember, a sermon is a rifle not a shotgun) but it also keeps us true to the meaning of the text.

This has the added benefit of helping us transition between the movements of the sermon by connecting the point back to the main point and also lets us repeat the main point several times which in turn impresses the main point of the sermon (and the text!) upon the hearers. When they read that text later they won’t remember all the details, but if you’ve repeated that big idea several times during the sermon they will remember that and they will be able to recall more than they would have otherwise.

So spend some of your sermon preparation thinking about the main point of the text and then “Keep the main thing the main thing” so that when you’re done you are confident that you’ve actually preached the text and haven’t simply preached from the text.

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Coptic Fragment Says Jesus had a Wife, Everyone Yawns

If you have a few minutes to waste, go over to the Huffington Post and read this article. I’ll wait.

Admittedly, HuffPo does a better job with this than the sensationalistic CNN piece I read earlier today. Several things stand out about this that I think are important.

1. This fragment is dated to the 6th to 9th C of this era, which is a fancy way of saying it dates to between 600 and 900 years after Christ and the apostles. Even if it was as early as the 4th C, it can hardly be considered a reliable historical document. We wouldn’t accept a biography of George Washington written in the present day with no research and based solely on oral tradition and that’s half this time (if we accept the earliest possible dating. The date of 6th to 9th C would be 3 to 4 ½ times that long. So again, it’s not reliable as a source for the historical Jesus. (Note also Karen King’s quote at the beginning of the third paragraph in this regard.)

2. It’s written in Coptic, which is notoriously difficult to translate and, on top of that, it’s a fragment, so we have no idea of what we’re missing and no way to reliably figure out what may be missing. In New Testament textual criticism, when we’re missing a piece of a manuscript, we can usually find the missing piece in another manuscript. In this case, there are so few documents written in Coptic that the chance of filling in the blanks are slim if there is a chance at all.

(Incidentally, we have around 6,000 manuscripts of the NT, and the earliest ones date to within a generation of the deaths of the apostles, so it’s pretty easy to know what the text originally said (if you can read Greek and read what’s called a “critical apparatus”), which, incidentally, is why I get irritated when people say things like, “The Bible has changed over the centuries,” because (a) we know, for a fact, that such is not true, and (b) when I hear that I know that the person saying it doesn’t know what they’re talking about. They may not like what it says, and they don’t have to believe what it says, but it says what it says and we can know what it says with a pretty high degree of certainty based on the manuscript tradition alone.)

In addition, while there are many scholars who can read Greek (for example, I had 13 Greek classes, 8 undergrad, 5 grad-level, won a Greek scholar’s award, and am about to be published in a biblical original language project, and I’m not even considered a scholar) so there are many people who can look at a translation, compare it to the original, and say whether it’s accurate or just plain ridiculous (even I am competent enough to do that and I’m just a dumb redneck). With Coptic, however, so few people can actually translate it, and even fewer who can actually read it, that we’re pretty much at the mercy of those few who can. Who is to say that someone else wouldn’t take issue with certain crucial elements of the translation?

And I note that the article itself points out the lack of scholarly consensus with regard to the fragment.

3. If indeed this takes from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas we have even more reason (as if we don’t have enough already) to doubt what it says precisely because Thomas is a Gnostic Gospel. The Gnostics believed that they received special, secret knowledge directly from God. The Gnostics themselves would not have believed that what they wrote was an accurate historical account. The Gnostics took pride in receiving “revelation” that no one else had.

4. Even if this document is dated properly and is authentic, it still doesn’t mean much for the historical Jesus. One key fact that many non-Christians, and even nominal Christians who are non-theologians, overlook in evaluating these texts is that the New Testament repeatedly refers to the church as “the bride of Christ” (just as the Old Testament referred to Yahweh as Israel’s “husband”). So even if we assume that this fragment is authentic, since we don’t have any other reliable extant document at all anywhere, whether sympathetic or unsympathetic to Christianity, that even implies that the historical Jesus had a wife, our default interpretive position would have to be that Jesus was talking about the church rather than a historical wife.

5. Having said that, the Catholic Church’s claims that Jesus did not have a wife and therefore priests should not have wives is merely dogma based on medieval tradition. We know for a fact that Peter (supposedly the first pope) had a wife because he had a mother-in-law. Other apostles had wives and Paul refers to them. If Jesus had actually had a wife, so what? We know that he had no descendants (despite all the nonsense conspiracy theories in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code) because, while Jesus’ mother is mentioned in early Christian writings (including the NT), as well as his brothers (one of whom wrote an epistle in the New Testament), there is no mention of any children. If this were authentic we still have to remember that it dates from a time when Christian theology was rife with superstition and where some church leaders used less-than-honorable means to defend their theological positions. King’s comment in paragraph four alludes to as much.

But this may be more than you wanted to know. You may go back to YouTube now.

 

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2 Necessary Moves To Break Free from White Supremacy in the Church: Constantine, “the White Male Figure”, and the Centrality of Jesus

Michael R. Jones:

Excellent Christ-centered thoughts on breaking down racial barriers in Christ’s church.

Originally posted on Drew G. I. Hart:

I am supposed to be reading about Constantine and his relationship to the bishops in the 4th century. H. A. Drake turns the discussion away from merely looking at Constantine and his actions, and whether or not he was genuine or not, you know the old Constantine scholarly debates. Instead, he looks at the Bishops and their role in the emerging form of Christianity, and their complicity in shaping a coercive Christianity. This is so important. For me, the issue of Constantinian Christianity (as Anabaptists often describe it) has less to do with Constantine, because heck, he is an emperor. Christian or not, he has imperial interests. Nothing surprising about any move or decision he makes.

What I am much more interested in is moving the discussion away from Constantine, to towards the way that the Church apostasized itself by displacing Christ as central and allowing Constantine to take…

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Overcoming Emotional Blockages to your Preaching

God has made us each with an emotional aspect to our personalities. Some react more based on their emotions while others may respond more based on reason.

(Contrary to popular belief, the gender stereotypes are not correct here because this division is not along gender lines. Some men evaluate your preaching based on emotion while some women will challenge you on the basis of reason. A given person may respond based on reason or emotion in different circumstances.)

Some emotional blockages are rooted in our sin nature. The sinner confronted with his sin will often get angry at the one confronting them, no matter how lovingly they are confronted.

Some emotional blockages are rooted in a particular life experience for the hearer. Someone who has lost a child to suicide, for example, will usually be sensitive when suicide is discussed (understandably so). We use wisdom when we know our people and can talk around these situations by speaking God’s Word into them in such a way that they will hear it despite the emotional blockage.

Some emotional blockages will appear to be based on reason when in reality they are based on emotion. For example, I minister in a Baptist church that is Reformed in orientation. I sometimes I encounter people who have difficulties with the doctrine of election (a core Reformed doctrine). I have found that when I talk about this doctrine without using certain buzzwords (such as “election”) people are usually accepting of the teaching. (I am not the only one who has noticed this.) The objections in these situations are usually based more on emotion (they’re reacting to a word alone because they really don’t understand the concept).

Some emotional blockages have little to do with you at all. I once had a woman get up and walk out in the middle of my sermon in protest. (The problem with doing this in church is that pastors usually just assume you got up to go to the bathroom or something so your “protest” is usually not recognized as such.) Turns out, her husband had “forced her” (her words) to come to this church when she wanted to go to a different one and, as a result, she was nitpicking and finding fault with everything. (She later admitted as much.)

How do you communicate across these emotional difficulties?

First, avoid language that could trigger such an emotional response.

You shouldn’t need me to tell you that some examples or illustrations are probably not wise. For example, using the example of a suicide right after someone in your churchy has been touched by that is not wise. Find another example.

Some terms that have political connotations are best avoided, too. If you’re taking issue with a “liberal” interpreter, its best to explain that you mean “liberal” in a theological sense, not in a political sense (ditto “conservative”).

Second, warn people when you’re about to discuss something that might trigger an emotional blockage and ask them to listen to everything you have to say before passing judgment. 

You can acknowledge this right up front and simply ask to be heard. “I know that you’ve probably heard this text explained like thus-and-so, but please hear me out and see if there isn’t a better way to understand it that makes more sense of all the information in the text. Please don’t tune out until you’ve heard me explain it all.”

Third, recognize that sometimes you just can’t stop emotional blockages from happening. 

I once preached from the prophecy of Balaam in which I referred to Balaam as a “two-bit prophet.” A man cornered me afterwards and told me I shouldn’t have referred to “a man of God” in such terms. I thought back over and I really don’t think I could have been any more clear that Balaam was not a true prophet of God (in fact, that’s the whole point of the story). He just didn’t get it and there was no way to get him to understand it.

In those situations, all you can do is go on about your business and preach the Word the best you know how. If you weren’t clear, use it as a learning experience and try to be more clear in the future.

Remember also that whenever you preach, the people in the pews are filling your words with their own meanings. I once mentioned the “the prayers of the saints” in a sermon and a visiting Roman Catholic took this as wholesale approval of Roman Catholic dogma. You can’t always avoid this or correct them, but you should think about the demographic of people to whom you speak and think of how they will receive your words.

An Encouragement to Prayer and A Reminder of God’s Providence

I have a preaching prayer list I pray through each week and on it I ask the Lord to enable me to speak with clarity. I pray this and then I trust that God will answer such that the Holy Spirit will make God’s Word clear.  But don’t use that as an excuse not to think through what you say and how you say it.

In the end, preach Christ, strive to do it with clarity, and then leave the rest to the Lord. It may be that a conversation afterwards with someone seeking clarity is in God’s providence to allow you an opportunity that you might not have had otherwise to minister one-on-one to someone.

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Three Types of Newcomers the Pastor has to Watch Out For

We all want new people to come to our church. While we would prefer they be unbelievers with whom we can share the Gospel, truth is, we often have people from other churches who are looking for something different (for whatever reason). This list is by no means exhaustive but these three types of people I have encouraged (and have had to deal with) more than once.

1. The person who is gung-ho about only one tiny aspect of church life or theology.

The guy who shows up at your church because it is “Reformed” and he has now become “Reformed” will cause you trouble. He will only be concerned about predestination or some other aspect of Reformed theology and will get upset if your preaching doesn’t fit neatly into the paradigm he has created from the handful of books he has read on the subject.

Ditto the guy who is only concerned about youth ministry, or planning church dinners, or evangelism. They are hardwired to think that their area of ministry interest is the only thing that matters to the Kingdom of Christ and any perceived lack of emphasis on your part will only convince him that you are a charlatan who cares nothing about the future of the church, fellowship, or the souls of unbelievers because you don’t emphasize their area of interest as much as they would like.

There is often little one can do about these types of people. Sometimes they will move on and you can breathe a sigh of relief. Other times they will stay in the congregation but be removed from people and circumstances that are unconnected to their pet areas.

Sometimes, however, you can channel the enthusiasm into the service of the church. This doesn’t always yield positive results (sometimes they take a little validation to mean that they are right and they seek ever more ardently to transform the church into their model).

Either way, you must seek to “broaden their horizons” (for lack of a better term) while they are under your care.

2. The person who is trying to re-create their previous church.

This one is tricky because you won’t always recognize a problem up front. Some people move into a new area and are looking for a church that reminds them of the church they loved in their previous city. Sometimes they can settle into new church and not only cope with the differences but bring fresh perspectives and reinvigorate what is already going on. In those situations everyone benefits.

Some people, however, are looking too much for a clone or cookie-cutter version of their previous church.

Others have left a church because of changes that they didn’t like and they are looking for a church that resembles the way their other church used to be.

Sometimes one or the other will show up and they’ll either begin actively trying to initiate change. They will do their either through grass-roots efforts (that is, stirring up people in the congregation to their way of thinking) or through seeking to hold some leadership position so they can influence change.

As with the previous type of person, sometimes one can sue them in the service of the church and implement the better of their ideas into the existing structure and practice.

It is often best, however, to graciously remind these people, whenever the opportunity arises, that the church was functioning adequately before they arrived and would have continued to do so had they not shown up.

I often tell people that I am slow to make decisions because it is often easier to get into something than it is to get out of it. This way, when they present ideas to you, you can mull them over without seeming like you are simply stalling.

It is also important to have on paper a process for developing and implementing new ideas. This must be in place before such a situation happens so that you are prepared for any type of “hostile takeover.”

(Lest you think I’m kidding, I can name churches that have been truly “taken over” by groups that have departed from their previous church.)

3. The person whose tie is to the church’s past or to the previous pastor.

I shouldn’t even have to tell you about this one. Some people in this group will be people who grew up in the church and haven’t attended in years (either because they moved away or because they went to another church during the interim.

Others will be people who grew up in the church but just didn’t go to church for years. This group is the worst and the most dangerous because they are often spiritually immature.

Many times people in this group will try to undermine the new pastor for no other reason than that he is not the old pastor. They will often try to preserve things the way they were in years past. They will do both these things while contributing little beyond talking about the “good old days” and will be a perpetual thorn in your side.

There is little you can do with these types of people except try to minimize the fallout. If you have established yourself as a pastor of integrity and have been building up the leaders around you, you will have an easier time. Here is another time when it is helpful to have spelled out clearly what your practices and procedures are so that there are not opportunities for them to use parliamentary procedure to manipulate circumstances.

Concluding thoughts:

I don’t intend for this post to sound cynical but these are facts of life for the pastor and it is best to prepare for them ahead of time and have thought out how best to deal with such situations before they arrive.

And be encouraged in two things:

(1) Sometimes people from these groups will arrive at your church and they truly will be a God-send. In such situations be thankful and let them be used of God to minister to you and to Christ’s church.

Because of this, it’s best to adopt a wait and see attitude toward newcomers rather than simply assuming that they will be a certain way.

(2) When people do come and cause trouble (whether they are from one of these groups or not) you must remember that it is often the case that the vast majority of congregants who were there prior to the arrival of these people will be on your side (and they often resent newcomers trying to come in and take over).

Often you can simply let them fight your battles (so to speak) and not have to do anything. Try not to be defensive and remember that the people in these groups and the loyal church members have one thing in common: they need the Gospel and must be pointed to and fed on Christ and His Word.

Keep this the main thing and let the Lord handle the rest.

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Don’t choose style over substance in your preaching

Here are three ways we choose style over substance along with some thoughts on avoiding these problems.

1. We spend more time on the illustrations than we do wrestling with the text.

In my tradition the danger usually lies in the opposite extreme: There are few or no illustrations to break up large texts of exegesis, exposition, and argumentation. So the sermons are boring and rarely connect to everyday life.

In the fundamentalism of my childhood, it was often the opposite: the sermon was comprised mainly of stories punctuated with pithy statements of application that may or may not be connected to the text (and if they were the connection was often merely tangential).

Avoid both extremes.

Sometimes an illustration will get out of hand but it’s hard to predict when that will happen. I once used an illustration about Kung Fu. That’s all anyone talked about after sermon. In those days we broadcast my sermons on the radio and we had people calling the church to ask about the “Kung Fu sermon.” To this day if I mentioned the “Kung Fu sermon,” everyone who was here then will know what I’m talking about.

Without intending it, the illustration just stood out so much that it took over the sermon itself. There’s really no way to plan for this but if you think about the illustrations and how you present them you might be able to prevent something similar happening.

Illustrations are important to connect the text with the hearer’s world, but without the substance of biblical truth, all you have are moral stories. And moral stories don’t save or transform lives, but God’s Word does save and it does transform lives so speak God’s Word.

2. We couch our language to make it palatable to people (the “ethic of civility”).

I once sat under a pastor who would say that he was going to address a problem during his sermon and assured me that he would “address it very obliquely.” The problem was that his reference was so oblique that no one knew what he was talking about, even me, and I knew he was going to talk about it.

We can be and must be gracious, but we also must proclaim the text in front of us whether we like it or not and whether they like it or not. Millard Erickson talks about “the ethic of civility” (Old Wine in New Wineskins, 41) which he defines as “the tendency not to want to tell anyone they are wrong.” Jesus most certainly did not do this and you speak in his name so you must preach both with boldness and with graciousness.

It is true that no matter how gracious you are, the one who is confronted with their sin will accuse you of being mean and judgmental and ungracious. But Paul said, “If we seek to please men we are not servants of Christ” (Gal. 1:10) so you must choose whom you will serve, where your allegiance lies, and then minister and proclaim accordingly and let the Shepherd deal with the rest.

As a preacher, you have been commissioned to proclaim God’s Word and it turns people away as well as turning people toward the Lord. But you must proclaim it just the same. Who is to say that the one who rejects the Word today will not receive it tomorrow? As Paul noted, some plant, some water, but it is God who gives the increase. Unless you have planted the seed of the Word of God, there is no seed to water, grow, or harvest.

3. We spend our time trying to get people to like us rather than pointing them to Christ.

This is a natural tendency. We all want to be liked. But as I noted above, Paul said, “If we seek to please men we are not servants of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). You should strive to be likable only to the point that if someone is offended, they are offended at the Gospel (which is itself offensive) and not offended at you.

Some of the fundamentalist preachers I heard growing up and in Bible college appeared not only as if they ere trying to be offensive but as if they actually took pride in it. This is not the way of a God who reveals himself as Love (1 John 4:8) and who revealed himself by saying “The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Exodus 34:6-7) This same God goes on to talk about his intention to punish sin but when he talks about who he is, it is in terms that reveal grace and compassion. You don’t represent this God by being rude and hateful.

But the real danger for many of us is that in trying to portray God as loving and kind we are afraid to address sin when necessary.

Sometimes the problem is not in our attempt to portray God properly, it lies in our desire simply to be liked. But your choice should be to seek the approval of God rather than the approval of man while being careful not to bring unnecessary offense to the Gospel.

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