Tag Archives: Preaching

Expanded Notes on 1 Samuel 1-7

26 Sep

I just couldn’t get it all in on Sunday. There is always more to say than can be said. When I am done, I am always surprised how much time has elapsed (it is always later than I think).

Recently, we have been reading through 1 Samuel as a church. This is a powerful book but because of our reading schedule we have only been allotted three weeks to preach through the book. There is more than I can possibly cover in three weeks, so in this post I give the first section of the book a more extended treatment. I hope it will be of benefit to you.

First Samuel breaks down into a three point outline I would summarize like this:

  1. God’s Prophet (1-7). Main character: Samuel (along with Hannah, Eli and his sons)
  2. Man’s King (8-14). Main character: Saul (along with Samuel and Jonathan)
  3. God’s Man (15-31).Main character: David (along with Saul and Jonathan)

If I were to give a one sentence summary of 1 Samuel, I would say this: God humbles the proud and gives grace to the humble for His glory and the fulfillment of His promises. Let’s focus this morning on the story of Samuel.

The book opens with a barren woman grieving her condition as she is provoked by her rival. Readers of 1 Samuel would immediately think of Sarah and Hagar, of Rachel and Leah, barren women in rival relationships. Barren women play a pivotal role in God’s plan of redemption: Sarah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah and even Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. I believe there are two reasons God works in this way. One is to show that the fulfillment of God’s promises is God’s doing and two is to encourage us to believe when we come to the gospels that when a virgin is told she will conceive and give birth to a son, nothing is impossible to God. Our emptiness, our inability is no obstacle to His working. It is in fact when we get in the way and try to take charge of everything that we most hinder His working. God delights to make something from nothing but He won’t often work with people who think they’re really something. So we have here the first glimpse of God’s work among His people, exalting the humble and humbling the exalted.

In verses 9-11 Hannah went to the entrance of the temple where Eli was sitting. She began to pray and weep bitterly. Hannah vowed to the Lord that if He would give her a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord all his days and no razor would touch his head.

Hannah’s prayer is an invitation to us to intimacy with God. She uses the very same language that God had used when speaking of His people in slavery in Egypt. Hannah believes that the God who sees the affliction of all His people can see the affliction of one. So her prayer is intimate. Her prayer is also God-centered. She doesn’t pray for her son to be great or powerful, she simply commits him to God. Hannah’s prayer is an example also of fervent freedom. She is pouring out her soul to the Lord. She feels an intimacy with God that allows her to do that. Many of us pour out our souls to people but keep God at arm’s length. God welcomes us in our distress to come to Him. Prayer is God’s calling for us to humble ourselves and be honest with Him, to look to Him for help, to depend on Him for everything. James 4 says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” The principle of humility exemplified by Hannah is made explicit in the book of James: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” This is one of the major themes of 1 Samuel.

So as Hannah is pouring out her heart. Eli watches her pray and he sees the movements of her mouth and thinks she is drunk and he tells her to put away her wine. Hannah insists that she was just pouring out her soul to the Lord in her distress she urges Eli to receive her and Eli blesses her and she goes away encouraged. Hannah worships the next morning and then goes home and the Lord blesses her with a son whom she named Samuel. Then we see in verses 21-24 Elkanah goes up for the yearly sacrifice but Hannah does not go but stayed behind to wean Samuel. After he was weaned Hannah brings Samuel along with a sacrifice, to the temple of the Lord. At the end of the chapter they bring Samuel to Eli and Hannah tells him this boy was the answer to her prayers. She dedicates Samuel to the Lord there.

When we come to chapter two, we see Hannah’s song of thanksgiving in verses 1-10. She rejoices in God’s goodness, in God’s lifting up of the humble and His humbling of the arrogant. The prayer of Hannah points us to Christ in two ways. First, it is very similar to the prayer Mary takes up in the gospel of Luke, showing that Mary probably had Hannah’s story in mind when she prayed. Second, Hannah sees her life as being part of a bigger picture of God’s redemption. She sees her victory as a sign of God’s greater victories. If God can redeem my barrenness by giving me a son, is this not a proof that He will be faithful to His bigger plans for His people. Hannah sees herself as part of God’s great working in the world. I wonder if we often lose sight of the fact that we are part of a bigger story than just our own story?

One more observation before we leave Hannah’s prayer. Do we not see here again that the sovereign hand of God cannot be hindered and that He can take trials and turn them to gold? Penninah nagged and mocked and scorned Hannah over and over. And God used this mockery to drive Hannah to an utter dependence on Him. God worked through the evil intentions of Hannah’s rival for her good. What trials might God be using in your life to work out His plan, to draw you closer to Him?

After we leave Hannah’s prayer, we begin to see a contrast drawn between Samuel, the boy dedicated to the Lord, and Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas, grown men who were priests but were unfaithful to the Lord. We may bemoan the condition of our society but when the leadership of God’s people is morally corrupt, then a nation is really in trouble. This was the case with Israel at this time.

Chapter 2 verses 12-17 show us that Eli’s sons were scoundrels who dishonored God. They did not know the Lord. They take portions of the meat of the people when they bring it for sacrifice. They even threaten to take meat by force if the people will not give it to them. They abuse their religious authority. They were, then, deeply dishonoring to the Lord.

Verses 18-21 tell us that Samuel, on the other hand, is prospering in the Lord’s service. Eli is well pleased with him. Eli blesses Hannah and she has other children and Samuel grows before the Lord.

So we get here a glimpse of Samuel prospering in the Lord. And we get one last glimpse of Hannah, blessed by God, now with a house full of children. God will not fail to reward us when we dedicate our lives to Him.

Verses 22-25 take us back to Eli and his sons. He is hearing all the evil his sons are doing, their misuse of the Lord’s offerings and their sexual immorality. The news is all over Israel. Eli, now an old man, goes and pleads with his sons about their behavior. But his sons do not listen to him, because God wills to put them to death.

Eli’s greatest mistake was that he only talked to his sons instead of removing them from service. The news of their immorality was everywhere so it wasn’t like he was just finding out about what they were doing. Eli let open sin linger far too long and everyone was hurt. Open sin is a failure of humility. If I am going on in a pattern of sin, whether sexual immorality or lying or whatever, it shows that I have little regard for God and do not believe I will be judged. A humble person, on the other hand, will hate their sin and be quick to repent and seek to change patterns that lead to sin.

Verse 26 tells us meanwhile that Samuel was growing up and was growing in the Lord. It is instructive to me that while all this craziness is happening with Eli’s sons God is just working steadily behind the scenes to raise up Samuel. It is slow. It is steady. But over time God is doing His work of making a godly man. So when the time comes for Hophni and Phinehas to be removed, Samuel is right there waiting to lead well. The downfall of the sons of Eli begins with chapter 2 verse 27.

A man of God comes to Eli and prophesies against him for his failure to restrain his sons. As the priest Eli was held accountable for their failure and his whole house will be judged for his failure to walk rightly before God. Eli’s family will lose the priesthood and his sons will die on the same day and a faithful priest will be raised up, who will walk before God always. What difference might there have been, at least for Eli, if he had dealt with the sin in his midst instead of being passive and just pleading with his sons? This is so tricky because sometimes our desire to do something about a situation of sin in the church is self-righteous bluster. We get on our high horse and act with pride ourselves. But I think too often we are so concerned with sparing people’s feelings that we don’t act with love. We need to love people enough to warn them about their sin. Israel’s spiritual well-being was being hindered by the open sin of her leaders. In the same way, churches are often spiritually stifled by the open sin of leaders and members. So search your own heart today and be quick to repent of sin. But we must not be afraid to deal with broader issues of sin in our midst because it hinders the work of God. Whether our church is large or small is a secondary issue. The first issue is, are we healthy? Healthy things grow. Unhealthy things die. Churches die because not from a lack of the latest techniques and all the bells and whistles. Churches die because they are not healthy. Healthy churches deal with sin in their midst. To fail to do so is a failure of love. The hard truth is Eli didn’t love God or his sons enough to remove them from the priesthood, and in the end they lose their lives.

Against the backdrop of judgment at the end of chapter two there is the contrast of chapter three, verses one through three. Not many words and visions from the Lord but Samuel received such a vision. Eli was blind (no vision) but the lamp of God had not gone out (there was still hope). This hope was going to come through the boy Samuel.

The Lord speaks to Samuel and Samuel says “here I am,” thinking Eli had called him but Eli says no I didn’t call and sends Samuel back to bed. This happens again. Samuel didn’t understand because he did not yet know the Lord. Then it happens a third time. Eli realizes it is the Lord and tells Samuel to go back and if it happens again to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” We find here a wonderful picture of the patience of God. He will lead us along until we understand. He will not cast us aside when we can’t make sense of something. The issue is, are we walking with Him in humility? If we will come humbly before God day by day, we will find an endless stream of patience from His loving hand.

So the Lord calls to Samuel once again and Samuel hears from the Lord that he would judge Eli’s house because of Eli’s son’s actions and Eli’s failure to rebuke them. There would be no recovery for Eli’s house.

God lovingly and graciously called Samuel to Himself and called Samuel as a prophet. What a privilege to speak God’s Word! But the first word he has to speak is a word of judgment against Eli’s house. The man who had lovingly cared for Samuel all these years must be confronted with his sins. A good preacher or Sunday School teacher will not have a one-sided message. If we teach or preach the Bible, there will be great words of comfort but also words of conviction. If a message is all conviction week after week, that teacher just has an axe to grind. If a message is all comfort with no conviction, you have a fearful, man-pleasing teacher on your hands. Many have said, and I think they are right, “Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” This aligns with the whole theme of this section of 1 Samuel. If you have a humble heart, you will love the things of God and be delighted to worship with His people and even when you can’t understand what He is doing you will seek to trust Him. But if you have a proud heart church will be a drag and you will look around you and wonder why all these people can’t get it together and you may even have a few suggestions for God about how He could do things better.

What must have been going through Samuel’s mind in verses as he went to sleep knowing he would have to face Eli the next morning? In verses 15-18 Samuel has to deliver this difficult message, which he does reluctantly. Eli submitted to God’s will.

So we see God’s judgment on Eli and his sons. In their pride they had dishonored God and done things in their own way. They had perverted the true worship of God and served themselves. In contrast, we read these words about Samuel in chapter 3, verses 19-21 – “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there He revealed Himself to Samuel through His word.”

So by the time we get to the end of chapter 3 we see the promise that the proud will be brought low and the humble Samuel is growing in the Lord and he is beginning to be seen as a leader among the people of Israel.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. God Himself models that humility through sending His Son Jesus, who emptied Himself and humbled Himself and always lived with a heart of humility before the Father in His earthly life. Our calling is to trust Him and walk in humility before God all our days. But what does it look like to walk in humility? AW Tozer gives us several good principles for living in humility:

  1. Get thoroughly dissatisfied with yourself.  Complacency is the deadly enemy of spiritual progress. . . . When speaking of earthly goods Paul could say, “I have learned to be content,” but when referring to his spiritual life he testified, “I press toward the mark.”  So stir up the gift of God that is in you.
  2. Set your face like a flint toward a sweeping transformation of your life.  Timid experimenters are tagged for failure before they start.  We must throw our whole soul into our desire for God. . . .
  3. Put yourself in the way of the blessing.  It is a mistake to look for grace to visit us as a kind of benign magic, or to expect God’s help to come as a windfall apart from conditions known and met.  There are plainly marked paths which lead straight to the green pastures; let us walk in them.  To desire revival, for instance, and at the same time to neglect prayer and devotion is to wish one way and walk another.
  4. Do a thorough job of repenting.  Do not hurry to get it over with.  Hasty repentance means shallow spiritual experience and lack of certainty in the whole life.  Let godly sorrow do her healing work. . . . It is our wretched habit of tolerating sin that keeps us in our half-dead condition.
  5. Make restitution wherever possible.  If you owe a debt, pay it, or at least have a frank understanding with your creditor about your intention to pay, so your honesty will be above question.  If you have quarreled with anyone, go as far as you can in an effort to achieve reconciliation.  As fully as possible, make the crooked things straight.

But at this point 1 Samuel shifts from God’s exalting Samuel’s to the story of judgement against the proud.

The story shifts to Israel going to battle against the Philistines and suffering losses, with 4000 men dead. In chapter 4, verses 3-5, the elders of Israel are dismayed at their defeat and decide to take the ark from Shiloh into the camp. Hophni and Phinehas agree and go with them. When they arrive with the ark there was a great celebration.

Israel wants to involve God but they do not inquire of God. They do not seek His guidance on what to do. Instead they bring the ark into the midst of the camp. It sounds so spiritual. It seems so religious. But it is wrong. God never told them to do it. It is yet another example of designer religion. Israel does not want to worship God and receive all things, good and bad, from His hand. They want to control God and try to make His hand move the way they want, so that they will have victory over the Philistines. And we can do the very same thing. We can treat prayer this way. We can treat the devotional life this way. We can treat church involvement this way. We do what we do not so we can know God but so that we can have the benefits we think God will provide us. Pastor and teacher Dale Ralph Davis says, “Whenever the church stops confessing ‘Thou art worthy’ and begins chanting ‘Thou art useful’ – well, then you know the ark of God has been captured again.

The Philistines hear the shout in the Israelite camp in verses 6-11 and are terrified. They know God has delivered Israel from Egypt and fear his power. But they talk among themselves and decid to man up and face the battle. They were successful, killing 30,000 Israeli soldiers and taking the ark and killing Hophni and Phinehas. God doesn’t honor Israel when they try to do things their own way, even when they involve God in it. God will allow us to fall flat on our face even if it makes Him look bad. But God often uses these falls to bring us to the end of ourselves so that we will lean on Him with our lives.

In verses 12-14 a man of Benjamin flees the battle lines and tells the people of Shiloh what had happened and they send up a cry of grief. Eli hears them and asks what happened. The man comes to Eli and tells him. Eli was very old and blind and the man told him all that had happened. When he mentioned the ark, Eli falls off his seat and breaks his neck and dies. His 40 year leadership of Israel ends in tragedy. All of this looks like tragedy. But in the end, this was best for Israel. God is removing corrupt and damaging leadership and replacing it with the faithful leadership of Samuel. I feel sympathy for Eli. He seemed to be more godly than his sons, but in the end he was unfaithful too because he did nothing about his sons. God’s grace often comes through judgement.

At the end of chapter four, Phinehas’ wife, was about to give birth. She is dying in childbirth and when she hears about her husband and about Eli but especially about the ark, she says to name her son Ichabod, for the glory had departed from Israel, since the ark had been captured. The tragic ending of chapter four forces us to face the issue of whether the glory has departed from our own lives or from our church. Avoiding the question won’t help us. We should be careful not to confuse activity with God’s presence. God says to one of the churches in Revelation, “You have the reputation of being alive, but are dead.” So that which looks vibrant and powerful may not actually be marked by the presence of God. The glory had departed from Israel long before the ark had been captured. And in fact the capture of the ark would be a part of what God would use to draw His people back to Him. This is one of this truths we must always remember: the eternal God never stops working. If you feel your life empty of God’s glory right now, if you feel God has written “Ichabod” over our church, don’t just mourn and grieve over it, let that grief push you to repentance. Realize that God will restore those who humble themselves and live on Him alone. God may withhold His glory until we get right with Him.

Things are bleak when we get to the start of chapter five. In verses 1-5 the Philistines take the ark and put it in the temple of Dagon in Ashdod, setting it before a statue of Dagon. The next morning the statue had fallen on its face before the ark. They set him up right again. The next day he falls again and his head and arms fall off leaving only the trunk of Dagon intact.

God will not be mocked. God shows not only Israel but also the Philistines that He can’t be manipulated. He is supreme. He is the only true God. Their god Dagon fell down before the true God. And he couldn’t even get up again by himself. The irony in the fact that the Philistines had to put their god back together again would not have been lost on the first readers of this book. God is not a lucky charm. He will not be mocked.

So in verses 6-7 the Lord strikes Ashdod’s people with disease and they were desperate to get rid of the ark because they saw God’s dominance over them and over Dagon. The Philistine leaders decide to move the ark to Gath, but they too were struck by the Lord with tumors. Then the Philistines send the ark to Ekron and the people of Ekron were fearful of the ark coming to them. So they gather the leaders of the Philistines and ask them to send the ark back to Israel. Meanwhile the turmoil and death and disease continue.

Chapter six opens with the ark in Philistine territory, but not for long. After seven month, the Philistines ask their priests and diviners what to do with the ark and how they could send it back. The priests say not to send it back without a guilt offering. They suggest gold tumors and gold rats to symbolize the plagues that had fallen on them. They see this as an effort to appease God so He might turn away His wrath. They tell the Philistines to do all this and hook the ark to a cart with two cows carrying it. Their calves were to be penned up and the cows sent on their way. If they go into Israel it would be a sign God had done all this but if they did not then it would be clear to them that God had not done it.

The Philistines set up a situation where the cows would not naturally head straight for Israel. They were cows with calves back home. They wouldn’t want to leave them. They’d never been hitched up under a yoke before. Surely this would be a problem. The Philistines set up a situation where there will be no doubt about the fact that God was leading the cart.

In verses 10-12 the Philistines do what the priests said and the cows go straight to Beth-Shemesh. In verse 13 the people of Beth-Shemesh are harvesting their wheat when they see the cart. They rejoice and take the cows and offer them to the Lord. The Levites come and take the ark and the articles of gold and put them on a stone there. The Philistine leaders see all this it and return to Ekron. All this sounds like a happy ending, until we get to verse 19.

When we get to the end of chapter 6 we find that the Lord strikes down some of the men of Beth-shemesh who look into the ark. There is some dispute in the Hebrew manuscripts about how many men died, but some clearly did. But why? The text says they looked into the ark. In some way, they looked at the ark in a way that was inappropriate, that violated God’s law regarding the care of the ark in Numbers chapter 4:1-20. And so they died. God is no respecter of persons. Those who deal inappropriately with Him will be judged, whether they be Philistines or Israelites. But the really interesting part of this chapter is the question they ask, “Who is able to stand before this God?” And I believe the answer is, “Nobody.” But those who fall before this God will find mercy. We can’t do our own thing with God. But if we come to Him in the way He requires, we find mercy and life and hope. It is not because He is picky, it is because He is powerful. We can’t trifle with such power. We would not allow a three year old to drive us home from church today, because they can’t handle the power of a car. But the people of Beth-shemesh did not understand this. Instead of humbling themselves, the people of Beth-shemesh were not much different from the people of the Gerasenes who, when Jesus casts out the legion of demons from the man none of them could control, beg Him to leave town. I believe we often want the benefits of God but we don’t want God Himself. We want just enough of God to feel comfortable but not enough to feel conviction or make any changes. And this pride of heart is the very thing that keeps God from being our all in all.

The men of Kiriath-Jearim in chapter 7 verses 1 and 2 take the ark and have it for 20 years but it was not a good time. It was a time of mourning. So in verses 3-5 Samuel calls Israel to repentance and promises that if they would leave their foreign gods, God would deliver them from the Philistines.

Israel had been humbled in their circumstances. But now would they be humble? Samuel calls them to more than just mourning their sin, he calls them to real repentance. Real repentance is sorrow over sin backed by active steps to take a different path. So Samuel calls Israel to forsake foreign gods. Instead of getting God to serve us, we come to God with our exclusive allegiance. That is the heart of repentance, turning back to God. How our churches, including this church, need to turn back to God. But you know, it is not easy to truly repent. The gods of the Canaanites were attractive. Promises of material blessing, sexual fulfillment, and physical health were promised by the gods. Meanwhile, the true God promised blessing on His terms and demanded utter loyalty. The first commandment: no other gods before me. The second commandment: No making idols. The third commandment: treat my Name with the reverence it is due. The foundation of our lives is how we relate to God. But the promises of the gods scratch us where we itch on a more immediate level. And so for our day, the promises of the gods of entertainment and success and power are so alluring to us. And in our pride we see these things as superior to knowing the true God. Repentance is when we loosen our grip on idols and cast them away and take hold of God for His own sake, without any demand but with a plea for His mercy and a desire to live in His presence.

In verses 6-10 Samuel gathers Israel and Mizpah and fasts and Israel acknowledges their sin. But the Philistines hear they were at Mizpah and plan an attack. Israel was afraid and ask Samuel to continue to pray for them. Samuel offers a lamb as a burnt offering and prays for Israel and God answers his prayer, thundering against the Philistines and driving them out from Israel. Israel had a great victory over the Philistines.

Here there is no magic use of the ark. There is nothing but turning to God in prayer. Israel has been humbled. And God exalts Himself and blesses them by winning the battle. We are so accustomed to trying to reason our way through problems. How rare is it to find a man or woman who will live in utter dependence on God. Sometimes God has to take our props away so that we will lean on Him alone.

In the aftermath of the victory in verses 11-14, Samuel takes a stone and sets it between Mizpah and Shen and calls it Ebenezer, “hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” The Philistines were not a trouble to Israel anymore during Samuel’s leadership. Israel takes back land Philistia had taken and even has peace with the Amorites.

We are told to be mindful of, to remember, what God has done. We are prone to forget. We are not to live in the past but we are to let the past comfort us in the present and assure us of the future. God is faithful. And He is good.

Chapter seven concludes with Samuel judging Israel all his life, doing a yearly circuit throughout the land. And he would always return to Ramah his birthplace, where he would worship the Lord.

God may bring us Mizpah moments of revival, but he also has us on the yearly circuit throughout the land. Both the moments of revival and the consistent teaching of the Word are important.

The first seven chapters of 1 Samuel tell of the work of God through the raising up of faithful Samuel and the judgment of unfaithful Eli and his sons Hophni and Phinehas. God works on a national level to bring Israel to faithfulness through their trials with the Philistines. God brings judgment on both the Philistines and Israelites for their rival gods and their resistance to trusting in the true and living God.

Today, are you the center of the universe, or is God at the center? Are you willing to confess and forsake sin and submit your heart and life to God?

Sermon Notes, Matthew 5:17-20

9 May

Here is a manuscript which reflects my study of Matthew 5:17-20 in preparation for a recent sermon.

Matthew 5:17-20

A Greater Righteousness

 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Two men were walking down a road. They were on a seven mile trip. Along the way they were joined by another man who walked up to them and asked them what they were talking about. I know in our culture this all seems strange (walking seven miles, having a stranger come up alongside and start talking) but 2000 years ago this was all very ordinary. The latest news didn’t come from CNN but by word of mouth. So this stranger asked the men what was new. Cleopas was astounded that anyone wouldn’t know the events of the last few days, where Jesus had been crucified and now how His body was no longer in the tomb. The men on the road to Emmaus were uncertain about what had happened to Jesus’ body. So the risen Jesus, who was the stranger on the road to Emmaus, His identity hidden from the men at this point, said these words, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things to enter into His glory?” Pretty strong words from a stranger, but not from the Lord. But what is even more powerful is what Luke says Jesus did next . . . “Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”

How many of you would have liked to have listened to that!?! Jesus recounting the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. And of course when Jesus said this the New Testament had not yet been written, so the Scriptures He is talking about is the Old Testament, the law and the Prophets. So as we come to Matthew chapter 5:17 this morning, we need to remember this conversation on the road to Emmaus, because it helps us understand what Jesus meant when He talked about fulfilling the law and the prophets.

In the Sermon on the Mount so far, we have seen the description of a Christian in the Beatitudes: one who is poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, ready to endure persecution for the sake of Jesus. And this kind of person, having a heart transformed by the grace of Jesus, is salt of the earth and light of the world. People like this bring wisdom and blessing to the world. There is a familiar and I think true, cliché out there that goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” The flip side of this slogan is also true though, “People touched by the grace of Jesus spread that grace.”

          There was a group of people in the gospels who never understood grace: the religious leaders. They were people who valued the Scriptures, they were people who wanted to please God, they were the moral and cultural leaders of their society, they were highly respected. But they lived for self-glory rather than God’s glory and they tended to focus on external appearances rather than a heart of faith.

The words Jesus will share in the passage we’re going to look at today must be read in light of the religious leaders. The religious leaders were certainly in the minds of those who heard the Sermon, because they contrast at the end of the Sermon the powerful authoritative message of Jesus with the teachings of the religious leaders.

When Jesus mentioned good works in verse 16, his audience may have begun to think about how these good works were connected to the law of Moses. As Jesus laid out the Beatitudes, there was not a word about morality or obedience or the law of God. Was Jesus introducing a new word here? Was He doing away with the law of God? Was Jesus trying to do away with Moses?

The Pharisees thought Jesus was doing this. They didn’t like the fact that He did not have the religious training of sitting under a rabbi. They looked down on His humble and somewhat questionable beginnings. The religious leaders questioned by what authority Jesus said and did what He did. And in Jesus’ actual ministry, He seemed to treat the law differently than the Pharisees wanted. He healed on the Sabbath and ignored the traditions of the religious leaders. Finally, Jesus’ associations were questioned by the Pharisees. They didn’t like that Jesus spent time with tax collectors and sinners.

Warren Wiersbe says, “Pharisees were convinced they were the guardians of God’s law and the people were convinced too, yet it was the Pharisees who were destroying the Law. By their traditions, they robbed the people of the Word of God; and by their hypocritical lives, they disobeyed the very Law that they claimed to protect. The Pharisees thought they were conserving God’s Word, when in reality they were preserving God’s Word: embalming it so that it no longer had life! Their rejection of Christ when He came to earth proved that the inner truth of the Law had not penetrated their hearts.

Jesus made it clear that He had come to honor the Law and help God’s people love it, learn it, and live it. He would not accept the artificial righteousness of the religious leaders. Their righteousness was only an external masquerade. Their religion was a dead ritual, not a living relationship. It was artificial; it did not reproduce itself in others in a living way. It made them proud, not humble; it led to bondage, not liberty.”

So we need to keep this contrast between the way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisee in mind, not only in this week’s message but in most of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not contrasting His message with the Old Testament, He is contrasting His message with the false message of the religious leaders of His day. And we will learn that the false message of the Pharisees was not limited to Jesus’ day. We can very easily fall into the same traps. The Sermon on the Mount helps us avoid these traps.

So let’s look at verses 17-20 . . .

 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Jesus is making it clear in verse 17 that He was not defying the law through His teaching. Jesus is not contradicting the law but at the same time He is not merely preserving it, keeping the status quo. He is instead fulfilling it, bringing it to its intended goal.

All of the Old Testament applies to us, but it is all interpreted through the person and work and teaching of Jesus Christ. Any righteousness of our own rests on Him and Him alone. He fulfills the law and the prophets through His perfectly obedient life and through the advancing of God’s plan His life and ministry brings. All the blessings of the Sermon on the Mount, from the Beatitudes to the heart of love for God that emerges in the rest of the Sermon flows from Christ and what He has done for us. Any other way of looking at the Sermon on the Mount just makes it a moral code and turns it into a system of works-righteousness, in which we will fail every time. Without understanding that Jesus has fulfilled the Scriptures, the Sermon on the Mount just makes us better Pharisees.

With this said, though, it is clear that some aspects of Jesus’ fulfilling of the Old Testament means that for us some aspects of the Old Testament are illustrative for us but no longer binding. The sacrificial system is a good example of this. We don’t offer sacrifices as atonement for sin anymore not because Jesus abolishes sacrifice. We don’t offer sacrifices because Jesus fulfilled the goal of the sacrifices by the once and for all totally effective sacrifice of Himself.

Some people think Jesus came to set aside the law, to obliterate it, to make it useless. This is not true. Think about it like an acorn. I can destroy an acorn by smashing it with a hammer. But I could instead put it in the ground and see its purpose fulfilled as it grows into a great oak tree. I want to propose to you that THIS is the way Jesus has fulfilled the law. He hasn’t smashed it to bits, His kingdom has emerged from the seed of the Old Testament which in the fullness of time has brought forth the fulfillment of God’s plan for the ages.

Nothing of that seed of the Old Testament Scriptures is wasted. Look at verse 18 . . .

 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

I could preach on just this verse for a long time, because it is one of the greatest verses affirming the full verbal inerrancy of Scripture. The absolute authority of Scripture is in view here. The smallest stroke of a letter will not pass away from the law. This word of God will endure. Aren’t you glad this morning? We have a trustworthy word. This is a great gift of God’s love. I have had a sense at times in my life of God’s internal leading. But I am always tempted to question these leadings. Was it really God? Was He leading me or was I just doing what I wanted? But when I come to the Word, I realize, yes, God has spoken and I can trust what He says absolutely. What a gift. It will not pass away until the end of time, until everything is accomplished. Again, we have here the language of fulfillment. The Old Testament will have enduring value until the end of time and it is to be interpreted on the basis of the one who fulfilled it: Jesus Christ. Since the Old Testament will not pass away until the end of time, we should take it very seriously. Look at verse 19 . . .

19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus couldn’t have made it much more clear how seriously He expects us to take the Old Testament. He tied our eternal rewards to how seriously we take the Scriptures. This is His answer to any of the religious leaders who might question His loyalty to the Word of God, any leaders who might charge Him with giving His followers freedom to sin. At the same time He is telling those sinners who are hearing Him and are attracted to His message that their obedience to God matters. Whoever relaxes these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I think He is thinking here not of the Pharisees but of those who are His followers, because both those who relax the least of the commandments and those who do and teach the commandments are in the kingdom of heaven. The difference seems to be an issue of rewards. This is a very important truth for us to hear. God intends you to live according to His commands. Now this causes us who have been taught the grace of God to bristle. And on one level, this is right, because we know that we can’t obey God’s commands in our own strength. We must trust in God’s power for strength to obey. And we bristle too because some of things Paul teaches seem to tell us that we are not under the law any more. But Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what are Jesus’ two great commandments? “Love God and love your neighbor.” And James says following these two commandments is the fulfillment of the law. So how does this all fit together? We are called to obey the commands of God. But, God has given us the provision of His Son who fulfilled the law and the prophets. And Jesus does two things for us. First, because He obeyed the law perfectly and died for our lawbreaking in His crucifixion, God counts all who trust in Jesus as being righteous in the sight of God on the basis of Jesus Christ. But that is not all that Jesus has done for us. Through His dying and rising and present reign fulfilling the Word of God Jesus intends to make us righteous in actual day-to-day living. And He does this as we trust in His power by leading us to a life of faithful obedience to His Word. This means, in light of the ways He has fulfilled the Old Testament, Jesus intends us to walk in conformity to the commands of the Old Testament and the New Testament, while keeping in mind the ways that Jesus Himself has fulfilled the Old Testament. So the Ten Commandments and the principles of God still apply to us but they are all interpreted through the lens of Christ and His work. We are free from the law on the level of depending on our own strength to keep it, but we are not free from the law in the sense that we can now go off and do whatever we want and just put our Jesus stamp on it. This is worth talking through because in our day there is a huge tendency in our culture toward doing our own thing, even among Christians. So I make a life of ignoring the clear commands of God and doing my own thing and then I wonder why I don’t feel close to God or why I am not growing spiritually. There is a temptation among some to say, “well, I trusted Jesus years ago and now I just kind of do what I want to do. I just kind of live based on what I want and I’m not under the law any more so I just kind of do what feels right.” This is how people who profess to be Christians end up in all kinds of horrible sin. We take grace as a license to ignore obedience to God. I even saw one preacher in Britain who was preaching that it was OK to shoplift if you took from a big store because it is just a big greedy corporation but it was wrong to steal from a small business, because they had very little margin. And I know that sounds crazy, but we are incredibly adept at shaping the commands of God to work around to what we really want to do. Jesus is going to make it abundantly clear that we can’t just have an outward obedience to the law. There must be a heart change. But when there is a heart change it will result in conformity to the Word of God, not a relaxing of God’s standards but a desire out of love to God to move into a deeper obedience, an obedience on the level of motivation and action. This life of deeper obedience, obedience flowing from a heart of love and faith, is the fundamental difference between the righteousness of the Pharisees and the righteousness of the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. Look at verse 20 . . .

 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Pharisees had a certain kind of righteousness but the disciples have an entirely different kind of righteousness. It is a righteousness that exceeds the Pharasaic righteousness. And I think the exceeding here is not a matter of quantity but of quality. The kingdom person has a quality of righteousness that is altogether different and better than the Pharisees. This verse would have been a shocker to Jesus’ Jewish hearers, who considered the religious leaders the epitome of righteousness. Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart. The Pharisees were the height of human righteousness, highly respected moral men. But their righteousness was insufficient because it was external. Jesus says they are like cups which are clean on the outside and filthy within. Jesus says they are like painted tombs full of dead men’s bones. There is in Jesus’ view of righteousness a necessary inward transformation which must come. And you might say exactly what the disciples would say at one point, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus’ reply? “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” True righteousness comes through the work of Christ. As Romans 3 says, “But now the righteousness of God has appeared apart from the law, although the law and prophets testified to it, even the righteousness of God through faith in Christ to all who believe.” The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is going to show, as the Beatitudes have, the reality of the heart transformed through faith in Christ. And the order is essential. Christ transforms the heart and then the heart lives in obedience a fruitful spiritual life. Obedience is the result of transformation not the way to transformation.

We have a Savior who is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. We have Scriptures which are entirely trustworthy. We are called to a life which does not minimize the Scriptures but seeks to live and teach them in light of the work of Christ. And through faith in Him we chart a course away from both man-made efforts at self-righteousness and the God-ignoring license to sin which so characterizes our culture. As I close today let me just ask you a question from Ligon Duncan. “Where is your heart? Is your heart with the Pharisees, grudgingly obeying God or is your heart, or with the followers of Christ, delighting in His law and wanting more than anything else to be conformed to His image and to be exalted not in ourselves but in His righteousness and in His sanctifying work in us that we might become like him. May God cause us to be the followers of Christ and not the Pharisees. Let us pray.”

Bible Reading Blog — January 9, 2016

9 Jan

Today’s Readings — BREAK & Mark 1:35-39

Today there is no Old Testament reading. These break days are worked into every month three or four times just to give you a time to relax or maybe make up some readings you’ve missed. If you are doing the reading plan I hope you will find these days are helpful. Now on to today’s reading from Mark.

Context is king. Jesus’ actions and words in Mark 1:35-39 take on a much greater meaning when they are put in the context of Mark 1:29-34. We saw there the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. We also see Jesus in demand as a healer, healing all kinds of people at sunset as they were pushing against the door of the house, clamoring to be healed.

Interestingly, in today’s passage, we see the intentionality of Jesus, the way He lived with purpose. Early on the next morning (the Greek text lays up words to emphasize how early it was) Jesus went out to a desolate place and prayed. Jesus’ devotion to prayer becomes all the more impactful as we consider the previous passage. He had just been up late the previous day healing people and had been endlessly busy. But rather than sleeping in, Jesus went to His Father in prayer. He got away from the crowds so as not to be influenced by their voice and listened instead to the voice of His Father. Jesus’ sense of dependence on His Father is made clear here.

In addition, when the disciples find Him, they tell Him that all the people are seeking Him. Of course, they are seeking Him for healing again. But Jesus gives His disciples a new direction. “Let’s go out into the surrounding towns and preach there, for this is the reason I came.” In other words, Jesus came to proclaim the message of the kingdom, not merely provide for physical needs. Jesus’ provision of physical needs was intended to be a sign of His bringing the kingdom and spiritual salvation to all who believe. This call to preach is made all the more powerful in light of the many healing acts Jesus had just performed in the previous passage. Context is king. This is one of the greatest reasons for reading through books of the Bible rather than hopping from one passage to another.

What Kind of Book is Hebrews?

11 Aug

The simple answer is that Hebrews is a book of the New Testament. But with this question I am asking what type of book we are dealing with here. Hebrews is not an epistle like the Pauline letters. There’s no greeting or thanksgiving, there are few notes at the end. Nor does the book fit into another common biblical genre like law or history or prophecy or wisdom. So what is it? The good news is that the book of Hebrews tells us the answer to this question.  “I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly” (Hebrews 12:22). Hebrews is a “word of exhortation.” The closest parallel I see to the book of Hebrews in the New Testament is the preaching in the book of Acts. So I have come to see the book of Hebrews as a sort of written sermon in the spirit of the sermons in the book of Acts, the preaching of the early church. The preaching of the early church we see in Acts is made up of two elements: exposition and exhortation. This is preaching. Preaching is not telling cute stories or flexing rhetorical power. It is not raising and lowering one’s voice or using dramatic body gestures. Preaching is exposition and exhortation. It is taking a text or texts or Scripture and explaining it clearly and then challenging the hearers to follow the truth; to know, believe, love and do what God has revealed. This is what the book of Hebrews does.

Sermon Leftovers

18 Mar

This week as I was finishing up Sunday’s sermon, I realized I had a lot of material that I couldn’t get to in the sermon itself. So I wanted to post some of this material here today. These are some of the best quotes and thoughts that didn’t make it into Sunday’s message. These items are somewhat disconnected but may prove helpful to some and may help you get familiar with the passage for the message Sunday morning.

Matthew 4:1-11

4:1 “The devil himself came to the spot and plied his diabolical arts on the man ordained to be his Destroyer.” Spurgeon

RT France — The word testing is better than temptation, for God initiated the trial and is testing Jesus’ reaction to His Messianic vocation as Son of God.

There are implied parallels in this passage of Jesus to Moses (4:2,8) and Elijah (4:2,11).

JC Ryle — The devil is a real enemy. This is he, whom the Bible calls a murderer from the beginning and a liar and a roaring lion. This is he, whose enmity to our souls never slumbers and never sleeps. This is he, who for nearly 6000 years has been working at one work, to ruin men and women and draw them to hell. This is he, whose cunning and subtlety pass man’s understanding and who often appears as an “angel of light.” Let us watch and pray daily against his devices. There is no enemy worse than an enemy who is never seen and who never dies who is near to us wherever we live and goes with us wherever we go. Not least let us beware of that levity and jesting about the devil which is so unhappily common. Let us remember every day that if we would be saved, we must not only crucify the flesh and overcome the world, but also resist the devil.

JC Ryle — “Those who seek their happiness in this life only and despise the religion of the Bible, have no idea what true comfort they are missing.”

4:4  Spurgeon – There is a power in the Word of God which even the devil can’t deny.

DA Carson – Israel demanded bread in the wilderness and died. Jesus denied himself bread and lived by faithful submission to God’s Word. The whole temptation narrative may be an allusion to Habakkuk 2:4.

4:5,6 Spurgeon – The devil handled holy subjects with great familiarity and yet he was unholy. It is ill to talk of angels and act like devils.

4:5-7 France – As Son of God He could claim with absolute confidence the physical protection God promises in Ps 91:11-12 to those who trust Him. So why not try it by forcing God’s hand (and thus silencing any lingering doubts about His relationship with God)? But this would be to tempt God as Israel did at Massah (Dt. 6:16) when they put the Lord to the proof, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17:2-7) The Son of God can live only in a relationship of trust that needs no test. Christians perplexed by the apparently thin line between the prayer of faith and putting God to the test should note that the devil’s suggestion was of an artificially crafted crisis not of trusting God in the situations which result from obedient service.

Notice how in the second temptation Jesus compares Scripture with Scripture. This is a fundamental rule of Bible reading. Scripture is its own best interpreter.

4:8-10 Carson – Satan shows Jesus the splendor of the world’s kingdoms but not the sin.

Spurgeon – We must not pay even a shade of deference to evil, though the whole world should be the reward of a single act of  submission to it.

James Boice, ADAM & EVE — Paradise/ Satisfied/ Together/ Sinned

JESUS — Wilderness/ Hungry/ Alone/ Resisted Sinning

David Platt — Six basic reminders about this passage . . .

There is a spiritual world.  We are in a spiritual battle. Our enemy is formidable. The stakes are eternal. The scope of the spiritual war is universal. Our involvement is personal.

Sequential Expository Preaching and the Needs of the Local Church

1 Dec

I am a big fan of sequential expository preaching.  In other words, I like preaching through whole books of the Bible, passage by passage.  I have been a pastor for nine years and for about 7 and 1/2 of those years I have been using this method of preaching right through books alternating every few months between the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Using this method, I have preached on Sunday morning through the books of Genesis, John, Philippians, most of Exodus and most of Acts.

But does sequential expository preaching work in speaking to the needs of the church at a particular time?  There are times when the topics covered in a particular book of the Bible are not as applicable to the congregation at that moment as some other topic or section of Scripture might be.  In addition, sequential expository preaching may keep a pastor from addressing topics (abortion, marriage, money, godly speech, etc.) the congregation may have a genuine interest in and a desire to understand, but which the pastor can’t really cover because he is bound by the content of the book in which he is preaching.

What does a pastor who is committed to sequential expository preaching do in such cases?  I have a few suggestions . . .

1.  There is a time for topical preaching. Not shoot from the hip, stream of consciousness topical preaching, of course, but good, well-studied topical preaching can be appropriate at times, especially when particular issues are pressing in on the church.  These are areas not so much of personal sin but of congregational blindness.  For example, if the congregation has no grasp on the meaning of church membership, or of how church discipline should work or if their is widespread uncertainty about the authority of Scripture, these are issues which can be, and sometimes should be, addressed through topical sermons.

2.  There are many means for communication besides the pulpit and these means should be used. Pastors can teach on topics of importance on Wednesday nights or Sunday nights or in newsletter articles or through a blog.  Some biblically significant issues for the church can be addressed through these venues, if they are not being addressed through sequential expository preaching.

3.  Personal communication is a vital tool for bringing biblical truth to bear on particular needs. Sometimes there is a personal issue the pastor knows about in the church and maybe a handful of people in the church know.  I do not think it a responsible use of the pulpit to launch into a sermon on that particular problem.  Much more effective in this case would be personal counsel from the word of God.

4.  If a pastor is faithful to sequential expository preaching, important topics will come up in due time. I am often amazed at how the Lord works through the passages we are studying to bring us right to the topics we need to address at the right time.

5.  If a pastor is faithful to sequential expository preaching, he will benefit his people much more than by simply addressing their topics of interest. A church member who has listened to good sequential expository preaching will develop a sense for how the Bible fits together as one story and how one part of the Bible relates to another.  They will have an understanding of how the content of a particular book fits together. This is good and helps people trust in the power of the Scriptures.

6.  Sequential expository preaching sometimes exposes to us needs we didn’t know we had. Because of the darkness of our hearts we tend to misunderstand our true needs.  We may crave sermons on godly speech or marriage but we really need to hear from a particular passage a message about sovereignty or stewardship or grace.  Faithful preaching will not always give a congregation what they want, but will, by the power of the preached Word, give them what they need.

7.  Sequential expository preaching will guard us from cultural bias. We always have to watch our cultural bias and its influence on our interpretation and application of Scripture.  But I think this is a much greater temptation in topical preaching than it is in sequential expository preaching.

8.  Sequential expository preaching helps keep the gospel front and center. So much topical preaching turns quickly into moralism.  “Do this or don’t do this and then you’ll be a true Christian.”  Sequential expository preaching forces us to face whole books with a whole message and this message invariably leads us to the gospel, either by exposing our need for salvation or revealing God’s plan of salvation.

Yes, there is the challenge in sequential expository preaching of not preaching to congregational needs.  But the benefits so far outweigh the drawbacks that this is a small price to pay and the problem can usually be remedied in a variety of other ways.  So don’t be discouraged if you can’t hit every issue you might want to touch on a given Sunday.  Press on and faithfully keep preaching the Word of God.  Sequential expository preaching will prove fruitful in the end.

Resource List for Advent Sermons

3 Dec

Last Sunday I began a series on the birth narratives in the gospel of Luke as a way to help us celebrate Advent as a church. In this article, I want to share with those who are in church each week as well as those who listen online the sources I am using for study for this series. The list below is given so that those who may want to do further study can have an idea of some good resources to check out. Most of these resources can be found on Amazon or through Christian Book Distributors. Many of these sources are also available in Bible software programs like Logos Bible software and Accordance.

The Greek New Testament, Nestle-Aland 28th edition and UBS 4 Reader’s Edition
English Standard Version
King James Version
New International Version (2011)
The NET Bible and NET Bible notes
Darrell Bock’s Luke commentary from Baker Books
G. Campbell Morgan’s book “Luke: The God Who Cares” from Revell
Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, volume 7, from Baker Books
A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Luke (from the UBS NT Handbook series)
Luke, from volume 8 of the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Zondervan Publishers
ESV Study Bible
MacArthur Study Bible
Reformation Study Bible
Craig Keener’s IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
Greg Beale’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament
The New Bible Commentary, ed. D.A. Carson
The Bible Knowledge Commentary, John Walvoord
Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible
Bob Utley, The Gospel According to Luke
Robert Stein, The New American Commentary: Luke
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible
R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel
Trent Butler, Holman New Testament Commentary: Luke
A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament
Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary
Warren Wiersbe, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the New Testament

All these resources are worth nothing apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart as I work through the text and prepare to speak and in the hearts of the hearers so I ask for your prayers that God would work through these messages for His glory and the good of His people.

Two Different Articles

6 Sep

Tim Challies linked to two very different articles today that I found helpful. One is for parents and the other is for church members and pastors.

Here are the links . . .
“I Don’t Remember Chemistry and I’m Not Homeless”

“How to Criticize a Preacher”

Preaching and the Internet: Enemies or Friends?

19 Jul

For the last few days I’ve been considering the topic of the ministry of the Word in the 21st century. Our rapidly changing world can prove challenging to those who want to effectively communicate the unchanging Word of God. Nowhere is this rapid change seen more clearly than in the online world of internet, smart phones, tablets and other coming forms of technology (Google Glass, anyone?). How does this online world affect the preaching task for the average pastor-elder in the average church? Is the internet the preacher’s friend or the preacher’s enemy?

The answer to that last question is, of course, both. I would tend to lean to the side of friend, however. Here are some ways I see the internet affecting preaching and preachers.

The internet gives people access to preaching in unprecedented ways. One of the most important developments in the Church in the last ten years, in my view, is ministries like Desiring God and Grace to You making their sermon libraries available free online. This has given millions of people around the opportunity to hear what solid, passionate, expositional preaching sounds like. There are other excellent preachers online also whose materials have enriched the lives of millions of Christians through streaming on the internet. This is a good development, especially in those places where there is little access to biblical preaching.

The internet gives preachers access to resources for preparation unheard of even twenty years ago. Not only can we peruse the sermon libraries of contemporary preachers, we can access works by Spurgeon and Wesley and Luther and others. We can study for free all sorts of resources that most of us would have never had opportunity to study otherwise. There are excellent offerings from seminaries and organizations like Biblical Training.org which give pastors refreshment in the word and sharpening of their skills. The internet connects us to conferences where we can find encouragement from fellow pastors. And the internet hosts blogs which often help us think more deeply about God and about how we handle the Scriptures.

On the flip side, there are potential pitfalls for preaching in the rise of the internet. First, the internet has given rise to a new generation of celebrity pastors. Those with large churches and well-connected online lives tend to be well-regarded by many and afforded a respect and even devotion which can border on the unhealthy by some. The temptation can come for some pastors to shape their message so that it coheres with (or sometimes so that it opposes) the message of the celebrity pastor. Anytime our words from the pulpit are shaped more by blog interactions or the latest internet theological controversy rather than the text of Scripture, we are in trouble. We need to be mindful that the best preacher doesn’t always get it right and we need to strive to wrestle with the text in our own hearts and in prayer, not relying on the almost limitless resources at our disposal as much as we rely on the Holy Spirit.

The other problem I see with the internet as it relates to preaching is what the internet can do to members of the congregation. Much like TV in a previous generation, many people think as long as they listen to a sermon online, they are doing what they need to do. And they think after all, the internet preachers are much better than their pastor, so it must be a spiritually healthy thing to do. The pressure for this kind of church to be formed, a totally online church, is only going to increase in the years to come. But the online world will never be a good substitute for reality. It is in fact dehumanizing and unhelpful at its worst and it makes us long on information and short on application at its best.

The internet exacerbates one of America’s great problems of the last 50 years, our lack of positive personal relationships. In spite of the world of social media with its status updates and tweets and picture sharing, we are more relationally inept than ever. Think for a minute about the last time you sat face to face with someone and really looked at them and just talked. Think about the last time you really listened to another human being without distraction. So much information with so little life change. Is it any wonder that many people just want to abandon it all?

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just as someone watching their weight doesn’t have to avoid all foods but just has to be mindful of what they eat and how much, so we can enjoy the benefits of the internet without regret if we will not put too much of our hope there or overindulge in even its good aspects.

Preachers can use the internet to great effect in their preparation and promotion of sermons. Believers can benefit from the tremendous resources available online when they use them with discernment. But like with every good thing, there is always a potential for misuse and abuse. So let’s receive the internet as a friend without bowing to it as a god.

Why Preaching is Not a TED Talk

18 Jul

I have discussed TED talks this week in these articles more than I ever have in my life. I used these talks as a way of illustrating that the method of a person delivering a message from a stage to a live audience is not dead and so we should not put preaching in the category of something that is culturally irrelevant.

Of course, with this is the qualifier that preaching is not to be judged based on its relevance to the culture. The Bible is clear that we should go right on preaching until Jesus comes. The question I am dealing with here is whether we can expect our current culture to listen. TED talks show us that people will indeed listen to something like preaching so it shows that our culture is not totally cut off from this kind of method of speaking.

Yesterday I highlighted several characteristics of TED talks which, if adopted by preachers, might make for more compelling and helpful sermons.

Today, I want to briefly cover the other side of the coin. How is preaching different from a TED talk and what about TED talks do we need to avoid when we think about preaching?

First, preaching is different because preaching is concerned with the thoughts of God, not man. If preaching is concerned with the thoughts of the preacher, it is worthless, but if preaching takes up and deals with the thoughts of God in Scripture, it is wonderful. TED talks center on the authority of the speaker. Good sermons center on the authority of God.

Preaching is also different because we are dealing with the most complex and interesting subject in the world: God. The Bible is an endless source of truth about God and God is the most fascinating subject in the world. How a TED talks speaker can be so passionate about some small topic while preachers speak without life from the pulpit is hard to understand.

Third, preaching is different because it is dealing with the heart. Some TED talks are intended to move the heart, but many are simply the communication of ideas. They are, to use the TED phrase, “ideas worth spreading” but still, there is a focus on what I am learning rather than how I am changing. Truth be told, this is often the case in church as well. Having adopted a schooling model for our times of instruction, we have become a people long on knowing and short on living. This doesn’t mean we need to ditch the sermon but it does mean we need to look at the sermon differently than we look at a TED talk. We are not just communicating ideas, we are dealing with the sharp, double-edged sword of the Word of God. This Word does deep things in us when it is preached faithfully and moves us from knowing to worshiping to mission.

A fourth way in which preaching differs from TED talks is that God is vitally involved, not only as the subject of good preaching, but also through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is working in the hearts of believers, convicting unbelievers, doing His good work in lives every week when the Word is preached.

TED talks are not good models for preaching because they are one time talks. The TED website says that the TED speakers are giving “the talk of a lifetime.” This is their shot to speak about what is most valuable to them. While it is true that preachers should look at every sermon as a significant thing which God may use through His Word to change lives, we need to remember that preaching is also a cumulative thing. As we come back week after week, faithful to the text, the Spirit of God uses that time to shape the people of God. I think many preaching styles are valid, but the thing I love most about preaching through books of the Bible verse by verse is the way we see themes emerge in books and how understanding the whole flow of the story of God enriches our lives and helps us grow.

Sixth, the value of preaching is not based on the celebrity or outward success of the preacher. TED talks are given by the “best and the brightest.” But as believers we can learn from any preacher who is faithful to God. We must not give in to the lie that the only good preaching is from pastors of mega-churches. Some of the worst preaching, from a biblical perspective, comes from some of these churches. Other large churches have outstanding biblical preaching. Still, there are countless small churches with unknown pastors who are laboring faithfully in the ministry of the Word. We should listen to them and not have a bias against them because they are not well-known.

Finally, preaching is lived out in community, while TED talks cater to the individual. It is true that the TED organization encourages online interaction but this is different from what happens with good preaching. The same crowd does not always gather for a TED talk but many of the same people gather each week for a sermon. As we live together under the preaching of the Word, as we feed on the Word ourselves and as we talk about it with one another, we find ourselves shaped and changed. Many Christians can attest to the long-term benefit of sitting under good, God-focused preaching.

So with that I am hoping to leave the TED talk connection behind and move on to some other issues regarding the ministry of the Word in our culture. Next time I hope to focus on the question of how the internet shapes our approach to preaching.

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