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Interpretation and Application
By Craig Brian Larson
Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Christianity Today International
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AS ONE APPROVED
How to pass the preacher's test.
Douglas Sean O'Donnell
I used to cheat in Algebra. Math has always been difficult for me. So when I was assigned to the honors algebra class, which was way over my head, I adjusted this discrepancy by "borrowing" some answers from the best mathematician in the school, a fellow starter on the varsity basketball team.
Though I wasn't a Christian at the time, I had a strong conscience, one that initially burned within me each time I broke the school's law, God's law, and my own moral law. But after a while, as the teacher himself turned a blind eye to what was going on, and my heart hardened toward this sin, this fire of conscience cooled. The guilt subsided. The teacher didn't care. My friend didn't care. I didn't care. I passed the class.
When I became a Christian a year after graduating high school, everything changed on the inside, and eventually on the outside. So when I transferred to Wheaton College to major in Bible/theology, I vowed never again to cheat on anything.
This vow, however, was quickly tested. In my second semester of New Testament Greek (which, I'm convinced, uses the same mental muscle as math), I missed the midterm exam due to the flu. My professor graciously allowed me to take the test on my own time. He told me he would leave a copy of it in his mailbox outside of his office. I could pick it up and take it whenever I felt better.
A few days later, in good health, I stood before his mailbox. I saw the test and grabbed it. Yet, as I looked down in the mailbox again, I noticed another exam, one completed by the best student in the class. I looked around. The hallway was empty. I cautiously lifted the other exam. It felt as heavy as a thousand fat devils dancing on it. Yet as heavy as it felt, it was as if a calm, reasonable voice whispered from it, "Take and copy. Take and copy." I heeded that advice. I placed both exams in my backpack and hurried across the street to the library. I zipped open the backpack, placed the blank test on the right, and then I lifted slowly the other exam.
Then ... I stopped. I didn't place it down on the left. Instead, convicted by the Spirit—that God sees all, that cheating is a sin, that such a sin would be offensive to God, my teacher, and my classmate—I placed the completed exam in my backpack again. I walked back across the street, and I placed it back in the professor's mailbox. I returned to the library and took the test on my own. I passed the test! What a victory for me, one among many. For by God's grace I never cheated in college, graduate school, or seminary.
Now as a pastor, however, every week I'm tempted to cheat in other ways—not on a Greek test but on God's Greek text. More plainly, I'm tempted to disregard either the Bible (the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic text, thankfully translated into my own tongue) or principles of rightly interpreting God's Word. Or both! I'm tempted, as all pastors are, to bypass the Bible and biblical exegesis in an effort to wow the congregation with anything and everything but the Bible.
Here I want to challenge you to prepare sermons based on the conviction that no sermon is God glorifying if it ignores or mishandles God's Word. I will do so by briefly walking through four temptations we preachers face on a weekly basis. For each temptation I will offer a truth that we can use to uphold us when enticed to leave aside and/or compromise our fundamental convictions and practices of sound Bible preaching. I will conclude with a summary word from that rightfully famous preacher's text, 2 Timothy 2:15.
The first temptation
Our first temptation is to preach something other than the Bible as the source and essential substance of our sermon. These days the biggest evangelical churches have often embraced church-growth models. Such models often include (indeed part of the success is) sermons based less on Bible texts than on cultural topics. Having been raised as a Roman Catholic, where the Bible was rarely preached but often read in church, I find it quite ironic that these days you would likely hear more Bible on a Sunday morning in the Catholic liturgy than from a Protestant pulpit. We must protest such new Protestantism and resist its lure.
The conviction to ward off this temptation says, when the Bible is preached God's voice is heard. When I lead a workshop on biblical exposition for the Charles Simeon Trust, my first lesson usually begins by answering the question, why does expository preaching matter? At my most recent workshop in Dublin, Ohio, I included some quotes from two authors that nicely solidified my thoughts (and personally reconvicted me!).
The first author is John Owen. In his classic Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers (first published in 1656), he writes (and I paraphrase):
Sometimes as we read the Word, God makes us stay on something that cuts us to the heart and shakes us as to our present condition. More frequently it is as we hear the Word preached that God meets with us, for preaching is God's great ordinance for conviction, conversion, and edification. God often cuts us by the sword of his Word in that ordinance, strikes directly on our bosom-beloved lust, startles the sinner, and makes us engage in the mortification and relinquishment of the evil of our hearts.
Is that your conviction? Do you think "sacramentally" about preaching—that it is God's "great ordinance" for conviction, conversion, and edification?
The other author I quoted was Frederick Dale Bruner. In his lecture "The Shy Member of the Trinity: Expository Preaching Gives the Filling of the Holy Spirit," Bruner adds some fire to his usual light. Let the two quotes below burn within:
Preaching and teaching that is born of a prayerful wrestling with the biblical texts in an almost athletic attempt each week to find the real meaning of these authoritative scriptural sentences—that is evangelical-catholic preaching and teaching. Such preaching and teaching is, when it pleases God to honor it, filled with the Spirit.... If believing Christ is the way we ourselves are filled with the Spirit ... then interpreting Scripture is usually the main way that pastors are means of grace to the greater part of their people each week.
I love exegesis. But exegesis may not be every pastor's or teacher's main gift (1 Corinthians 12). Am I wrong, however, in believing that exegesis is almost every preacher's, and many church teachers', main responsibility?
Bruner is not wrong. It is our main responsibility to join the nearly thirty centuries of Bible expositors before us to cohabit with the divinely inspired texts Monday through Saturday in order to speak on Sunday "the honest truth about the words of God to the real needs of the people of God," believing that "the Sunday morning sermon has been the ordinary conduit of the life-giving Spirit to the people of God through the ages" and that God's voice is heard when his Word is opened, explained, and applied.
The second temptation
Our second temptation is sermon-prep procrastination. We live in an age of remarkable advances in technology. Let's use that technology. We shepherd people who have real physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Let's love people. However, let's not allow technology and people to persistently push us away from our study of Scripture. Sermon preparation is sacred time. It is as sacred as prayer, burying the dead, baptizing your firstborn, and kissing your wife with Song of Solomon kisses.
Sadly, I know too few pastors who are in the habit of getting to this sacred duty and delight early in the week and often throughout the week. Rather than redeeming the time, too many pastors (you?) cheat on getting to the text and then spending much time in the text because they fall prey to the temptation to reply to e-mails immediately, read twenty-four blogs every twenty-four hours (or is it twenty-four minutes?), chat on the cell phone, watch the must-see YouTube videos, and refuse to say no to any unexpected office visitor. At their ordination these same pastors were likely commissioned to make their life verse "Preach the Word," but their weekly, out-of-context, much-perverted proof-text for procrastination has become "Do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit" (Mark 31:11 ESV). The foolishness of preaching and the foolish preacher are vastly different realities. And the pastor who thinks the Spirit will bless his sermon if he refuses to sit, read, study, and pray through that Spirit-filled book is foolish!
For this second temptation, the corrective measure is discipline. I don't mean a slap on the hand or the bottom (although perhaps starting there might get your attention). I mean learning the discipline of Spirit-filled sitzfleisch. Sitzfleisch is a German word composed of the words sitzen (to sit) and fleisch (flesh). I first heard this word from my church history professor in seminary. If I recall correctly, it was a term used often by the great Reformation scholar Heiko Oberman, referring to what it takes to be a good scholar. It takes "sitting flesh," that is, the ability to stay glued to a chair until the task at hand is complete. The same is true of the good preacher. The preacher who can't sit early and often meditating on Sunday's text will not preach well. I'll put it that simply and, Lord willing, prophetically. Let him who has ears, hear.
We are used to hearing the phrase Spirit-filled preaching, which emphasizes the Spirit spontaneously assisting the preacher in the act of preaching. I take no issue with Spirit-filled preaching so long as it is properly defined and acted out. Let us "give room" for the Spirit in the pulpit. But let us also "give room" for the Spirit in the study. Why not ask the Spirit to give you the desire to sit and study? Why not ask the Spirit to open your eyes to see the text's truths, implications, and applications? Why not ask the Spirit to inspire you to study the text in community—with other pastors, interns, commentators? Why not ask the Spirit to broaden your mind with the reading of the best books of poetry, novels, and theology? Why not ask the Spirit to make you a pastor-scholar, someone who lives and works by the discipline of Spirit-filled sitzfleisch?
The third temptation
Our third temptation is to forget or neglect basic hermeneutical principles. You may not be able to spell hermeneutics (I misspell it every other time I type it), but you had better know basic hermeneutics. To make the point more pointedly, I will simply list ten regular hermeneutical/homiletical questions that should be in your mind when your Bible is open before your eyes. These are all based on the theological assumptions that the Bible is a divinely inspired, accommodated-to-humans, and progressively written revelation.
1. Did you take at least half a day to make your own observations on the text?
2. Did you find the skeletal structure of the text?
3. Did you seek to understand how the original audience understood God's Word to them before you applied it to your hearers?
4. Did you interpret Scripture with Scripture ("the analogy of faith"), the unclear by the clear, and the implicit by the explicit?
5. Did you examine the text's context—its immediate context, the book's context, historical context (when and by whom it was written, if known), and literary context (genre)?
6. Did you examine the text in light of the main message of the book?
7. Did you examine the text in light of the main message of the Book? That is, did you relate the text to the centerpiece of the canon—the person and work of Christ?
8. Did you, without straying from historical Christian orthodoxy ("the rule of faith"), allow the text to shape and change, if needed, your theological framework?
9. Did you read solid commentaries to help with difficult issues, correct your interpretation, and add exegetical insights?
10. Did your applications come from what is explicitly or implicitly found in the text, or did you add your own legalisms or liberalisms to the Bible?
If I were to add an eleventh question, it would be related to the first; did you take at least the other half of the day to make more observations on the text? I emphasize the art of observation, and I'll end here with its emphasis, because I believe that good preaching is derived from pleasurable yet painstaking examination of God's Word. What the prominent New Testament scholar Adolf Schlatter said of the science of scholarship—that it is "first observation, second observation, third observation," I say of preaching. Sit. Read. Sit. Pray. Sit. Think. Sit. Write. Sit. Edit. Sit. Kneel. Sit. Stand. Preach.
The fourth temptation
Our fourth temptation is to cower under cultural pressures. I have a pastor friend who the three Sundays before he left one church for another preached a series titled something like The Three Things I Always Wanted to Say to You, but I Was Too Afraid to Say. We might chuckle at that, but we all know that the twin pressures not to offend and easily to appease are no laughing matter. We all know the countercultural contents of our Bibles—those texts on Christ's exclusivity, Christian cross-bearing, the sinfulness of our sin, and the justice of God's judgment. It takes courage to preach the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Last year my three-year-old church plant merged with an established church (technically the oldest in the county). The established church generously gave us their land and building and invited me to lead the united congregations as the senior pastor. What an honor. What a generous blessing! However, after I preached some initial sermons on the vision of the church, all based on texts from Luke's Gospel (don't worry—I didn't succumb to the first temptation and preach topical sermons on How to Make Our Church the Biggest in the State in Six Sure Steps), I was met with the temptation to stop preaching through the Gospel of Matthew. For, you see, the next text on the premerger preaching schedule was Matthew 23. Yikes. "Should I preach on Jesus' seven woes to this newly united congregation? How well will that go over? Will people think poorly of me, Jesus, or the both of us together?"
I have a conviction about preaching in sequential exposition through books of the Bible, which I'm committed to, and for me to break from this pattern at this point would have been a compromise for me. Trusting that those hard words from Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees were indeed God's word to his church today in some way (in more ways than I at first imagined), I walked us through the woes. Moving on in Matthew, we came next to that hermeneutical mountain we call the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24–25). Together we journeyed through the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world as we know it, and there were no casualties. Rather, by means of his Word preached, God graciously matured us in ways we never could have imagined. That's the beauty of God's Word! Sometimes the hard texts (Matt. 23) are used to soften hard hearts, and the most complex ones (Matt. 24–25) are used to teach the simplest truths of the gospel.
The temptation to cower under cultural pressures can be met by our assurance that expository Bible preaching is right, real, and relevant. Like Moses on Mount Sinai, we are called to herald the Lord's decrees; like Ezra at the Water Gate, we are to read and help the people to understand the Book; and like Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue, we are to open the Scriptures and preach Christ. Expository Bible preaching is the right thing to do.
Excerpted from Interpretation and Application by Craig Brian Larson. Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today International. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
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