In The Event Of Nuclear War, What Would You Preach?

This guest post comes from Peter Grainger, former pastor of Charlotte Baptist Chapel, and Director of the 2 Timothy 4 Trust

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Following the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in London in June with the loss of over 80 lives, and the ongoing enquiry into how it happened, I wonder if anyone has preached on the topic “Who was responsible for the tower tragedy?” based on Luke 13:1-3 in which Jesus addresses the subject of a tragic event surrounding a tower in which 18 people were killed?

Of much wider consequence, in relation to growing alarm over the actions of the Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, what is the response of churches and preachers to the potential threat of nuclear war? More specifically, in the event of nuclear war, what will you preach?

Here’s an example from the introduction to a sermon by a famous preacher when the prospect of nuclear war loomed even larger than today:

Why have we had the crisis of this past week? Why are the nations of the world trembling as they are this morning? What is the cause of all this? Well, I want to suggest that ultimately the cause of these problems is a failure to understand the truth concerning the law of God. This is not some theoretical question; it is the most practical, the most urgent, question facing the world today. It is of vital importance throughout the whole of life, for Christians and for non-Christians.”

(D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Born of God Sermons from John Chapter 1, Banner of Truth Trust, 2011)

The editors of the book in which the sermon is found, give a helpful footnote:  The Cuban missile crisis. This sermon was preached on 28th October 1962.  The preacher was Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and his text was John 1:17:  “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”

Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones

Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones

Rather than church being a place to escape the world and all its problems, the worshippers in Westminster Chapel on that Sunday morning were confronted with the current crisis by the preacher and directed to the Scriptures to enable them not only to understand the cause of the crisis but also its resolution.

 

Today I suspect that this may not be the case in many churches where the Sunday service has little engagement with the world, nation and community outside its own narrow orbit. This was first brought home forcibly to me back in 2001 when I visited a number of churches during a sabbatical. One of them was what I would call a “dateless service” – one in which someone listening to a recording of it from beginning to end would not be able to identify when it took place (other than the dates of the hymns within the last 100 years!). The only name mentioned by the leader was someone named Jim who needed prayer as he was in hospital – only for someone to shout out that he was now home (Praise the Lord!) Yet it took place on the Sunday before a General Election and in the week in which the Crown Prince had murdered all the members of the Nepali Royal Family!

As I now travel around preaching in different churches, I am becoming increasingly concerned by the loss of the “intercessory prayer”  in which “prayers, petitions, intercession and thanksgiving be made for kings and all those in authority”  (1 Timothy 2:1-4). In the event of nuclear war, I don’t expect this will change but instead the hatches will be battened down to await what will be the (increasingly predicted imminent) return of Christ.

But, to return to the topic – in the event of nuclear war, what will you preach? For those of us who preach consecutive expository sermons and have our preaching programme planned out for months or even a year, will we continue to preach what we have planned regardless? It is interesting to note that the sermon quoted above by Lloyd-Jones was part of a series of 32 sermons on John 1, so that he adapted or shaped the thrust of his sermon to the current situation.

Many of would perhaps lack the ability and flexibility to do that, so perhaps there is a place for a break in the planned series to respond to a particularly significant situation. In my own ministry, two such events spring to mind – the Dunblane massacre and the death of Princess Diana (which is still a live and painful event for many even now on the 20th anniversary of her death).

So, in the event of a nuclear war, what would you preach? The neat and right answer is of course “the Gospel” and the history of past crises show that these are occasions for evangelistic preaching as fearful people seek answers. But what specific Scriptures might be particularly appropriate? There may be parallels with current events (tower tragedies) or moments in history – for example, the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile. Or are these occasions for preaching from apocalyptic literature, especially the Book of Revelation? And many of the Psalms are especially relevant – for example, Psalm 46 in the event of a nuclear war:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”

I’d be interested to know from other preachers

  • Have you broken into a series and for what occasion?
  • Do you have a “crisis” sermon on file?
  • What Scriptures have you found especially relevant?

And especially, in the event of nuclear war, what would you preach?

The Fruitful Fields Of Ruth

This post was originally written for the Greenview church blog. I wrote it to the church in the aftermath of preaching Ruth 1.

Our sojourn is officially underway, as we travel the dusty roads, fruitful fields and overcrowded threshing floors of Ruth. What a lovely story it is! Yet the jaunt to Moab and back is more than a “good read”. It is, as we’ve already seen, a drama that magnifies the divine. In four short chapters, it is God’s plans and purposes – his grace and loving kindness – that sparkle like jewels in the crown.

But what lies at the heart of this wonderful story? What is, we might ask, the main theme?

Scholars have long debated the question – and it’s easy to see why. Several themes are prominent and seem to vie with each other for the reader’s attention. Rather than trying to prioritise them, why don’t we just enjoy them!

Emptiness and fullness

One of Ruth’s central themes is that of emptiness and fullness. Naomi’s family leave Bethlehem (the “house of bread”) for Moab because their empty stomachs are needing filled. But rather than finding ‘fullness’ Naomi experiences emptiness. Bereaved of her husband, then burying her two sons, Naomi is left with no grandchildren to carry on the family name. She is “empty” of relationships and prospects.

In a sense, there is something of a ‘parable’ here. Moab (for which read “the world”) can never give us “fullness.” No, fullness can only be found in the Promised Land (for which read “Christ”) and in Bethlehem (the birth place of Jesus!) particularly. Then from chapter two onwards we see God filling up Naomi’s emptiness: first with food (ch 2), then with marriage and children (for Ruth; ch 4). This is all a glimmering preview of the banquet we will enjoy, if we are in union with Christ.

Coincidence and providence

The story of Ruth has a number of happy coincidences. The key one, of course, is when Ruth happens to reap in a field belonging to Boaz (Ruth 2:3). Boaz just ‘happens’ to be a distant relative of Ruth’s mother in law, Naomi. Of all the field corners she could have picked, what were the chances of Ruth picking this one? Then there’s the turning up of Boaz (“And behold, Boaz” – Ruth 2:4, ESV) at just the right time to meet Ruth, and we see that the story could have ended differently than it did.

Doubtless the author of Ruth wants us to see that these are not accidents at all. Much better to call them “divine coincidences” (Ian Duguid). It is still true today that God mostly guides us when we are totally unconscious of it.  Contemporary Christians are often rather fixated on the notion of special, dramatic guidance; yet we often underplay the absolute wonder of every-day providence.

Harshness and loving-kindness

Near the end of chapter 1, Naomi protests that the LORD has made her life very bitter (Ruth 1:22). Sinclair Ferguson suspects that she’s speaking of her bitter situation, rather than her bitter heart. But even if this is correct, other factors would lead us to see that Naomi is struggling to see God’s goodness towards her. When she returns to Bethlehem Naomi speaks of her comprehensive emptiness (Ruth 1:21). There is no mention of Ruth (Ruth 1:19-22) who had returned from Moab with her. Naomi was not alone. She wasn’t completely empty. Unnoticed, yet standing beside her, was the first-fruits of God’s kindness towards Naomi.

It’s often hard for us to see God’s kindness when our circumstances seem unkind. Perhaps like Naomi it will need some unmistakable, grain-heap act of kindness, for us to see that God is not against us.

Chaos and kingship

Ruth is set in the time of the judges, when Israel had no king and everyone did what was right in their own eyes. This is an important piece of context to keep in mind. Ruth is a very un-judges like book, a balm to soothe the reader after the warfare, bloodshed and sexual indiscretions of Judges. It’s gentle, subtle, pastoral style, draws us in and causes us to reflect on what we’re reading.

But while the style of Ruth is a million miles from Judges, one of the themes of Ruth (lineage; kingship) is related.  Ruth provides the glorious answer to the chaos and carnage of a kingless nation. During the time of Judges God was working behind the scenes, preparing the ground for the coming of king David (Ruth 4:18-22). David would not just be charged with ruling the nation politically. He was called by God to reform the nation spiritually; to call Israel back to it’s Sinai roots.

Without Naomi, Ruth and what is recorded in this history, King David would never had lived. And King Jesus would never have been born (Matthew 1:1-16).

Namelessness and Redemption

Ah yes, the theme of redemption. One of the biggies in the book of Ruth. And not without good reason, for Boaz is frequently called a kinsman redeemer (Ruth 3:9). Kinsmen redeemer’s in ancient Israel were usually close family members, who would step in to save their relatives from poverty, or to save the family line from extinction. They would do this by buying back the lost family property and, in some cases, by beginning a new marriage that would bear children.

Though “strictly speaking” Boaz didn’t meet the criteria that would force him to be such a redeemer (he wasn’t the brother of the deceased; he was a distant relative; he could have argued that Ruth was a Moabite), he willingly rose to the challenge to save Naomi’s family from poverty and extinction. By paying a price and marrying Naomi’s daughter in law (Ruth 4:9,10) he brought security, hope and a future to this little family.

All of this points forward to Jesus. Jesus is the willing Redeemer who takes us as his bride and saves us from spiritual poverty. Jesus ensures that our name will be written in God’s book of life for eternity!

“Saviour In The Shadows” Review

With a little relief and a tinge of sadness, I finished Leviticus last Sunday.

Despite some unfounded fears, the studies thrilled our souls. The series were not just full of laws. They were full of the Saviour whom the laws foreshadowed.

Given that we were camped in the Old Testament there was an “unfamiliarity” that proved stimulating. The gospel was seen – but in a deeper, fuller, more radiant way. God’s purposes were also seen. Yahweh’s desire, then and now, is to dwell among a people who are holy and wholly devoted.

levOf course preaching a book like Leviticus is not without challenges. Many of the details  are initially obscure to a contemporary audience. There is the challenge of knowing how much to explain. There is also the need for apologetics whenever Leviticus seems ‘at odds’ with modern tastes.

But the challenges are worth it.  Leviticus is more than worth it’s time and toil.

In the final analysis, I covered Leviticus in 16 sermons. It doubtless could have been covered in a shorter period of time. But the length – at least for me – seemed just about right.  It certainly didn’t feel repetitive. The variety of themes is wide-ranging and intriguing.

If you would like to listen to the series, the links are available below.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Colin


1. The Burnt Offering (Leviticus ch 1)

2. The Grain Offering (Leviticus ch 2)

3. The Fellowship Offering (Leviticus 3)

4.  The Sin Offering (Leviticus 4)

5. The Guilt Offering (Leviticus 5)

6. Priests & Pointers (Leviticus 8-10)

7. Strange Fire (Leviticus 10)

8. Clean & Unclean (Leviticus 11-15)

9. The Day Of Atonement (Leviticus 16)*

*This sermon was preached by Andy MacDonald, one of our elders.

10. Blood, blood, more blood (Leviticus 17)

11. Purity (Leviticus 18)

12. Feasts & foreshadows part 1 (Leviticus 23)

13. Feasts & foreshadows part 2 (Leviticus 23)

14. Jubilee! (Leviticus 25)

15. Blessings & Curses (Leviticus 26)

16. Wholly Devoted (Leviticus 27)

Eleven Killer Questions To Ask Of A Bible Passage

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Questions are to bible study what the spade is to the archaeologist. They help us dig up hidden treasures. As we plant the shovel and find the gems, we should share the questions that aided discovery. These eleven questions have proved unusually fruitful in my study of Scripture.

1.Where does this book appear in the Bible’s plotline?

This is the first question I use to orientate myself. As I parachute down into Bible terrain I try to look around and get my bearings. The initial question needs to be: where am I?  Do I find myself in the Old or New Testament? More specifically: where exactly am I in either of those Testaments?

It will greatly aid our study to have an increasing grasp of the Bible’s plotline. For the newbie, I would highly recommend God’s Big Picture (Vaughan Roberts) or the two volumes by Mark Dever (Promises Made; Promises Kept). For a more advanced take on the plotline, check out Graham Goldsworthy.

2. Who was this book written to?

It is certainly important to ask: who wrote this book? Knowing the author can sometimes be decisive. The psalms of David, for instance, should be read in a certain way. These are not just songs and cries of any old believer; they are the songs and cries of a King who foreshadows the Messiah.

But the author isn’t always so important.  Some Bible books are formally anonymous, after all.

What often carries greater weight is the identity of the recipient.  So, it helps to understand that the original audience of..

  • the Pentateuch was the young Jewish nation, round about the time of entering Canaan…
  • …that the original audience of the Psalms were Jews, who sang these songs in a prophetic context…
  • …that Luke’s gospel was written to a man who needed greater certainty about the Christian faith….
  • …that Revelation is being written to persecuted Christians in the first century…

If we forget the original audience, our interpretation will go skew-whiff.

3. What is the book’s overall message?

We often forget to ask this vital question. Getting lost in our passage, we tend to lose sight of the overall thrust.

To uncover the overall message, we need to prayerfully read the entirety. We look for structures, developing themes and telling-statements. These in turn will lead us to the book’s big theme.

To give an example of why this matters, take 1st John. The overarching thrust is that John’s readers can have assurance of being genuine Christians. John’s recipients were living in the aftermath of certain people leaving their church. These leavers claimed to have superior spiritual knowledge, and those who stayed behind were left to question their own salvation. John assures his readers that they HAVE true fellowship with God. 1st John then, isn’t so much a challenge to John’s readers, as a comfort to them. Seeing this bigger point,  will stop us from misapplying the letter in its details. We mustn’t preach these passages as though they are frightening tests of assurance!

4. What is the wider context of each passage/verse?

The “promise box” approach to Bible study is still alive and well. People lift a Bible verse out of context and in splendid isolation ask, what does this mean? This can only lead us making up meaning!

Handling the Bible responsibly means examining each verse in the flow of the passage. So Paul’s claim that he can do everything through Christ’s strength  (Phil 4: 13) is to be understood in the flow of what he’s said before (he’s been talking about contentment in circumstances of poverty). Paul isn’t saying that in Christ he can jump over tall buildings! He’s saying he can survive through times of want.

5. What is the passage structure?

Every Bible passage has some kind of structure. We discern the structure in different ways depending on the genre:

  • If it’s a narrative…what are the turns in the plot? Where is the point of crisis? What is the great resolution?
  • If it’s an epistle: What are the steps in the argument? What is the progression of logic from a to b to c?
  • If it’s a psalm: what are the stanzas/verses? Is there a chorus line that’s repeated?  Is there a chiasm? (where the main point lies in the middle, and parallel points lie to either side)

6. What is the surprise in the passage?

Dale Ralph Davis put me on to this one.  The Bible is full of the unexpected, so we should be on the look out for it.

This is especially important when studying familiar passages. It was a surprise to me recently to notice that Elijah, in the contest at Carmel, set up what was essentially a ‘burnt offering’  (see Leviticus 1). I then started to notice other ways in which Elijah was calling Israel back to the law and old patterns of faithful worship.

7.  What is the main message of the passage? (hint: this is usually a truth about God)

Even short passages can be packed with many truths. Take Mark 4:35-41. You’ve got the disciples obeying Jesus command; you’ve got Jesus sleeping on the boat; there’s the calming of the storm, and then the disciples being confronted for their unbelief.

But what is the main point of the story? To work this out we need to grapple with

  • the overall message of Mark’s gospel (Jesus is God’s suffering servant),
  • the context of the chapter (the early part of Mark emphasises Jesus’ identity),
  • the content of chapter 4 (which has a focus on God’s word)
  • and the details of the story (Jesus controls nature with his word, and the disciples are left asking ‘who is this’?).
  • Putting all these things together, we could say that the storm stilling story reveals the God-man whose word controls creation.

8. What was the application to the original readers?

Don’t immediately ask what a Psalm means to you. Ask what it would have meant to the Jew who first sung it? The songs of ascent (Psalms 120-134) meant something to the Jews. They sang Psalm 121 with a literal foreboding of being surrounded by enemies on every side. That original experience is not meant to be glossed over.

It is equally crucial to ask this of the New Testament. What would Revelation 12 have meant to 1st century persecuted Christians? A lot of zany interpretation about Revelation would be cured instantly if we recognised that many suggested interpretations would have made no sense to the original readers!

9. How does the passage relate to Christ and then the church?

A key question to ask if we’re in the Old Testament. If I’m preaching on the temple-vision in Ezekiel (Ez 40-48) I need to think through how this is fulfilled in Christ (John 2:19) and then in the church (1 Cor 3:16). When viewed through the eyes of the NT, Ezekiel is not promising a literal, earthly temple. He is previewing a grander temple: Jesus Christ, and the church that is God’s dwelling place.

10. What is the general application to a contemporary Christian?

Before we can extrapolate the nuances of application, we need to get clear the application generally. When preaching on Leviticus 23 last Sunday I said that the application of these festivals was to rest and rejoice in Christ’s work.  Of course, how that resting and rejoicing will play out will look different for a teenager than it does for a married man or an older person. But before we can delineate those application lines, we have to know the main thrust.

11. How does the passage reform me, my church and my world?

It might be helpful to think of three concentric circles: me, my church, and my world. Of course if we are preaching we might want to expand these categories much further. But for personal bible study these will probably be enough. The latter two questions, especially, will help to push us beyond our usual individualism.

 

John Bunyan And The Hidden Perils Of Preaching

John_BunyanPreachers rarely confess this. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to look weak, or appear to be inviting self-pity. But if preachers were a tad more vulnerable they would speak more often about preaching’s hidden challenges.

The phases of exegesis and sermon-construction bring their own serious exertions, that is true. But composing the sermon can be easier than actually preaching it.  In the hours prior to the sermon we can find our hearts beset by fear and unbelief. The moment of preaching (though often wonderfully assisted) is not insulated from the attacks of the evil one. The moments after preaching can see us prone to either lofty pride on the one hand, or crushing discouragement on the other. The preacher’s position may be lofty, but like a climber, poised on a pinnacle, there are slippery slopes on every side.

Someone who feared the precipice more than most was John Bunyan. Best known for his allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan also wrote a revealing biography: Grace Abounding To The Chief Of Sinners. In this transparent testimonial Bunyan reveals his trials in relation to preaching. Bunyan’s revelations are not only fascinating. They will resonate with many 21st century expositors.

Fears beforehand that he won’t be useful or coherent

“Sometimes I should be assaulted with great discouragement therein, fearing that I should not be able to speak the Word at all to edification…that I should not be able to speak sense unto the people.”

Physical weakness during the sermon

“At which times I should have such a strange faintness and strengthlessness seize upon my body that my legs have scarce been able to carry me to the place of exercise.”

Struggling with sin in the act of preaching

“Sometimes, again, when I have been preaching, I have been violently assaulted with thoughts of blasphemy, and strongly tempted to speak the words with my mouth before the congregation.”

Losing one’s way in the middle of the sermon

“I have also at some times, even when I have begun to speak the Word with much clearness, evidence, and liberty of speech, yet been before the ending of that opportunity so blinded, and so estranged from the things I have been speaking, and have also been so straitened in my speech, as to utterance before the people, that I have been as if I had not known or remembered what I have been about, or as if my head had been in a bag all the time of the exercise.”

Feeling hypocrisy

“Again, when as sometimes I have been about to preach upon some smart and scorching portion of the Word, I have found the tempter suggest, What, will you preach this? this condemns yourself; of this your own soul is guilty; wherefore preach not of it at all; or if you do, yet so mince it as to make way for your own escape; lest instead of awakening others, you lay that guilt upon your own soul as you will never get from under.”

“But, I thank the Lord, I have been kept from consenting to these so horrid suggestions, and have rather, as Samson, bowed myself with all my might, to condemn sin and transgression wherever I found it, yea, though therein also I did bring guilt upon my own conscience! ‘Let me die,’ thought I, ‘with the Philistines’ (Judg. 16.29, 30), rather than deal corruptly with the blessed Word of God.”

Pride

“I have also, while found in this blessed work of Christ, been often tempted to pride and liftings up of heart….Christ can use…gifted men, as with them to affect the souls of His people in His church; yet when He hath done all, hang them by as lifeless, though sounding cymbals. This consideration, therefore, together with some others, were, for the most part, as a maul on the head of pride, and desire of vain glory; what, thought I, shall I be proud because I am a sounding brass? Is it so much to be a fiddle? Hath not the least creature that hath life, more of God in it than these?”

Conclusion: a call for honesty and prayer

Let me finish in a Bunyan-esque sort of way: “methinks” that we need to be more honest about our hidden struggles. Let’s talk about these challenges, at least in our preacher’s fraternals. And if you are not preacher, would you pray for us? We need your prayers in all sorts of ways.

Five Offerings That Point To One

The Bible’s epicentre is the person and work of Jesus Christ. We could unpack that a little by saying that in the Old Testament Jesus’ person and work are predicted, while in the New his person is revealed and his work accomplished.

In terms of Jesus’ work, the cross of course is key. Calvary was the supreme place where our redemption was accomplished. It was on the accursed tree that Jesus blood was shed, the blood that “obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).

Hebrews also makes it clear that Jesus sin offering was “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). The offering was unique; one-of-a-kind.

However just because of an offering a single, doesn’t imply that it is simple. Christ’s offering is multi-faceted in terms of its glory! So much is this the case that the Jewish sacrificial system had to forecast the one offering by way of five previews! No one Old Testament offering could alone encapsulate the brilliance of Christ’s atonement.

So without further ado let me  summarise the five main offerings found in Leviticus(chapters 1 -7). I’ve made some suggestions as to these offerings relate to Christ and then to the Christian/church.*Screenshot (140)

The Burnt Offering

Key features:

The basic offering that made atonement. The whole offering was burned on the altar and totally consumed. Everything goes to God.

Relation to Christ:

Christ is our burnt offering. His death made atonement for our sin. On the cross, Christ offered himself up completely. He was totally consumed but his sacrifice was pleasing to the Father.

RELATION TO THE CHRISTIAN:

Praise! “This the power of the cross, Christ became sin for us; took the blame, bore the wrath, we stand forgiven at the cross.” In view of God’s mercies, our lives are now to be wholly consecrated to God.

The Grain Offering

Key features:

The only bloodless offering. Small amount of grain burned on the altar; most of the grain eaten by the priests and their families. Emphasises the bountiful provision of God to us and our response of thanksgiving and worship.

Relation to Christ:

Jesus is the perfect grain offering. He is the bread who has come down from heaven. He is the fine flour that is offered to God: a picture of his sinless life.

RELATION TO THE CHRISTIAN:

We give thanks to God not only for the death of Christ but the life of Christ. We express thankfulness to God, not only as our Creator but as our redeemer. Note that this offering usually followed the burnt offering (ie. it was a response to the atonement that had been made). We’re in Romans 12:1-2 territory again.

The Fellowship Offering

Key features:

The only offering where the sacrifice was split three ways. Part goes to the LORD, part to the priest, and part to the worshipper. An emphasis on fellowship with God following on from atonement (burnt offering).

Relation to Christ:

Christ died in order to reconcile sinners to God. He brings us into fellowship with Himself, the Father and the Spirit.

Relation to the Christian

Fellowship with God is the goal of our salvation. Our sins having been forgiven, we have the prospect of feasting with our priest (Jesus) in the presence of the LORD. Communion is a foretaste of what is to come. The new heavens and earth is pictured as a great wedding feast.

The Sin Offering

Key features:

An offering that emphasised the need for cleansing and purification. Used for unintentional sins and also in the case of ritual uncleanness. In some cases of the sin offering, the tabernacle had to be cleansed because the priest’s sins had defiled it. This offering also involved taking part of the animal “outside the camp” to burn it.

Relation to Christ:

Jesus cleanses us from all unrighteousness. To make us clean, Jesus was taken outside the camp (Jerusalem) to be crucified.

Relation to the Christian:

Sin is an objective category (even unintentional sins need to be forgiven). We can only be cleansed through the blood of Christ. We are loved to the very core of our being (cleansed consciences).

The Guilt Offering:

KEY FEATURES:

Sometimes called the ‘reparation’ offering, this offering carried a commercial notion. Where God’s “holy things” had been wrongly taken or misused, this offering had to be made; and in any cases where an individual defrauded another financially. A ram had to be offered, the money had to be repaid in full, and a 20% additional charge had to be given on top.

Relation to Christ:

Christ is the one who pays the price for our sins. He pays not just over and above; his blood has infinite value.

Relation to the Christian:

In salvation terms, there is no more to pay…The invoice from heaven reads “paid in full.” Nevertheless, the one who has been forgiven much, loves much. A heart set free from sin will turn from sin and joyfully demonstrate both repentance and generosity. The story of Zacchaeus is exhibit A in this regard.


* Which, by the way, is how one should read Leviticus. To interpret the book properly, we need to firstly draw the line of interpretation to Christ and ask “how does he fulfil this passage?” And then, having done that, we draw the line through Christ to ourselves. On this latter point we will pay particular attention to how the NT seems to apply the Levitical ideas to the New Testament Christian.

“Leviticus!!?” “Yes, Leviticus!”

The wonderful book of Leviticus seems to both bore and baffle many Christians. Allan Moseley (in his excellent commentary) describes the challenge:

Many Christians read along swimmingly until they come to Leviticus. They read about sacrifices that are no longer offered, a priesthood that no longer exists, and laws that we are no longer to obey.

Though Moseley is undoubtedly right, it is nothing short of a crying shame that any Christian should avoid Leviticus. I am so convinced of this that I will be starting a new series on Sunday. Yes, we are going to be studying Leviticus!

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Given that many preachers avoid Leviticus (and many who don’t then wish they had!) I thought I would blog a bit about the process. Nothing I share will be terribly profound but I hope it might encourage other preachers to “have a go” at this book. Let’s start with some…

Reasons to preach Leviticus

As well as being part of God’s ‘expired’ Word (2 Timothy 3:16), here are three other reasons to be preaching Leviticus:-

  1. Leviticus gives you a better understanding of the whole BibleHave you considered how many Bible concepts originate in Leviticus? The answer is ‘quite a lot’! Consider the fact that the sacrificial system, the priesthood, the operation of the Tabernacle/temple, the day of atonement, the food laws, the cleanliness laws, and most of the Jewish festivals…all emerge from the book of Leviticus! Understand Leviticus and you will be well on your way to understanding the other 65 books.
  2. Leviticus gives you a bigger view of sin. Sin according to Leviticus is a HUGE problem. Leviticus begins with God in the midst, but man outside the tent (Lev 1 v 1)! To gain access to God, Israel’s sin will need to be atoned for. But atonement will only come at the highest of costs: sacrifice, blood-shedding, death! When we read the book of Leviticus we get a sense of the scale and seriousness of sin. It is a really BIG deal. That’s not a bad thing to remember in a culture where sin is  dismissed and downplayed.
  3. Leviticus gives you a brilliant (shadowy) preview of God’s solution to sin. How can a holy God dwell among an unholy people? How can an unholy people have access to a holy God? The solution is brilliantly previewed in the book of Leviticus: i.e. a substitutionary sacrifice, made by a priest on the day of atonement!!

Title

Before settling on a title, I played around with a number of possible themes. Many series’ on Leviticus emphasise the holiness of God (eg. ‘Holy God, holy people’), but I decided that I wanted to keep the atonement-theme central to the series. I want to drive home the concept that Christ is the fulfilment of all we find in Leviticus. The ‘shadows’ idea comes, of course, from Hebrews 10:1, and speaks to the fact that Leviticus is a brilliant, yet shadowy preview of the Saviour who is to come. The excellent graphic above, by the way, was created by a talented artist in our church (Kirsty McAllister) who developed the motif in picture form. More of her work can be found here.

Outline of series

I am not preaching the whole book – but neither am I doing a short series. There is too much good stuff that I don’t want to miss out!  So the series looks like this:

  1. The burnt offering (Lev 1)
  2. The grain offering (Lev 2)
  3. The fellowship offering (Lev 3)
  4. The sin offering (Lev 4)
  5. The guilt offering (Lev 5)
  6. Priests and pointers (Lev 8)
  7. Strange fire (Lev 10)
  8. Unclean, unclean! (Lev 11)
  9. The day of atonement (Lev 16)
  10. Blood, blood, more blood (Lev 17)
  11. Purity (Lev 18)
  12. Feasts and foreshadows (Lev 23:1-14)
  13. Feasts and foreshadows part 2 (Lev 23:15-44)
  14. Jubilee (Lev 25)
  15. Rewards and punishments (Lev 26)
  16. Wholly devoted (Lev 27)

Resources

There are four main books I am using. The first pair will assist me more with the exegesis, the second duo mainly with the application. Of course, we preachers need a good balance between both sorts of books.

Leviticus – Gordon Wenham

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Holiness to the Lord – Allen P Ross

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Exalting Jesus in Leviticus – Alan Moseley

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Holy God, holy people – Kenneth Matthews

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Applying Leviticus today

This is the main thing I have been forced to think through in preparation, and it seems to me that there are at least three rails to run our applications along:

a) Christ-centred applications.  Our first line of application must surely be to Christ. Leviticus is a shadowy preview of our saviour Jesus’ work.

When we see the offerings in Leviticus, we see a fore-shadow of Jesus’ offering and sacrifice…

When we see priests in Leviticus, we see the shadowy outline of Jesus, the mediator between God and men…

When we see cleanliness laws and food laws, we see the shadowy outline of Jesus who was not just clean but Holy…

When we see the day of atonement, at the centre of Leviticus, we see a shadowy preview of the day of atonement when God’s nation (the church) would be redeemed through a scapegoat…

And when we see the festivals and Jewish holy days, we see a shadowy outline of Christ….who is our Passover lamb, our Sabbath rest, and the firstfruits of those who will rise from the dead!

b) Levitical language applications. A great deal of Levitical language is used throughout the New Testament. We are commanded, for example, to offer our bodies as ‘living sacrifices ‘(Romans 12:1) and to ‘offer to God the sacrifice of praise’ (Heb 13:5). We are invited to draw near to God (Heb 10:22) with our hearts sprinkled and our bodies washed with pure water. We are called ‘a royal priesthood’ and ‘a holy nation’ (1 Peter 2:9), called to ‘be holy’ even as God is holy (Lev 19:2, 1 Peter 1:16-17).

c) Abiding principle applications.  I’m not going to get bogged down in the thorny question of how exactly the Old Testament laws apply today. However, every Christian would agree that at least some of the Levitical laws cannot be directly drawn across to the Christian. That being the case, I find it useful to ask the question: what principle lies behind this particular law? Take the food laws, for example. A Christian today no longer needs to resist pork. But it’s still worth asking ‘what principle lay behind that law’? Certainly the food laws were partly designed to make Israel distinctive from all the other nations. God’s people weren’t to look like everyone else, and the food laws ensured that, in a practical way. So the principle is one of being distinctive. Does the New Testament say anything about the church living distinctively? Very much so! That is a line of application that we can develop.

 

5 Bible Inputs To Grow, Grow, Grow

People grow in relation to what they eat.  At my stage in life (I like to think I’m at the lower end of mid-life) that growth happens entirely in an outward direction.  But in the younger years of life,  a child sprouts upwards as they eat.

The equation is as simple as it is double-edged.  A child who feeds well,  grows well.  The child who eats little doesn’t.

The same holds true in the spiritual realm. If we want to ‘stretch’  in our likeness to Jesus then the Scriptures must become our regular diet.

It is helpful to remind ourselves that the Bible is no ordinary book.  The 66 books which comprise it are nothing less than God’s words. These words are personal and powerful,  they are life giving and life sustaining.

You can easily last a week without reading a newspaper. But you cannot so easily neglect the Bible. Poor eating habits will eventually lead to spiritual malnourishment.

Yet even once we establish our need for Scripture a practical question arises:  How do we best feed upon God’s Word? What is our dietary plan?

Speaking at a recent conference, Rico Tice talked about reading the Bible on four different levels.¹ I am going to borrow his framework and develop it in my own way.  So here are five Bible inputs that will help you grow upwards in Christ.

Level One: Preaching

There is more to Christian living than sermons but there certainly isn’t less. According to the New Testament preaching matters. Paul’s dying charge to Timothy was to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). I have always found it striking that out of all the things Paul could have said,  he chose to emphasise preaching.

God’s people,  it seems,  are in desperately in need of preaching. They may not even know it but the Word regularly explained and applied is the means of equipping them for doing works of service (Ephesians 4 v 11-12).

It is possible that I may have heard thousands of sermons in my lifetime. Most of them I cannot remember, but I know those sermons have shaped me in a thousand different ways. Without those sermons I would be much the poorer in my walk with Christ.

So, find yourself a church where the Bible is faithfully preached and go to that church every Sunday. Do it –  your soul will thank you for it!

Level Two: Group

Whether you call them small groups, life groups, community groups or cell groups, a smaller meeting of Christians can bring many benefits. In our church, we meet fortnightly in groups of 10 to 20 people.

Small groups have a number of important priorities² but one of them  is to discuss and apply the Bible. Unlike a sermon a small group is interactive. You have the opportunity to ask questions. You also have the benefit of hearing insights from a wider range of people.

So if you’re not part of a community group, consider joining one this year.

Level Three: One to One

In the last few decades the Church has woken up to the benefits of one to one discipleship. Whether it’s with an older Christian, a younger Christian or a non-Christian, opening the Bible one to one has meant benefits . It allows for an authenticity that is not possible even in a small group.

So why not consider meeting up someone weekly or fortnightly with the sole purpose of meeting to study the Bible.

Is there an older Christian who you feel could help disciple you? Is there a new believer who might benefit from your encouragement? Is there an unbelieving friend who you could lead through a gospel?

The Word one to one is a great plug-and-play resource for evangelistic one to one’s. Another useful book is David Helm’s One to One Bible Reading – A Simple Guide To Every Christian.

Level Four: Personal

This is the one we all know about: the ironically quiet time’ (which properly done is anything but quiet!).  How can we make the most of this time of hearing from God and responding in prayer?

Follow a plan

There are dozens of good Bible reading plans . The beauty of it is that you can choose the one that fits you best. Depending on the time you have available , here are just some of the possibilities:

  • One chapter a day plan. Alternatives between Old and New Testaments.
  • McCheyne’s 4 chapters a day (1 year to complete). Covers the Old Testament once per year and the New Testament and Psalms twice. Some people do it over 2 years at a pace of 2 chapters a day, rather than 4.
  • Professor Grant Horner’s plan (90 days to complete). This is for the slightly crazy people – or at least those who have more time on their hands! It is 10 chapters a day (yes 10!) and you need about 45 minutes per day to complete it. Needless to say, it doesn’t lend itself to in depth study. However, many people have actually found this plan helpful in short doses. It will give you a sweeping overview of the whole Bible.
  • Read at your own pace plan. Exactly what it says on the tin!

I would also strongly recommend the Olive Tree Bible App (android/ ipad).  Many of the plans above are already installed on the App.  I find it an easier way than paper to keep track of where I am.

What if I struggle to read?

 A lot of people find reading difficult. This emphasises why the likes of sermons, small groups and one to one’s are so important. However all is not lost if you really struggle to read.

Consider listening to the Bible. None less than David Suchet will read the Bible to you on BibleGateway! There are also similar Apps that can be downloaded for this sort of thing.

Level Five: Family

This final one is for mums and dads. If you have kids, you will want to establish some sort of  bible input in the context of home .  I know it isn’t easy to do and in my earlier years as a parent I struggled to maintain consistency with leading family devotions .

Nail down a time

We do daily devotions on Monday’s through Fridays. On Saturday we take a rest, and on Sunday we have church. Over the last few years the weekday mornings have worked best for us. We sit down at 5 past 8, at the tail end of breakfast, and spend about 10-15 minutes reading a bible passage, discussing it together (usually me asking the children questions) and then praying for the day ahead.

Other families say that mornings don’t work for them at all. Our children’s ages and stages come into it, as does the working pattern of the parents – so one size will never fit all.

It may be that after dinner in the evening is more appropriate. Or before bed. And for some families, daily devotions may not be a reasonable target (I know some families who do it once or twice a week). The key thing is to schedule something in and make it part of your routine.

Lots of good resources

Obviously, you could just open a bible passage and have a chat with your kids about it. But many parents feel inadequate in doing this. It is therefore a great boon to have so many great resources available to help us.

In our home  we have used The Big Picture Story Bible, the Jesus Story Book Bible, and are currently quite far through the double volume set “Long Story Short” and “Old Story New.” The Good Book Company also have a raft of resources.

A Year For Growth?

2017 is almost upon us. I wonder by the end of the year, how much you and I will have grown? The answer will be no doubt dependent on how much you eat.

 

 

¹ West of Scotland Gospel Partnership meeting, 3rd September 2016.

² We talk about SPACE. Scriptural focus. Prayer. Accountability. Community. Evangelism.

Preachers, Plagiarism And What To Do With My Peter O’Brien Commentaries

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was shocked and saddened.

To hear that some of Peter O’Brien’s commentaries were being ‘pulled’ by his publisher was a bit of a blow. If you are not aware of what I’m talking about, let me briefly fill you in on the story…

hebrews1The commentaries under scrutiny are Peter O’Brien’s treatments of Ephesians, Philippians and Hebrews. In many people’s opinion, these are some of the finest commentaries in their field. I have used all of them with enormous profit. I have preached through Hebrews and Ephesians with more than a little help from these rich and insightful commentaries. They are not just good – they are simply outstanding.

However on August the 15th 2016  Wm. B. Eerdmans released this bombshell:

Eerdmans editors compared the text of The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary, 2010) with various secondary sources and submitted findings to external experts for verification. Summing up the findings, Editor-in-chief James Ernest said, “Our own editors and our outside consultants agreed that what we found on the pages of this commentary runs afoul of commonly accepted standards with regard to the utilization and documentation of secondary sources. We agreed that the book could not be retained in print. Examination of the same author’s Letter to the Ephesians (PNTC, 1999) and Epistle to the Philippians (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 1991) found them less pervasively flawed but still untenable.

Peter O’Brien, apparently, was presented with these findings. He responded with the following admission:

“In the New Testament commentaries that I have written, although I have never deliberately misused the work of others, nevertheless I now see that my work processes at times have been faulty and have generated clear-cut, but unintentional, plagiarism. For this I apologize without reservation.”

From this statement – and what I can glean elsewhere – it appears that some of the ‘technical’ sections of the commentaries have been inadvertently (according to O’Brien) plagiarised from other commentators. I personally don’t find it much of a ‘stretch’ to imagine this being quite possible. One could easily imagine, perhaps, O’Brien taking copious notes from commentaries maybe decades before – and then later, when coming to write a commentary, losing track of where the original notes came from.

This is not to excuse the error. Rigour in checking sources is one of the requirements for any successful scholar. But even scholars are human. Quite possibly this is a case of poor scholarship, rather than a blatant attempt to ape someone else’s work.

The situation is sad in more ways than one. On a personal level, I have heard only good things about Peter O’Brien the man. I know friends who have sat under his tutelage at Moore Theological College in Sydney who speak of him in the highest regard. On the one occasion where I have heard him speak, I was impressed by both his grasp of Ephesians as well as his gracious manner. I can only hope that this incident will be viewed with charity as well as discernment.

It is also distressing from the point of view of the commentaries themselves. Because of what has occurred, the publisher has indicated that sales of the commentaries will cease. The remaining stocks will be mashed to pulp. This may be the right thing to do; I am not criticising it. But it is a desperate situation.

Can plagiarism be a problem for preachers? I’m pretty sure it can be. Indeed all this recent controversy triggered a memory for me…Quite a number of years ago, I found myself on the receiving end of some “sermon plagiarism.” A man from another country contacted me by letter, admitting that he had plagiarised some of my sermons and others of my colleague. An entire series had been listened to on the church website. The sermons had then been written down and preached word for word in the man’s own church. A guilty conscience eventually got to him and he confessed to his elders. He then wrote me a subsequent letter of apology.

I was shocked. In the first instance I was stunned by the fact that someone had bothered stealing my sermons! (if I was Tim Keller, I mightn’t have been so surprised!). But it did raise the troubling question, in the age of the internet how many preachers are actually preaching other people’s sermons? If they were put through the plagiarism checker, how many sermons would be in danger of falling foul?

I heard an anecdote from a preacher-friend who said he was visiting a church on holiday. He arrived in this random church, only to hear a sermon from John Stott. Not the actual John Stott, you understand. No John Stott’s Ephesians commentary was being preached from the pulpit! My friend knew the Stott commentary well enough to recognise it!

Now let’s be clear about this: every preacher is a plagiariser to some extent. We might call ourselves plagiarisers with a small p, rather than Plagiarisers with a capital P. In my own preparation, I am indebted to commentaries and sermons that aid my understanding and stimulate my thinking. Every sermon that I preach is in some measure the product of an extended conversation with others. Do I have an original thought in my head? Probably not.

However there is a difference – and it isn’t really a fine one – between conversing with other people’s material, and using it verbatim. That, fellow pastors, isn’t learning from others – that is stealing.

So practically speaking, how can we steer clear of this sort of thing? At times I feel this is easier said than done. Facing the pressures of a busy week, we can face the strong temptation to borrow a passage from here and another passage from there.

What will help us then to stay on the right side of the line?

  • Have a basic commitment not to plagiarise. Decide that its wrong, and never soften that conviction (even if its Saturday and your staring at a white sheet of paper!).
  • Be ruthlessly honest with God, yourself and others. 
  • Believe that God has called you to be in ministry. That means God must have gifted you for the task. (And  if you don’t feel you are gifted to prepare sermons, then why are you a full-time bible teacher?)
  • Put your study notes/commentaries away when you actually come to write your sermon out. This is what I do. It helps me find my own voice in the sermon.
  • Put things across your way. Yes, even if you are not as eloquent as a D.A Carson or a John Stott. You might not write or speak as eloquently as them, but at least it will be you who is preaching.
  • Let the congregation know when you are quoting. It is OK to borrow things – providing you own up. I have, on more than one occasion, told the congregation that I am using some other preacher’s headings. And there is no crime in saying:  “John Stott puts things better than I can when he says…”
  • Remember, its not a competition.
  • If you feel a strong temptation to plagiarise, or if you have plagiarised, seek immediate help. Pray about it. If its relevant, repent of it, and talk to your fellow leaders about it. Discuss it with someone you trust and ask the question: what is driving this desire to plagiarise?

There are probably others things that could be added. But these are at some of the tactics I am seeking to employ in a YouTube world.

And what about those Peter O’Brien commentaries?

I reckon I’ll keep them. I can’t escape the fact that I have found them incredibly useful. To throw them out would be like tossing out the best tool in my tool box – a tool that has helped me solve many a problem.

So they will remain on my shelf. But I suppose every time I open them, I will be reminded of the dangers of plagiarism.