2020 Foresight

One of my admittedly few goals for 2020 (I’m not a big resolutions guy, but that’s another story) is to blog a fair bit more. Over the past three months, in a number of unsolicited conversations with pastors, I have been reminded of the blog and urged strongly to get myself writing more frequently.

Feeling suitably chastised, here I am.

A quirky problem I have is that I prefer to produce more substantial posts. But in the busyness of life and ministry, this can lead, unsurprisingly, to an inevitable outcome: not much blogging. So my thought this year is to produce briefer, less well crafted pieces, that will nonetheless seek to get the point across.

Some topics of interest to me just now include :

  • the practicalities of preaching Christ in every sermon
  • improving my interpretation and application of narratives
  • how to address controversial matters in sermons
  • the place of passion and how to cultivate it authentically
  • moving our sermons from Sunday only events to pervading the church week
  • dealing with distractions in the moment of preaching.

I’d love to hear (either in the comments or by personal dm) what topics you’d like to see me blog about in 2020?

What are we all wrestling with in our preaching at the moment?

That Might Preach, But…

I once preached a sermon on the Magi where I dazzled the congregation. I walked them through the Magi’s gifts and explained their deeper meaning. Gold, of course, represented Jesus’ royalty. Incense his deity; and myrrh the looming spectre of his death.

It ‘preached’ pretty well but I remember feeling uneasy. Was this really what I should have been preaching from that text?

Many Christmas puddings later I now have an inkling why I felt that way. The message was exegetically unstable. Or put another way: I am now far less certain that Matthew or the Holy Spirit intended us to see these deeper meanings.

In his writings on Matthew, Don Carson expressed the same view with more dogmatism:

Commentators old and modern have found symbolic value in the three gifts… This interpretation demands too much insight from the Magi. The three gifts were simply expensive and not uncommon presents and may have helped finance the trip to Egypt.

Oh well, then.

(cue sound of sermon notes being scrumpled)

I strongly suspect that Carson is right, but what I’m really interested in is a wider problem. In our desire to make Scripture ‘preachable’ we import uncertain meanings into the text, while ignoring glorious truths that are actually there.

Take the Magi and Matthew 2 for instance. In this famous Christmas passage there are least six emphases nearer to the forefront of Matthew’s mind.

1.Promises of the coming Davidic King are now being fulfilled. Note the significance of Jesus’ birthplace and the allusion to a messianic prophecy (Numbers 24).

2. The contrast between Jewish and pagan responses to Christ’s birth. There is hostility and apathy on the one hand; fascination and worship on the other.

3. Gentile inclusion in the promises of God. This is also suggested in the genealogy of chapter 1 and is a concluding emphasis in Matthew’s gospel (go make disciples of all nations).

4. The Messiah is worshiped. The pagans were unlikely to have viewed Jesus as divine, but they “worshiped better than they knew.” (Carson)

5. There is an echo of Pharaoh’s attempt in Exodus to destroy Hebrew male children and the line of promise. There is, like that occasion, divine preservation. But the Bethlehem persecution anticipates the later plot to kill Jesus as a man.

6. A new exodus is underway. The star goes before the Magi like the cloud went before the Israelites. Jesus will be taken to Egypt like Joseph was in the book of Genesis. He will come out of Egypt, go through water, endure a wilderness before coming to a mountain (Matthew 5).

We’ve only scratched the surface of the Magi and Matthew 2. But the point I wanted to make has hopefully been demonstrated. In stressing ideas that are tenuous at best, we are in danger of missing out on meanings that are there.

We must preach the Word, not conjecture. And there’s no holiday from that, even at Christmas.

So What? A Seminar On Application (MP3)

Here is the recent seminar I ran on application with some of the guys at church. Listen or download here.

Some of what we covered:

  • 1:07 – Few helps in application
  • 3:20 – No conscious method
  • 5:39 – Application is a ‘confrontational act’
  • 7:33 – Why application is essential (a reflection on 2 Timothy 3:15-17 – what has God designed the Bible to do?)
  • 12:42 – A brief analysis of Jonty Allcock’s introduction to Luke 5:1-11 (EMA 2016).
  • 15:02 – The “explanation focused” sermon vs the “application focused” sermon.
  • 21:23 – Principle 1: The better the interpretation, the better the application
  • 27:11 – Principle 2: Apply to the whole person.
  • 29:32 – Principle 3: Apply to a wide range of people and situations (Application grid/ don’t just preach to yourself).
  • 32:30 – Principle 4: Know the difference between a clear principle and a general ideal.
  • 35:35 – Principle 5: Preach against your natural tendency.
  • 37: 15 – Quick fire suggestions (Put application into your sermon headings / Frontload the application / Consider ‘minor aps’/ Illustrations can be the application/ Questions are powerful / Leave your notes / Listen to those who apply well).

Questions to the Preacher #1 – Did the Trinity Rupture At The Cross? :


Let’s start with the basic answer: no, the Trinity did not rupture at the cross. While the Bible makes astonishing claims about Calvary, it never goes so far as to state that there was a fundamental breach within the Trinity. If we think about it – metaphysically and logically – it is impossible for the Father and Son to be divided in their ‘being’. There is only one God, which means you cannot split the Godhead apart, any more than you could divide up your body and still have one unified entity. A fundamental breach of the eternal union between Father and Son would mean the discombobulation of the universe!


Another way we might err is in imagining that the Father and Son are at war on the cross. Yet the cross is not – if I might use a pop-culture reference – “The Trinity: Civil War.”  Scripture is clear that to redeem a lost world, the Father and Son were united in loving purpose  (Luke 22:42, John 5:19, John 10:18, John 17:20-23). To quote the erudite John Calvin: “There is no suspicion anywhere in the New Testament of discord between the Father and the Son, whether by the Son wresting forgiveness from the Father or by the Father demanding a sacrifice from unwilling Son…On the contrary, their wills coincided in the perfect self-sacrifice of love.” ¹


Notwithstanding all the above, we affirm that Jesus did however experience a genuine sense of God-forsakenness. The word experience here is important, for some will argue that the unbreakable eternal union between Father and Son excludes the idea that Jesus experienced God-forsakeness. But to the contrary, the sheer strength of biblical language suggests a true degree of anguish. To be “smitten by God” (Is 53:4), to be “crushed” (Is 53:11), to “become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13) and “made sin” (2 Cor 5:21), all imply an experience of anguish and horror that is not just a legal fiction. Furthermore, Jesus’ reaction when he contemplated drinking the cup of wrath  (Mat 26:36-46) should tell us all we need to know about the genuineness of his anguish.


A final thing that will help us is if we can gain a better understanding of Christ’s person and role. Thoughtful bible-readers have long spoken of Christ as being one person, having two distinct natures (divine and human).² These natures cannot be divided, but they can be distinguished. Applied to the cross, we could argue that the forsakeness pertains primarily to the human nature of Christ. Of course, Christ’s divinity and humanity cannot be divided – so it would not necessarily be wrong to say that “God [in Jesus] was forsaken on the cross.” However, the point I’m making is that Jesus is being forsaken as he suffers in our place as a human representative. God for sakes Christ Jesus, the man who represents us as the mediator between God and sinners.³ This is not to say that Christ’s divinity wasn’t crucial for redemption’s accomplishment; only that Christ’s rejection by God was due to him adopting our human nature.


So in summary, the eternal Trinity did not rupture on the cross. That would be metaphysically impossible and theologically incoherent.  At the same time the forsakenness Jesus experienced on the cross was real. God the Son took on human flesh, and for a hellish moment in history, the Father turned his face away from the sinner’s representative.


¹ Quote in John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p151).

² ” So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.” (Westminster Confession, Ch 8.2)

³ Notice that Psalm 22 is not cast in the form “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me”, but “My God, my God”, since it is Jesus in his position as human representative who is experiencing the God-forsakeness. Similarly in Isaiah 53 there is an emphasis on the humanity of the servant (Is 53:2-4).














Unwrapping Revelation

I’m having a rather strange afternoon and an even stranger Christmas. While Christmas lights twinkle in the corner of my eye, my head is stuck in commentaries on Revelation.


It’s not normally what I do in the month when Christmas jingles hum away in the background. It’s just that we’re planning to preach Revelation in the first half of 2019.

Given the magnitude of the material, I’m doing a ‘tad’  more than usual in forward prep.

So for those who might be interested (and hopefully that’s every Bible reader!) let’s see if we can ‘unwrap’ Revelation just a little. This book is one of God’s greatest gifts to the church!

Reading Revelation Well

1. Our conviction should be that Revelation is just that – a revelation (or disclosure) from God. Thus while some things are hard to interpret, Revelation does not present itself as an impenetrable book. God is not trying to bamboozle us. 

2. Allied to the first point,  the major themes of Revelation are mainstream. Its big ideas aren’t novel. Or quirky. One could could even argue that Revelation is a summary and climax of  Biblical story and  doctrine. Creation; divine sovereignty; Christ’s death, resurrection and return; the overcoming of evil; the victory of the church; the final judgement and new creation – these are not exactly new themes! It’s true they are presented in an unusual and climactic form. But behind the strange imagery is glorious old Bible and gospel. 

3. The overall purpose of Revelation (to present suffering believers with a vision of God’s purposes that will sustain them to remain faithful to the Lamb) must constantly be borne in mind. Without this purpose anchoring us Revelation quickly becomes academic and speculative. Worse still,  a little knowledge of Revelation can translate (and inflate!) into a big head. So we read Revelation for kudos, to impress our friends with our ‘eschatology’ (see how I wowed you with that big word?).

Yet Revelation isn’t designed to grow our ego. It is meant to enliven our faith, strengthen our perseverance and enrich our worship. 

4. Revelation combines three ‘genres’ from a literature standpoint, and each of these genres is significant.

Remembering that Revelation is a letter will keep us from de-historicizing it. 

Remembering that Revelation is an apocalypse will keep us from over-literalising it (it is highly symbolic, though the symbols do have reference reality).

Remembering that Revelation is prophecy will keep us from de-supernaturalising it (it is God’s word spoken into the present and future).


5. Whatever interpretation approach we lean to (there are at least four main ones), there is probably some truth in each of them.

Clearly, parts of Revelation need to be seen in light of their first century background (Preterist). There are undoubtedly many predictions about the future (Futurist). Revelation does have applications to every age of church history (Historicist – though I do not think Revelation is prophesying the entire church age). And yes,, there are certainly big ideas that are meant to instruct the church (Idealist).

This is not to suggest that we should minimise  differences between interpretations. It is only to say that they shouldn’t be presented as entirely separate options. For myself, I am probably a blend of Preterist, Idealist and Futurist perspectives. Yet I think that any of these approaches, taken to an extreme, can restrict and skew the correct interpretation of certain passages. We must let the text lead us to whatever it leads. 

6. The structure of the book is difficult to discern, but we can certainly note the letter’s opening and closing, the introductory vision and letters (ch 1-3), the opening vision of God’s throne (ch 4-5), the visions that focus largely on God’s purposes being worked out in destruction (6-20) and in a new heaven and new earth (21-22).

There is a growing consensus that chapters 4-5 are something of an introduction to the following visions. They establish the hidden spiritual reality of God’s sovereignty in creation, redemption and judgement. In the rest of Revelation, we see God through Christ bringing to pass his sovereign purposes. It is also often argued that the number 7 is significant in the book’s structure. It may be that the book has seven or even eight sections (among others, Revelation scholar Greg Beale argues this). 

7. The order of the book is not entirely chronological. As is true in other apocalyptic writings, Revelation seems at times to ‘spiral’. There is a cyclical nature to it. The ‘end’ seems to come more than once in the book! Rev 11:15-20 seems a particularly clear example of the final end of history. Yet the visions and the book continue! 

8. The Old Testament is an interpretive key to Revelation. There are more than 400 Old Testament ‘allusions’ (not quotes) in the book. It is important that we don’t simply guess at what the images in Revelation may mean. We should ask: where have we seen this image before in the Bible? (eg. The vision of Christ in Revelation 1 uses images largely drawn from the book of Daniel). 

9. We should interpret the text symbolically (not literally) unless shown otherwise. This is a highly significant choice in terms of interpretation. Some readers take the opposite approach: they assume a literal interpretation unless they are forced to interpret symbolically. 

Everyone accepts that there is at least some symbolism in Revelation. For example, everyone recognises that the slain lamb is symbolic of Christ, and not an actual lamb. Yet more literal interpreters refuse to recognise that most of the book is symbol-laden. 

In my opinion, this literal approach fails to recognise the genre. We wouldn’t read poetry in a rigidly literal way. Nor should we do so with apocalypic/prophetic material. 

Note: Recognising symbolism is not the same as saying that there is no literal meaning beneath the symbol. Christ isn’t a physical lamb, yet the image has real meaning (he was slain as our perfect substitute sacrifice).


10. There will inevitably be some points of disagreement when it comes to understanding Revelation. Some see much of Revelation as being fulfilled in a coming tribulation at the time of Christ’s return. Some discern a future millennium period when Christ will return on earth. Others see none of these things.

We need to lay out alternative views respectfully. We need to argue our own position, and recognise the points of agreement where we can.

This is where the Idealist approach can prove helpful. People of different end times convictions can still rejoice in the overarching thought of Christ’s reign (Revelation 20), or speak of the need to persevere through trials and tribulations, or agree that (however it will happen) Christ is coming again. 

I heard of a seminary professor who totally disagreed with the Left Behind books. Despite his reservations, he wasn’t that bothered that his kids were reading them. He would share his different views if they asked, but was happy that they were growing in their longing for Christ’s return.

11. At the end of the day, this is difficult stuff. We’re not going to get all of it right. We need to be humble about the conclusions we reach.

But we also need to see that much (even most?) of Revelation isn’t controversial.

The Lamb wins.

Surely we can all agree on that and be encouraged! 


How about preaching a Bible Overview?

This post comes from John Percival, pastor of Ambassador International Church in Hong Kong.

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Many of us are used to a Bible Overview being taught through reading books, seminars, or Christian education classes. However, how about preaching a Bible Overview from the pulpit? We decided to do this recently. Here are some tips and reflections from our experience:

  1. We used an idea that originated with Andrew Reid (currently principal of the Evangelical Theological College of Asia) of eleven “Big Moments in God’s Story.” We preached one per week, looking at: creation, fall, promise, exodus, conquest, kingship, exile, return, cross, gospel and new creation. Of course, you could choose your own. However, this felt like enough of an overview without sacrificing too much detail. You can find the sermons and passages here.
  1. This was hard work. Sermon preparation time was more than normal. The main challenge was the amount of material to grasp before formulating an outline. I found it helpful to read as much of the Bible as I could for the relevant sections – easy for creation or the fall – less possible for the prophets!
  1. We wrote small group material to accompany the series. This gave our people an extra opportunity to interact with the sermons and gave the whole church a feeling of learning together. To ensure continuity, we cancelled two of our monthly prayer meetings to make sure all our small groups got a clear run at the material. Uploading the sermons promptly meant that anyone who missed the sermon could listen online before their group met.
  1. One challenge was the constant need to look both backwards and forwards in each sermon – i.e. backwards towards God’s promises to Abraham, and also forwards towards their fulfillment. This was even true for the life of Christ – which not only fulfills the Old Testament promises but also, of course, anticipates the new creation. Keeping the overview in view is important, especially for those who are visitors or might have missed the preceding week.
  1. This series was a good opportunity to hit “big picture” applications. These included:
  • See your little story as part of God’s big story
  • Learn to view God’s story as one story focused on Christ
  • Grow in reading your Bible in context – especially the Old Testament
  • Redefine your priorities now in the light of the future new creation
  • Remember that an application can be a “knowledge” application that changes our thinking – it doesn’t have to focus on our actions.
  1. We needed to make some tough choices in order to keep the story side of things moving. In the end, wisdom literature, much of the prophets, and in-depth teaching on the application of the Law were all casualties.
  1. There are some great resources available: Vaughan Roberts’ “God’s Big Picture” and Graham Goldsworthy’s “Gospel and Kingdom” are standard issue. Less well-known are Tim Chester’s “From Creation to New Creation” and Michael Lawrence’s “Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church.” We also encouraged families to engage with the series through “The Jesus Storybook Bible” by Sally Lloyd-Jones.
  1. We prayed for “light bulb moments” among our people as they saw how the Bible fitted together. For some, it helped them to get the main events of salvation history in the right order. For others, they came to realize that the Bible is fundamentally a book about God.

I was nervous about preaching this series, especially as I couldn’t find many examples of others tackling a Bible Overview on a Sunday morning. However, I’m really glad we did. I saw many connections I had never seen before, and believe it enriched the spiritual lives of many. At the moment, many of us will be planning our preaching schedule for next year. If so, how about including a Bible Overview?

Preacher Workshops – Glasgow & Edinburgh

2Tim4_logo_940x1982018 is just over the horizon. That means that church leaders such as myself, need to be getting ourselves into gear with regards to sermon planning.

The 2 Timothy 4 Trust wants to help us in this task. They are running two repeat seminars on Saturday mornings in November 2017, one in Glasgow the other in Edinburgh.

Peter Grainger, former pastor of Charlotte Chapel, will provide a seminar on planning a healthy preaching diet. I will then have the privilege of sharing some lessons learned from preaching a series on Leviticus. There will also be an opportunity for group discussion to cross-fertilise ideas in the field of sermon-series planning.

So the dates are…

  • Saturday 11th November – Greenview Evangelical Church, Glasgow (9.30-12.30)
  • Saturday 25th November – Charlotte Baptist Chapel, Edinburgh (9.30-12.30)

To book your place, email peter@2tim4.org. The event is free of charge.


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.


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.


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:


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.