Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Bend or bring?

One of the most enjoyable days of my school year was Ministry Leadership Day. In March, a day was set aside for pastors, teachers, and students to learn about an aspect of ministry. The theme this year was doxology; in other words, worship.

The session* given by our President, Dr. Reed, focused on how preaching is doxology. I am not a pastor, but I am a teacher, and as a teacher, I want my teaching to be an act of worship. Dr. Reed opened up the message by stating that not all preaching is doxology. Using John 7:14-18, he outlined what is necessary for preaching to be doxology:  1) the speaker speaks God's words, and 2) the speaker seeks God's glory. In the context of the first point, he referenced Haddon Robinson who said that the test of expository teaching is this:
Do you bend your thoughts to the text or do you bring your thoughts to the text?
That quotation has stayed with me all semester. And I think that test is one we need to apply to ourselves in contexts other than teaching and preaching. I think it should be asked every time we claim our words are based on the Word of God.

Bending my thoughts to the text implies I may have to yield to the text; that I may have to change how I think. If I give my thoughts equal weight to the text, my teaching is no longer an act of worship. Once I start putting my toughts above text, I am not teaching for God's glory by my own.
In John 7:18 we read: "He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but he who is seeking the glory of the One who sent him, he is true, and there is no unrighteousness in him." Every time we speak forth Scripture, it is good to pray for pure motives, to ask God to forgive us for times when we are seeking our own glory rather than his.

There are times when we teach and we already have an agenda in mind. We have something we're all fired up about, and we want to take that agenda and run with it. Oh, we find Scripture to support our views, but it wasn't where we began. To be able to bend our thoughts to Scripture, we seek Scripture first. We ask ourselves, "What does Scripture say?" As we strive to ensure that we learn to bend our thoughts to Scripture, we must first do two things:

Acknowledge our pre-suppositions


We all have pre-suppositions. If we have been in the Church for a while, or have been in a denominational tradition all of our lives, much of how we perceive Scripture will be influenced by how we've been taught. It's unavoidable. We have to be willing to lay aside our pre-suppositions and look at the text honestly. We don't look to Scripture to have our pre-suppositions confirmed. Laying aside those pre-conceived ideas requires humility, because we may have to consider that we are wrong, and being wrong is not always enjoyable.

Understand the focus of Scripture


Scripture is not about me. It is not about you. There is a temptation to believe that we, as God's people, are the central characters. While we are beneficiaries of the central story of the Bible, the story of redemption, we are not the the main characters of the story. God is not incidental in the redemptive story of man; he is the central focus. It will be difficult for me to avoid bringing my own agenda to Scripture unless I see first and foremost that this is a book about Christ.

Dr. Reed said that every preacher (and by implication, teacher) is a glory seeker; the question is whose glory are we seeking? When seeking my own glory, I take away from the glory which belongs to God. When I filter Scripture through my thoughts instead of filtering my thoughts through Scripture, I am taking away from God's glory. But when I bend my thoughts, I will step back, fade into the distance, and allow God's glory to shine. And when one is a teacher -- especially a teacher who commands large, expectant audiences --  it can be tempting to want that glory for ourselves. It is my prayer for preachers and teachers everywhere that we seek the higher glory, the glory of Christ.

* If you are interesting in listening to the message, his speaking begins at the 12 minute mark.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Hey Jude! — The Fine Art of Illustration

Gustav Doré - Lot Flees as Sodom and Gomorrah Burn

Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. [6] And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—[7] just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 5-7 ESV)
 
An editor once read something I’d written and told me I needed to use more illustrations. I needed to add stories or examples from real life, books, or movies because “they draw readers in,” she said, “and connect with them.” An illustration makes an author’s points more vivid. An illustration draws a picture that can help make an argument—and help make the argument stick.

I am a just-the-facts person. When I read, I usually pass right over all the fluff (yes, that’s how I think—or used to think—of illustrations) to get to the important stuff, like the actual points being made, which I hope the author will summarize for me once she’s finished telling all the stories I’m skimming. Can you see why using illustrations doesn’t come naturally to me?

But the biblical author Jude was a better writer than I am. No editor had to encourage him to use illustrations. As we shall see, he wasn’t afraid to use one (or three) to make a point.

A few weeks ago I discussed verses 3 and 4 of the book of Jude in a post. I was solidifying what I learned from a Bible study I’m participating in. In those two verses, Jude urged the believers in the church he was addressing to strongly defend the Christian faith against the false teachings and immoral conduct of “certain people”—imposters, actually—who had infiltrated this church and were influencing others, drawing them away from the true faith.

This past week, my little Bible study group moved on to Jude 5-7.1 In these verses, Jude used three illustrations to make his point. He drew his readers (or listeners) in by drawing their attention to three stories from the Old Testament. He didn’t need recount the details of each story. No, a few words summarizing each one was enough because his original readers already knew them by heart.

The first story Jude used to illustrate his point is the story of the Israelites who, he wrote, Jesus “saved . . . out of the land of Egypt.” While the reference to Jesus2 as the one who rescued Israel might seem strange, most of us know the basic tale. God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, and almost into the Promised Land. When the time came for them to enter the land of Canaan, however, the Israelites balked. They were intimidated by the strength of the people occupying the land. They didn’t trust God to give them victory over the powerful inhabitants of Canaan.

And so, Jude said, Jesus judged them. He sent them to wander in the wilderness until every one who had been a responsible adult at the time of their rebellion had died—all, that is, except Joshua and Caleb, the two who had trusted God.

What point was Jude making by reminding his readers of this incident in Old Testament history? He used the Israelite’s experience of God's judgment as a warning to the counterfeit Christians, and also—and more importantly—as a warning to those who were enabling them. He was reminding them that rebellion against God is serious business. Unbelief will always result in God’s judgment.

The next illustration Jude used may be obscure to us, but not necessarily to his first readers. The basic story is found in Genesis 6:1-4, but most of the details Jude refered to came from popular Jewish tradition and the intertestamental book of 1 Enoch,3 a book you won’t find in your Bible. Some angels, it seems, abandoned their God-given place, came down to earth, and cohabited with human women. God judged them for their rebellion against him and for their sexual immorality.4 Right now, he is holding them "under gloomy darkness" as punishment. And they are destined for more and worse punishment after they are judged on the great Day of Judgment.

The point of this illustration is similar to the first, but with the addition of judgment for the sin of sexual immorality. This is a powerful warning that God punishes those who rebel against him, and he punishes those who indulge in sexual immorality. Judgment is certain for both.

And last, Jude used the example of Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m sure you know this Old Testament story. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah by fire because of their rampant homosexuality, or as Jude wrote, because they “indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire.” Their fiery destruction foreshadowed God’s eternal judgment. (The site of Sodom and Gomorrah was, after all, still smoking when Jude wrote his letter.) Jude used this story as another example of what will happen to those who indulge in sexual immorality. God will judge them with “a punishment of eternal fire.” It’s a sure thing.

With these three illustrations, Jude bolstered his plea for the true believers in this church to contend for the faith. The so-called Christians who had crept in among them, those who were teaching untruths and behaving in ungodly ways, were already designated for condemnation. Their sins were like those of the Israelites, the rebellious angels, and the people of Sodom of Gomorrah—and their end would be similar, too. There was nothing to be gained, and everything to lose, by joining with them, or placating them, or even simply ignoring them. They must be put out of the church; their teachings and their ways must be rejected. And all the true believers must join the fight to protect “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

Jude began his epistle with a summons:
I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Verse 3, ESV)
These three Old Testament examples explain why his appeal was so urgent. They explain why his readers needed these warnings. Jude wanted them to understand that the consequences of unchecked false teaching and immorality in their church would be deadly—eternally deadly.

His illustrations are warnings to us, too. False teaching and immorality are dangerous.  Are you guarding your own church? Are you on the lookout for infiltrators? Are you preparing to do battle if necessary?

And aren’t you glad Jude used illustrations?


1 I hope this will be a series of posts on the book of Jude. (Unfortunately, I can’t retroactively put Hey Jude! in the title of the first post because the URLwould change.)

2Jude’s reference to Jesus as the one who saved the Israelites isn’t as weird as it might first appear. After all, the apostle Paul says that Christ was spiritually present with the Israelites as they traveled (1 Corinthians 10:4), so that when they complained about God’s provision for them, they were putting “Christ to the test” (1 Corinthians 10:9-10).

3 I believe that as Jude filled in the details of this story, the Holy Spirit, who governed all the authors of scripture, kept him from introducing any error. We can accept Jude’s account of the angels and their fate as completely true even though his source for this info is not Genesis 6:1-4, but rather, Jewish tradition.

4 In verse 6, Jude mentioned only that these angels did not stay within the boundaries God gave them. But in verse 7, he wrote that Sodom and Gomorrah “likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire.” I think likewise refered back to the rebellious angels of verse 6. The angels, like the inhabitants of Sodom,  "pursued unnatural desire." And they were judged for this sin, too.