Saturday, 19 August 2017

Dig Deeper

What does it mean to preach the Word faithfully? One way to express it simply is this:
1. Get it right
2. Get it across
First we need to listen very carefully to the Bible text and chew on it and feel the force of it and see Christ in it and work out what is the main point of the passage. Then we need to think very carefully about how to communicate that to our hearers in a way that will keep it clear and cutting.
Both theses stages are hard work. Dig Deeper is a great resource to help us with the first stage - getting the right message from the text. Here is a review by one of the iServe Africa ministry apprentices Sheena Murabula.

In the Kenyan church context, at least as much as in other places, a very concerning phrase pops in bible study groups; "Well that’s your interpretation, but this is what I think." With this trend of individual opinions reigning, the Bible can say almost anything. Also, the Bible warns us against false teachers as in 2 Peter 2, 1 John 4 and several other references. But who knows, any one of us may misinterpret the Bible and lead others astray not because we mean to but out of lack of knowledge.
Dig Deeper has been written by Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sach. It offers a number of tools a Bible reader can use to find out the big idea of a particular passage or book in the Bible and therefore come up with relevant applications. The tools they recommend include; Genre tool, Repetition tool, Vocabulary tool, Who am I? tool, Copycat tool, Parallel tool, Quotation/allusion tool, Linking words tool, Author’s purpose tool, Translation tool, Tone and feel tool, Bible timeline tool, So what? tool, Narrator's comment tool, Context tool and Structure tool.
For example, the ‘Repetition’ tool helps one identify the author’s emphasis; maybe in the form of an idea, word or phrase that comes again and again in a passage. Similarly the ‘Author’s purpose’ tool can be very helpful to form the background of all your study - what we really need to know is what the original author was wanting to do with his words - warn, encourage, urge, challenge or whatever. All these tools are aimed at helping us handle the Bible in a way that is not based on one’s own thinking but on the Word; #LetTheScriptureSpeakForItself.
I like the persuasive language used in this book, the illustrations, the worked out examples and the assignments at the end of each chapter designed to help the reader learn and gain skills through the process of doing. It is also easy to follow through the book with a few stops for Bible reference when compared to other books of the same genre which can be much heavier reading.
This is a book is for every Christian: the Preacher who desires to faithfully handle the Scriptures, the Parent who would want to understand God’s word before sharing with their children and spouses, C.U. leaders who love to share the good news in missions and during fellowships, Bible study leaders and everyone else with the task of joyfully labouring at preaching the gospel.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Fruitful ministry in dry ground

Last month we were privileged to do an Utumishi Course training for pastors and gospel workers in Mutomo, Kitui County. It was a long drive to get there - almost 2 hours of murram road after turning off Mombasa Road. But it was well worth it to meet with these dear brothers and sisters who are striving to serve their congregations and communities in very difficult conditions.

It was a joy to interact together and look at preaching the gospel from Old Testament narrative, servant leadership, the pastor's family, and above all to go back to the good news itself of the one who became utterly poor that we might have the riches of adoption to sonship. Fidel, James and Daniel did a great job delivering engaging teaching and training (katika Kiswahili) and it was wonderful to see the pastors working hard in groups, digging into Genesis 27, seeking the big point and crafting a sermon outline.

But this is dry ground - not just literally - the soil here in south Kitui is very sandy - but also socio-economically and gospel workers face enormous difficulties even surviving from week to week with congregations which are not able to support themselves let alone the pastor. These are realities we really need to wrestle with, even as we trust in the God who loves to use the weak and poor to shame the strong and rich and as we turn to the gospel of the Saviour who grew as a root out of dry ground.

Here are some resources on issues of poverty and finances in relation to gospel ministry:

We look forward to returning to Mutomo for another training later this month. Pray for us and for the pastors there, for faithfulness and gospel advance. If you're interested in hosting a training in your church network get in touch at iserve[at]

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Worshiping the Angel of the LORD

Most Bible lovers agree that the Old Testament Scriptures promise Christ, pattern Christ (in types and shadows) and present the problems that Christ solves (e.g. how can God justly justify the ungodly). Where there is less agreement is over the question of whether, to what extent and how is Christ present in the Old Testament. When the LORD ‘appears’ to people (e.g. Gen. 12:7) is that the second person of the Trinity – a Christophany – or is it a more indeterminate ‘theophany’? When the Angel of the LORD talks to people and it seems like the LORD God is speaking (e.g. Judges 2:1-3), is that the pre-incarnate Christ addressing them or is it an angelic being who is being used as God’s mouthpiece – like the LORD speaking through a long piece of piping coming out the mouth of the angel?

There are differences on this and people I hugely respect (e.g. Gerald Bray) who would decide against seeing much of the Son of God physically/visibly/audibly present in the Old Testament. I don’t think this is something we should fight about or divide over or make into a primary issue. But here are a few observations (in addition to those mentioned in the book Let the Bible Speak) which push me towards seeing the Son of God turning up in the Old Testament.

  1. In the beautiful blessings on Israel in Deuteronomy 33 (what a fantastic chapter! the Ephesians 1 of the OT) Moses speaks of the “favour of him who dwelt in the burning bush” (v16). In the context he must mean the LORD God himself – the one from whom all blessings flow – and Moses says he ‘dwelt’ in the bush. Not ‘spoke through the angel in the bush.’ The LORD had actually ‘come down’ (Ex. 3:8) and tabernacled in the burning bush. He was there.
  2. The Angel of the LORD seems usually to appear as the ‘ground level’ LORD-come-down in distinction to the Most High LORD. But there are a couple of times when the Angel of the LORD calls ‘from heaven’ (Gen. 22:11, 15). This is very interesting. If the Angel of the LORD is simply a passive mouthpiece which the LORD of heaven sometimes uses to speak to men at ground level then why speak of the Angel of the LORD calling from heaven? Why not simply “The LORD called from heaven” (as elsewhere e.g. Ex. 20:22). The Angel of the LORD is plainly the LORD (Gen. 22:15-16). So it seems that there may be more than one person called the LORD in heaven.
  3. Something I’ve been particularly struck by recently is how the Angel of the LORD in the Old Testament is worshipped through sacrifice by those he encounters. First, Genesis 12:7 – the LORD appears to Abram and Abram builds an altar to this LORD who had appeared to him. In Genesis 22 Abraham prepares a burnt offering to the LORD (of his son) and the Angel of the LORD says, “You have not withheld your son from me” (v16) – as Glen Scrivener notes the burnt offering was clearly going to be to the Angel of the LORD. Even clearer, look at Judges 6. Here the Angel of the LORD is extremely clearly identified with the LORD himself. But even more than this notice that Gideon prepares an offering of a goat and unleavened bread (v19). He is making this offering before and to the Angel of the LORD (v18, 19). This is the test of whether “it is really you [i.e. the LORD] talking to me” (v17). One of the clearest things you get from reading through the Old Testament is that you should only offer sacrifices to the LORD God. Any other object of sacrifice is foulest idolatry. So this is the big test – is this the LORD who is receiving a sacrifice from Gideon or is Gideon offering a sacrifice to an angel (or a demon). The answer – fire from the Angel of the LORD consumes the sacrifice (cf. Lev. 9:24), Gideon realises indeed he has seen the Angel of the LORD face to face (which seems to be as dangerous as seeing the LORD face to face) and the LORD reassures him, “Peace!” (v21-23). One more example – Judges 13. Manoah is a bit slower on the uptake than Gideon. He suggests getting the ‘man of God’ a meal (v15). The Angel of the LORD reminds him that burnt offerings are offered to the LORD alone (v16). Manoah duly sacrifices a goat and grain offering (like Gideon) to the LORD (v19) and the Angel of the LORD ascends in the flame of sacrifice ‘up to heaven’ – back home – back to where the sweet aroma of sacrifice is supposed to go. And finally Manoah gets it – “We have seen God!” (v22) It was the LORD who has both ‘told us all this’ and ‘has accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands’ (v23).
  4. Finally, there is very strong support from church history for this reading of the presence of Christ in the Old Testament. Justin Martyr (c.100-165) saw it (e.g. Dialogue with Trypho 61). Irenaeus (c.130-202) saw it (e.g. Against Heresies 3.6.1). In the fourth century there was even a council which pronounced anathema against those who denied that Abraham met the Son of God or that Jacob wrestled with the second person of the Trinity. Augustine was the first to suggest that the OT appearances were theophanies rather than Christophanies – probably influenced by a) a desire to preserve the uniqueness of the incarnation; b) a concern that the Son could appear to be a created being (Arianism); and c) an intrusion of Greek thinking that was more concerned to preserve an abstract ‘divine essence’ than to explore the biblical testimony to the Trinity (ref). Luther, heavily influenced by Augustine, was sometimes reluctant to see the Angel of the LORD as the Son of God (e.g. at Gen. 16 or 22) but he did agree that Jacob wrestled with Christ (refs). With Calvin and the Reformed tradition there is a united testimony that the Son of God was the one in the burning bush – e.g. John Calvin, John Owen and Jonathan Owen.  Richard Sibbes says, “From the beginning of the world, the church hath had the presence of Christ always… he assumed a body and afterward laid it down again, until he came, indeed, to take our nature upon him, never to leave it again” (First Sermon on the Song of Songs). Baptists agreed – e.g. John Gill (1697-1771) notes on Genesis 12:7 “whenever there was any visible appearance of a divine Person, under the former dispensation, it seems to be always of the essential Word, that was to be incarnate” and similarly on Exodus 3:2 “the Angel of God's presence and covenant, the eternal Word and Son of God; since he is afterwards expressly called Jehovah, and calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which a created angel would never do.” It’s really only with Schleiermacher (1768-1834) that we get a serious challenge to the understanding that Christ was present in the Old Testament. The father of liberalism introduced an evolutionary view of religion and of the Bible – the Bible is a product of human religion and the OT religion was a much more primitive form of religion than the NT. Clearly under this view it was anachronistic and even meaningless to speak of the Trinity or Christ in the Old Testament. How much this evolutionary, product-of-man view of the Bible has seeped into the evangelical mind is a matter of debate but one wonders…

Why might all this matter?

Well there are a number of implications but here is one. When we are debating with muslim friends it will often be argued that Abraham was a good muslim; he didn’t believe all this stuff about the Trinity and God having a son, he just very simply and straightforwardly submitted himself to God. And at this point many Christians start to look a bit lost, because much of our preaching does simply talk about ‘God.’ We might have a sermon series looking at the ‘faith of Abraham’ and ‘how Abraham trusted God’ and we perhaps never even mention Jesus.

But what if Abraham met the Son of God? Repeatedly! What if he rejoiced to see Jesus (John 8:56)? What if he knew there is a difference between the unseen Most High LORD and the Angel/Messenger of the LORD who appears to him? What if he trusts and worships and submits himself specifically to the Son of God? Well then that changes everything. Abraham is not a Unitarian, he is a model of Christian faith (Rom. 4:16).

Sunday, 29 January 2017

The God of the West

Mike Ovey, who was recently promoted to glory, gave a very significant lecture at the 2013 GAFCON conference in Nairobi entitled The Grace of God OR the world of the West?

In this lecture he talks about Bonhoeffer's notion of 'cheap grace' - repentance-less self congratulation. Then he goes for the roots of this - how has this cheap grace become so prevalent in the Western church - and he zeroes in on narcissism and entitlement - the presumption expressed by the old L'Oreal advert: "Because you're worth it." The centre of the universe is me. Churches start to tell their congregations that they need to love themselves before they can love their neighbour. God is shifted from being The King to being my butler. The gospel is twisted so as to feed self-love rather than to free us from self-love.

I recently came across the following section from Jonathan Edwards. His wider point is that the first foundation of love for God should be wonder at who God is in and of Himself irrespective of his love for us but as he talks about self-love he touches upon very similar issues to Mike Ovey and sounds very contemporary:

Self-love, through the exercise of mere natural gratitude, may be the foundation of a sort of love to God many ways. A kind of love may arise from a false notion of God, that men have been educated in, or have some way imbibed; as though he were only goodness and mercy, and not revenging justice; or as though the exercises of his goodness were necessary, and not free and sovereign... Men on such grounds as these, may love a God of their own forming in their imaginations, when they are far from loving such a God as reigns in heaven.
Again, self-love may be the foundation of an affection in men towards God, through a great insensibility of their state with regard to God, and for want of conviction of conscience to make them sensible how dreadfully they have provoked God to anger; they have no sense of the heinousness of sin, as against God, and of the infinite and terrible opposition of the holy nature of God against it: and so, having formed in their minds such a God as suits them, and thinking God. to be such a one as themselves, who favors and agrees with them, they may like him very well, and feel a sort of love to him, when they are far from loving the true God.
And men's affections may be much moved towards God, from self-love, by some remarkable outward benefits received from God; as it was with... the children of Israel at the Red Sea.
Again, a very high affection towards God may, and often does, arise in men, from an opinion of the favor and love of God to them, as the first foundation of their love to him. After awakenings and distress, through fears of hell, they may suddenly get a notion, through some impression on their imagination, or immediate suggestion with or without texts of Scripture, or by some other means, that God loves them, and has forgiven their sins, and made them his children; and this is the first thing that causes their affections to flow towards God and Jesus Christ: and then after this, and upon this foundation, many things in God may appear lovely to them, and Christ may seem excellent. And if such persons are asked, whether God appears lovely and amiable in himself, they would perhaps readily answer, yes; otherwise than that he has forgiven them, and accepted them, and loves them above most in the world, and has engaged to improve all his infinite power and wisdom in preferring, dignifying, and exalting them, and will do for them just as they would have him... When this is the case with carnal men, their very lusts will make him seem lovely: pride itself will prejudice them in favor of that which they call Christ: selfish, proud man naturally calls that lovely that greatly contributes to his interest, and gratifies his ambition.
And as this sort of persons begin, so they go on. Their affections are raised from time to time, primarily on this foundation of self-love and a conceit of God's love to them. Many have a false notion of communion with God, as though it were carried on by impulses, and whispers, and external representations, immediately made to their imagination. These things they often have; which they take to be manifestations of God's great love to them, and evidences of their high exaltation above others of mankind.
(Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, emphasis added)

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A prodigal God

Can God be prodigal?

- spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant
- having or giving something on a lavish scale

Richard Sibbes again: "In Christ there is not only abundance, but redundance, a diffusive and spreading goodness... as in the sun to send forth beams. As Christ is full of grace and truth... so there is an overflowing of all that is good for our good. He that could multiply bread for the body, he can multiply grace for our soul. If he gives life, he gives it in abundance (John 10:10). If he gives the water of life he gives rivers, not small streams. If he gives peace and joy... his scope is to fill up our joy to the full. As he is able to do for us far more abundantly than we are able to think or speak (Eph. 3:20)." (Third Sermon on the Song of Songs)

What exactly is this abundance? Sibbes describes it, as the Bible describes it, as a feast (Isa. 25:6; 55:1-2; Prov. 9:1-5; Matt. 8:11; 22:4; 25:10: Rev. 19:9). And what exactly is that feast? Jesus himself. "All the several graces and comforts we have, and the several promises whereby they are made over and conveyed unto us, are but Christ dished out in several manner" (Sibbes, Third Sermon) And how exactly do we partake of this feast? "The vessels wherein Christ conveys his dainties are the ministry of the Word and sacraments. By the Word and sacraments we come to enjoy Christ and his comforts and graces" (Third Sermon).

So what is our response to be? To go to church and happily dig into the feast and enjoy Him together. "We see then that we cannot please Christ better than... by cheerfully taking part of his rich provision. It is an honour to his bounty to fall to" (Third Sermon).

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Do I love God for nothing?

Richard Sibbes: "Many men will be glad to own Christ to be great by him, but as Augustine complains in his time, Christ Jesus is not loved for his own sake but for other things that he brings with him, peace, plenty etc. as far as [owning Christ] stands with these contentments. If Christ and the world part once, it will be known which we followed. In times of peace this is hardly discerned." (Second Sermon on the Song of Songs)

This is basically what the Book of Job is all about. Does Job love God just because of what He has given him or because of who the LORD God is in Himself? "The Satan, for all his malice, is doing something necessary for the glory of God. In some deep way it is necessary for it to be publically seen by the whole universe that God is worthy of the worship of a man and that God’s worth is in no way dependent on God’s gifts." (Christopher Ash, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross, Crossway)

Jonathan Edwards, after commenting on Job 1:9-10 concludes: "the first foundation of a true love to God, is that whereby he is in himself lovely, or worthy to be loved, or the supreme loveliness of his nature... How can that be true love of beauty and brightness which is not for beauty and brightness' sake? How can that be a true prizing of that which is in itself infinitely worthy and precious, which is not for the sake of its worthiness and preciousness? ...They whose affection to God is founded first on his profitableness to them, their affection begins at the wrong end; they regard God only for the utmost limit of the stream of divine good, where it touches them, and reaches their interest; and have no respect to that infinite glory of God's nature... A [merely] natural principle of self-love may be the foundation of great affections towards God and Christ, without seeing anything of the beauty and glory of the divine nature." (Religious Affections emphasis added)

How much is my religion still infected with self-love? Lord have mercy and open my eyes to Your beauty.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

7 measures of our confidence in the Word as we preach

Many of us would want to say, as preachers, that our confidence is completely in the Spirit-breathed Word to do a genuine, lasting work in people’s hearts. It is the seed of the Word which brings the great harvest. It is the Word of God that is living active. It is the Word which is sharper than a two-edged sword. That’s why we spend hours and hours labouring to get our understanding right (knees on the floor, nose in the text) before we work on how to get it across. But how can we tell if we are putting our confidence in the Word when it comes to Sunday morning? A few suggested measures:

  1. Ratio of amount of Bible read to length of sermon. Paul calls Timothy first to "devote himself" to the public reading of Scripture. In the 1662 BCP service of Morning Prayer as originally conceived, there would have been 7 or 8 chapters of Scripture read in the course of the service (including set Psalms and Scripture in the liturgy). That would be at least 30 minutes every Sunday (and possibly more with total Scripture length sometimes over 4000 words). In contrast the average length of the Homilies prescribed by Cranmer is around 3200 words (though some in the later second book of Homilies are considerably longer). Again, around 30 minutes. Compare that ratio of 1:1 with our more normal modern practice of a short reading immediately before the sermon 
  2. Placement of prayer. Is it before the reading or between the reading and the sermon? If I pray for our hearing of the Word before it is read then that implies that it will be speaking even as it is read. If I always pray immediately before the sermon then the implication could be that we’re only going to hear God 'really' speak when I unpack what would otherwise be rather unclear and hard to understand. 
  3. Ratio of introduction to body of sermon. How long does it take me to get into the passage itself? Introductions can be helpful in many ways but when it gets over a certain length then questions may be asked about whether I am really confident that the Bible is a) clear and b) gripping. 
  4. Speed and expressiveness in reading the Scriptures versus speed and expressiveness in the delivery of my words in the sermon. For one thing we need to make sure that whoever is reading the Scriptures in the public gathering does it really really well. But even in the sermon itself there is a danger – that when I as the preacher refer back to a verse or quote Scripture in the body of my sermon, I read it very quickly, rushing through it as a footnote or a parenthesis, while in contrast, when it comes to my own words and phrases and headings and points, I go more slowly, with much more emphasis. What I am subliminally communicating is that the Scriptures are my launchpad – and a rather dry and dusty one at that – while the thing you really need to take away is my carefully crafted rhetoric or 3 points beginning with P. What if I reversed (or at least equalised) the equation and gave great attention to how I read the Scriptures – with real force and authority and expressiveness – stressing the key words that make the point? What if I aimed to have the congregation go away with God’s words ringing in their ears not mine? 
  5. Number of cross-references, particularly corroborative and thematic. There is a place for cross-references, particularly Biblical theological ones connecting a passage into the big salvation story of Scripture, but generally, once the number goes beyond two or three cross-references there is an inverse relationship between number of references and our focus on and confidence in the text in hand. Particularly troublesome are the ‘this makes me think of…’ type of cross-reference or the ‘as it also says in…’ type. In contrast, a tight focus on one text communicates that there is plenty here; each passage of Scripture is clear and rich and solid. 
  6. Relying on God’s words to do the cutting versus relying on additional illustration or application to do the cutting. It’s important to illustrate and apply God’s Word. It’s important that things are grounded in real life. But there is a danger that, as one brother put it, “we use the illustration to do the work and make the turn.” In other words the thing that brings the energy or twist or punch in the sermon is my story that I have made up or my clever incisive application. It’s a form of preaching that people love but the warning sign is when you get feedback like “That was so powerful. I would never have got that.” or “It was so clever what you did with that passage. You made it so relevant.” Another warning sign is it people are nodding off as you go through the text but then sit up for the second half of the sermon when it gets to ‘application time’. Let’s labour to preach God’s Word with the clarity and relevance that it innately has, but let’s make sure that it is the Word that is cutting to the heart and not my elaborate application bolted on the end. Let application be flowing throughout, straight from the text itself. 
  7. Physical distance from the Bible. This is perhaps the easiest one for the observer to spot because you can literally measure it with a tape measure. I remember watching Dale Ralph Davis preach and his head never moved more the 30 centimetres from the Bible (which was incidentally his Hebrew Bible) as he passionately wrestled with and preached the Scriptures to us. I can remember another time with another preacher when the Bible was left on the pulpit as the preacher moved further and further away, and the further he moved physically, the further he moved in terms of content, until he was spouting complete nonsense. Certainly there’s nothing magical about the Bible and being close to it but if you want to ‘reason from the Scriptures’ (Acts 17:2) and if you want to show that your authority is the Word and you have nothing to say apart from this book, then it would make sense to stay glued to it.