A Pentecostal evangelist visited our chapel this week, and as I listened to his uh….sermon, I reviewed in my mind some of the things that I have come to believe about the Bible and how those things now influence my faith. So I don’t know if this will impress you, but I am going to start with a critique of how we read the Bible (which I have already suggested in another essay,) then I am going to compare that to my own approach to the Gospel of Mark, and then I will draw some conclusions about how the Bible presents its message to us. It sounds confusing, but I think it will be helpful.
What will I have when this essay is all done? Hopefully, a way for you to see how the Bible and the Christian life flow together, and what exactly we take away from the Bible for our lives now. Listening to the way the Bible is used to present the truth about God, you will discover a lot about the presuppositions of anyone who calls himself a Christian. So let’s go exploring, and I hope you are open to thinking and reconsidering how you read, teach, preach and use the Bible.
Increasingly, my great passion is for the Bible to have its way in the Christian church. As I grow older, I have less confidence in Christians, but I have an increasing confidence in the Bible as an inspired text, and as a genuine message from the Creator to His creatures. While I do not subscribe to the language of inerrancy, I believe the Bible is true in the greatest sense of truth: that its various ways of speaking, through different authors and various genres, all amount to the presentation of a true Word in an increasingly relativizing world.
My passion is especially piqued when I hear the Bible used by contemporary preachers. In their confidence that the Bible is God’s inspired Word, many have yielded to ways of using the Bible that are deficient, even destructive of the Bible’s true message, power and glory. I want to suggest how we might approach the Bible in a sensible and rational manner that allows the book to speak its truth most clearly and deeply into our lives.
I want to begin with a question: “What is the best way to encounter the message God has for us in the Bible?”
My answer will be “In understanding the overall message of the books that mostly clearly describe the person and significance of Jesus Christ.”
That’s not the normal answer, but it is an important answer. The normal answer is something like this: “The best way to encounter the truth about God in the Bible is through experiencing and believing the content of individual verses.” Now why do I say this is the “normal” answer? Because the vast majority of Bible based Christianity recommends approaching the Bible as an inspired book, but they also teach that our personal encounter with God happens in discovering verses that “speak” to us personally. These may be promises or invitations or statements about truth. Of course, these verses occur in passages, chapters and books, but it is the verses that have the preeminence among evangelical Christians.
(I realize that some of the following critique applies to the misuse of passages and not just verses, particularly miracle stories and narratives, but most of the mischief will eventually prove to be taking a verse and abusing it. I’ll trust my readers to get the point, and apply it where needed.)
My spiritual mentor, John Piper, preaches verse by verse, often dwelling on the phraseology and grammar of a particular verse. He recommends diagramming verses. In his devotional work, he frequently talks about starting the day reading the Bible until you find a verse that speaks to you for that day. He stresses scripture memory, and uses the “Fighter Verse” program to teach scripture memory to his congregation.
I do not have any quarrel with the value of this approach, but I disagree with anyone who would say it is the best, most profitable and most basic way to encounter the message God has for us in the Bible. In fact, I fear that many who approach the Bible as a collection of verses miss, completely or substantially, the primary message of the Bible, and frequently abuse the “verse” approach to the detriment of the total Christian message.
To get to this issue, let me walk back through some of my favorite illustrations about how Christians view and use the Bible.
I believe most Christians use the word “inspiration” to mean “the Bible is a magic book, where God speaks to us in unusual ways.” By this they mean that the contents of the Bible–the verses–have unusual power when read or applied. So if we were to transfer this idea to another book, and treat it as we treat the Bible, it might be like this: If we considered “Walden” to be inspired in the typical evangelical way, we would not be looking for the big ideas or the main point in Thoreau’s book, but we would be examining particular sentences to see if they “spoke to us.” The actual text of “Walden” would be secondary to our use of verses.
So on, let’s say, the matter of changing jobs, we might find a sentence that says, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” and we would conclude that this verse is God telling us to change jobs. Or another sentence might say, “I left my job and moved to the woods.” This, we would say, is God speaking to us. Now we might be able to read the entire book and sustain that conclusion, or we might find–if we studied better–that the book didn’t sustain that particular use of an individual sentence. It wouldn’t really matter, however, to most of us, because God used the verse to speak to us, and that is the way we read the Bible.
Or, for further example, say someone is facing a troubled marriage. He reads and discovers a sentence in “Walden” that says, “I did not speak to another person for over a month.” From this, he concludes that God is telling him to not argue with his spouse. The fact that this is a universe away from what Thoreau meant with that sentence would be irrelevant. This is how we would be using “Walden” as a “magic book.” Recognize the method? I think we all do.
If we were committed to the “magic book” approach and someone were to teach “Walden” as a whole, telling us the main ideas and message in the book, we might not consider that particularly impressive. It is nice to know what the book says, we would say, but the use of the book as a “magic text” doesn’t depend at all on understanding the meaning of the overall book, or the message Thoreau was conveying. Introductions and analysis of the book as a whole would almost be a secondary, and mostly useless, exercise in comparison to the more exciting and personal “magic book” use of “Walden.” We might be confident, in fact, that the ordinary reader can handle the “inspired Walden” with far more relevance for his life than the educated scholar handles the same book, because the scholar doesn’t believe that the sentences contain the power. So ignorance is no barrier in the magic book approach. Recognize that, too? Uh-huh.
I hope you can see the parallels here with our use of the Bible, and the many “magic book” methods that are commonly used to present the Christian life as growing out of the Bible. Take a recent Joel Osteen sermon I liveblogged at the BHT. In the message, Osteen used part of the story of Elijah. God told Elijah that ravens would bring him food at a certain brook. From this, Osteen preached that God will provide us what we need to be blessed if we show up at the right place in life and look for God’s blessing. This dubious use of the Bible is applauded within evangelicalism as completely appropriate because it is “magic bookism,” and it speaks to us about our lives and concerns, which are always tantamount in our minds. Yet it is hardly a leap to say that this grabbing of a few verses and using them as the basis for a mystical principle for being blessed is a very strange way to approach the Bible’s message to us. But it honors the Bible as a “magic book”, and far more people are listening to Joel Osteen, a man who arguably couldn’t present an introduction/exposition of any Biblical book if asked to do so, than are listening to preachers and teachers who understand what the Bible is and is saying.
Another way of approaching the Bible is by collecting verses. The “grocery store” analogy is particularly helpful in describing how mainstream evangelicals approach scripture. The appearance of concordances and computer searching has allowed the emphasis on verses and lists of verses to develop to a high level. One need only find the proper book or software, and a search can be conducted to retrieve a list of verses relating to any subject, word or term. I compare this to going into a grocery store with a shopping list. I many need verses on marriage, parenting and forgiveness. I take my list, run up and down the aisles, and find the verses I need. (Or to be more true to today’s technology, I present my list to the man at the front, and he sends a runner to pick up my verses for me, while I simply meet him at the checkout.)
The idea that the Bible is a library of verses has been propagated through Bible study tools, but also through methods of preaching. Many popular preachers today NEVER engage a text unless it is a story with a lesson that speaks to a “felt need.”. They engage a topic that has been focus-grouped to gain the interest of the audience. (See Ed Young, Jr. for a good example) Then verses are marshalled to present an outline of principles. The Bible is the source of the verses, so it is routinely asked, “What does the Bible say about assessing potential spouses?” Since the collection of verses comes from the Bible, the conclusion seems sound. The “Bible” in this case is a humanly arranged collection of verses, out of context, with a variable degree of likelihood in relating to the truth.
While I am not saying that abuse of this method is universal, it is common. I could easily accumulate grocery lists of texts on polygamy, slavery, stoning rebellious children, demonic exorcism to solve physical problems, the need to exterminate unbelievers, and so on. All my lists would answer a “What does the Bible say?” question. And all could, potentially, seriously misrepresent the overall message that God has sent us in scripture, because the meaning of larger texts, especially books, has been ignored. I could even use the Bible itself to teach the very opposite of what the Bible teaches. In seminary, I was taught that the Bible was pro-abortion by a selective accumulation of texts. And no one laughed or cried, Orwellian as it was.
The use of the grocery store method is entirely dependent on how the accumulator understands the way verses relate to one another in larger contexts. For instance, the basic idea of old and new covenants would seriously affect how someone selected verses on worship and presented them as, “The Bible says we should worship by….” Some verse accumulation preachers are excellent. It is a method that can bear much fruit and be helpful, IF done in a context of actually understanding the larger framework of scripture. (Much like I could find lists of sentences in Walden on self-sufficiency that might misrepresent or well-represent Thoreau’s intentions in the book.)
If I reject a “magic book” and a “grocery list” approach to the Bible, what is the correct way to approach the Bible as God’s Word?
I would begin by asking us to look at what the Bible is and is not. It is not a collection of verses. The verse numbers, chapter divisions and other ways of carving up the text are not inspired. They are later additions, made for convenience. Read that twice and don’t lose it. It is fundamental.
The Bible is a collection of books. This is the basic thing we can say about the Bible. Sixty-six books. The assumption of the church in canonizing them is that, like parts of a recipe, each of these books, together, speak a Word that none of them speak individually. This is why we have the Bible and not just the Gospel of John. John is scripture, but not all of scripture, and not alone as scripture. There is much truth in this part of the recipe, but alone, it does not bake the cake, so to speak. All of scripture, all 66 books, contribute.
Obviously, these books are different, and it is entirely reasonable to say that some books are essential to the message and some are less essential. This is the difference between eggs and flour, and sesame seeds or food coloring. The Bible would survive without Obadiah. It could not survive without the Gospels. Any part of the whole can be seen as presenting some aspect of the final message, but like a play with two acts and 66 scenes, the Bible is meant to be seen in all its scenes. Editing or omitting may or may not damage the play’s ability to say its message (like Mel Gibson’s edited Hamlet might be critiqued as different from Branaugh’s complete “Hamlet.”) But what we have is the whole, and the whole is understood primarily by understanding books and the larger narrative of those books.
Now here is the crucial thing I have to say in this essay: In understanding the Bible, it is far more important that we understand, as best we can, the message and meaning of entire books, and the story told by those books, rather than just having a personal experience with individual verses. The study of Biblical books and the assessment of their story and message is the basic kind of Bible study that is needed in the church, and in preaching/teaching. This entails the study of smaller units of text, but the larger picture/story is the most valuable picture/narrative for the Christian life. I hope and pray nothing more than that my brothers in the ministry could make this connection: Understanding the Bible is understanding the books of the Bible, and how they relate together into one message.
Let’s talk about my favorite Gospel, Mark, as an example of this. When I teach Mark, I begin with an overview of the entire book and I show how the entire book revolves around chapter 8 as a turning point, because in chapter 8 the cross comes fully into view. The book is about understanding Jesus by understanding the cross. In fact, Robert Gundry suggests the book may have been an apologia for a crucified God, and I think that is very much on target. Jesus was executed as a criminal. How can you worship that? Why would you want to pray to someone who was the ultimate failure? Mark casts the cross in a different light, the larger light of the entire Biblical story of Creation, Fall, Israel and captivity. He shows Jesus coming into the world with two gathering storms of spiritual and religious conflict taking aim at him early in the book. Yet, just as early, Jesus is saying that the Bridegroom is going to be taken away, and it is clear that this is not a surprise. It is the intentional, purposeful death of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark contains a first half full of miracles, exorcisms, and mighty deeds. These are favorite stories, but they are also frequently misunderstood. They are not there for entertainment or biography’s sake. They exist to tell us who Jesus is; to identify him in many different ways as God on earth, the long expected Messiah. They exist to announce and demonstrate the arrival of the Kingdom of God in Jesus, and to show that disease, demons, nature and even death all obey Jesus. These are triumphant chapters, and the crowds respond. But they are not the point of the book. They are a setup. A partial understanding of Jesus that, if left alone, would be a misunderstanding of Jesus. He is not here to be a miracle worker, or an exorcist or a king. Here is here to die. It is that simple.
Chapter 8 is the turning point also because it makes clear something that is a great mystery to many readers of Mark: Jesus keeps telling people he has helped and healed to keep their mouths shut. He does all the Messianic miracles and draws huge crowds, but he keeps saying, “Don’t tell anyone about this.” It’s weird. No one really pays any attention, and Jesus actually spends a remarkable amount of time in Mark on personal retreat, trying to get a break from the mobs. Then in chapter 8, Jesus asks the disciples if they have figured out what is going on, and Peter says you are the Messiah. Miracles. Feeding five thousand. Exorcisms. You are the Messiah Jews have been waiting for. So, they’ve got the right answer. Or do they?
Mark 8:30 – 9:1 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. 31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 34 And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? 37 For what can a man give in return for his life? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” 9:1 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
Off they go to Jerusalem, and the cross. You have more predictions, but it becomes clear to the reader very quickly that Jesus is headed to the cross, as he said in chapter 10, with the purpose of ransoming/rescuing sinners.
If you preach a miracle-working, here-to-bless-you version of Jesus, you misunderstand Jesus, The Gospel of Mark, the Bible and the Christian life. Read all the verses you like. The point of this book is to say God is here, God is going to the cross and beyond, and you’d better pay attention to what it means.
Chapter 12 is another important chapter, because in the first eleven verses, Jesus puts the whole story into the story of the Hebrew Bible and the nation of Israel. Israel is the vineyard that is going to kill the Son of God, but God is going to do a whole new thing through this tragedy. This story fits in the rest of the Bible. In fact, it is the climax of the story of Israel.
So when you come to the end of Mark, you can look at chapter 8 and Jesus’ invitation to come follow him to the cross and beyond in order to find your life, and it should all make sense. The Gospel of Mark shows you a dozen different ways that Jesus is God among us, bringing his Kingdom in a way we never expected, and the whole turning point of human history happens with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Believe, follow, embrace Jesus–even with all that persecution and rejection–and the Kingdom is yours, now and in the future. You’ll be forgiven and right with God, because Jesus makes it possible by what he does for you.
How Does It All Work?
Now…..Mark is a way cool book, and if you invite me to your church, I will make it interesting. I promise. Mark also has a lot of excellent stories and verses. Those stories and verses make the book what it is: a book about Jesus, who he is, what he did, what it means, and the invitation to you to join those believers in the cross as the meaning of everything that matters.
One of those stories is about Jesus calming the storm. The point of that story is the question at the end: Who is this man, that even the wind and the waves obey him? Is the point that Jesus will calm the storms in your life right now?
Another story is about Jesus cursing a fig tree. It means that Israel was about to reject Jesus and experience judgment. Does it mean you should feel free to place curses on people who irritate you?
You have some exorcisms in Mark. They are pretty spectacular, and it’s clear that no one has seen anything like this before. Should we be doing exorcisms? Well, that’s an interesting question, to which I say “no,” but the point is that demons knew who Jesus was and obeyed him. “You are the Holy One of God, and we can’t resist you. You win.” That’s the point.
There is a naked guy in chapter 14. Never mind. You get the point. Don’t miss why Jesus said don’t tell anyone who I am or what has happened until AFTER the cross, the resurrection and Pentecost. Then go tell the whole world.
So why do we have four Gospels? To get the story right, and to get all the various sub-themes and sub-points into the recipe. Luke has more to say about Jesus’ compassion and inclusion of women than the other Gospels. It’s the same story as Mark, but you see it differently and you overhear more things that help you understand Jesus. John has a lot more of Jesus’ self-understanding and the depth of his identity in relation to the Father. He makes it much clearer than the other Gospels that faith is what takes hold of Jesus and receives all that he gives us.
Some of the Gospels have more about discipleship than others. When you understand who Jesus is, there is a life to be lived, but keep it straight. The Gospel is about Jesus and what he’s done, not really about you and what you’ve done. All the Gospels show the disciples as pretty disappointing, so the bar is set about right for me and for most of you.
So this book actually goes to an immense amount of trouble to tell us the important things. If you go off and treat it as an aisle in the grocery store to shop for “verses that speak to me,” that’s your perfect right, but you are missing the point. And if you miss the point of the important books in the Bible, you miss the whole message. Screw around with the recipe….No cake. A lot of people in a lot of churches haven’t had any cake in a long time. They are getting a lot of something, but all together it doesn’t amount to Jesus Christ, crucified God, meaning of life. Believe and be saved.
One of the nice things about the New Testament is how so many of the books tell us what they are all about on a first reading. In fact, we can actually have no clue about some of the individual verses and passages and still get the meaning of the book. For example, I really have no clue what some parts of the book of Revelation are all about, but I think I get the meaning of the book pretty well: Jesus is the key to history. He wins. He makes a new world and we get to enjoy it. Before that happens, things will get pretty awful for many Christians, and you have to decide if you are going to be loyal to Jesus. So even if I don’t understand all the magic verses, I understand how the book of Revelation fits into the Bible, and I see that its larger message is more important than any individual passage.
My favorite example is Hebrews. Here is a book that explains the entire Bible to you in a Christ-centered way. Now some of Hebrews is difficult, and some may never be clear to some of us, but what is the book about? I’d say, “Hebrews tells us that everything in the Old Testament was leading us to Jesus. Jesus completes and fulfills everything in Judaism, and in fact, he speaks the final Word from God to all of us about everything in relation to God.” The OT is shadow, Jesus is reality. It’s a great book.
Paul’s letters are more eclectic. Romans and Ephesians are highly thematic, while I Corinthians and the Thessalonians are more diverse in topics. Still, in every book there are larger passages whose themes point us in the important directions. We can get diverted into head coverings or double predestination or the nature of wifely submission, but these matters can be interpreted various ways without damaging the inspired function of these books in relation to Jesus Christ.
The New Testament books, rightly interpreted, lead us to Jesus the great mediator, and his great Gospel. They lead us to faith in Jesus and discipleship. They lead us away from superstition, legalism and mysticism to life and resurrection, hope and a new world arriving in Jesus. They lead us to a Kingdom where love and washing feet are the rules, and power is God’s to give, not ours to play with. The New Testament isn’t a collection of verses on how to be a success in business or how to cast demons out of unruly teens. It tells us how to think and live in a world of mammon, and what is the truth that sets teenagers and their parents free to live with failure, disappointment and death. It tells us of the cross and the empty tomb, of Jesus’ compassion and his victory. This isn’t a book of plans, principles and magic bullets for life’s problems. It is the New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I realize that sometimes a verse is the absolute best way to express what the entire Bible says on a subject. I use Piper’s “Fighter Verses,” and I believe they do a tremendous job in summarizing the great truths of the Bible. I am not the enemy of verse-by-verse exposition, but I would wave a large red flag at all who do it, and ask if you are telling your people the message of the Bible, because the message of the Bible is Jesus, and it is possible–POSSIBLE–to be so microscopic that you do miss the most obvious point of all. (Look at the list of books below for some help with what I am talking about today.)
Christians aren’t engineers, learning every mechanical aspect of the engine we call Christianity. We are those invited to glorify God by embracing and enjoying all that He is for us in Jesus. The message of the New Testament should inspire us to the poetry, song, celebration and sacrifice of that fact. We are not examining the engine manual of a BMW to see what’s wrong with us. We are looking at a newspaper with a banner headline: Jesus Christ is Lord!!
I hope all who read this will commit themselves to understand all of scripture, the story of scripture, and the books that make up scripture, so that all the verses of scripture will serve the purpose of revealing the King of Glory, Jesus Christ.
Listen to the preaching of Mark Dever. Dever knows how to preach series on Biblical books in very short order. None of this 5 years in a book stuff, but 3-5 messages and he is done. The absolute best overview type preacher out there.
On Mark, you will not find a better short study than Peter Bolt’s “The Cross At A Distance.” For commentaries, try Witherington or Edwards.
Gordon Fee has excellent resources on Book by Book presentations. Type in his name at Amazon and look at all his books.
Read Graham Goldsworthy. He has two books on using the whole Bible in preaching and both are worth your money and time.
Bartholemew and Goheen’s Drama of Scripture is a must read to do this kind of teaching. Big picture. Get the big picture.
On the Old Testament books, I highly recommend Paul Houses’s Old Testament Theology Introduction.
49 thoughts on “Magic Books, Grocery Lists and Silent Messiahs: How rightly approaching the Bible shapes the entire Christian Life.”
Check out the new TNIV with no chapters and verses at http://thebooksofthebible.info/main.php
One of your best. Quick question. How do you see this approach best working itself out in a small group study setting.
We had to write commentaries on the Mark passage about Jesus calming the storm in a class at church, and I was the only one who went with the “who is this that controls the waves” theme, so I’m glad to see that I didn’t miss the point.
Excellent writing as always! Keep up the good work that helps so many of us out!
such an interesting post and wonderful comments. I’m in outstanding company.
Just wanted to add that a) I hate proof texting and B) uses scripture to beat up people
And then pick up something in a comment
A major componant for Faberez (one whole chapter) is how the preacher/pastor should spend time in prayer about the sermon to be preached.
I wonder if that’s part of the problem, many pastors have little time for prayer and what’s more congregations are busy people too. Christianity has become a Sunday only exercise, and while folk may dip into their scriptures the intimacy, and time with God in prayer is not always there.
as I said the discussion here is a bit out of my league, so please don’t shoot to kill
What you call “Magic Book-ism” is what I’ve heard called “Bible Dipping” or “Bibliomancy”, a form of divination. The big problem with it is illustrated by these three verses, ripped and taken in succession:
1. “Judas went and hanged himself.”
2. “Go and do likewise.”
3. “What thou doest, doest quickly.”
When I hear “Magic Book-ism”, I think more of “Quoting like a Calormene”, treating the Bible as some sort of grimoire, with the verses as verbal-component spells which only need to be uttered word-for-word to make the magic happen. If it doesn’t work, well, then you didn’t cast the spell properly or said something wrong (like the “Klaatu Barata Nikto” scene in Army of Darkness).
Once again Michael you are right on target! I read somewhere in one of Dave Hunt’s books sometime ago, and I am paraphrasing:
If a guru in his yogi attire walks into a church and attempts to give a talk most people would not listen or even allow him into the church, but take away his robe and put him in a 3 piece suit and hand him a few bible verses to use as a proof text and the people will cheer.
I am not a fan of Dave Hunt’s, but I think this story is applicable.
This modern day Think and Grow Rich self help propaganda recycled into some “so called” motivational Christian sermon seems very Laodicean
Expository Sermons have a tendency to avert this type of disaster, but even then you have to watch out for these Strong Concordance gurus!
Like you say in your essay, themes are the key.
Hallelujah. Someone gets it!!!!
But of course I would say that, coz I’m another arrogant, insufferable and proudly Australian saint who’se been taught by a lot of guys taught by the likes of Goldsworthy and Bolt (and no I am not an ardent exponent of all things Moore).
However, I am ashamed to say, even in Australia, you don’t really hear it preached much.
This will be twice I’ve mentioned Michael Faberez and his book Preaching that Changes Lives. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to sell the thing, but…
The way One Salient Oversight outlines how to prepare a sermon is almost identical to what Faberez writes in his book. A major componant for Faberez (one whole chapter) is how the preacher/pastor should spend time in prayer about the sermon to be preached. If a Biblical, Christ centered message is preached, and good application is illustrated, then hearers of the message will know how to apply the sermon to their everyday lives. Especially when the preacher prays that God direct the sermon, and that God direct the hearers of the sermon to respond. Every message does not have to evangelical, but as the sheep are fed, unbelievers will be lead to put their faith in Christ. If the preacher knows the people he is preaching to, he can read the passage, explain what it meant in the day it was written, what it has to do with Christ, and what our response should be Monday through Saturday in the modern life of the believer. Responding to the needs of the audiance should not be the first thing the sermon does, but should be where every sermon ends up.
Thank you both so much for your explanations and insights. I understand and appreciate where you’re coming from. This is something I’ll have to work through in my own philosophy of ministry. I appreciate you taking the time to share.
One more qualification.
I am not opposed to topical sermons per se, but it is important that topical sermons are given in a church where expositions of Scripture are the norm. Because the congregation is used to hearing from the word of God, when the preacher then uses a series of verses from different places to support the topic he/she is preaching on, at least they are capable of working out for themselves whether the preacher is doing the right thing.
And, obviously, serious circumstances often demand that a subject be dealt with immediately. I preached on 16 September 2001, and I had no other choice but to address the terrorist attack on the World trade Center and how we can cope with that horror as Christians. Other circumstances, such as an unexpected death in the congregation, may also demand that a certain subject be preached upon. But this is the exception to the rule.
I suppose I’m reacting to the idea that much of modern preaching is designed with the audience in mind. That might sound like a strange comment, but my reading of scripture tells me that preaching should be designed ultimately with God in mind.
Thus the “felt needs” approach – or simply the idea that the congregation ultimately determines what should be preached – is flawed because it assumes that the audience is the “customer” that needs to be served. It is better to think of the congregation as God’s people who need to hear the objective word of God, rather than as a group of people the preacher needs to please and comfort every week.
“I really don’t think that family and money fall under the category of minutia.”
True. I don’t think I qualified my comments at this point. My apologies for this.
It is one thing to preach to the congregation about how Christians should view money. It is an entirely different thing to then focus the whole sermon on giving away practical tips about saving, spending, budgeting and how to make wise investments.
It is one thing to preach about Christian marriage. It is another thing to spend the entire sermon on “how to have a happy marriage”.
The two examples I have given are preached quite often in many “seeker-sensitive” churches. They are little more than secular wisdom hung on Bible verses that are taken out of context.
I’m not saying that tips on finances and marriage are somehow wrong. It is just that the minutiae of such tips are not found in the Bible, and should not be the subject of sermon content. By all means offer a Saturday morning seminar if people need that sort of stuff, but reserve the actual church meeting for preaching God’s word.
By the way – thank you for assuming that I am a pastor. I feel flattered but the truth is that I am currently unemployed and only worked in ministry for 18 months back in 1994-95. I would certainly love to go back in to full-time paid ministry, but, for some reason, other parts of my life have made that impossible at the moment. I have only been involved in lay preaching since 2000, and preach, on average, once a month.
I don’t see a felt needs approach. I see real life problems, esp in I Cor, but where are felt needs in Romans, Ephesians, Colossians? Church situation is the “felt need” usually.
The preachers in Acts started with the Messianic understanding of the Jewish people. Paul in Athens started with the religious quest of the audience, and that is a rather unique chapter.
Good post. It’s actually a method of study which I have found exceedingly fruitful for myself and for teaching others. Praise the Lord.
Cool, thanks to both of you for your responses. I have read through Walter Kaiser’s “Toward an Exegetical Theology” and the Gordon Fee hermeneutic book, and both books established the same parameters you’re suggesting to me.
I am a young preacher of the gospel, and this conversation helps me.
I do want to ask you, Michael: didn’t Jesus didn’t use a very unorthodox approach to presenting truth as compared to the teachers of the Law? Weren’t his illusrations and parables creative and often pragmatic?
Didn’t Paul deal with the felt needs of the churches with whom he was corresponding?
Didn’t the early church preach the gospel from a variety of starting points as we read through the book of Acts? Isn’t there some room for variance here?
And a question for the other pastor who responded to me (I’d address you by name, but I don’t know it). When you say that the Bible isn’t helpful regarding the minutia of life, I really don’t think that family and money fall under the category of minutia. Maybe the decision on car buying is minutia, but in the overall scheme of my view on money, and God as the possessor and owner of all money, it becomes a very big deal relating to my view of God and His ways. Make sense or no?
That said, your preaching plan sounds very comprehensive and I would sure like to browse through your archives when they’re posted.
The time both of you spend responding to me on this won’t be wasted, because I preach to a lot of people every year and am teachable about such things. I’m just not so convinced yet that felt needs are “shaky ground” when confronted by capable preachers.
Thanks for the essay. I have’t seen these thoughts laid out so nicely before. What you wrote really resonates with my own experiences as someone that grew up steeped in “magic book” theology.
One of the turning points for me in understanding the Bible in the way you described here was the teaching of Ray Stedman. I would highly recommend his series “Adventuring through the Bible” to anyone.
Each book of the Bible is covered by a single message, plus one message on the 400 Silent years between the Testaments. Ray does a great job of laying out the context and themes of each book and identifying Christ throughout. I think these are 20 years old or so now, but this kind of preaching is timeless. The mp3s and text are all available for free at this address
“-He starts with the pragmatic issue…finances, marriage, parenting, whatever…this point of introduction seems appropriate for his demographic in suburbian Atlanta, GA
-He develops -pragmatically- the principles that apply to that issue
-He explains how those principles come from and relate to Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture”
It is the third point which really disturbs me. The tacit assumption is that the “principles” he talks about in point two have their basis in Scripture.
My understanding of Scripture is that God has given it to us as an entirely sufficient record of how to know who God is and what we should do as Christians. It does not contain information on how to buy a new car, how to find a new job, how to ______________ (insert modern topic).
The Bible makes us “Wise for Salvation” and is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3.15-17). It is not useful for working out the specific minutiae of modern life.
This may seem like “limiting” God’s word. All I can say to that is that any limits that exist were placed there by God himself.
My alternative to this flawed method of preaching is as follows:
1. The preacher, in consultation with peers and congregation, determines which book of the Bible he will preach through.
2. The preacher will read and examine the book as a whole, and break up the book into sections that can be examined bit by bit in each single sermon (as an example, in my case I preached 27 Sermons that covered every verse in 1,2 and 3 John).
3. The preacher will then sketch out a preaching program based on these individual sermons, stretching out at least 3 months into the future.
4. When the preacher approaches each text, he first finds out what it means in its grammatical, historical and theological context. An ability to read and translate Greek and Hebrew is very important here.
6. The preacher then works out how the text in question fits into God’s plan of Salvation history. The link between the passage and the death and resurrection of Christ must be discovered. This may take time to find.
7. The preacher then works hard to understand how the text in question can be applied to the Christian life – without “butchering” the text. All application that the preacher makes must come out of a natural understanding of the text.
8. The preacher then determines what the section of text is actually talking about and summarises it as a “Big Idea” – a single sentence that clearly explains what the text is about. If there is more than one “Big Idea” that can be gleaned from the text, the preacher should seriously consider preaching on the same passage a second time to do justice to the text.
The key here is not to start with the audience, but to start with God and his word. This is not to say that the audience should be ignored, but the fact is that preachers should aim to please God, rather than men. Notice how different it is to the method of starting with the needs of the congregation and then working out what to teach. That particular method starts with man and will ineviably result in man-centred preaching. Starting with the text and working out what it teaches us about God will inevitably result in God-centred preaching.
Over the years I have learned the following principles.
1. Every sermon must contain an explanation and application of the gospel, including a challenge to the congregation to ilicit a faith response.
2. Every Expository sermon must communicate clearly the meaning of the text in question, and must never be taken out of its wider context. (In my 27 sermons on 1-3 John the common theme of preaching truth in a time a false teaching was present in every sermon)
3. Every sermon must aim to describe to its listeners who God is and what He is like.
4. Every time a sermon is prepared, the preacher must regularly come to the realisation that his own skills and knowledge are, ultimately, useless and the preacher is totally unable to change the hearts and minds of his hearers. Only when he accepts that it is God and God alone who enables him to speak, and people to listen, is he ready to preach.
In the near future my website will be up and I will be posting there the text of all the sermons I have preached in the last 5 years. Hopefully my points here should be reflected in the texts of my sermons as an example of what I’m talking about – but I will certainly promise you that my own shortcomings will come to light!
I haven’t listened to Stanley or Hybels.
I think starting with a felt need and then moving to individual texts is a risky move in a couple of ways:
1. Felt needs are of limited help in understanding the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t make marriages better. He may make them worse. He doesn’t make our kids better. He causes conflict. He doesn’t make our finances better. He tells us to break our devotion to money. Over and over. The felt needs approach makes Jesus into a “Life Coach for the Good Life.” And that isn’t who Jesus is.
2. Felt needs fit into the Biblical worldview, but let’s take two Biblical book examples: Where are the felt needs? Post Romans 12 and Post Ephesians 5. IOW, at the end. After the Gospel. What is going on here is attracting a hearer, then slipping then some of the Gospel. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a very risky thing.
3. Jesus didn’t teach that way. Paul didn’t. The Biblical writers didn’t. What does that mean? At least it means we ought to ask why not? I think we can illustrate with felt needs, but directly addressing them as the “major issue of the day” is risky.
4. Preaching for church growth is generally premised on the “seeker sensitive” model, and the seeker sensitive model tends to result in the dumbing down of everything to the level where Christians starve and the “seekers” think the Christian life is a “Life principles for a Better Life Now” approach.
I am really cautious about the felt-need, stack of verses-Biblical principle approach. A lot of truth gets communicated. And a lot doesn’t.
I really enjoy this site. What do you make of the preaching philosophy of, say, Andy Stanley…
he explains his process of presenting Biblical truth like this:
-He starts with the pragmatic issue…finances, marriage, parenting, whatever…this point of introduction seems appropriate for his demographic in suburbian Atlanta, GA
-He develops -pragmatically- the principles that apply to that issue
-He explains how those principles come from and relate to Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture
I know your article was intended to address personal Bible study specifically, but since you used Ed Young, Jr. as an example of the grocery list, I thought I’d check out more fully your views on this method of communication.
Personally, I find Stanley and Bill Hybels (Ed Young Jr. doesn’t minister to me as much) and the like to be very helpful and thorough teachers. I think both men understand the major themes of the Bible and the books of the Bible, as well as how the Bible relates to itself as a whole.
Does it matter then, if they explain all of those components to those they minister to? These aren’t incompetent men handling the Word. When they present “what God’s Word has to say on a subject” I feel they have a balanced understanding of the nature of Scripture and proper interpretation. I know that neither of these men were directly criticized in the article, but their methods are certainly under fire around here.
I’m not writing this with a harsh tone, I hope no one will respond with a harsh tone. I just want to discuss…sometimes you guys walk all over some of the methodologies that have really affected my spiritual growth, and I want to know why.
I was unfortunate enough that the first half dozen or so talks I was asked to do were thematic, so much more difficult than doing a single passage…
It’s Goldsworthy or Jensen isn’t it who says that only the most experienced preachers ought to do doctrinal/thematic sermons?
NDBT is a good resource.
Any one read Charlie Peacock’s New Way to be Human – an interesting arty introduction to Biblical Theology, doesn’t show how to, but does push the need to.
Where would people go for really accessible BT for those who don’t think they need bother with?
Hooray for biblical theology! In the last week or so I’ve read three articles / books calling for a need to read the bible in light of the bible. Most reassuring was the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology which says the beginners at exegesis should probably avoid preaching on a theme / topic as they might miss a lot of stuff. Best if they stick to passages at first. This was read the day before I spoke on Love.
Good essay overall.
Karl Barth, I’ve seen at least one more essay where you mention him, you seem to like the guy 🙂
So the question is: Do you take his position on what Bible is?
Do you believe as he did that the Bible is not God’s revelation to us, but rather man’s account of God’s revelation to us ? The distinction is very important, I think.
Schaeffer was right, I think when he acused the Neo-Orthodoxy to be a Orthodoxy without a base.
I think a lot of people prefer Barth’s idea of Bible as a spiritual text that’s not really historically or scientifically valid because they feel that this way they can avoid any objection that can be raised about the Bible. I think it only creates more problems on the long run.
I do believe in the Bible’s inerrancy (The Bible is inerrant according to the intention of the human author in the original autographs).
I believe the Bible to be both a historical and a scientifical valid book. Maybe I can’t explain how they passed the Red Sea, or how God created the earth and everything on it in 7 days, but I know one thing: For God nothing is impossible.
John: I wasn’t trying to imply that you were hostile. I really do get challenged a lot about things I have written or said before, and I am not perfectly consistent. I have evolved a lot, and I have changed my mind a lot. Thanks for reading.
Wow! This is a stunning bit of thinking about the process of preaching / teaching the Bible. It seems that so much of our time is spent on communication theory or potential impact of the presentation that little real thought is given to how the process impacts what we have to say. And if what we say is not “on message”, the message will be clouded and uncertain no matter how clearly we communicate or compellingly we present it. The message does matter– and it has a certain context within the big story.
Thanks for challenging us with something that ought to be read and discussed by every local church staff with preaching / teaching responsibilities.
Thanks for clearing this up. Please forgive me if you thought I was trying to call you a hypcrite, this was never my intention, I was merely confused for a while, its crystal now. God bless you and keep up the good work, I truly enjoy your essays.
I am not looking those up. You can give me links. I do have a life 🙂
Find where I said “don’t ever use verses.”
I said the meaning of scripture is most clearly seen in the message of books. Does that mean that I cannot cite passages on church government, or the duties of elders or civil magistrates? I can cite all the verses I want if the verses represent the total teaching of scripture and do not build a case contrary to scripture. But the books come first.
In this very essay I say that preachers you use verse lists may be completely on target.
I seem to have some folks who want to find me to be a hypocrite- easy to do with 250+ essays- or who want to have me say “You can’t ever cite a verse.”
Again, I haven’t seen the comments, but if you mean the passages I cited to several Osteeniacs, then please note: The pastoral/later NT letters are about the life of the gathered church, with special attention to leadership as a key element in preserving the truth of the Gospel. Charges to guard against false teachers to not distort, detract or pervert that puprose, nor do they misrepresent the letters and their message.
I think a careful reading of the essay will make it clear that I am not trying to start a crusade against using passages. I plan on using John 3:16, John 1:1-18, John 14:6, Hebrews 1:1-4, etc for a long time.
Aren’t you guilty of using ‘magic book’ and ‘grocery lists’ in your comment replies to Kevin Johnson and Meg (Feb 4), Gary (Feb 7). I would be grateful for an explanation. BTW I am not a fan of JO.
First rule of thumb: Never read a Bible verse.
Very good. The books of the Bible have an overall intent. So do the collective 66 books have an overall intent.
Another great one – really helpful – get this one in the book too! Keep them coming.
Related resource, looking at the same thing you’re talking about is http://www.beginningwithmoses.org, a web project from a few guys (including me) in the UK trying to get people to think about the Big Picture…
Great to find people singing the same song!
Good, clear thinking in your article. I wrote about your article on my blog, and even admitted that I may be practicing “grocery list” interpretation in one of my essays!
Joel Osteen rules!
A lot of times the comments made to iMonk essays are as good as/better than the essays themselves. One Salient Oversight consistantly has the best thought out, thought provoking responses of anyone here, including myself. If may just be that I agree with everything OSO says that I feel that way.
One Salient Oversight – click on my name below and send me an e-mail address. I’ve tried going through the wiki-pedia thing and found it complicated and confusing. I may just not be smart enough to understand it.
I had to laugh when I read this wonderful essay. Just two days ago in my seminary Old Testament Intro class the prof was talking about what we’ve lost with each gain in technology over the Bible, whether it be verse & chapter numbers or BibleWorks. He challenged us to use BibleWorks to subvert its own purpose….print out copies of Bible books in Hebrew or Greek without chapter and verse divisions and just read them straight through.
I’m not against computer Bible software; I use it nearly every day. But it does have its pitfalls in causing us to miss the forest for the trees. The great Moises Silva once said that thanks to Bible software, more Bible students can commit more exegetical fallacies in less time than ever before.
A few years ago a Bible Study group I went to watched a series of videos on the historicity of the New Testament hosted by NT Wright.
It was great stuff and it was obviously pitched at non-Christian seekers of NT history.
At the crunch of the video, when NT Wright had explained everything well and it was time for NTW to go in for the kill, he backed off. He didn’t explain the gospel. He didn’t explain the atonement. Instead he spoke about Catholics and Protestants having some very important links. It was really disappointing.
That is one reason why I think that he is N.o.T. w.RIGHT
Very nice. Good stuff. Keep it up!
Inerrancy, as commonly defined, does irreversible violence to the literary genres of the Bible and stands squarely on the view that the Bible is a collection of propositions, i.e. verses. It is a recent innovation, appearing in none of the Reformation confessions.
The language of the WCF on scripture is just fine with me. Being told by a bunch of modernists in the church that I have to become a default literalist to understand the Bible doesn’t work. The Bible’s descriptions of truth are rich and diverse. Inerrancy is a concept that has to be footnoted in too many ways to be useful.
Was Barth not a Christian?
And I am still waiting to know how Piper mishandles the Bible.
I say I may have seen the Wright….uh…light 🙂
I thoroughly enjoyed this article. This morning I took my mother’s old promise box to church and talked about the problems with promise box Christianity [though Mum’s one is better than most.]
I also have problems with Peter Bolt’s take on Mark 13. To say it has nothing to say about the second coming seems screwy to me.
What do you think about this, Michael?
Mike, this is a brilliant essay.
I have a whole heap of things I want to say in response. I hope I can do justice to them.
1) I like the idea that “The Bible is just like any other book in the way that you read it, but unlike any other book because its author is God.” Therefore the Bible is not actually a “Magic Book” – it is a “Normal Book with a Magic Author”.
2) The frustration that you have that modern Evangelicalism is butchering the Bible’s message certainly resonates with me. Let me take it further and make it even more frightening. (If you’ve read my posts before you’ll notice my theological thinking) The Bible is God’s word. The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. Therefore in order for the Spirit to work in churches, there must be the word spoken and communicated clearly. The word of God is also Christ (the divine logos). Therefore the word must speak of Christ. If we present Christ we must present the Gospel. Therefore churches that preach the word and preach the Gospel are churches where the Spirit is at work. Conversely, and here is the frightening bit, churches that do not preach the word and do not preach the gospel are churches where the Spirit’s work is being quenched. This “rule” applies across the board to all churches, whether they be Charismatic, Reformed or whatever. I’ll quote one more time my little adage that I created about 9 months ago: “When the word of God is explained, and the gospel of Christ is promclaimed, the Holy Spirit is not constrained.”
3. Like many evangelicals, I believe that the Bible is written by God, breathed out by the Holy Spirit. But when we approach scripture we must read it the way the author intended – which is why we should treat it like any other book when we interpret it (by this I am talking about grammatical terms, historical context, its stated purpose and so on). When Christians take verses out of context and use them like the “Magic verses” described in the article, THEN THEY CEASE TO BE THE AUTHORITATIVE, INSPIRED WORD OF GOD.
4. Now is the time to be arrogant, insufferable and proudly Australian. Both Graeme Goldsworthy and Peter Bolt are Australian theologians – both of which you refer very favourably here in your article. About 15 years ago I began to understand Biblical theology by reading Goldsworthy’s books and I went on a church camp where Peter Bolt was the speaker. Both GG and PB are Sydney Anglicans and closely associated with Moore Theological college. I, too, am a Sydney Anglican (and I go to a Presbyterian church because I now live outside the Sydney Anglican diocese). What you have described in your article – with all of its clearness and focus upon the gospel and understanding the overall meaning of the Bible and biblical texts – was drilled into me 15 years ago. Please be aware that if you visit Sydney, Australia, one day and pop in to an Anglican church one Sunday morning, the chances are that you will hear preaching that reflects everything you have written here. The Sydney Anglicans are in the process of mass church planting and are giving the Charismatics a run for their money. (By the way, I disagree with Peter Bolt’s interpretation of Mark 13).
Mr. Spencer writes:
“While I do not subscribe to the language of inerrancy, I believe the Bible is true in the greatest sense of truth: that its various ways of speaking, through different authors and various genres, all amount to the presentation of a true World in an incresingly relativising world.”
Isn’t this remarkably similar to the neo-orthodox view of scripture of Karl Barth?
Some very valid points raised here, especially in exposing the fraud and scripture twisting of so many present day popular evangelical “teachers”, yet even a great forest is composed of individual trees, and it would seem profitable to look at both.
Michael, this one may be your best essay yet. Thank you SO much.
I need to share a story of my smallest son, Jon. Every morning we start school with Table Time. The first thing we do is go around the table and report in on what we’ve been reading in our respective devotions. Mostly my kids just read straight through books of the Bible. Big picture stuff.
Recently Jon chose to read Revelation. But he couldn’t just report about what he’d read, he HAD to read each chapter aloud to us. So for 22 days, he read Revelation at the kitchen table. And when he read of an angel proclaiming, his voice grew loud and angelic. When he read of John weeping, his voice grew ragged and harsh. The story was just gripping for him. At the end of each chapter, he’d look around the table at his brothers and say with utter amazement, “And God is IN CHARGE!”
Jon spends the rest of his reading hours immersed in Redwall books, so he knows a good story when he sees one. He knows about good guys and bad guys and things that can’t be explained.
Shortly after he finished the last of Revelation (and wouldn’t you know it, we’re on to Daniel now) a fiercely dispensational friend of ours quizzed Jon about what he’d learned while reading Revelation. She asked him if he’d learned all about the scary things that are going to happen to the folks who aren’t raptured. “Oh no,” Jon said, with his eyes just shining, “I learned that God is IN CHARGE!”
I love that! I love that a ten year old can read the entire book of Revelation and come away with “God is IN CHARGE.” It took me until I was forty to find that in Revelation.
I’m printing out this essay to keep….thanks for putting words to this important stuff.
Yes, he was AofG.
On where we start in understanding the Bible. It’s kindof a chicken/egg argument. But if I were explaining it, sequentially, it would be:
1. Read the book. Hear every author in his own context and in his own situation as best you can.
2. Note when you get to the Final word that lights up the rest of the book. (John 1, Hebrews 1)
3. Read the NT with Christ in his proper place. Hear what the New says about the Old.
4. Now go back and see how the Final Word illuminates the entire Bible. (NT interprets the Christological aspect of the OT.) Luke 24.
I concur with recommending Dr. Fee. How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth was very helpful. He would be a good recommendation for Charismatics, as I believe he is Charismatic himself.
It sounds like you are advocating a whole, part, whole approach to understanding the bible. In other words you look at the whole of the bible, then look at individual parts and see how they relate back to the whole bible. Is that true? I know I like that approach to learning any subject.
The magic book and grocery list approaches to understanding the bible seem to appeal to those looking for Godly answers to various problems in their daily lives. They want answers now that they can use but neither of the approaches listed seem to work. What do you say or teach to those who want to know how to read and apply the bible to the problems we all encounter in this life?
Finally, I haven’t seen Dr. Fee’s book, but I would like to recommend “Talk Thru the Bible” by Bruce Wilkinson and Kenneth Boa.
Working on my end. Don’t know what the problem is.
Write me at mspencer-AT-oneidaschool.org.
this is an unrelated comment, but your email isn’t working for some reason. i tried to write you back about collaborating, but it keeps getting kicked back.