Saturday, July 24, 2010

Exegesis that Makes Me Nervous

Sometimes the text of Scripture is pretty simple. Too simple, in fact. So it seems that some commentators and preachers begin to look for something to beef up the biblical record. The problem is that it is not always firmly rooted in the text. And this makes me nervous.

Consider this example from a commentary on Mark addressing Mark’s account of the feeding of the five thousand:

Mark next vividly describes the orderly seating of the crowds on the green grass. Is he just creating a vivid narrative? Is he preserving historical reminiscences, passive proofs that the account is factually reliable? Or is he dropping hints as to the secret meaning of the feeding?  Interpreters have suggested that there are subtle clues here:

  1. Green grass is possible in this desert place only in early spring, thus around Passover time. That may mean that the feeding foreshadows the Lord’s Supper and Jesus’ death as the Passover lamb.
  2. Green grass echoes Psalm 23:2; “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Mark is still portraying Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
  3. Green grass is not characteristic of a desert. The greening of the desert is evidence that God is fulfilling end-time promises (cf. Isa. 49:9–10; 51:3). That in turn makes the meal a foretaste of the end-time feast that God prepares. NRSV says the people sit, but the Greek says they recline, the posture of a feast, not a normal meal.

Timothy J. Geddert, Mark, Believers church Bible commentary (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001), 148-49.

What if the “green grass” simply means that the grass was green? It may indicate something about the time of the year, as his mentioned in point 1. But foreshadowing? Psalm 23? Eschatology? It simply isn’t in the text.

The fact is that nothing in this “exegesis” is actually rooted in the text. There is simply no textual reason to suggest this understanding. It preaches really well, but it abandons the preacher’s only authority – what the text actually says. And that makes me nervous.

It’s hard to imagine Mark’s audience hearing “green grass” and thinking of Psalm 23 or end-time promises. It’s easier to imagine them hearing “green grass” and thinking of ground cover of a particular color that was the seat upon which people sat.

If you want to talk about Jesus as the Shepherd, why not go back to v. 34 where the text addresses that. (Perhaps the most poignant point about the Good Shepherd metaphor in this passage is that Jesus taught shepherdless people. He didn’t do great miracles to win their confidence and belief. He opened his mouth and taught them many things. The miracles only come later. That should inform those who want to minister like Jesus did. But I digress.) Or go to John 10.

If you want to talk about Psalm 23 and green grass, then go to Psalm 23 and talk about it. If you want to talk about eschatology, the Bible says a lot (much more than some people think and much less than other people think), so go to where the Bible says it and talk about it.

But don’t abandon this text because you are familiar with other texts. If you are going to appeal to people to understand God from the text of Scripture and to live a certain way because of the text of Scripture, then preach the text of Scripture. There is plenty there. We do not need to find more.

Explaining the text this way may cut a 40 minute sermon to 20 minutes, but I’m told that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It has the added benefit of not only rooting your message in what God said here, but also showing your congregation how they can study the text for themselves.

And then when people are called to live a certain way in response to the King, they can point to the words and say, “This is why.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Please God ...

I am sitting outside working in the park, watching cars drive by, watching people walk by, hearing the fire trucks and rescue truck go by a couple of times, planning our Sunday worship service, and enjoying a little cooler weather (83) under a cloudy sky with a light breeze blowing. It sounds busy now that I read it, but it's mostly passive.

I see this table I am sitting at has a carving in it … well, more of a scratching in the rubber coating on the steel frame. It must be pretty new. I have not seen it before.

I assume that means, “Please God let it be better” but you can’t exactly refill the rubber coating and re-scratch it.

It makes we wonder what “it” is.

I think the world has millions of people who want the ubiquitous “it” to be better, and a lot of those people live around us. We see them every day. We work with them, ride the bus with them, drive past them, order dinner from them, wave to them.

But they have no idea how to make “it” better. And we don't tell them.

So they pray to God, from the darkness of their soul, and hope somehow it all works out for them.

But they have no idea how God can make it better because they do not know what broke it to begin with.

And I am reminded that we are the ones commissioned by God to tell them what broke it (sin) and how God makes it better (Jesus).

This is the same table where earlier this afternoon I had a 45 minute conversation with a lady who was making a bracelet out of colored string. We worked our way to the gospel and how a person might get to heaven.

This lady spoke of how she has told her friends that there is life after death. She tells me that in the past several years she has found old friends and tried to resolve old issues. She spoke of how she needed to return to a certain church she used to attend and resolve some disputes (her words) that caused her to leave there.

She said she hoped when she died that God would see her good efforts and have mercy on her for them and consider her worthy to get into heaven.

She’s living with her daughter now a few blocks away but she is hoping to get a place out on East Jefferson near the river because it’s so peaceful there. But I sensed from her words that the peace she talks of has nothing to do with the peace Jesus bought for at Calvary.

I showed her some verses about how heaven is a free gift, and how you can't buy it with good works. Not even really good works. You can't make an good omelet if you include one bad egg.

I explained to her how Jesus was good for us (because we can't be) and how he died in place of us (so that we don't have to). I talked to her about total trust in Jesus, kind of like getting on an airplane. You can't reserve some trust for anything else, even if it's a good thing (like the ground). You gotta put it all on Jesus.

A million things now come to mind that I wish I had said. But I didn’t think of it then.

It makes me wish I was a little quicker on my feet. But then I would probably trust my mental quickness rather than the Spirit of God. Next time, I will have another gospel encounter under my belt that will help me to be more clear, and hopefully the Spirit will use my inadequacies this time and my memory next time.

But I will need to be bold enough to speak up and speak out.

And wise enough to listen carefully and listen quietly.

And I have to remember not to win arguments, but to preach Jesus.

So on Sunday I will preach. Hopefully she will be there with her grandchildren. She said she would be.

And hopefully she, along with others, will understand that Jesus is the reason that we can pray to God to make it better because Jesus is the one who fixed the problem that broke it to begin with.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Is the Internet Trustworthy?

The internet is filled with information. But can you trust it?

Nancy Jean Vyhmeister, in Quality Research Papers for Students of Religion and Theology (Zondervan, 2008) gives the following helpful list for evaluation of internet resources.

  1. What is the purpose of this website? Entertainment? Information? Research?
  2. Who sponsors the site? A credible organization, such as a university? A seller/marketer? A professional society? An advocacy group? An individual?
  3. When was the material written?
  4. Who is the author? A professional? A student? Just somebody interested in the topic?
  5. What are the author’s qualifications, either academic or professional? Author or amateur?
  6. Is this material available elsewhere, either on the web or in a printed source?
  7. What is the tone of the article? “I know it all”? “You are stupid if you do not agree with me?” “This is an observation I have made.” Does this sound like someone searching for the truth or simply pushing an idea?
  8. What company does this piece keep? (hyperlinks, sources cited [journals, recognized scholars, no one])
  9. How do you think your professors will rate this information?
  10. Never stop asking questions.

While the internet is a wild place, filled with all types of information, careful evaluation is necessary. Remember, the fact that someone can say something does not mean it is true. Free blog sites are available to anyone who wants one. And bad information sometimes comes with it.

The internet can be incredibly useful. It also can be incredibly wrong.

Careful evaluation will help us to know which it is for any given site.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Finally Some Truth

“I am selfish and I just want my life back.”

Someone actually said this is why they left their spouse and their child.

Of course, it is the reason many people leave their spouse and children.

It’s just that most people don’t say it.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Birds that are trying to fly into the wind are just landing and walking.

— British Open commentator on
the windy conditions in the second round.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Danger of Objectivity

The pursuit of objectivity about issues is considered a virtue. It is often deemed “good” to be unbiased about a topic, as if that makes one more qualified to speak authoritatively on it.

This charge of a lack of objectivity often works its way into debates. “You’re not objective about it,” charges one side or the other, as if that puts a nail in the coffin of a viewpoint.

J. P. Moreland has some helpful thoughts in his JETS article entitled “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn.”

Psychological objectivity is detachment, the absence of bias, a lack of commitment either way on a topic.

… It is not necessarily a virtue. It is if one has not thought deeply about an issue and has no convictions regarding it. But as one develops thoughtful,intelligent convictions about a topic, it would be wrong to remain “unbiased,” that it, uncommitted regarding it. Otherwise, what role would study and evidence play in the development of a one’s approach to life? Should one remain  “unbiased” that cancer is a disease, that rape is wrong, that the NT was written in the first century, that there is design in the universe, if one has discovered good reasons for each belief? No, one should not (pp. 81-82).

The more we study, the less objective we should become. Those who are uncommitted to a proposition after having studied the proposition are hardly virtuous. After all, that’s the point of study, is it not? To develop convictions about propositions.

Truth should affect us. It should change the way we think about the world that we live in. It should affect the way we live. To remain uncommitted after having after discovered truth is a form of treason against truth. It is ultimately a betrayal of both God and self, for it devalues God and harms the self by believing a lie.

It is true that a lack of objectivity can be a problem when it causes us to overlook truth, or minimize certain realities in favor of highlighting others. But such a state is not problemmatic because it lacks objectivity, but because it believes lies. And lies are always destructive.

Let us not fall for the canard that objectivity is any virtue in the battle for truth.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

World Cup Final – Ugly, Ugly, Ugly

In a World Cup that has been beset by discussions and disputes about officiating, FIFA was not handed any favors by English official Howard Webb today.

And The Beautiful Game was not handed any favors by either side of the matchup.

A dozen or so yellow cards (along with 47 fouls, including some dives that would have contended in the Olympics), with three blatant foul-ups, will not help settle any of the disputes about officiating. And the mediocre display will likely not win any new fans to the game.

There’s no question that Netherlands was chippy. Spain was more aggressive, and the aggressive team often gets the benefit of calls because they get to the ball first. Netherlands seemed to be a half-step behind for a lot of the game.

Overall, the officiating wasn’t horrible. It was just that there were an awful lot of cautions, and three really strange calls.

A Netherlands player inexplicably received only a yellow card after a landing a studs-first blow into the chest of a Spaniard. It is hard to imagine what type of explanation other than “I didn’t see it” can justify only a yellow card there. But of course Webb saw it; he waved the yellow for it. It was dangerous. It was brutal. It was ugly. It was a red card offense.

Later, just minutes before the end of the game, Netherlands forward Robben was clearly impeded from behind on a breakaway to the goal. He tried to stay on his feet to save a scoring chance, which was blocked, due to a great play by Spain’s keeper combined with the defensive foul. The defender, Puyol, would have received a second yellow (possibly a straight red), consigning Spain to play a man down for the remainder of the match. But Webb waved the play on.

When you compare this play to the play that led to the second yellow for Netherlands Heitinga, it makes it even more curious. Heitinga’s foul from behind was clearly far less egregious than Puyol’s and Puyol’s was a desperation play to prevent a scoring chance on a dead breakaway.

Then in extra time, just before Spain’s goal, a goal kick was awarded to Spain, even though the ball clearly had been touched by Spain on its way off the pitch. Rather than a corner kick for a possible scoring chance, Spain received a goal kick that released the pressure and led to their goal.

Four years from now, it will be interesting to see what technological advances are incorporated into the World Cup. Chances are that it will not (and should not) change anything that happened today. Only keeping the card in the pocket, or showing an early red to calm things down, will do that.

The Netherlands lost because they failed to score, and they allowed a goal. They lost because they got chippy and did not play their game patiently. You can’t blame that on the men in blue shirts.

If you want to win, you gotta play better.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Points of Clarity

From Rod Decker’s blog quoting someone else:

It is also risky to be clear, for sometimes when the complex jargon is removed and the point is made in plain English, it no longer seems all that profound.

It’s also hard to meet the word count for a book or article if you simply state the point without complexities and jargoneering (I think I made that word up, but I think it’s a great word).

But I think this is a great point. Many things that sound impressive with big words only sound impressive because of the big words. The actual content is not all that impressive, and is sometimes downright “banal” (to use Dr. Decker’s word).

It reminds me of Tim Keller’s observation that preaching is too often ghetto-ized in its language.

Most pastors with a seminary education could stand to be more simple, I think.

Most pastors without a seminary education could stand to get a seminary education, or at least its equivalent through reading and study.

Then work on being more simple.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Walking Fools

Even when the fool walks along the road,
his sense is lacking
and he demonstrates to everyone
that he is a fool

(Ecclesiastes 10:3)

Fools demonstrate their foolishness even in the most mundane and common things of life where we are tempted to think, “No one can mess that up.”

Oh, yes they can.

I am reminded of the non-biblical proverb about speech (that I wish I had heeded many times): It is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Sometimes, it would be better just to stay home, and shut up.

Wisdom is a pattern of life that must be cultivated in all areas of life. Wisdom is not just for the big decisions. It is needed even when “walking along the road.”

Monday, July 05, 2010

On Consecutive Preaching

An interesting article by Iain Campbell interacts briefly with the method of text selection for preaching, whether isolated texts from week to week (such as Spurgeon) or consecutive texts through a book (such as Martin Lloyd-Jones). It is a topic worthy of thought for the pastor charged with the weekly feeding of the sheep.

There is a kind of badge of honor that is worn by those who preach like Lloyd-Jones—379 weeks in Philemon, or fourteen and one-half years through Philippians.

Okay, so I exaggerate slightly. But not much. I talked to one pastor who spent six months on the first 14 verses of 1 Timothy … in a church plant. I do not doubt his heart and intent. I wonder about the wisdom of such an approach.

I have always tended to preach consecutively. My very first sermon series in the church that I pastor started in March of 1999 and went for thirty weeks in 1 Thessalonians. Since then I have spent 52 weeks in Hebrews; 30 weeks in 1 Peter; 50 weeks in Genesis; 25+ weeks in 1 Timothy and James, plus a host of others. I am now 17 weeks into Mark’s Gospel.

In fact, you can probably count the number of “isolated sermons” I have preached in my 11 1/2 years here on two hands and two feet. I rarely even preach special messages on holidays.

And to be honest, I like consecutive preaching for several reasons.

  1. It is how God gave the Bible—verse after verse. Can you imagine understanding your spouse by picking out a paragraph from one conversation and then a paragraph from another, and then a third from yet another? No, of course not. We know that to listen to people means to listen to them in order of what they are saying.
  2. It forces a pastor to address things he might not otherwise address because, let’s face it, it is easier to skip some verses than to preach them, whether because of difficulty (not sure what to say about it) or laziness (don’t feel like studying it).
  3. It makes my week easier because I know what I am going to preach. Honestly, I am perhaps the most uncreative person you know. All of my topical series are pilfered from people way smarter than me. If I didn’t have Mark 6:14-32 to preach this coming week, I would be miserable all week trying to figure out a text.

And there are other reasons, which I won’t enumerate here.

But here’s an interesting thought from Campbell:

It is possible that we de-emphasise the authority of Scripture by concentrating over-long on sequential exposition. What would the average attender at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1875 think on hearing sermons on texts from six different books of the Bible in as many weeks? Would he or she not come to appreciate the parallel glory of all parts of Scripture? Does the method of preaching from isolated texts not somehow demonstrate that all Scripture is indeed inspired and profitable, simply by virtue of the fact that week by week, year by year, the preacher's texts are, in fact, drawn from 'all Scripture'?

So which congregation is better served? One that hears 52 weeks in a a row about Hebrews? (My 52 was actually divided by a Christmas series and 10 weeks on Romans 12-15.) Or one that hears 52 weeks in a row from all across the canon of Scripture?

I honestly do not know.

My growing inclination is that a mix is perhaps in order. A well-fed Christian needs to see the depth of Scripture, but they also need to see the breadth of Scripture with its unifying themes. Perhaps wisdom would lead us to have a main series going (such as Mark in my current case) and every 4-6 weeks mix in another text from somewhere else that grows out of what God is doing in our lives outside the current mainstay.

It is at least worthy of some thought.

To quote Campbell again, “As evangelical heralds of God's trumpet, we believe in giving no uncertain sound. But maybe sometimes the trumpet could be more effective if the tune was more varied.