Be Careful, Little Flock, How You Hear

preachA few years ago Thabiti Anyabwile published a little book, What is a Healthy Church Member? In it, he urged healthy church members to be expositional listeners, by which he meant that just as the faithful pastor makes the main point of his message the main point of the text (i.e., expositional preaching), so healthy congregations will also make it a priority to comprehend the expositional sermon. About that say time, Christopher Ash wrote a little guide on the same subject: Listen Up! A Practical Guide to Listening to Sermons.

Well, apparently, Anyabwile and Ash are not alone in their estimation that the congregation plays a dramatic role in the “effectiveness” of a pastor’s preaching. As I recently scanned D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic text, Preaching and PreachersI came across the same idea. In chapter eight, he discusses the “relationship of the pew to the pulpit” (143) and addresses the vital role that congregants play in the service of preaching. While not minimizing the role of the preacher, and abhorring the idea that the pew dictate what the pulpit should preach, he is exactly right to emphasize how churches confirm or deny the message of the gospel by means of their own inattention or eager anticipation. Continue reading

A Word-Driven Ministry

On Wednesday night, I taught through the book of Nehemiah as a part of our year long journey through the Bible–Via Emmaus: A Christ-Centered Walk Through the Bible.  My aim was to show the redemptive-historical features of the book and patterns of salvation that are extant in the book.  However, the book also provides an excellent portrait of godly leadership and a word-driven ministry.  (For more on that see Mark Dever’s chapter on Nehemiah in The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made).

Ezra and Nehemiah are two books that show the sovereignty of God to reestablish God’s people (Israel) in God’s place (Jerusalem).  They also do a great deal to show how YHWH leads Israel back into covenant with himself, and with that covenant renewal comes a laser beam focus on the power of God’s word. For instance, Nehemiah 8 illustrates the way God’s word can transform a people.  And for God’s covenant people today, it gives an excellent motion picture of what the ministry of the word could and should look like.  Even with the differences that exist between that Old Covenant period of Ezra-Nehemiah and the church today, Ezra’s priestly ministration models a commitment to God’s Word worthy of imitation (cf Heb 13:7).

Here are 6 Marks of a Word-Driven Ministry from Nehemiah 8:

  1. Word-Based: There wasn’t any gimmick, program, or contrived technique to change the people.  From morning to midday, Ezra read the Law (v. 3, 5) and Levites gave the sense (v. 7-8). Ezra displayed incredible faithfulness to the Scriptures, and the sufficiency of God’s Word is seen in the fact that they simply read and explained the text, and hearts were moved.  If only, we would have the same commitment today!
  2. Expositional teaching: The kind of teaching that changes lives in Ezra is the kind that simply reads and explains the ‘Bible’. It aims to understand God’s word and make known the plain sense of the inspired Word; it reads the text in context and applies it to our lives. Ezra and his team of “small group leaders” took the word and helped the people understand it.  The words they read surely came form or were based on Law of Moses, and yet they understood the words as speaking to them (cf Deut 32:47).  The result was a deep sense of contrition and thanksgiving, as well as, a reinstitution of the Feast of Booths, which recalled God’s saving work during the Exodus (8:13ff).
  3. Community: A word-driven ministry gathers around the word  in unity and with regularity (v. 1).  In Nemehiah 8 we see men, women, and children gathering as one man to hear God’s word (v. 1, 3, 8) and to receive instruction (v. 7).  As a result, the entire nation repented and rejoiced as they heard the word (8:9-12).  For more on the centrality of the gathered people around the word, see Christopher Ash’s new book, The Priority of Preaching.  The third chapter explains the necessity of the assembly that gathers to hear God’s word: Powerful!)
  4. Plurality of teachers: As Ezra opened God’s Law, he was surrounded by Israelite leaders whose names are recorded in verses 4 and 7.  While Ezra was the leading teacher (a model that is continued in the NT and in churches today), he was not alone (a pattern also continued in the NT and sorely missing in many churches today).  Because the Word is authoritative, it is appropriate to have a plurality of teachers.  In fact, while a church can begin with a singular teacher, it does better to move towards a plurality of leader-teachers, what the NT calls pastor-teachers, elders, and/or shepherds.
  5. Elevation of the Word: Ezra stood on a platform “made for the purpose” of lifting high the Word of God; the people stood to hear it; hands were raised and audible sounds made indicating that this is God’s word– “Amen!”  The people were not stoic recipients of God’s word, nor were they impatient consumers.  They hungered for God’s word and listened with intensity and receptive participation.
  6. Heartfelt Affection: The appropriate response to God’s word is not only cognitive acquisition, but also heartfelt affection.  Those who heard the word of God, were moved to tears (v. 9); they were encouraged to take heart (v. 10), and they wept away rejoicing because they had understood God’s word (v. 11-12).  True understanding is not simply intellectual, it is emotive and volitional, too.  Thus listening to the Word read or preached is not a passive activity.  It requires earnest prayer and heart preparation to be moved by God’s word.  For preachers, too, it is essential that God’s word grips our hearts as much as our heads.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is instructive. Our churches and our pastors would do well to emulate Ezra (cf. Ezra 7:10).  From a cursory reading of Nehemiah, it is evident that God’s people were radically affected by God’s word, in a way that today’s churches need.  Yet tragically, pastors look back on Ezra as though his method is archaic and outmoded.

Ironically, there is more power today in the preaching of God’s word, than Ezra ever knew.  Ezra’s ministry was under the Old Covenant, and thus did not come with the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.  With Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension, the promised Holy Spirit has been poured out (Acts 2) and today the power of the Word is incomparably greater (Acts 1:8; cf. 1 Thess 1:5).

Today, preachers should have even greater confidence to proclaim God’s unadulterated Word, because the living and active word is not only true, it is accompanied by the Holy Spirit who convicts, converts, comforts, and conforms God’s children into the image of Christ.  The word of God will not return void, and ministries marked by the Word will accomplish exactly what God intends–salvation and judgment (cf Matt 13:10-17).

May we who proclaim the Word, do so unashamedly, trusting that the seed of the Word will establish the kingdom of God.  It may be foolish to the world, but it is the wisdom and power of God.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Top Ten Books of 2008

Studying at Southern Seminary has afforded me the gracious opportunity to read some of the choicest books on the Bible, theology, and Christian ministry.  This is a list of my Top Ten Books of 2008, books that I had the opportunity to read this year that I would commend to you for your perusal in 2009.  The list is eclectic, and intentionally so, but my hope is that each book would whet your appetite for more of Christ.  (The list is in chronological order, but I will say the best is last).

1. Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben.  The most fascinating book I read all year; not one I would have picked up by myself.  Assigned for my Ethics class with Dr. Russell Moore, Enough, written by an unbelieving environmentalist, is a fascinating look at the technologically-advacning world we live in.  The book deals with nanotechnology, articificial intelligence, and gene therapy, just to name a few.  McKibben goes into painstaking detail to show what science is researching and hoping to create, and from a secular point of view he asks the question, “When will it be enough?”  It is a great read, and it will challenge your thinking about what it means to be human. 

2. God and Marriage by Geoffrey Bromiley.  Before Christian Bookstores were flooded with marriage books, historical theologian, Geoffrey Bromiley, produced a short book that traces marriage through the Bible, shows the Trinitarian-marriage connections, and shows why a good theology of marriage is so important for a healthy marriage.  For less than five dollars used, you cannot pass this up.

3. Marriage: Sex in the Service of God by Christopher Ash.  Most thorough and rigorously biblical book on marriage today.  A must read for any pastor or biblical counselor.

4. Married for God by Christopher Ash.  The follow up to Ash’s first book on marriage, this popular level book grounds marriage in biblical theology and then proceeds to practically apply the Bible to today’s marriages.  Very readable, and worthwhile for any and all married couples, or those getting ready for marriage.

5. Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons.  One of the earliest “biblical theologies” you can find.  Irenaeus was a second-century church apologist who read the Bible very well.  Challenging, but worthwhile.

6. Last Thing First by J.V. Fesko.  An edifying and stimulating look at eschatology (the study of last things) and  protology (the study of first things) in Genesis 1-3.  It ultimately is a book about Christ, as the alpha and omega.  In the spirit of Meredith Kline and William Dumbrell, it shows how God’s plan of redemption begins in the first 3 chapters of Genesis.  Very good!

7. The Letter to the Colossians and to Philemon (Pillar Commentary) by Douglas Moo.  Moo’s commentary was the most current and most biblical-theological commentary that I found on Colossians.  As I preached through the book in September – December, it served me well to see the OT-NT connections that Paul employed in his Christ-centered letter to the church at Colossae.

8. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by D.A. Carson and G.K. Beale.  Tremendous resource for preachers who want to pay special attention to inter-canonical connections.

9. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by Andreas Kostenberger and Scott Swain.  The latest volume in the D.A. Carson edited New Studies in Biblical Theology.  Even though this book will be finished in 2009, it is too good to leave off the list.  The attention to biblical content and the faithful Trinitarian synthesis is excellent.  This is a must have for anyone preaching or teaching in or through the Gospel of John.

10. The ESV Study BibleThe Bible is surely the best and most important book I read all year; and this year the ESV Study Bible is simply the most edition published in 2008, maybe the century–not a hyperbole.  Speaking of the notes and articles, I have not read it en toto, but in scanning its contents and contributors, it is clear that this marks the finest evangelical study Bible to date.  ( Tim Challies provides a full review; Albert Mohler gives a helpful guide to using study Bibbles).  The biggest selling point though in our tech-savvy age, however, is the unbelievable online capabilities that accompany every copy.  At The ESV Study Bible website you can listen to the Bible, record your own notes, and hyperlink to every cross-reference.  Simply amazing!  This a great feature that sets the ESV SB light years ahead of the rest.  I pray that this volume will gain a large readership as it will tremedously benefit students of the Bible to read the Scriptures better…

…Which is the hope and prayer of 2009.  Of making manny books there is no end, and much study wearies the flesh (Ecc. 12:12), but the Word of God is life-giving and enriching.  It points us to Christ and shows our wickedness and desperate need for salvation (cf. John 5:39; 2 Tim. 3:15).  So then, let us endeavor to read the Bible more in 2009, and to find books that will help us understand the Scriptures with greater clarity and commitment.  

Tomorrow, I will post the 10 books I am most looking forward to in 2009…that I pray will enhance our understanding of and passion for the Bible.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss 

The Story of Marriage

Christopher Ash, in Married for God, writes:

The Bible tells many stories of human marriage, both good and bad, from Adam and Eve through Abraham and Sarah, David and Bathsheba, and countless others. All of them, one way of another, are stories of dysfunctional people in spoiled relationships.

But above these stories the Bible tells a bigger story, the story of a marriage which includes within itself the whole history and future of the human race. It is the story of God the Lover, the Bridegroom, the Husband, and his people his people Beloved, his Bride, and in the end his Wife. It is the story that John the Baptist had in mind when he spoke of Jesus as the ‘Bridegroom; (John 3:25-30), and the story that Jesus himself accepted when he spoke of himself as the ‘Bridegroom’ (e.g. Matthew 9:14-15). It is the story of Paul referred to when he spoke of the church in Corinth as being ‘engaged’ to Jesus Christ like a pure virgin (2 Corinthians 11:2) (Christopher Ash, Married for God, 166).

Supplying his line of thought with more biblical content, the biblical story of marriage is a story that begins with the first union in the Garden of Eden and climaxes with the marriage supper of the Lamb in the Book of Revelation. It is a story of love created, love lost, love promised, love received, and love consummated. It is a story that sounds too good to be true, and yet it is a story more true than any storybook love affair in novels or the news.  It is a story that centers around the king and his bride (cf. Psalm 45). It is a story of a lover and his beloved (i.e. Song of Songs). Tragically, it is also a story of wife who becomes a harlot and prostitutes herself to the nations (cf. Ezekiel 16 and Hosea). Yet, the love of the husband will not be overcome.  The rest of the story concludes with the husband’s redeeming, willing, and cleansing sacrifice restoring his bride to new life (cf. Eph. 5:22-33). Consequently, it is in the end a story of forgiveness, of a husband who searched the marketplace to find his estranged wife, who paid the highest price for her return, and who lovingly and mercifully restored her beauty and radiance to the kind never before seen in a bride. And it is the story of a wedding day that never ends for those who participate in the wedding of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-10).

And it can be your story if you will turn to the pages of Scripture, read, and believe.  Christopher Ash continues:

It is the story that John speaks of in the visionary imagery of Revelation 19 and 21. The metaphors are mixed and the language is vivid and suggestive; we cannot read it literally and it would not be possible to make a film of this imagery. At the climax of human history John hears the announcement made, “The marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7). The Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ himself, is to be married at last. His Bride is his people, every believer of all time, corporately to be joined to him forever in union of unmixed delight and intimacy. This is a time of joy and amazement” (166-67).

This is the story of marriage in the Bible. From the beginning, God’s aim with marriage was the final marriage–Christ and the church.  In the garden, the first marriage was for the purpose of the last, and every engagement, wedding, and marriage that has followed has been an eschatological image designed to reflect the final marriage. As a result, our marriages do not stand in the way to that final marriage, they are instead an invitation to come, taste, and see the goodness of the God’s marriage to humanity in the Christ-church mystery (Eph. 5:31).  This marriage is now offered to each husband, wife, or single who will respond to Jesus’ invitation to know him and love him and dwell with him forevermore.  In this way, all of our love stories–past, present, and future–fit into the grand narrative of the Creator of Marriage and the Redeemer of humanity.

As we abide in and enjoy our marriages, may we lift our eyes to a greater union, and with anticipation and hope look forward to our forthcoming union with our loving savior.  Until that day…

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Marriage: A Heavenly Sculpture Formed From Earthly Clay

In his popular-level book on marriage, Married for God,Christopher Ash relates a story from Britain that illustrates the way that marriage is expressly intended to display the lovingkindness of God.

Some years ago I read of a dispute in Britain between the Foreign Office and the Treasury. The argument was about which British Ambassadors would be provided with a Rolls Royce for their official duties in a foreign capital [sic]. The Treasury unsurprisingly wanted the wonderful cars restricted to a few: perhaps Washington, Moscow, and Paris. The Foreign Office argued for many more and I love the reasoning. Most people in a foreign capital [sic] have never been to Britain, they said. But when they see this magnificent car gliding through the streets with the Union flag on the bonnet, they will say to themselves, “I have not been to Britain. I don’t know much about Britain. But if they make cars like that there [and in those days we did!], then Britain must be a wonderful place.

In a similar way, I like to think that men and women may say to themselves as they watch a Christian marriage: “I have never seen God. Sometimes I wonder, when I look at the world, if God is good, or if there is a God. But if he can make a man and woman love one another like this; if he can make this husband show costly faithfulness through sickness as well as health; if he can give him resoucres to love when frankly there is nothing in it for him; well, then he must be a good God. And if he can five this wife grace to submit so beautifully, with such an attractive gentle spirit under terrible trials, then again he must be a good God. If you are married or preparing for marriage, pray that others might be able to say this of you in the years ahead (Christopher Ash, Married For God:Making Your Marriage the Best It Can Be [Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2007],96).

Christopher Ash’s analogy points to the way God has designed marriages to radiate His glory and reveal truth about His faithfulness and love. In the human clay of marriage, God has imprinted his heavenly signature, and men and women who are joined by him have the dignified privilege of serving as heavenly ambassadors in a fallen world. Such a living portrayal of God’s love is neither optional or incidental, it is God’s design and his desire for every marriage–Christian or otherwise. Of course, patterned after Jesus Christ and his bride, only those marriages founded on Christ and filled with the Spirit are able to fully reflect his glory (cf. Matt. 7; Eph. 5:18). Nevertheless, every truly Christian marriage should invite others–married couples and interested singles–to experience the increasing depths of heavenly intimacy had in the display of Jesus’ redemptive love portrayed in marriage.

Reading Ash’s account challenges those married or soon to be married to consider how your own marriage discloses or covers Christ and the Church, the love of God, and the blessed hope of union with Christ at the end of the age, to name a few. Marriage was not ultimately created to provide temporal pleasures in a rough-and-tumble world; it was created to picture a greater reality that might draw all the nations into the gracious embrace of the Risen Savior. While providing wonderful pleasures, marriage points to a greater and more lasting union– the marriage feast with the lamb of God (Rev. 19:6-10).

May our marriages grow in the glory of God’s love, and may a skeptical world be awakened by the light of Christ shining forth from our Christ-centered marriages.

Sola Deo Gloria,dss

Gender-Specificity and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

When Paul speaks in Titus 2:1 about sound doctrine, he immediately turns to relationships. Rather than expatiating a systematic theology, Paul says that theology is worked out in the context of distinctly masculine and feminine roles, in youthful and elderly stages of life, and in varying spheres of leadership and influence (i.e. masters and slaves).  Clearly theology that is genuine is incarnated in the daily life of Christians.  In regards to husband and wife relations, Christopher Ash in his book Marriage: Sex in the Service of God  picks up this same idea– theologically-infused living– when he comments on another Pauline passage in 1 Corinthians 11.  He writes:

Paul’s teaching here (1 Cor. 11:2-16) seems to be conditioned by women (perhaps reacting against the abuses of patriarchy) behaving as if they can ‘go it alone’ in their behaviour, whether by ceasing to be gladly feminine or by reluctance to cooperate in the marriage partnership. By their contentious and disorderly behaviour they bring disrepute on the gospel. In the absence of proper order (which includes Christian subordination of the wife to the husband, and headship as sacrificial serving authority) there will be rivalry rather than partnership between the sexes. Perhaps in Corinth the women needed reminding both of their interdependence with the men and that they were made ‘for the sake of’ man, as partners in a shared God-given task. Disorder (and in particular a wrong attitude of subordination) leads to rivalry in which the weakest go to the wall; the task will be neglected. Proper order will promote sexual relations in the service of God (302).

Ash does not only address women but men as well.  Writing later in his book, he furthers his argument of gender-specific gospel living by saying:

The love of husband for wife is to be modelled on the cross. It is to be self-sacrificial love and not the self-serving enjoyment of some misguided privilege. Christian headship in marriage is marriage in the shape of cross; most contemporary debate misses this central point. For Christ to be head of the church was not a cheap or comfortable calling; it involved crucifixion (322).

The purpose of marriage then, says Ash, is that “the husband takes upon himself the goal of being such a husband whose love will lead his wife into growth in personal and spiritual maturity (for there is not dichotomy between these two), so that his greatest aim in marriage is not his self-fulfillment but the blossoming of his wife. ‘Husbands should be utterly committed to the total well-being, especially the spiritual welfare, of their wives’ (Peter O’Brien 1999:422-424). This might sound a little self-righteous, as if he from his Olympian spiritual height can raise up his wife to his level; it is in fact deeply humbling. No husband can take responsibility seriously without himself being deeply conscious of his own need for cleansing, holiness and growth in grace” (324).

Both headship (expressed in sacrifice) and submissiveness (to unjust authority) are expressions of the way of the cross (327).

In these bold and counter-cultural statements, Christopher Ash is saying something twenty-first century Christians need to hear.  Both expressions of headship and submissiveness adorn the gospel of God and manifest, in part, the inner workings of the Trinity. In fleshing out male and female roles, husbands and wives, become more like the men and women God created them to be.  In other words, they more accurately display the gospel of Jesus Christ when they bear the fruits of biblical masculinity and feminity in the roles of head and helpmate.  Just as Jesus came as the perfect second Adam, so too married men and women, when they gladly take on their biblical roles, dignify humanity and call men and women living outside of God’s moral order to return to the truth. 

Realistically, the world’s response may not be commendation and praise, but rejection of the gospel light reflected in these godly marriages.  Nevertheless, when the world encounters a gracious patriarch willing to lay down his life for the care and protection of his family and gentle feminine companion unwilling to usurp his authority or combat his leadership, the world encounters something different, perhaps even transcedent.  When the world encounters a 1 Corinthians 11 woman or an Ephesians 5 man, it encounters a picture of Christ and the church! This is a powerful testimony and one the world can only hate. It cannot deny its Spirit-wrought reality!

May who claim the name of Christ all grow in grace and godliness, not as androgynous saints, but as brothers and sisters manifesting distinctly masculine and feminine godliness in the marriages God has given to us.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Sex in the Service of God

When was the last time that you read a book or a chapter and had your worldview rocked?  Where as soon as you finished the chapter, you wanted to start it again?  When the result of extended meditation on the book actually changed your thinking and your view of life?  For me this has come from John Piper’s Desiring God, Robert Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism, A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God,  and only a handful of others.

This morning I would have to add Christopher Ash’s Marriage: Sex in the Service of Godto the list.    Like an unexpected earthquake, Ash set off a series of tectonic shifts in my thinking about marriage, sex, and the glory of God.  His premise is that the primary purpose of marriage is not human companionship to overcome loneliness or personal satisfaction derived from a heterogeneous coupling.  No, instead, the divine design of marriage is more cosmic, more missional, and larger than just two people in bed together. 

Going back to the Garden, God’s intention in creating mankind male and female has always been to perform a work that could not be done alone.  God’s command to mankind to till and cultivate the earth, to serve God and guard the garden has cosmic significance.  And today, after the Fall, it has a missions imperative.  This changes everything about marriage, because the blessed union is far more than simply two becoming one. 

The force of Ash’s chapter, “Sex in the Service of God,” comes from the fact that his argument is clear, intensely biblical, and incredibly relevant–not to mention inspiring in a Great Commission sort of way.  Marriage and sex as an act of proclaiming the glory of God and the kingdom of Christ has been something I have thought about before, but never with such clarity and potency as I had this morning.  I pray it will have a lasting effect.

So I commend you to pick up the book and read the chapter yourself and ponder its significance.  I know that I will, again and again. Here is a sampling to consider your marriage in the light of God’s glory:

Marriage is to be a visible and lived-out image of the love of the Lord for his people, and this relationship is so central to reality that the project of imaging it is seen as the primary purpose of marriage.  The paradox is that when we begin to think of the marriage relationship as an end in itself, or even as an end that serves the public signification of the love of God, we slip very easily into a privatization of love taht contradicts the open, outward-looking and gracious character of covenant love.  By this I mean that the covenant of the Creator for his people is a love that has the world, the whole created order, as its proper object; in loving his people with a jealous love he has in mind that this people should be a light to the nations and that through them blessing should spread more and more widely.  The moment we begin unquestioningly to treat marital intimacy as the primary goal of marriage, however, we contradict the outward-looking focus and the project becomes self-defeating (Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, 127).