I Got it Right – Reflections on 50 years in Ministry Part 2
In other “parts” of this intended series, I write of how I got it wrong. See Part 1 as an example. This time I will write about how I got it right.
In my early theological training at Moody Bible Institute, I was introduced to the precision of language in my study of biblical Greek and Hebrew. Whether stated explicitly or not, I was being taught that words matter, and none matter more than the revealed Word(s) of God. Early in my training I was exposed to the seriousness of the preaching task. In Jeremiah 23 there is a very sobering passage from the Lord.
“This is what the Lord Almighty says concerning (false) prophets: They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord…But which of them has stood in the council of the Lord to see or to hear his word? I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied. Yes, the Lord declares, I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares’. They distort the words of the living God.
If we are going to stand before people and say, “Thus saith the Lord” – we had better be certain it IS what God has said. That is why we must teach this book CAREFULLY! It alone is the Word of God. It alone is what God has said. This holy fear of misrepresenting God weighed heavily on me in my study and preaching. “Tongue waggers” don’t do well on judgement day.
As I continued in my master’s and doctoral education over the next many years, I was exposed to professors and preachers who not only understood the importance of accurately representing God but how best to do it.
From Haddon Robbinson, I heard the importance of authorial intent. I wanted the hearer to understand what the Holy Spirit, using the human author, meant in a particular text of Scripture. A preacher can make many scripturally correct statements but never tie them to the text from which they derive their authority. In the Old Testament we read:
Nehemiah 8:8 “The leaders read from the book of the Law of God making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.”
In Luke 4, Jesus did the same thing. So, to be faithful to what God was revealing through the prophets and apostles, I needed to be certain I was saying what they meant to communicate by what they wrote. I would regularly ask myself the question, “When the Holy Spirit hears me declaring what a certain text of scripture means, would he say, ’Yes, that is what I meant’ or would he embarrassed or worse?”
I’ve heard and read a lot of good theology preached from a text that had nothing to do with the theology being preached. That kind of preaching only exacerbates the common misunderstanding that you can make the Bile say anything you want it to, so why trust it.
Eventually, I also began to understand the importance of the structure of a passage of scripture. The order in which the words, sentences, and ideas were presented was not random but intentional. I wanted to pay close attention to how the Spirit and human authors constructed the text. Such structure can sometimes (often?) be important in understanding intent. Because oral communication is different than written, I think there is liberty in the structure of a sermon but at least be aware.
Over the past 50plus years, I have read and heard thousands of sermons. Many of them were great expositions of specific biblical texts that I think God blessed in the lives of the hearers. Others were theologically sound but not anchored in any text of the Bible and thus gave the hearers no basis for knowing they were God’s word. Still too many others were little more than moralisms or hints for living, intended as from God but would probably have been more accurately and persuasively said by Dr. Phil.
Because the Word of God is TRUE, CLEAR, RELEVENT, and INTERESTING, I want my representation of God’s Word to be likewise.