The God who Speaks and the Task of Preaching

Everything we know of God has been revealed to us by God. Humanity has not come to an understanding of who God is by its own efforts or study. Instead, everything we understand has come as the result of his own self-revelation. He is the God who speaks.

As we look at the world around us, we can see some evidences of God’s grandeur and majesty. How often have we stopped and marveled at the beauty of a sunset—whether that be over the ocean waves or the mountain-tops? How often have we shuddered to think of the terrific power of “natural disasters”—tornados, tsunamis, and hurricanes—which we categorize more properly as “acts of God?”

Each of us have an understanding of right and wrong, based on the power and conviction of our consciences. Intuitively, we know that hatred is wrong. We understand the value of human life. We have to be taught to ignore those instincts (and many of us are), but we are born with them nonetheless.

But it is important to recognize that we know nothing of the love and mercy of God apart from divine revelation. We may know that a god exists, but we do not understand his character nor do we know his name apart from his own self-revelation. We know nothing of the three-in-one, Triune Godhead apart from divine revelation. And we know nothing of the hope of our salvation apart from his own attestation. Eternity hangs in the balance of his voice and he is not silent.

In the Old Testament, he speaks into the empty void and brings something out of nothing. He calls out to Adam in the Garden and tells Noah how to survive the flood. He gives Abram his marching orders and calls Moses from the burning bush. He thunders from the mountain, shows his power in the whirlwind, and whispers in the silence.

In the New Testament, he sends his Son—the eternal second person of the Triune Godhead, the Living Word, and active agent of all creation—to clothe himself in humanity and live a sinless life. He preached the arrival of the Kingdom of God and died a sacrificial, penal substitutionary death, and rose on the third day defeating death, hell, and the grave granting eternal life to whosoever believes. His invitation lingers, “All you who labor and are heavy labor, and I will give you rest.”

Our God is a God who speaks.

And because our God is a God who speaks, his words—the form of his communication—the Living and Inscripturated Words—matter . . . and they move.

Notice that in Acts, as the church is born and begins to expand, the Word of God is seen as the active agent: “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied . . .” (Acts 6:7), and, “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). Yes the Word is preached by the Apostles, but it is no mere passive instrument in the establishment of the Christian church.

As we approach the task of preaching, then, we must understand the centrality of our convictions concerning the Word of God in our doing so. That which we believe about the Bible will determine the manner and method of our preaching. If it is nothing more than a book of pithy moral teachings or a collection of mythological tales, the manner in which we approach the pulpit will follow and the Bible is nothing more than another collection of the stories of Zeus or Apollos or Odin or any other mythological deity.

But if the Bible in our hands is what it claims to be—the very Word and words of God—then the pulpit becomes the Sacred Desk and our task becomes a sacred task.

The Bible is inspired.

In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul writes that all Scripture is θεόπνευστος (inspired, or literally, “God-breathed”). Of course this refers to the Old Testament writings that were read, studied, and taught by Jesus and the apostles during the New Testament, but it is extended to the New Testament as well. Peter wrote that in Scripture, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). And Peter himself placed the words of his contemporary, Paul, on par with those found in the Old Testament, writing, “There are some things in [Paul’s writings] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16).

The Bible is not man’s words about God nor mere words about man’s interactions with God. The Bible’s source is the very breath of God. We have a God who speaks. And the Bible we hold in our hands is the very words and Word of God. And if it is God’s Word—breathed out by him, it must be inerrant.

The Bible is inerrant.

If the Bible is the actual words and Word of a holy and righteous God—himself the standard of perfection and glory—it cannot mislead, but rather must be “truth without any mixture of error.”

Lest there be any doubt in our minds, consider Jesus’s approach to the Old Testament. By all means, he considered the statements of the Old Testament as factual, chronological, and historical. Jesus compared his eventual death, burial, and resurrection to Jonah’s experience in the great fish (Matt 12:39–42). To cast the shadow of doubt upon the historicity of Jonah is to do the very same to the death and resurrection of Christ! Though he often corrected the interpretations of the religious leaders of his day, not once did he correct the words of the Hebrew Bible. Modern disputes as to the authenticity, dating, and authorship of the Old Testament were never hinted at in Jesus’s teachings.

If the Bible is God’s Word, it is inerrant. And if it is inerrant, it must also be authoritative.

The Bible is authoritative.

If the Bible in our hands contains the very words of God, it must therefore be true. God is not the author of confusion, but of order. Therefore, if God’s Word is inspired and inerrant, there is no other proper response apart from our submission to it. We are not called to correct or adapt the Word of God, but rather to conform our lives and doctrines to stand in accord with it.

For those who love theology—who love to read heavy, dusty books written by dead guys—that means that we dare not explain how this verse “fits” into our theological grid. But rather, we must show how our theological framework incorporates and adapts itself to the text of Scripture. We must be submitted to the text. The text is the authority because the text (and not our own interpretation) is without error.

The Bible is sufficient.

If the Bible is inspired by God and, as such, is absolutely true and trustworthy in all that it claims; and if the Bible is true in all that it claims and, as such, we must be submitted to all that is taught therein, then it must be sufficient for salvation and all that is necessary to live a life pleasing to God. The Scripture is all that has been given or needs to be given in order that we know the way of salvation and the path of obedience.

We do not need more special revelation. The canon is no longer open. Because while God still speaks, he does so through the preaching of his servants.

Martin Luther has written that “Every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth, and his word and forgiveness is Christ’s word and forgiveness. . . . For the office is not the pastor’s or preacher’s but God’s; and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor’s and preacher’s but God’s.”

In like manner, John Calvin stated, “When a man has climbed up into the pulpit . . . it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”

To be clear: the preacher’s words are not God’s words ex opere operato. Just because it is stated from the pulpit does not stamp the authority of God upon it. The preacher’s words are God’s words only as long as they are faithfully and accurately proclaimed.

Conclusion

Our God is a God who speaks, and preachers of the gospel—those tasked with the accurate and faithful proclamation of the Word of God—are the means by which we still hear his voice. Such a task—proclaiming God’s very words—should cause the preacher to tremble under the magnificent weight of his responsibility. Nevertheless, the preacher must stand confident that the Holy Spirit will overcome the failures and faults of such a brittle mouthpiece. The One who has given us this sure Word will ensure that it does not fail.

If You Really Believed God Wrote a Book . . .

Each year at UNC Chapel Hill, Bart Ehrman begins his class with an exercise. He asks the class, “How many of you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God?” A majority of hands raise all over the room. Then he asks, “How many of you have read [and he’ll select the popular novel of the day]?” Usually at that point, almost every hand is raised, with very few exceptions. Then, Ehrman asks a third, very important question: “How many of you have read the entire Bible?” And almost every hand in the room stays down. At which point, Ehrman—who despite teaching the New Testament, does not believe it to be God’s Word—makes his point: “I can understand why you would read [the popular book]. It’s entertaining. But if you really believed God wrote a book, then wouldn’t you want to read it?”

Many of us who grew up in the church were encouraged and challenged to make daily Bible reading a part of our lives, but how many of us live out our belief? If we really believe that God wrote a book, why wouldn’t we want to read it? Why wouldn’t we make a plan?

“Every Christian worth his salt ought to read the Bible from cover to cover every year.”
J. I. Packer

I remember the first time I committed to read through the Bible; it was more than a decade ago. I had run through several devotionals and each of them had the same pattern. They would offer up a verse or two, followed by two pages of someone else’s experiences and thoughts on that snippet of God’s Word. . . . And those were the good ones! Some offered up the same cursory verses, but highlighted someone else’s story that had a similar theme. At some point, it struck me that, in my quiet time—in the moments I had set aside to hear from God—I was reading someone else’s words.

That was enough for me. I chucked the devotionals aside and picked up a one-year Daily Message Bible. (And for anyone throwing shade at me for choosing The Message, I would encourage you to check out my post on Eugene Peterson’s intent behind that paraphrase). I would read each day’s portion in The Message and then switch over to my HCSB to highlight verses and take notes.

The important thing was committing to a plan.

At the bottom of this post, I’d like to offer you two plans to consider for the upcoming year. There is no limit to Bible reading plans, but I’m going to give you the one I have found most useful and then the one I’m going to try next year. But first, let’s talk about what making the commitment to a Bible reading plan isn’t.

Committing to a Bible Reading Plan isn’t Normal

That you’ve read this far into the post is a testament to your oddity. Making the commitment to read the Bible through in a year is not something most people do. Should it be? Of course. But without a plan, we’re destined to get stuck somewhere between Leviticus and Numbers. And that’s why so many choose NOT to make the commitment. They’ve tried (even if half-heartedly) before and failed.

Committing to a Bible Reading Plan isn’t Legalistic

I have heard some argue that making a plan is legalistic. It’s impressing someone else’s standard upon our schedule and time. I’ve heard some argue that it stifles the Holy Spirit’s ability to lead you to the portion of God’s Word that he intends you to read on a given day.

Simply put, the only people who believe that have never read their Bible through in a year.

Anything worth doing is worth counting the cost and making a plan. And, as the old adage goes, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” (Not Scripture, but true nonetheless.)

Committing to a Bible Reading Plan isn’t Difficult

So let’s get into the nitty-gritty of it. Here’s how I read the Bible.

Spoiler alert: I use my iPhone. It goes wherever I go. I’ve forgotten my wallet more times than I’ve forgotten my phone. So I use my phone. If that bothers you, as I know it bothers some, just add the step of opening your print Bible.

Download the Reading Plan app

This app is incredible. It connects to many Bible apps, which means that you simply open the app, click on the reading for the day, and it opens your preferred Bible app to that passage. It offers a litany of different Bible reading plans, but I’m going to suggest two: the one I’m finishing up and the one I’m planning to use in 2019.

I love the Book at a Time plan. I believe that context is extremely important in good biblical interpretation and that means reading larger portions of the Bible at a time. The Book at Time plan encourages that kind of reading, setting you for in one book for chapters at a time, usually followed by a single chapter from the Psalms or Proverbs. Also, it moves back and forth from Old Testament to New Testament, so you need not worry about getting lost in the wilderness for forty years.

In 2019, I’ll be trying something new—the 5x5x5 plan. It’s described as a simple New Testament plan, requiring only five minutes each day for five days a week. You read one chapter a day. Does that seem like too much? Surely not. Then again, if that seems too little, you can up the ante a bit and read it in the Greek text. (NOTE: If you’re up for this, reach out to me and let’s create a GroupMe or WhatsApp group to help one another along.)

If we really believe that God wrote a book, why wouldn’t we want to read it?

Three Words that Can Improve Your Bible Study Immediately

I was wrong.

Regardless of context, this is one of the most difficult statements for anyone to make. Whether you’re having a conversation at the church, at home, or even in the coffee shop, these three words come with such difficulty.

And yet, those committed to the authority of Scripture live with this possibility on a daily basis. We are called, each of us, to be submitted to God’s Word. As eighteenth-century Lutheran scholar Johann Albrecht Bengel has been quoted, each of us has the responsibility to “Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself.” This is the task we face daily in our efforts to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2).

And in order to be transformed—in order to be conformed to Scripture—we must say those three words with far more regularity than any of us would desire. Each time we approach Scripture, we bring a load a theological baggage to the task of interpretation. And we have a responsibility to let the text speak and allow it to have an affect upon our theology.

And this is so difficult, isn’t it? Even as born-again, Bible-thumping Christians who champion sola scriptura, again and again we are tempted to bring our theology and our experiences and the mounds of books we’ve read to the exegetical task and interpret Scripture in such a way as to accord with our pre-conceived notions. This proclivity seems so evident when we see it in someone else (who clearly can’t conceive of their bias), but we are then challenged to consider the other theological arenas in which we may blind to our own (unnoticed) biases which we carry into the exegetical task.

It is much more natural, when faced with teaching that opposes our thought, to reject it outright—to declare that our views are inherently right and correct. It is far more difficult to acknowledge the possibility that we might actually be wrong. In my reading of God’s Word, I am perpetually amazed at the number of scribes and Pharisees whose interpretations of Scripture were shaken by the Incarnation of Christ. Over and over again, Jesus’s actions undermined their entire framework of understanding. And while it is common to read their reactions in the Gospels as absurd, as a theologian and student of God’s Word, I become fearful of the possibility that my interpretations—as well-intentioned as I believe them to be—as much study as I have committed to the task—could be wrong (or at least fallible).

And in my brief experience training men and women to rightly divide the Word of God, I’ve taught them to ask an important question when faced with a difficult text that doesn’t necessarily correspond with their pre-determined theological position.

Rather than asking them how they might redefine or re-interpret a verse in order to make it align more closely with their position, I challenge them to ask, “How has that verse or passage affected my theological views—how has it shaped what I had already believed?”

Why is that important?

Because if we’re genuinely submitted to the authority of God’s Word, our task is to conform our thought to his Word; not to conform his Word to our thought.

Is that uncomfortable?
Yes.

Is that difficult?
You bet.

Does that require us to consistently face the possibility that our theological framework may be out of alignment with Scripture?
It does.

But, if we genuinely prize God’s Word, we are given no other option.

Eugene Peterson and the Pastoral Heart behind The Message

Yesterday morning, Eugene Peterson—famed author and pastor—entered into his heavenly reward. In his honor, then, I think it reasonable to reflect on his pastoral heart as reflected in The Message.

The Message is described by many as a paraphrase, and we who describe it as such are quick to clarify its categorization as a paraphrase and not a translation. In many ways, I wonder if in our concern to protect the words of God, we failed to appreciate that which Peterson sought to provide in The Message—an accurate presentation of the “heart” of the Word of God.

The Story behind The Message

In his description of the events that led up to his paraphrase, he wrote of a time in the early 1980s when a financial downturn sparked heightened anxieties (especially concerning race) among those in the church he pastored and in his community. He recalled the dismay he felt as a pastor who, for twenty years had preached “the good news that Jesus had overcome the world, [defined] their neighbor with Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, [defended] them against the status quo with Jesus’ story of the cautious servant who buried his talent. [He] had led them in Bible studies that [he] supposed were grounding them in the freedom for which Christ had set [them] free, keeping their feet firmly in, ‘but not of,’ the world around [them] for which Christ died. And here they were, before [his] eyes, paralyzed by fear and ‘anxious for the morrow.”

In light of his realization and as the result of his pastoral concern, Peterson began “plotting a pastoral strategy” to help them understand their identity “as free people in Christ, a people not ‘conformed to the world’ but living robustly and spontaneously in the Spirit.” So, Galatians seemed the right place to begin. After all, Peterson was angry and Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is Paul’s angriest letter.

His plan was simple. He would teach through the book of Galatians in an adult class over the course of a year and then to preach through the same book the next.

His described his goal: “I was going to soak them in Galatians. They were going to have Galatians coming out of their pores. After two years they wouldn’t know whether they were living in Galatia or America. But they were going to know something about freedom, the freedom for which Christ set them free.”

He arrived the next Sunday morning, brewed the coffee, laid out the Bibles, and awaited the arrival of his church members. They trickled in, grabbed their coffee, and opened up to Paul’s Angry Epistle and sat there, smiling sweetly.

The fireworks that Peterson anticipated never lit. They were completely disconnected from Paul’s emotional response in the text. He recalled “frustrating and fuming” to his wife later that afternoon. He thought he might teach them Greek—”if they read it in Greek, those sweet smiles will vanish soon enough. If they read it in Greek, Paul’s somersaulting, cartwheeling, freedom-trumpeting Greek, they’ll get it.”

His wife sweetly smiled and said “I can’t think of a better way to empty out the classroom.”

Peterson understood that a course on Koine Greek wasn’t the solution to his concern. So he took to the task himself. He read Paul’s letter in Greek and sought to translate it in a manner that, while taking some linguistic freedom, accurately communicated Paul’s emotional thrust from Galatians 1. He wrote, “I just wanted them to hear it the way I heard it, the way the Galatians heard it, the way Luther heard it, the way so many men and women through our Christian centuries have heard it and found themselves set free by and for God.”

So the next Sunday, he arrived early again and brewed the coffee. But instead of laying out the Bibles, Peterson provided the first chapter of Galatians in his own words. And his class caught sight of Paul’s emotional response to the false teaching in Galatia. And over the course of the following months, week-after-week, his class gathered and read God’s Word afresh—not in a manner overly concerned with replicating each word in translation, but with communicating God’s heart and pathos as demonstrated in his words.

Peterson went to publish his studies on Galatians in Traveling Light: Modern Meditations on St. Paul’s Letter of Freedom in 1982. Years later, an editor wrote to him, explaining that he had photocopied the translation portions, “taped them together, and [had] been carrying them around ever since, reading them over and over and reading them to [his] friends.” He then encouraged him to translate the entire New Testament.

Thus began his work on The Message.

The Heart behind The Message

It began with a pastor’s concern that his congregation understand God’s Word. It wasn’t enough that they had his Word before their eyes and a pastor willing to teach them. They didn’t connect with God’s heart. Beginning with the Greek (and later, the Hebrew), Peterson carefully translated Scripture to English and then sought to depict New Testament images and metaphors into the twentieth century vernacular.

So, when we describe The Message, let us guard our own hearts from being unnecessarily dismissive. It is not a translation. It was never intended to convey God’s Word alone. It was intended to demonstrate his heart.

And for that, we can be truly thankful for the life of Eugene Peterson.


Source: “God’s Secretaries,” in Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006), 121–36.

Authority, Submission, and Scripture

Several years ago I found myself in a difficult conversation with some leaders in our church about women teaching and preaching in the church. Though I taught complementarianism, these men believed that the church should be more inclusive and cease its historic “oppression” against women.

I insisted that the offices of the church—elders and deacons—were restricted to men according to Scripture and that we, as believers and as a church, were called to submit ourselves to God’s Word. Each time I brought forward a passage of Scripture demonstrating my point, one of the men simply said, “I know that’s what it says. I just can’t go there. We have a difference of interpretation.”

He had fallen back on this “agree-to-disagree” mantra before. While his “agree-to-disagree” position seemed more tolerant at a surface-level, in actuality he used it in an attempt to press his own preference upon me (the pastor) and the church as a whole. So finally, I forced the issue.

“You keep saying, ‘We have a difference of interpretation,’” I said. “Can you show me what you mean? Would you read this?”

I then opened my Bible to 1 Timothy 2:12 and asked him to read through 1 Timothy 3:7.

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

I asked, “Do you agree that Paul is teaching that the teaching office is restricted to men?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Do you agree that Paul is teaching that a woman is not to hold a position of authority over a man in the church?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Do you agree that Paul is rooting his argument not in culture, but in creation? That he’s saying that this is not in response to what’s transpiring in Ephesus, but has roots as far back as Genesis and God’s created order?”

“I can see that,” he said. “But I just can’t go there.”

In that statement, he finally acknowledged the real problem.

“Then what we don’t have is a difference of interpretation,” I said.

It would be a difference of interpretation if he believed that I’ve misstated what Paul taught, or he believed that—despite Paul’s reference to Adam and Eve—Paul’s argument was based upon false teaching being spread by way of the women’s groups, or that the word for “authority” in that passage isn’t properly translated. All of these are different interpretations—even if wrong interpretations, in my opinion. But he agreed with every point in my interpretation of that passage. Whatever our difference was, it couldn’t be a difference of interpretation.

“This isn’t a matter of interpretation. This isn’t an interpretation issue. This is a submission issue.”

And this one moment of clarification—one of my last moments at this particular church—gave me a great concern for the state of the greater body of Christ. Far too often, we approach Holy Writ having already determined which areas of our lives it may and may not instruct us. Far too often, we position ourselves as the referees and feel free to blow the whistle whenever Scripture gets out of line with what we believe it to say or believe it should say.

Sure, we’ll let God’s Word give us hope in the midst of trials. We’ll let it promise us blessings. We take comfort in knowing that believers are safe and secure in the hand of God. But we’re so quick to throw our yellow flag when it speaks to issues near and dear to our own comfort. We’re not comfortable with the subject of the tithe, or the manner in which it reveals God as Father, or the notion that the Son of God was made to suffer in the place of sinners to satisfy God’s wrath. We’re prone to dismiss that as culturally-irrelevant or (though few would say it outright) simply wrong.

But we’re not given that option.

We’re called to search out the Scriptures honestly. We’re called to discern what God has said and is saying and to submit ourselves to that. God has spoken. Do we dare shake our fist at him and tell him which areas of our life are available to his instruction? We are not given the option to decide that simply because we don’t like a particular doctrine, we are not bound to submit ourselves to it.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). There is no asterisk to provide an “out” for cases in which we don’t like what those passages teach. There is no footnote that excuses those texts that expound doctrine contrary to our own preferences.

You may disagree with my interpretation of Scripture. You wouldn’t be the first. But, if you intend to do so, please do it because you are convinced that your interpretation is the most faithful to the Bible, not because you don’t like the conclusion of my interpretation.

If we are both attempting to be submitted to the Scriptures—rather than submitting those Scriptures to our own preferences and presuppositions—it changes our posture toward one another. Instead of being combative or viewing ourselves as different factions in a doctrinal dispute, we become fellow-pilgrims on the same path, encouraging one another to grow in our understanding of and obedience to God’s Word.

It all comes down to submission.