Abraham and the Sacrifice of Faith (The Story Notes #3)

My church is, across all departments, going through The Story, a chronological, abridged edition of the Bible that takes you through the story of Scripture from Genesis to the end of Acts in 31, novel-like chapters. It’s a fun project that’s challenging me to deal with narrative sections, teach large chunks at a clip, and point my kids to Christ throughout the whole redemptive-historical story-line of the text.

That said, it seemed worth it to start posting my notes for these talks on a regular basis. It might happen every week, or not, depending on how helpful I think it is, or time constraints. My one request is that you remember these are pretty rough notes and I’m teaching my students, not a broader audience.

abraham and isaacText: Genesis 22 (Also, 12, 15)

One of the most terrifying and significant stories in western world, is God’s testing of Abraham with the sacrifice of Isaac. Soren Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about it, meditating on the ethical issues involved in obeying the command of God to sacrifice your child. What does faith look like in that situation? What horror must Abraham have felt as he thought of killing his own child. What a terrible ‘test’ that must have been.

Now, the word ‘test’ can mean test, or trial, or tempt. So, God is putting Abraham through a trial. It’s a trial of faith. A trial of sacrifice. God wants to teach Abraham, and us, something in this test. I’ll just say that Abraham was shocked by the test as well, but probably not for the same reasons as Kierkegaard was.

Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East – See, Abraham grew up in a world of child sacrifice. A lot of the neighboring gods had demanded them. Chemosh and Molech were two that famously consumed child after child after child. Abraham had probably grown up with neighbors who had offered up their children to the flames. We have archeaological digs with pits full of the bones of little children. What’s more he’d only been following this new God, for a while now. He still didn’t know much of his character. He knew he was surprising and powerful, but how different was he from the other gods? The Bible hadn’t been written yet, so he didn’t know that this God actually hated child-sacrifice. As horrifying as it sounds, with the pagan background that he had, I don’t feel that Abraham was shocked because of the kind of request it was.

What’s more, he knew he was a sinner. More than a couple of times, he had been a coward and tried to pimp out his wife. He had been an idolater for so long that he understood the principle involved in atoning for his life with the life of his firstborn son. If I had to guess, though he loved his son as any normal father would, perhaps even more because of how long he had to wait, the request wouldn’t have horrified him for the same reasons it horrifies us.

No, you see, I think the weird thing for Abraham, the thing that would have been running through his mind during those days of walking towards Moriah, would have been the promises. What would this mean for God’s promises?

The Call – Go to the beginning of Genesis chapter 12:1-3. See, after all that had come before, after creation, the fall of Adam and Eve there was a lot of history. Things went from bad to worse. Sin filled the earth and God caused a flood and only left few survivors to start over with. From there, humanity grew again, spread over the earth, and God began to set in motion a plan to fulfill his promise to Eve that one day he would save everything. He decided to start this plan by picking Abram, an idolater who had a wife who couldn’t conceive children.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation,  and I will bless you;I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

He told him to leave his family, and strike off and that one day, he would bless him in such a way that his blessing would bless the whole world. He would make his name great. So, Abraham struck out in faith and, yes, went on a good many adventures. One thing to note here is that God chose Abraham explicitly, not just for his own sake, but so that through him, somehow God would bless the wider world around him. God always blesses us to be a blessing to others. His particular choice of Abraham was always part of a global plan to bless all.

The Covenant – Now, beyond that first promise, came a second promise. As we said, Abraham was childless and so he expected that his servant would one day inherit all that he had been blessed with by God. At one point God comes to him and tells him he will bless him even more, but Abraham’s skeptical. “What can you give me since I don’t have a child?’

God at this point makes another great promise to him in Genesis 15:

4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

So here, he promises not only that he’d bless him, but he’d give him progeny, so many descendants that we wouldn’t even be able to count them. Abraham believes him, and the text says that it’s counted to him as righteousness.

Then, he goes through this weird ceremony where God has him cut up a bunch of animals, line them up in two lines with a corridor between the halves. Usually this was a covenant ceremony where both parties would walk through the animals and basically agree, “If I bail on this covenant, let me be cut in half like these animals.” Here’s the thing, God puts Abraham to sleep and then shows him a vision of himself going between the animals alone. God basically takes a death-curse on himself–if He doesn’t fulfill the covenant, then he accepts a curse. (Gen. 15:8-21) He tells Abraham to have the sign of the covenant be circumcision, yes, but basically he just promises “If I don’t make this happen, let me be cut in half.”

From there, it’s years and years of waiting. Abraham tries to take things into his own hands and has a kid with a servant girl. God says, ‘no, that’s not the one. Sara will give you a child.’ And guess what? She does. After years, I mean, decades of waiting, God fulfills his promise to Abraham and gives him a son, Isaac, a name which means laughter because the thought of having a kid that late in life had caused them to laugh at the idea when God told them. Then God laughed them.

At that point Abraham had to be thinking “This, this is how it’s going to happen! Isaac! I get it now!” But then, Genesis 22.

What now? This, this is what I think was provoking confusion in Abraham’s heart. God had come through before. Why was he threatening his promise now? How is he going to bless the earth through his line if his line is dead?

Have you ever been in a place like that? In one of those situations where you’re looking up at God and thinking, “What the heck? How is this going to work? What are you doing? This isn’t what you said? You’re killing your promise and it makes no sense. Why would you ask me to give this up? Why would you take this from me? What purpose could this serve?”

So What Did Abraham Learn? Tests are about learning. Trials are about showing. So what did Abraham learn? What was this test about?

Read rest of Gen. 22

How Much Do I Love Him? Realize, to us this is horrifying, but here, God is asking him, ‘Will you sacrifice as much for me as your pagan neighbors will for their pagan gods?’ If you were worshipping those things, you would. Will you do that for me? What do you love more? What holds your heart? Because if he’s not willing to sacrifice it, then God is not as important. One thing he wants us to ask ourselves, what is most important?

Faith Rests in God’s Promises and Past Actions Now, in light of all of this, what was Abraham’s response? He said, “Here I am, Lord.” When Adam hid at the Lord’s call, Abraham answered with a faithful response. But how? How was he able to make that choice? Well, it seems to me that the text says in  Romans and Hebrews tell us that “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead.”. So while God’s promises were what was confusing about the situation, they were also what allowed him to be obedient.

See, it seems that Abraham reasoned, ‘Well, if God promised, and he’s come through on his promises in the past, despite the fact that there was no way life could come from our dead bodies, he’ll make life come from the dead again.’ Abraham trusted in God’s character and God’s promises despite his confusion at God’s request. God proved himself in the past, so he trusted him for the future.

He Rewards Faith? The next thing we see is that God rewards faith. Gen 22: 16 “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore…through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

You have to realize that at some point, God will probably test you. There will be something that you will be challenged to give up. Some way that you’ll be asked to follow God that will test whether you love that thing more than him. What this text shows us is, not that God won’t ever take it, but that you can trust him when he does. He’s looking to bless you in the sacrifice.

Either to replace it with something better, to prepare you for something greater, or to take something that will destroy you.

Ultimately Our Sacrifice Isn’t The One that Counts: What else does Abraham see? That God is the one who provides his own sacrifice. See, there are all kinds of linguistic issues here, but there is a deep pun going on “Abraham saw the place of sacrifice (v. 4); God will provide (see) a lamb (v.8); Abraham saw a ram (v.13); Yahweh provides (lit. “sees,” v. 14a); and Yahweh appears (“makes himself seen,” v. 14b).”[1] What’s more, the land of Moriah (land of vision) is also linguistically linked to the word.

The long and the short of it is that God shows himself to Abraham as the one who provides his own sacrifice. “You’re not the one making the big sacrifice for me, I’m the one who provides it for you.” Now, this should have been obvious given that so far, God has just been promising, promising, promising and so here, once again, God takes the responsibility.

The Great Sacrifice Now, there is a big difference here for us than there was with Abraham. Abraham was able to see God’s promises and had received his blessing and had his word, yes. But, what he didn’t have that we do is the surer promises of having seen Christ. See, we know in a way that Abraham could only dimly, that God had already made the great sacrifice.

But, of course, with Christian eyes and ears we can’t help but see that this is pointing ahead to something truer, something deeper: “For God so loved the World that he have his only-begotten Son.” Abraham points ahead to the great sacrifice when God provides the ram, the true Lamb who takes away sin. Only this time, it is God’s own Son of promise, the Only Son of God who goes under the Knife for sin. This is what we see, that Abraham could not.

And the crazy thing is, in doing so, this is how the promise to Abraham was eventually fulfilled. Paul tells us that God’s promises to Abraham were fulfilled, not only in physical nation of Israel that expanded to fill and make a great nation, but ultimately in his descendant, Jesus Christ, the one through whom all the families of the earth are blessed, and through whom he has descendants of all nations that outnumber the stars of the sky.

I could draw out the implications of this text for pages here, but at the end of the day:We can trust, we can give, we can sacrifice because the Son trusted, gave, and sacrificed himself for us.

Soli Deo Gloria

You Know How Buildings Look Ugly While Under Construction? That’s the Church

under constructionWhen I was going to UC Irvine, the joke was that ‘UCI’ stood for “Under Construction Indefinitely.” There was always some new building being put up, or some old building being remodeled; our student center was torn down after my first quarter there and completed the quarter after I graduated (figures.) In any case, there were a number of structures that looked horribly ugly when they were being built, had cumbersome scaffolding, and the construction process was loud, noisy, and a public nuisance. You’d walk by and just curl your lip at the eyesore. After a few years of work, though, when they were finally unveiled, the buildings were beautiful.

Dutch Statesment, theology, and all-around genius-type, Abraham Kuyper says that’s how we ought to think of the church on earth:

Finally, if someone asks whether the building known as the visible church would be the completion of the spiritual temple building, such that the visible church on earth should be identified with the kingdom of God, I would counter with this question: does the prolonged tragedy of the church on earth tolerate for a moment the fueling of this delusion?

No, my friends, it is an entirely different bond that binds together church and kingdom of God. I prefer to indicate this for you in terms of an analogy. You know that in our cities we often see a stack of wood on an open lot. Bricks are piled up, joists are brought in, people walk around with measuring tools and plumbs; on that lot a wooden frame is raised, tied together with poles and boards and cross-beams, looking more misshapen than elegant. That scaffolding, as people call it, appears to be constantly rising higher, its dimensions constantly corresponding to the outline of the building. But that wooden frame is not the actual enclosure, that scaffolding lashed together is not the wall of the house. For look, when after many days the cornice is brought in and the gables are anchored in place, then that scaffolding is torn down, that frame is dismantled, and the house that was skillfully constructed out of sight now sparkles in the grandeur of its lines and shimmers in the beauty of its form before the eyes of everyone.

By now you understand what I am saying, my friends! That scaffolding is the church on earth— as she appears at present to the eye: defective and misshapen. It must remain for a time, for who can build without scaffolding? But one day, when the cornice is brought in and the last stone is set, then that scaffolding will be removed, then that church on earth will fall away, and then that glorious temple will shimmer in its eternal beauty— a temple that hitherto had not existed, but that the builders had been building while supported by that Church.

–Abraham Kuyper, Rooted & Grounded: The Church as Organism and Institution (Kindle Locations 531-545). Christian’s Library Press. Kindle Edition.

Something to remember when you show up at church this morning, look at the people of God, and think, “Really, this is it? The Kingdom of God on earth looks like these people?” Well, yeah, that’s it…with a lot more work. Thankfully we have the promise of Christ that he will bring that good work unto completion, and that when we see it, we’ll marvel at her glory.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why I’m Excited About N.T. Wright’s Big New Book: Paul the OT Theologian, Greek Culture, and the Roman World

paul and the faithfulness of GodN.T. Wright is releasing his big book on Paul Paul and the Faithfulness of God in his ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’ series. It’s so big, that, in fact, it’s two books on Paul, each of which could be two books (2 volumes weighing in at 1700 pages.) Now, of course, this is the only excuse that I’ll accept given how long he’s taken to write it (10 years since RSG). In any case, I’m beyond excited to read this beast for multiple reasons, but as I was scanning through the table of contents (posted online), I was reminded of one of the biggest reasons I love reading Wright: he refuses to limit Paul’s horizons. His first volume is a few hundred pages simply tracing NT background in multiple fronts: Greco-Roman philosophy, Rome, and the OT/2nd Temple Judaism. He doesn’t get to Paul’s theology proper until the second volume!

See, for some Pauline scholars it’s all about Greece. Paul is a Hellenized Jew who is engaging and appropriating language and thought from the world around him to speak of Christ to the Greeks. For others, it’s all about Rome, and Paul is preaching a serious, counter-imperial Gospel that cuts to the heart of Roman political culture. And still, for others, he is chiefly an OT theologian, transformed by Christ, who is engaged in demonstrating Jesus as the Jewish Messiah who fulfills all the prophecies and, bringing about reconciliation with the Gentiles. For Wright it’s about Paul the OT theologian, transformed by Christ, apostle to the Gentiles, engaging Rome, and the surrounding Hellenistic culture with the Gospel of Jesus.

‘Gospel’ Backgrounds: Isaiah or Rome?
You can see this approach at work in an article of his on the gospel in Galatians. He notes that typically, exegetes have wanted to understand Paul’s use of the word ‘gospel’ (euangelion) in relation one of two backgrounds: Isaiah or Rome. Wright notes that the approaches are favored usually either by those who see Paul primarily as a Jewish thinker, or a Hellenistic one, respectively.

Gospel in Isaiah
In the septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, the prophet Isaiah declares:

Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings (ho euangelizomenos Zion);
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings (ho euangelizomenos Ierosaleme)
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’ (40.9)

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation.
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’. (52.7)

These passages talking about God returning to Zion as king, the return from Exile, the defeat of Israel’s enemies (Babylon, etc), and so forth. They are majestic passages of national hope that were taken up in the 2nd Temple period (Wright cites a number of texts here) as foretelling a future day of salvation and good news where God would return and become King in their midst. And, of course, it’s easy enough to see how Jesus fits in as the fulfillment of all of this.

Gospel in Rome
Of course, there’s a pretty good case to be made for the Roman context as well. To quote Wright directly and save myself some time:

In the Greek world, ‘euangelion‘ is a technical term for “news of victory”’. More specifically, it refers to the announcement of the birth or accession of an emperor. Not least at the time of Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor following a long period of civil war, the coming of a new ruler meant the promise of peace, a new start for the world:

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere. . . ; the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him. . .

In which case, you can see where the whole counter-imperial thing comes from. In this view, Paul’s gospel is: “These things are not true of Caesar, but of Jesus, the world’s true Lord, whose birth was real good news.”

Yes and Yes
Now, I’ll have to admit, both of these answers were tempting to me while I was younger. As a good Evangelical boy, I knew Jesus was the fulfillment of OT prophecy even if I hadn’t read too many of them. Then, when I was a bit older, all of the counter-Imperial stuff made a lot of historical sense as well, plus it sounded awesome. (I’ll just be honest, when you’re 20, being against Empire is sexy.) In fact, it’s what I favored most, until the last few years when I really started to see just how deep the Old Testament thread ran, especially with works by G.K. Beale and such. Not that I’d rejected seeing Paul’s gospel engaging with the wider thought-world, but it hasn’t been a focus.

Still, reviewing this passage reminded me of why I fell in love with Wright as an exegete and historian, and why I’m looking forward to this new book:

Which of these backgrounds, then, is the appropriate one against which to read the New Testament evidence? Is ‘the gospel’, for Paul, an Isaianic message or an Imperial proclamation? I suggest that the anti-thesis between the two is a false one, based on the spurious either-or that has misleadingly divided New Testament studies for many years

Yes, he just called out a false either/or (which is a great way to make me your fan) in NT studies, and moves on to a constructive solution that has the best of both worlds.

Wright pushes us to understand Paul as the OT theologian who takes the Gospel of Isaiah and uses it to answer the Gospel of Rome. He points out that the 2nd Temple Jews didn’t live in ‘water-tight’ worlds closed off from the surrounding cultures, nor the OT Jews for that matter. The Gospel of Isaiah was always about God’s true Kingship over and against the pagan rulers like Babylon, and later, for 2nd Temple thinkers, Greece and Rome. What’s more, the false bracketing between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ that often underlay efforts to split the two backgrounds, makes no sense when Emperors and Kings are claiming divine honors.  Again, it was always about the Servant King who would come to conquer Israel’s enemies and reestablish God’s rule where the pagan pretenders were claiming what was his alone.

So, with that in mind, how much of a stretch is it to see Paul, the OT theologian and 2nd Temple thinker, applying the Gospel of Isaiah, in a fresh and Christ-centered way, to the Gospel of Rome? In other words, (and I think I’m stealing this from Wright), you have to imagine Paul with both feet planted firmly in the OT, staring out at the Greco-Roman world, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus the Lord promised to Israel to a world that thought it already had one.

As Wright puts it:

The more Jewish we make Paul’s ‘gospel’, the more it confronts directly the pretensions of the Imperial cult, and indeed all other paganisms whether ‘religious’ or ‘secular’. It is because of Jewish monotheism that there can be ‘no king but god’…The all-embracing royal and religious claims of Caesar are directly challenged by the equally all-embracing claim of Israel’s god. To announce that YHWH is king is to announce that Caesar is not.

Basically Paul was saying, “You think your Caesar is the King who brings salvation? I’ve got real good news for you, one that’s been promised for ages, Jesus, the Servant King of Israel is the one whose rule brings true salvation.”

That works nicely doesn’t it?

Paul’s Gospel and Ours
This is part of why I like reading Wright on Paul. Despite my qualms, which are real enough, on what he has to say about justification, (I prefer Michael Bird’s Reformed-Hybrid view) he is still one of the most faithful, creative, thorough, and helpful exegetes of Paul out there. He gets that while Paul was an apostle called to deliver the Gospel with divine authority, he was still a genius who expounded it with great intricacy and care. What’s more, he’s not just a dry academic, but a churchman who wants to present pastors with a vision of how to preach this stuff. In a sense, his vision of Paul as OT theologian looking to proclaim the biblical Gospel of Jesus to the pagan world around him, helps him present Paul as a model for pastors looking to do the same thing today.

If you’d like to learn more about the upcoming book, I’d suggest this interview with Michael Bird and N.T. Wright.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Give Light, O Lord” (A Prayer for Preachers)

lightBryan Chapell tells a story that should convict and encourage the heart of any preacher:

In one of the key debates during the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, one scholar spoke with great skill and persuasiveness for a position that would have mired the church in political debates for many years. As the man spoke, George Gillespie prepared a rebuttal in the same room. As they watched him write furiously on a tablet, all in the assembly knew the pressure on the young man to organize a response while the scholar delivered one telling argument after another. Yet when Gillespie rose, his words were filled with such power and scriptural persuasion that the haste of his persuasion was not discernible. Gillespie’s message so impressed those assembled as the wisdom of God that the opposing scholar conceded that a lifetime of study had just been undone by the younger man’s presentation. When the matter was decided, the friends of Gillespie snatched from his desk the tablet on which he had so hastily collected his thoughts. They expected to find a brilliant summary of the words so masterfully just delivered. Instead, they found only one phrase written over and over again: Da lucem, Domine (Give light, O Lord.)

                Over and over Gillespie had prayed for more light from God. Instead of the genius of his own thought, this valiant Reformer wanted more of the mind of God. His humble prayer for God to shed more light on the Word is the goal of every expositor. We pray that God will shed more light on his Word through us. We know that what we say must be biblically apparent, logically consistent, and unquestionably clear if we are to be the faithful guides God requires. It is not enough for our words to be true or our intentions to be good. To the extent that our words obscure his Word, we fail in our task. To the degree that our words illuminate the pages of Scripture, God answers our and our listeners’ prayers.

–Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, pp. 126-127

“Give light, O Lord.” May that be the prayer on the tongues of our people in the pews, and our preachers the pulpit.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rob Bell Makes the Oprah Line-up (CaPC)

oprah-and-rob-bell-are-hanging-outEckhart Tolle.

Rhonda Byrne.

Elizabeth Gilbert.

…Rob Bell? Yes, the moment has arrived. After telling us to learn from Tolle about ‘The Power of Now’, encouraging us to unlock ‘The Secret’ Byrne, and exhorting us to ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, Oprah has added Rob Bell to the list of must-read spiritual gurus. This month the media giant picked Bell’s recent offering What We Talk About When We Talk About God as her ‘Super Soulful Book of the Month’, saying:

Pastor Rob Bell is shaking up the way we think about God and religion. I love his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne). When I first started reading it, I was highlighting my favorite passages, but then I realized—what’s the point? I’ve marked every page! It just wowed me. In the book, Bell explains that God is and always has been with us, for us, and ahead of us—and then explores how we can really absorb this knowledge into our everyday lives to become more connected to spirit.

So, having reviewed the book for Christ and Pop Culture, I have three basic thoughts on this.

You can read those thoughts at…Christ and Pop Culture. (Click on this one.)

(Also, yes, I know, sorry for 2 articles is one day, but honestly, no editorial control here.)

 

Death By Living by N.D. Wilson (The Gospel Coalition Review)

death by livingN.D. Wilson. Death By Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013. 208 pp. $19.99.

The first thing I’ll note about Death By Living, N.D. Wilson’s follow-up to his celebrated Notes From the Tilt a Whirl, is that I couldn’t give you a book report if I tried. Much like Notes, Wilson’s direct, yet roundabout, tilt-a-whirling style puckishly mocks the straight-laced summary-reviewer for even thinking to attempt the mighty feat.

For return readers looking for quick comparison between Notes and Death, I’d say that if the last one changed the way I thought, this one might change the way I live. Notes invites you to embrace God as the sovereign, beyond imagining Author of the ridiculously unexpected universe in which we find ourselves. Death challenges you to live as a character, or rather, sub-writer of enfleshed, breathing words. Big ones. Interesting ones. Once again, you’ll find yourself in a well-shaken cocktail of poetic memoir, philosophy, theology, sharp wit, polemical fisticuffs, hilarity, and exhortation, in the form of a paean to the grace of a life well-lived in the shadow eternity. For the newcomer, you may want to strap in first.

“Death by Living, life is meant to be spent. ” That’s Wilson’s thesis and philosophy of family life (xi); scuffed knees are apparently as much an evidence of life as a pulse in the Wilson household. In many ways it’s a quirky entry into the venerable devotio moderna genre, along with A Kempis’ De Imitatione Christi; only in this one, we’re encouraged to follow our Covenant Head, take up our swords, fight the dragon, and live hard until it kills us like Jesus, the Image of humanity done right (62, 79). That might involve a little dirt. Don’t worry though, resurrection should take the stains right out.

As the book defies summary, being somewhat unruly and misbehaved, I’m simply going to highlight a couple of content points, and make one note on style for pastors.

You can read the rest of the review over at The Gospel Coalition.

The 3:00 A.M. Test For Preaching

3 amHave you ever sat through a sermon you couldn’t follow? You know the kind I’m talking about? Where the pastor is making a lot of, possibly interesting, points and observations, but you’re exactly sure how they all fit together? Now, it may be the case that you simply have a poor attention span and the listening skills of a junior higher. OR, it may be that the sermon lacked what the quality of ‘unity’, of actually having a singular, cohesive point that the preacher was aiming to communicate. When it’s not there, it’s pretty hard to find.

Preachers, especially young ones fresh out of seminary, you must struggle with the task of presenting to your people an actual message from the text, instead of a bunch of rambling observations, or disjointed exegetical insights. As interesting or complex as a passage or story might be, it’s okay to honor the text by acknowledging the inherent of it’s actual message (especially since its author probably had one in mind when they penned it.)

Speaking to the issue of unity in his book Christ-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (pp. 46-47), Bryan Chapell gives would-be preachers two basic, but key steps to ascertaining the unifying theme of a text:

  1. Read the text with an eye towards finding the main idea the writer is communicating in the text, or a sub-theme with enough exegetical support from the text to be the point of an entire message.
  2. Boil that down into a simple sentence.

Sounds simple enough in theory, right? The problem is that many of us can’t really force ourselves to do that. If you’re fresh out of seminary, you’re too tempted to write out some complex thesis statement with 15 modifiers, sub-clauses, and so forth, because, hey, that’s what your profs liked in your exegesis class. This was one thing my old boss Jay always emphasized with me during my internship, because I tended to think in paragraphs, not pithy sentences.

Knowing this difficulty, Chapell gives a helpful (and challenging) test for preachers to determine whether or not their sermon has the unity of focus that it requires for their hearers:

You will have unity when you can demonstrate that the elements of the passage support the theme of your message and you can pass the “3 a.m. test.” The 3:00 am test requires you to imagine a spouse, a roommate, or parishioner waking you from your slumber with this simple question: “What’s the sermon about today, Preacher?” If you cannot give a crisp answer, the sermon is probably half-baked. Thoughts you cannot gather at 3:00 a.m. are not likely to be caught by others at 11:00 a.m. (ibid., pg. 47)

So what does would that look like? Chapell gives two examples, one of the sort that’s a good seminary thesis, but fails for a sermon:

When the sinful nation of Israel went into exile, its messianic hope and vision were mistakenly and faithlessly diminished because pre-Ezran and pre-Nehemiac proofs of God’s sovereign plan, purpose, and intentions for his people were obscured in Babylonian circumstances of incarceration and oppression that would not be relieved until the Persian emancipation and further covenantal revelation in advancing redemptive history.

And one that you could actually preach:

God remains faithful to his people.

Seeing it put that starkly, some pastors, especially the younger, bookish, ultra-academic ones, might chafe at this sort of abridgement. I know because part of me still does as well. That said, after 2 1/2 years of preaching to college students, I can attest that Chapell’s 3 a.m. test, while seeming a bit stringent, is probably a good rule of thumb.

Realize, Chapell is not advocating for simplistic exposition of the text, or avoiding delving into historical complexities, or even using words like ‘messianic.’ The point is that having a clear, concise, thesis statement gives you a base upon which you can organize all of those complexities in a coherent framework for your people to follow. Whether you state it up front, or weave it subtly throughout, simply having it will focus your sermon construction and keep it from becoming a rambling mess that the Spirit has to work despite, not through. And that’s a good thing, right? Right.

So, pastors, if you’re looking to preach in a fashion that your people actually understand the point you’re driving at, don’t forget the 3:00 a.m. test.

Soli Deo Gloria