Preaching Historical Narrative

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. ~ Romans 15:4

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
~ Romans 15:4

I don’t know about the devil, but there’s meaning in the details.

I come from a family of natural-born storytellers. I am not aware of any of them having formal training; it is a talent. When I think back to family gatherings when I was young, I mostly remember the grownups sitting around the kitchen table or out on the porch telling stories. I’m sure my mother would rather some of us kids didn’t hear some of those stories but that was the chief entertainment.

Most of the stories were tales from childhood and were told to humorous effect. A good storyteller is able to hold your interest, build suspense, pique your curiosity, make you laugh, and deliver a satisfying payoff at the end. They accomplished this by their voice and gestures in the delivery, but also by arrangement of the story. They wouldn’t simply recite the facts in strict chronological order—this happened, then this happened, then that happened. They would arrange them to the effect they wanted and they would emphasize certain parts over others. A good storyteller can make a mundane occurrence interesting and a bad storyteller can make the most exciting incident unbearable.

Story in the Old Testament

A sizable portion of the Old Testament is historical narrative, or story. I don’t mean story in the sense that it is made up, but story refers to the narrative structure of the account. The stories in the Old Testament are there for a reason. They are intended to teach us (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11).

The structure of the account, what’s there, what’s not there, and the emphases made are all guides to the intended meaning. Our first concern with every passage of Scripture is to find out what it means in its original context. That is true regardless of whether it is historical, prophetic, poetic, or didactic.

Finding original intent can be very challenging in historical narratives of the Old Testament. Many preachers err at this point with Old Testament story. They use them for analogy or illustration without giving any attention to what the story means. I was at a conference many years ago and listened to a preacher take an obscure Old Testament passage and proceed from it to preach a message about the New Testament church. I remember after the message someone remarked that they never knew that [Old Testament story] was about the church. I could only respond that the Holy Spirit never knew it either.

What that preacher did was make an analogy between that story and the church. He said true things about the church but the problem was that he didn’t preach it as analogy but presented it as what that story meant. I would say to such preachers that they’re obviously clever and creative. They have been gifted by God, but they should always subject their creativity to the text and never subject the text to their creativity. It can be legitimate to make an analogy or illustration from an Old Testament story, but preach it as an analogy and not as what the passage means. And, by all means, know what the story means in its original context.

So I want to consider an Old Testament story for an example. I’m not going to do an exposition of the story but rather I want to point out some of the story structure aspects and maybe give you some help in asking the right questions and noticing the clues in the account.

Judges 19

Judges 19 is one of the most disturbing accounts in Scripture and it’s not familiar to us. One of the first clues to the significance of the story is the length of it. It takes a while to unfold and lead to the civil war in chapter 20. So it has our attention, how do we determine its meaning?

First, you want a big picture view. What’s the connection to the story before this one and after it? You need to know somethings about the book the story is in. What kind of book is it? What is the main theme of the whole book? What are the main divisions of the book? Where is this story in the book?

In this case, Judges is structured in three main sections.

  • 1:1-3:6 is introductory and provides a quick summary of the failure of Israel to complete the conquest of Canaan after the death of Joshua.
  • 3:7-16:31 is the main section of the book and gives the account of the judges, who were deliverers of the people from the pagan nations who were afflicting them.
  • 17:1-21:25 is the final section of the book and these chapters differ significantly from the rest of the book. There are no judges and no threats from foreign nations. These accounts are all inside Israel.

When you dig into the chronology of Judges, it is not at all certain that the events of chapters 17-21 happen after the death of the last judge. So why are these chapters placed where they are and what does that tell us about their meaning? If we consider just this last section of Judges, we find it also divides into three main parts.

  • Chapters 17-18 begin the section with religious sins in the form of idolatry and corrupt worship.
  • Chapter 19 proceeds to narrate an account of the grossest immorality within Israel.
  • Chapters 20-21 tell of the bloody civil war where the tribe of Benjamin was nearly wiped out and the unjust reconstruction they suffered at the hands of the other tribes.

This section reveals a connection and a progression. Chapter 19 gives a picture of moral failure down to the man-on-the-street in Israel. It’s not about leaders or international politics. It deals with marriage, hospitality, and uncommon lust.

The main nasty business of this story happens in Gibeah, but it takes a while to get there. From verse 3 to verse 10, we are stuck in Bethlehemjudah. This part of the story is so fascinating because it seems so un-fascinating. It seems monotonous and why does it take so long? The Levite has gone to Bethlehemjudah to recover his wife from her father’s house and day after day he tries to leave and his father-in-law convinces him to stay. It takes eight verses to say what could have been said in a couple of sentences. Why?

Well I’m not going to do all the heavy-lifting for you but hopefully this has been helpful to how to approach Old Testament stories. One other thing I would mention is to pay attention to what things are emphasized in the story. For instance, in Judges 19:1-20:6 the Levite’s wife is called a concubine ten times. Why is that emphasized? The fact they were married is emphasized also by reference to the Levite being a husband twice, the Levite’s father-in-law three times, and the Levite being a son-in-law once. It certainly seems there’s something significant being said. Happy studying.

Long Sermons

Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. ~ Acts 20:7

Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. ~ Acts 20:7

A peak behind the curtain of long sermonizing.

Why does the preacher preach so long? There are several answers to that question, but what is long? Contemporary wisdom would have sermons to be 18-24 minutes long. Short attention spans, sound bites, and fast moving media today make even that length seem a little long for sermonizing.

How long a person thinks a sermon should be is probably going to coincide with what they think a sermon is. If a sermon is just a pep talk or a few nuggets of wisdom for life, then 20 minutes may even be a little bit long. Of course, that’s not a sermon in any biblical sense. A sermon is the opening up of God’s word, explaining it, and applying it. A sermon involves teaching and exhortation. Sermons are supposed to be a preaching of the Word (2 Timothy 4:2) and the food of God’s people (Acts 20:28; John 21:15-17). Just as our bodies require consistent nutrition to function and flourish, our souls require a steady and healthy diet of God’s Word. Just as it takes longer to eat an eight ounce steak than it does a handful of popcorn, it takes longer for a meaty sermon to be preached.

Reasons for long sermons

How long a sermon should be ideally will have to be a topic for another day. I want to give some reasons for long sermons for consideration. The following list is not in any particular order.

  1. Mistakes – Preaching is an all-consuming task and focusing on time is difficult. It could be that a long sermon is the result of losing track of time or even miscalculating. I have made mistakes calculating time during a sermon and ended up either unnecessarily rushing through or going over long. Of course, the over long mistakes get more complaints.
  2. Incompetence/Inexperience – Over time you learn the relation between the amount of material to be preached and the length of time it will take to preach it. Sometimes long sermons result from insufficient experience to gauge the time it will take to preach them.
  3. Insufficient outlining or notes – A good outline or notes helps the preacher to know where they are in the sermon at any time. They help keep the sermon on track and help you know where you can spend more time or if you need to trim down on the fly. Preachers that preach off-the-cuff have no such guide and time management is much more difficult for them. Sometimes they just go until a certain time on the clock and then stop. Sermons like that are not usually complete sermons but more a collection of thoughts.
  4. Skill – No two men are gifted exactly alike and some have a skill for being concise that cannot be matched by others. Experience can play a part here too, but some men are able to say more in thirty minutes than what others can in forty-five or fifty. With continual study and work, all preachers should be able to sharpen up over time but some will still never be able to match those with succinct gifts.
  5. Overload – Long sermons can be the result of overload where every sermon attempts to cover the whole Bible or whole scope of systematic theology. These sermons tend to lack a central focus and are more often found in younger, inexperienced preachers. Sermons should have a central theme or main point and not try to cover too much at one time. The old saying is that young preachers preach everything they know every time they get up to preach. Amen and ouch.
  6. Mismanagement – Long sermons can also result from mismanagement of time where too much time is spent on rambling, rabbit trails, jokes, and stories. If a preacher spends too much time on these, he has a choice of going long or shutting down a sermon without actually covering what he intended to cover.
  7. Preparation time – This is probably the reason that many people don’t realize is a reason. Preaching shorter sermons well actually requires more study and preparation time. So to preach a good thirty minute sermon will take more preparation time than to preach that same sermon in forty-five minutes. So long sermons could be the result of laziness to not put in the required work to sharpen them up or they could also be the result of a lack of time for the preacher. For instance, if a preacher works a full-time job in addition to pastoring, he’s probably not going to have enough time regularly to preach shorter sermons. There could be all kinds of time-restraints that could cause this. Blaise Pascal once wrote a response to a friend’s question and apologized for the letter being so long. He famously quipped at the end of the apology that he didn’t have time to write a shorter one.

These are a few reasons behind long sermons. Sometimes preachers are just what we call long-winded where they go on until they run out of things to say without any regard for time. I have also noticed that preachers that preach good sermons in shorter times, say 30-40 minutes, tend to be older preachers who have been at it a long time. The recommendation is to have patience and realize experience will play a big part in your preaching and time management and you can’t get experience over night. Believe me, I’m still working at it. I am probably classified as a long-winded preacher by many but I am a work-in-progress.

The Call

As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. ~ Acts 13:2

As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. ~ Acts 13:2

Is there a call to ministry? How do I know if I’m called?

Before a man can discern God’s calling on his life, he must discern whether there is any such calling at all. Does God call specific men and equip specific men for specific work? Many assume that He does, but not all assume this. I talked with a man who was a member of a Baptist church who told me he had never seen any such call in the Bible. He went on to say about preachers, “I can preach as good as anybody I’ve ever heard.”

A lot of the material that deals with the call to ministry assumes there is such a call and spends most of the time dealing with discerning that call in ourselves or others. I don’t want to start with that assumption. I want to examine that assumption. I believe God does call specific men for specific work, but is that actually found in Scripture?

Does God call certain men to ministry?

A study of Scripture yields at least five reasons to believe that God calls men to ministry. These are not necessarily in order of importance but are worth consideration.

  1. Generally speaking, we have examples in both the Old and New Testament that God calls men to certain tasks. Think of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, Peter, Matthew, and Paul. These men were called by God to specific tasks. Those tasks were different in each case, but nevertheless they all began by God calling and equipping them for their task.

    This point by itself doesn’t go very far to prove that God has called this man or that man today, but it does show a precedent that God has called men to certain tasks and gives us a reasonable expectation that He has continued to do so. In other words, the Scriptures illustrate that in God’s normal administration of history He appoints men to specific works.

  2. Another reason is the objective existence of the Lord’s church. The church was established by Jesus during His earthly ministry. It wasn’t the invention of man, nor did it just happen to come into existence. He purposely established the church, equipped it, and charged it with carrying out His work in the world. The church is His design and He designed the offices of the church and that at least says there must be men to fill those offices. This at least requires men dedicated to that work, not to mention being qualified for it. This point of itself does not prove a call to preach but, when taken with the others, it does contribute.
  3. When considering the church body, chapters like Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 teach us there is a diversity of both gifts and offices. They also show that not all have the same gifts nor do all hold the same offices. There is a distinction between different members of the body. Along with the other gifts and offices, there are some who have the gift and office of preaching and teaching and some who do not.
  4. These same passages mentioned above make clear not only the distinction between different members but that the Holy Spirit makes that difference. He distributes the gifts and offices as He wills. So in Acts 13:2 the Spirit instructed the church to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work He had called them to. In Acts 20:28 Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders saying that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (elders/pastors/preachers) in the church. Paul spoke of God putting him into ministry and committing the Gospel to him (1 Timothy 1:11-12; Colossians 1:25). Jesus said it is the Lord of the Harvest that sends forth laborers into the field.
  5. The fact that the New Testament gives qualifications for the office of elder (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-10) presupposes those who desire and/or claim to be called to the work. The church at Ephesus tried those who claimed to be apostles. So the church has a responsibility to judge those who claim to be called to preach.

These points are worth considering. The Bible teaches there is a call and that call comes from God. In the Old Testament, God complained of many who self-identified as prophets but He declared He never sent them. The author of Hebrews also pointed out the calling of Jesus that He was made a high priest and that calling was essential (Hebrews 5:4).

How do I discern God’s call?

This question is a little more subjective because people have different experiences. In other words, the way this call is manifested or discerned is often different between men. Think of the different experiences of Jonah and Saul of Tarsus. Should we look to their experience as a standard for testing the call of others? Certainly not, but the principle is the same that God called them. So let’s stick to things a little more objective in discerning God’s call. Once again, here are five observations to help in discerning God’s call.

  1. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:1 of a “desire” for the office (the work) of a pastor. That primary office/work is defined as giving oneself continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Ac 6:4), feeding the sheep (Ac 20:28), watching for souls (He 13:17), taking the oversight (1 Pe 5:2), etc. The desire for this work is a very strong desire. The word can be used in a negative context to refer to coveting after. The point is that coveting is not a passing thought and neither is the desire to preach. It is a continual, lasting desire. It’s not a flash in the pan or a vapor over the pot. It sticks with you over time.
  2. The passages that speak directly to the work of preaching, teaching, and pastoring impose a weight upon you. You feel them as speaking directly to you and perhaps even feel some shame that you are not fulfilling them straightaway.
  3. If you believe you are being called then you probably have already had some opportunities to speak and/or teach the Word to others. Be careful not to make too much or too little of those times. However, you should consider how you were received and whether or not your words seemed to be a blessing or help to others.

    An essential qualification for this work is aptness to teach (2 Timothy 2:24). Aptness refers to the ability or competence to teach. While a preacher can and should grow in his ability to teach over time, he must have some ability to start with. There is simply no way to know this on your own without the evaluation of others.

  4. Look for confirmation through the church you’re a member of. God’s calling does not come to an individual apart from the church. Consider Acts 13:1-4 how the Spirit worked through the church and Barnabas and Saul. The church is particularly charged with discerning the gifts and callings in the body and should there be an ordination, the church is responsible to discern the candidate to meet the qualifications. The church should not be looked upon as a hindrance to discerning calling but rather as an indispensable part of it.
  5. The last one I would mention is that if you are being called, opportunities should be opening to you to minister the Word. These could come in a lot of ways but we do need to look at our lives in context and discern what the Lord is doing as best we can.

Conclusion bonus

I want to add one thing as a sort of bonus help to those who are wrestling with this issue. If you’re wrestling with whether or not God is calling you to a greater service, let me ask this question: What service are you doing now? The Scripture principle is that when we have served faithfully in smaller things, God gives us greater things (Matthew 25:21-23). If you have not been faithfully serving in lesser, behind-the-scenes roles and you do not already have a heart for service regardless of recognition, then it is very unlikely you’re being called to ministry.

Ministry is service (Acts 6:1-4) and a lot of the hard work required in ministry is not done before an audience. The call to ministry is a call to pour yourself out to God for others and it garners little applause (2 Corinthians 12:15). Count the cost as fully as you can and it will help you discern if you are called.

Preacher Dreams

"And great multitudes were gathered together unto him" ~ Matthew 13:2

“And great multitudes were gathered together unto him” ~ Matthew 13:2

I once dreamed I was Charles Spurgeon and … not really.

Ecclesiastes has a way of working on you. I recently finished preaching through the book in our services. The book tends to make me think about everything much more. I think about life, death, youth, old age, working, living, laughing, a good steak, a good book, what has been, and what will be. I’ve generally been thinking about what it means to live all aspects of life while being subject to the vanity of the creation.

Many find the book pessimistic and cynical, but this is a case where rather than pessimistic, the book is realistic and rather than cynical, the book is honest. Solomon strikingly illustrates that life under the sun is subject to vanity and there are two main ways to navigate it—wisdom and folly. He also continually exhorts us to joy and strains all his might to teach us that true joy in this life can only be had through wisdom and it is a gift from God.

It doesn’t last

Solomon exposes the emptiness of the things we prize and pursue. They are empty because they cannot bring any lasting satisfaction to us. They cannot bring lasting satisfaction because they themselves do not last. Even if you achieve your most cherished dream, where do you go from there?

Solomon poured himself into every endeavor he could think of until they were all exhausted of enjoyment. He had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Were a few more going to make a difference? He feasted after a fashion the earth has not known. Was more wine or more steaks going to make a difference? He built the temple, palace, and houses for all his wives. Was it the next building project that was going to bring satisfaction? He had servants to cater to him and every need met lavishly. Were a few more servants or more clothes going to bring contentment?

So, as a preacher, don’t get caught up in thinking bigger and better about the church. Some preachers dream of pastoring that large church with great facilities. Some want to build from the ground up to outstrip all the other churches. Even if all your preaching dreams come true, it will not last and will probably be less than you hoped it would be.

The inimitable Mister Spurgeon

Charles Spurgeon is known as one of the most successful preachers of all time. He was so successful that just about every theological flavor out there tries to claim he was one of them. He died somewhat young while his mind was still sharp and his preaching still effective. Had he gone on to live long enough, his mind would have slipped and his preaching deteriorated along with health and body. Had he continued on pastoring, the church would eventually diminish.

Solomon identifies waning popularity as a vanity of this creation (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16). Even Jesus’s popularity died off (John 6:66). Some of John the Baptist’s disciples were upset when his ministry began to decline (John 3:26). John gave the best answer to this reality (John 3:27, 30).

A pastor is called to love and feed Christ’s sheep. That is what you should focus most on, whether those sheep be few or many. It is reported that a young preacher once lamented to Spurgeon that his church was so small. Spurgeon wisely told him he would think them plenty numerous when he had to give account for them before Christ’s judgment seat.

How to …

How many ways could there be?

How many ways could there be?

Advice abounds and I suppose I’m adding to the abundance.

Mortimer Adler’s, “How to Read a Book,” is oft referred to as a classic and, therefore, is one of those books you must read. I haven’t read it. I’m not opposed to it. I don’t have anything against it. I just haven’t got to it and don’t know when I will. One does wonder how many ways there could be to read a book other than reading it, and maybe that’s why I should read that book.

Some suggest you read slowly through just a few books a year to get a mastery of them and others suggest you read quickly through many books to get a broad view. Donald Carson actually said he reads 500 books a year! He does go on to qualify that there’s reading and there’s reading and there’s reading. His words could be misconstrued but I believe he made a very good point about the difference between books and the attention they should be given. My own view accords so I will get to it.

All books are not equal because all authors are not equal. Sometimes authors are not even equal with themselves when their books across twenty years or more are compared. So books are not all worth equal attention and there’s a host of factors that contribute to this such as your current position in life, time, responsibilities, etc. Let me advance my methods and then give a final piece of advice that is guaranteed to be worth exactly what your paying for it.

Method or madness?

Some people read books very slowly, poring over each phrase, footnote, or Scripture reference in order to drain every drop out of it. I guess that’s fine but I’ve never done that. If I come across a dramatically profound section in a book, I will slow down and give it more time. My method of reading a book is to start at the beginning and read at my normal reading pace to the end. Nothing fancy, but it gets the potatoes washed and peeled and put in the stew.

I have three categories for books.

  1. Books to be read. This is where the majority of books go for me. I consider reading to be starting in the front and reading my way to the back. This is the bulk of my personal reading and I try to do it across several different types of books.
  2. Books to be referenced. These are books I am never going to read front to back. I go to a book like this for a particular reason and I’m going to read the relevant chapter(s) only. This would include books like, “An Introduction to the New Testament.”
  3. Books to be discarded. These are books that are not worth finishing. I will quit reading a book if it turns out to be insufferable. I don’t start too many books that I don’t finish, but there are some. I was reading something once that referenced “Don Quixote.” It’s one of those oft mentioned classics that I hadn’t read so I started it. I got about halfway through and chucked it. I found it long, rambling, boring, and without a point. It had some good sections here and there but I didn’t think it worth the time. Maybe I’m missing something but I have too many books I want to read to fool around with books I don’t want to read.

As I read, I do a couple of things; sometimes one or the other and sometimes both. I do a lot of reading on the Kindle app so I highlight any parts that are either great quotes or things that strike me. I may also write something about it in a notebook and particularly if it’s something I want to come back to later for more thought.

If I belong to a school of reading philosophy, it is the school of maintaining one’s personal compost heap. I like to build up layer after layer and let it set and mix and decompose and let the soil be nourished. I’ve personally found this method to fertilize the mind, but maybe it’s not for everybody. I don’t know. I don’t have everybody’s mind. I’m stuck with my own so I like to fill up and sort later.

I’m sure many can find fault with me and my methods. It’s like the time I received a criticism of my beard for being scraggly. I believe that was the term employed. The owner of the criticism was blessed to also be the owner of a full, thick beard, which I suspect he had as much to with as he did the distance of the crown of his head to the floor. I could only put lips together and nod in sympathy with his assessment and lament to him that I could only grow the beard I’ve got. No matter the effort expended, I can’t grow another man’s beard on my own face. Suffice it to say I can’t read with another man’s brain. I can only use the gray matter bestowed upon me from the womb.

A couple of fragments do not a basket full make

I was asked about reading recently and this subject is also one I have been thinking about writing something on so it seemed to work together. Let me finish with a couple of pieces of final advice. Read what you want to and the way you want to. We all have differences to the way we think and learn and the constraints on our time, not to mention our differing needs. Don’t worry too much about what others think you should read and the way you should do it. You should always process advice, keep what’s helpful for you and toss the rest. Never be a slave.

Finally, you shouldn’t worry too much about the number of books read in any given time. Always keep a book with you and with mobile devices it’s easier than ever. I remember one of the puritan writers saying something about learning the value of a quarter of an hour. One of the ways to redeem time is to push reading into all the margins of life. Do you have to wait a few minutes? Good, read for five or ten minutes. You will be surprised by how much you can read doing this.

Review: Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists

Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists
Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga Jr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two stars means, “I didn’t like it.” Three stars means, “I liked it.” This is one of those occasions where I’m stuck somewhere between. I didn’t like the concept of preaching presented in this book–a twenty-four minute sermon, full of literary illustrations and allusions, delivered by a man or a woman. I also didn’t like the fact most of the examples came from fiction works.

I liked the main premise of the book: preachers who read widely will most likely become better preachers. I liked the many benefits of reading explained in this book. I liked the author’s attempts to eschew the utilitarian reading-for-illustrations mindset. He wrote such things as, “Illustrations can be tricky, as we shall see, and reading expressly for them is probably not such a good idea.” And, “But reading just for illustrations feels a little too much like work. It also feels as if I am missing the point of reading, just as if I read the Bible only to see what it has to say about the colors green and red. I want to be reading stories and articles for nobler reasons while an incident or insight or saying rises up from the page and begs to slip into one of my sermons.”

Good points are scattered throughout this book. You may also have your interest piqued and directed to some new books for you. New reading ideas are always welcome. I don’t recommend reading for illustrations, though occasionally a quote or reference might be useful. I prefer reading good works the way Tolkien envisioned it, to add duff to the forest floor of your mind.

Reading is beneficial for preachers and non-preachers as well. A reading mind is an expanding mind and a non-reading one is a shrinking mind. If you choose to read this book, read it carefully with discernment.

View all my reviews

Note: This review was originally posted at Short Booklog.

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