The School for Fantastical Interpretation

For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:
~ Isaiah 28:10

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Preacher, are you feeling blue? Do your sermons lack a certain spark? Are you preaching, but not wowing the crowds and holding them in awe? Are you passed over for the best spots at the conferences? Do the remarks you get after your sermons feel mostly like sympathy? Well, today is your day.

Announcing: The School for Fantastical Interpretation (TSFFI). We’ve all been there in the pew as the preacher read his text, which seemed to be a straightforward passage with nothing fresh or new in it. However, by the time he finished, the crowd was spellbound and afterward you could hear many exclamations of wonder at how a passage could have been read hundreds of times but those readers never saw what that preacher found in it. How did he do that? Is it a special gift only few are blessed with? Or, is it a skill that any preacher could learn?

You’ve seen a text become clay in the hands of a master sculptor and been amazed at what he could fashion from it. You’ve probably been exasperated after you’ve tried and failed to reproduce his effects. Now, for the first time ever, the curtain is being pulled back and preachers can learn the skills of fantastical interpretation of the Bible. I know the questions you have. How much? How long? And, where do I sign up? Patience, my friend. Remember that Isaiah said, “he that believeth shall not make haste” (Isaiah 28:16). Everything is a hustle and bustle in the world today.

I’m willing to give away for free this preview of TSFFI. This is a sample of the valuable lessons you will receive. While I cannot guarantee individual results, I do guarantee you will be introduced to the tools you need. After that, it’s all up to you. Let’s listen in on a class already in progress. This class is Foundations for Fantastical Interpretation.

Be a Mentee

Extremely rare are the birds that can soar to the greatest heights apart from some help. Before the dove could pluck the olive branch and return to the ark, Noah had to open the window and let it out. Preachers need to learn at the feet of masters, especially when it comes to the skills of fantastical interpretation. Ideally, you will find a living master of the art who will take you as an apprentice and let you in on all his trade secrets. I have to admit this would be a rare opportunity and not one you can count on. What’s the next best option?

You can sit at the masters’ feet in different ways. For one, you need only to identify such a preacher and then listen to his sermons or read his writings repeatedly. After a while, you will pick up some clues as to how he does what he does. Obviously, taking this course will greatly aid you in this pursuit, but you also must not neglect the fantastical interpreters of yesterday. Read their writings and study their methods closely. You can learn much from them. For example, you can read the wealth of writings left behind by A. W. Pink, especially his earlier writings and the Gleanings series. He was peculiarly adept at finding types and figures under every rock and bush. Granted, you cannot expect to equal his effects, but imitation will bring you a long way.

Build Imagination

Many preachers fall into the trap of merely taking the text at what it says, as though the Bible were written to be sufficiently understandable. That is fine if you want to remain among the lower ranks who take the easier road of preaching, but if you want to ascend, you need to fuel your creative fires. For instance, if you assume the tree Elijah sat under merely refers to a particular type of tree with roots, trunk, branches, and leaves, you are not thinking fantastically. You need to let go and let your mind wander and see what you can come up with.

In fact, to stoke your imagination, you need to practice in passages that provide pluckable produce for fantastical interpretation. It’s harder going in some passages than others, so you want to focus on the easier places as you’re starting out. Parables are a productive playground for the imagination. The Old Testament stories and poetry sections are ready made for fantastical interpretation, and just wait until you get to the prophets.

Here’s an exercise to work on and turn in next class. Find a passage in the Bible that mentions something relevant to a wedding. It can be in the Old or New Testament. It can be an historical narrative or a parable or whatever you choose. Think about all the weddings you’ve been to or seen. Don’t be afraid to supplement your knowledge by learning about wedding customs in different cultures and times. Unleash your imagination and see what symbols, types, figures, and representations you can come up with. How many connections to various doctrines can you find?

Be Obsessive

You may struggle with that exercise because you’re not used to thinking that way. You read “stone” in the text and your mind thinks, “stone,” or “rock,” or some igneous mass. Don’t despair. You just need to train your mind in fantastical interpretation. You have to learn to be obsessive over particular points. If you get your mind always thinking about a few things, you will start seeing them everywhere. At first you will be seeing analogies, but stay at it and you will soon be seeing pictures, symbols, and types all over the Bible. The weeds around Jonah’s head will become a crown of thorns. The food and drink David gave the Egyptian in the field will become communion. The widow of Zarephath will become the faithful church in the last days.

You get the idea. Once your mind has been trained to obsess over a few things, you will be able to find proof texts and pictures where people never thought to look. As your skill increases, you will be able to do this in harder and more obscure passages. You will preach to much greater effect.

Build Reinforcement

Care must be taken lest some become skeptical. There are always naysayers who will object to fantastical interpretation. They see it as taking liberties and complain about white spaces and filling in the blanks. Sadly, you will never convince some and you don’t want to expend too much energy on the recalcitrant. It’s better to head off these kinds of objections and build reinforcements into your messages. How do you do that?

Don’t get lost in the pictures and symbols and such. You need to remind people often that you’re preaching the truth and preaching the Bible. A bold choice here is to tell them if they don’t like what you’re preaching, they can take it up with God because you didn’t write the Bible. Remind them fairly often that you are preaching like Isaiah said it must be done: “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). It’s extremely important to talk about context often, not the actual context of the passage, but rather saying the word context often. You can change it up at times by referring to people critically who take things out of context.

Optionally, you can occasionally remind them they are hearing good preaching. But I must warn you: that is an extremely difficult move to pull off. Even the most generous crowd can easily interpret that move as self-serving on the part of the preacher. Yes, some few get away with it, but TSFFI thinks it’s best avoided.

Conclusion

Let me break back in now. I hope you’ve enjoyed this generous preview of TSFFI. Your appetite has been whetted. Your curiosity has been piqued. You have questions. How much? How long does it take? Where do I sign up? Friend, can you really put a price on learning skills generally seen only among the elite? Can you really measure time in months or years for acquiring abilities you never before thought possible? As far as signing up, as they say in the show business, stay tuned.

Preaching in the Can

Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear unto all.
~ 1 Timothy 4:15

Absolutely no selling involved …

What if I told you I could tell you how to turn $100 into $310,867.82? You might be suspicious. I assure you it can be done, and is done more often than you think. Yes, it is completely legal and ethical. It doesn’t even involve ocean front property or bridges. It’s actually pretty simple.

Interested? I have two words for you: compound interest. Simply put, compound interest is the way investments grow at an increasing rate. If you invest $100 every month for forty straight years at 8% interest compounded annually, you will have $310,867.82. However, if you bank $100 every month for 40 years in a standard savings account earning 2.25% interest, you will have $77,880.75. That’s a nice little sum. You will have put $48,000 of your own in during that time and received a profit of $29,880.75, but it is considerably less than the investments. If you stuff a Benjamin Franklin every month into a coffee can for forty straight years, you will only have $48,000. Forty-eight large is nothing to sneeze at, but that is a difference of $262,867.82 less than from investing, and that’s the beauty of compound interest. It multiplies your effort.

Preaching Investments

Paul told Timothy that his profit in the ministry should be obvious (1 Timothy 4:15). Paul wasn’t referring to his financial portfolio. Jesus used the pictures of financial investments and profits to portray the gains that should be made in service while we wait for the kingdom in the Parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19:11-27). Two servants invested wisely and made a profit (Luke 19:15-19). One servant followed the coffee can plan and offered back the original capital. He was chided for not at least putting the money in a savings account, or CD, and at least earning some return (Luke 19:20-23).

As preachers, our pulpit ministry, and all that is involved in it, is being invested in some way and our gains are made according to the method of investment. If your preaching is a scattershot, random string of one-off sermons, your profit will approximate the profit with the coffee can plan. Over 40 years of preaching, you will have preached a handful of sermons about angels, various sermons on prayer, recurring sermons on tithing and church attendance, some parables, some miracles, a bunch of the life of Bible character sermons, various doctrinal topics, a bunch of repeats, etc. You will have done some good for those you’ve ministered to and will have grown yourself in some small ways over such a length of time.

If your preaching follows a more topical expository method, your profit will be akin to the savings account or high-yield CD. Over 40 years you will have produced a sermon catalog of numerous series of expositions of lengthy passages. You will likely have preached through Genesis chapters 1-3, the ten commandments, the life of David, numerous Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, the Upper Room Discourse, some short books like Jonah and some epistles, chapter by chapter through Romans, etc. You will have covered an array of biblical doctrines and preached passages from different genres of Scripture. You will have done good for those you’ve preached to and you will have grown yourself from your studies all those years.

If you are committed to expositional preaching through whole books of the Bible, your profit will be more like the compound interest from smart investing. If you are very disciplined, over 40 years of preaching at least twice every week and covering at least 7.5 verses per sermon, you could actually preach every verse in the Bible. That probably won’t be your approach, but you could certainly preach most of the books of the Bible in that time, as well as topical expository sermons on various doctrines, different series of studies, etc. You will have done much good for those under your ministry and you will have personally grown leaps and bounds in your understanding of Scripture as a whole. Your preaching will grow richer over time and the work you do in one book will pay dividends in other books afterward.

Anyone Can Do It

Do the math with a bunch of twenty-year-olds to show them how $100 can become over $300,000, and you have their attention. It is so simple that many might be skeptical, but they are the youngest and last of the millennials, so skepticism is to be expected along with snarky comments. You explain it really is that simple and assure them that anyone can do it. Compound interest is completely unbiased. But that does raise a question. If it’s so simple and anyone can truly do it, why doesn’t everyone do it? Why doesn’t everyone invest $100 a month for 40 years?

Factors vary from person to person, but we can generalize to four reasons why people don’t save and invest this way.

  1. Inability to think in a long-term perspective. Retirement is so far off and spending $4 every day at Starbucks is so much more enjoyable than brewing coffee at home and putting that $100 a month to work in investments. Besides, all that math is just too hard to figure out. Everybody told me I would never need algebra again after getting out of school anyway.
  2. Laziness. It takes hard work and discipline to do something consistently over such a long time period. The key to compound interest is not magic, but consistency over time. If you double the monthly amount to $200 but only invest it for 20 years, your return will be $109,828.71. That’s a lot of cabbage but less than half with the 40 year plan and only half the monthly amount. It also works the other way for you. If you work harder and are more disciplined to invest $400 a month for 40 years, your egg will be over $1.2 million. Everybody wants a million dollars but very few will be that consistent for that long to get it.
  3. Presuming Social Security and other government programs will be there in the future. Many see no need to deny themselves and work hard to save like that because they believe the government will be there to take care of them.
  4. Assuming they will always be healthy and energetic and able to work until they die. There is no need to plan for the future when the income will always come in from working. Many also assume they will have enough, though they do nothing to ensure that.

What about preaching? I am not here advocating the “one right way of preaching.” I am persuaded from Scripture and experience that the most profitable way of investing your ministry is in the committed exposition of books, just like the most profitable way of investing for retirement is consistently over a long time. Someone may submit Charles Spurgeon as a refutation of my contention, because he didn’t preach that way. Honesty requires me admit that Spurgeon didn’t preach expositionally through books and it’s hard to argue with his profit. If I am allowed a rejoinder, I submit that some people also win a million dollars by playing the lottery, but wisdom recognizes that is not a reasonable retirement plan or expectation.

If that is the most profitable way of pulpit ministry, why aren’t more preachers doing it? Once again, we can generalize to four reasons why preachers don’t preach expositionally through books.

  1. Inability to preach through books. Some who occupy pulpits lack the essential gifts for preaching and teaching in such an orderly and systematic way. I am not referring to those who have the necessary gifting but choose not to preach that way. I am referring to those who are not “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24), as Scripture requires.
  2. Laziness. Preaching expositionally through books is hard work and requires consistent, disciplined study over time to maintain. In short, it ain’t easy. Some preachers simply don’t want to work that hard at preaching. It’s easier to preach in the can and rehash old sermons, come up with three points of what you want to say and then find a verse for it, build a straw man you can burn up, etc.
  3. Presuming in the preacher’s authority. A preacher is given a deal of respect and credibility for occupying the pulpit. The preacher can trade on that by presuming his words carry the necessary authority for the people to believe him. They ought to believe it because I said it and I always preach the truth. They might also presume upon a legacy or tradition that preceded them.
  4. Assuming their congregation knows the Bible better than they really do. When a preacher assumes his people really know the Bible, he sees no need to do the hard work of exposition. He thinks he can merely read a text and make truth statements without actually showing how the text makes that truth statement. Even if the preacher’s statements are true, that’s not exposition. Exposition is simply exposing the meaning of the text. Exposition is explaining the meaning of the passage in its original context and then connecting that meaning to the reality of the text and applying it to your people.

Before You Know It

Retirement will be here before you know it. When it comes is not the time to prepare for it. It’s too late by then. It can be hard to get twenty-year-olds to see that, but that doesn’t change it. Likewise, preachers all have a day coming when their ministries will be over. Age, health, or something will take us out of the pulpit. If nothing else, the grave will end our work (Ecclesiastes 9:10). A day of reckoning is coming. The foundation has been laid and preachers are required to build on it. Paul said we can build on it with “wood, hay, stubble,” or with “gold, silver, precious stones” (1 Corinthians 3:12). We are going to be tried and receive reward or suffer loss (1 Corinthians 3:13-15). Of course, you can preach in the can if you want to, but remember the servant and his napkin (Luke 19:24).

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