The Pastor as Prophet

Session 4

Re:Train | Seattle, Washington


The following is lightly edited transcript.

My assistant mentioned to me that I had said, in one of our preaching classes, something about current events, like earthquakes, and what he reminded me of was that, regularly, I get up on Sunday morning, and I have the fear that I will go to church and stand up and will not even know that the president has been shot, or something to that effect. We today have no excuse for that, right? We have immediate access to events around the world.

When I was up in the room, I took out my phone, and I read about this earthquake. I had seen it this morning, an 8.8 earthquake happened at three o’clock in the morning off the coast of Chile. It’s 64 times more powerful than the Haiti earthquake. It has set a tsunami out which is moving — I don’t know when that article was written — at five hundred and fifty miles an hour, the speed of a jet plane, across the Pacific. It slows down to twenty or thirty miles an hour when it gets near a coast with shallow water. It builds, and then the waves do their damage as stuff is scooped up from the bottom, and that all the countries on the Pacific Rim are possibly affected by it.

Your Prayer Communicates Your Theology

Now, sometimes there are sensational reports at the beginning of things, and you do not know, but to walk into your pulpit on this Sunday morning, it would be very, very significant, I think in your pastoral prayer, in your welcome to worship, in your sermon to connect with that. Just homiletically, I think being aware of your city and globally of what the people are being stirred by, it has an affect on everything. If they know you’re living in this world, you’re connected with this world, you’re dealing with the emotions of that, and you’re still believing in Jesus and have words to say about it in prayer. You communicate your theology by how you pray.

I remember one of the most moving and gratifying moments. It was a Sunday afternoon when a tornado hopped through South Minneapolis, where our church is and where I live. It hopped, and it just kept going up and down, and the newscasters were following it. It was moving very slowly. It would come down. It would take out massive trees and wreck a house and go up and then go down a few blocks and come down again, take out more trees, rip up a road and hop up. It’s the way these tornadoes work. It was coming toward our church. It didn’t hurt our church, but it took out things nearby.

When we got together that Sunday evening, everybody was thinking about this and watching about it, and I said, “Why do we not just pray about the people who have been affected by this and give thanks that life has been spared? I do not think anybody was killed, and anything else you want to say.” And Char Ransom, who is the single woman who is in our church, who is probably in her eighties now, she was at the back and was the first one to pray, and she just said, “God, we praise you for your power.”

Now immediately, you know the theology of this woman. She’s not afraid to say right upfront that God is in charge of this thing. She is aware of all the implications. This has probably cost the city millions of dollars. It scared people. It ruined some houses. She’s just saying, “God, you are so powerful. Oh, how we could be swept away in a moment. Oh, how fragile we are.” I don’t remember all the details, but you can tell what your people have picked up along the way by how you pray and they pray concerning global calamities. There should be a deep, compassionate note for Port-au-Prince-like events, and there should be a deep, trembling submission to the sovereign rule of God.

Of course, depending on the town and the newness and the scope of it, you’re going to get a call from the news people who want your perspective on this. You are one of those God people. You are one of those Jesus people. You may be even one of those sovereignty people. Do you believe God killed two hundred and fifty thousand people in Haiti? You should be ready to answer that. It’s really pathetic, really pathetic how many pastors wimp out in public at that moment, concerning the sovereignty of God.

The Theological and Intellectual Condition of Your Life

Now, we have a big challenge before us. I need to be real selective, and I really want to get to the function of arcing in the preparation of a sermon. What that last section was on — how to fight for joy — was the spiritual condition of the preacher. This is the intellectual condition of the preacher; they are not identical. The intellectual and the theological condition of the preacher really matters, and the Bible has so much to say about the theological and intellectual condition of your life. It calls us to think over what the apostles have said. It calls us to be mature in our thinking. It assumes and encourages a proper analysis of nature and times and moral matters. It calls for a wakeful, sober preparedness of the mind for right use in the cause of Christ. It calls us to work hard and accurately in handling the word of God. The Bible calls us to have a thorough and deep knowledge of Scripture as a protection from harmful error.

Let me just bring in my morning devotions here. I got up this morning and read two or three chapters in Leviticus, because I’m trying to finish that book. Then, I said, “Lord, I just need something more.” I began to recite to myself the third chapter of Philippians. It begins like this, “Rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.”

Then, I paused and I thought, “Okay, how do I help my people be safe?” That is, safe from errors, safe from the devil, and safe from sin. Paul said, “I’m going to write you a letter.” I don’t write the letters. I just interpret the letters. I just read the letters. I preached the letters. So, when this says that the Bible calls us to have a thorough and deep knowledge of Scripture as a protection, not only is there Matthew 22:9, which says they’re mistaken because they don’t understand the Scriptures, but there is also Philippians 3:1 which says, “To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.”

It says very clearly that Philippians is written to protect the sheep. Philippians is written to make the sheep more secure and firm. So if you want to have a secure people, a firm and solid and unshakeable people, open Philippians to them. Don’t play games with them on Sunday morning. Take them into the securing word. The Bible commends thoughtful musing on the word of God, day and night. The Bible calls us to understand the ground of our faith well enough to give good answers for it and so on.

Factors in Choosing a Text

What about choosing texts? You choose one text, long text, short text, or whole books. Generally, a text would be chosen by a coming together of several factors in the mind and heart of the preacher.

  1. What burns in our own hearts to say that we love and has made or is making a great difference to us?

  2. What are the needs of the congregation, spiritually, morally, theologically, relationally?

  3. What parts of the Bible have been neglected or overemphasized in the congregation? Consult the elders and staff if you have spiritually mature partners in ministry and get their input in assessing the past and making suggestions about future series.

Ask the Elders

I did a series on marriage, the new birth, and I am now preaching through the Gospel of John. I did two topical series between Romans and John, and now, I’m into another book. The reason I did that is because about three to four years ago, when I was coming to the end of Romans, I said to my elders, “I would like you guys to give me your sense, pray, and then write down on a piece of paper what are the needs of the church right now, needs in books, needs in themes, topics, text, a doctrines.” I collected all that, and I wrote them all down or had somebody distill it for me, and right at the top was marriage.

So I did it. Next was something doctrinally related to regeneration, because Romans is so heavy on justification. Our guys felt you need to help bounce the thing by not just talking about justification, but regeneration. What does God do in actually bringing us to the point where we can enjoy justification? By regenerating us. I did a sermon series, and then turned it into a book called Finally Alive. That’s how books come in to be for me. Then they said, “Genesis, John, or Revelation?” I said, “Pick one of those three.” I chose John, the easiest one. I don’t know that if I live long enough, I may want to go back and do Genesis. Consult your elders. Think about whether there are large parts of the Bible you have neglected. I know there are some parts of the Bible I’ve neglected.

It’s really hard to know how to make them out. I’ve never preached a single sermon from the Song of Solomon. Mark Driscoll preached on the Song of Solomon all over the world. Right? And I go, “Mark’s doing that; I don’t have to do that.” If you do a search, all my sermons for thirty years are searchable by topic, date, and text. If you search Song of Solomon, you won’t find one. Now, that’s a hole. I might have preached one on Ecclesiastes. There are real holes in thirty years of ministry.

John MacArthur chose to preach his way through the New Testament and write a commentary series on it. He’s never preached through a book in the Old Testament, I think. He brings in the Old Testament, and he produced a study bible that covers the whole Bible. He said it almost killed him. It was one of the biggest projects he ever undertook. But he has made the decision to work his way through every book in the New Testament. He’s seventy years old, and he just started the book of Mark. And he said, “That’s the last one. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m done, but I hope God gives me the strength to finish the Gospel of Mark, because then I’ll be done. I’ll have done them all, and I’ll finish my commentary series, and I will have done what I think God called me to do.” Now, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone follow him in that, that you skip every Old Testament book. I’ve preached Ruth. I’ve preached the Job. I’ve preached the Malachi. I’ve done Psalms series, and I really would recommend that you be both.

Consider Weaknesses in Your Church

Consider weaknesses in the church’s understanding of doctrines. If you know that this church doesn’t have a clue about eschatology, or doesn’t have a clue about regeneration, or a clue about incarnation and the doctrines of the two natures of Christ, or anything, do a series on those. Take into account the timely challenges of faith in society. What’s the world dealing with right now? Now, a lot of pastors are really major on that. What does Seattle need to hear? I’ve talked about that for thirteen weeks. I think it’s a great thirteen-week series.

Don’t do only that. Don’t be a so seeker-oriented that the only topics you choose are the ones your people want to hear about. The people don’t know what they need. They would never put down, “I need the sovereignty of God. I need the holiness of God. I need justice of God. I need the two natures of Christ. I need to understand the dynamics of the atoning work of Christ and how it actually takes away the wrath of God.”

Be a Doctor

They don’t know what they need. You’re the doctor. They’re the patient. Do ask them about their symptoms. Like, “I got something on my back.” And then relate something to the back, but don’t mainly let the patient dictate the diagnosis of their ills. Mingle series on books with series on crucial topics; mix it up. Series on books have the great advantage of helping you know where you’re going from week to week. It’s so good. I just would be overwhelmed if I had to think up a text every week to preach on. I just take what comes next in John now for the next six years or so. That’s what I’m going to do. The next paragraph in John, that’s what I’m doing. That struggle is over. I have other struggles, but that struggle is over. Forcing you to deal with issues in doctrines that you wouldn’t deal with otherwise. Give the message to people that all Scripture is inspired by God. I don’t pick and choose. I take what comes, and it’s all valuable.

Overcome the suspicion that you only preach on your favorite text, you ride your hobby horses. I have hobby horses. I use them on the road. I’m known for certain things. I have certain emphasis that God has called me to stress, but when it comes to my flock, I’m taking every verse that comes.

I hope my people, over time, will not say, “He was really selective. He only liked to talk about sovereignty text, or he only liked to talk about whatever, majesty text.” He just took them all. When he got to Romans 12 and 13, he dealt with the government, and he dealt with love your enemies. In as much as it lies within you, you live at peace with all men. He took chapter 14 about the disunities in the church, and he gave a series about the things we disagree about because there they were in the text. It’s a wonderful thing to live under the Bible. Just settle it. I’m under the book. I don’t tell the book what the church needs. I get the needs of the church from the book, modeling for the people how to study the Bible systematically.

Preparing a Sermon

Now, we’re getting close to this immediate preparation issue — preparing and structuring the sermon. I wrote to myself the actual time of preparation. All of life is preparation, that’s what that’s about. “Don’t begrudge the seminary of suffering,” I’ve said. The actual time of preparation in the actual hours of preparation, preparing the sermon, to be preached next Sunday. Now, here is John Piper not dictating how everybody should do it, but how I do it and for you to consider.

If you’re not already set on a very fruitful way, have a piece of paper by you for jotting any question or insight that might prove fruitful in the message. As I sit down at my computer, I work with Accordance on the Mac, because Accordance is really slick and fast, way, way, way faster than Logos. I take a piece of paper, and I fold it in half. I have a lot of scrap paper lying around. I fold it in half, put it on the table in front of me, and I have a pen or a pencil.

I open my Accordance, and I go to the text. I have English at the top, Greek at the bottom, or Hebrew, whichever it is, and I begin to read it in Greek very slowly. Then I read it, and I’m praying, “Oh God, open this to me.” The first pass, I sort of read it very slowly and write down anything that comes to my mind — anything contextually, anything biblically, anything relationally, anything socially, dynamically, whatever comes to my mind, I’m just going to write it down. And writing it down, just making comments as you go, is where so, so much happens. Because you begin to see connections, you begin to pose yourself questions.

When you pose a question and you begin to answer it, that yields another question, and then the answer to that relates to this one up here, and you’re starting to underline and draw things. You’re writing something down, and this word you’re circling and drawing down, and you’re writing down, it goes on down. You might be able to get it all on one page or not. Your first pass through, and you’ve just seen all kinds of things, and you’ve been drawing lines. That messy page, which looks like absolute chicken scratch to anybody that would walk up behind you, has in it illuminating insights that you wouldn’t have gotten if you’d not read slowly from the original language — or just a good literal translation if you don’t have the original language — and then relationships drawn with lines and underlinings, and all kinds of questions now need to be answered.

Some of you might need a commentary to get help with it. I don’t generally use commentaries much on Friday in my sermon preparation, only if they’re really peculiar historical things, or I’ve seen something that feels really exciting to me, but really unusual, and I don’t want to be weird. I’m not into preaching new, weird doctrine. I want to be old doctrine, and so I want to know, “Did anybody else see this? Is this okay? Have I missed something here?” That’s a little strategy. Often in the jotting of a question or a problem, an insight will come and then another and then another, so that this sheet suddenly has an outline or a flow of thought that will illumine the text for your people. John Stott refers to this as “scribbling down, though haphazardly, the thoughts which clarify our minds.” My mind, if it doesn’t write out a thought that it’s having, generally loses it, confuses it, and doesn’t remember it. Writing becomes absolutely essential in my preparation.

This ever-present piece of paper is essential to hold the random thoughts and questions that come to our mind at every stage in the preparation process. Otherwise, we lose, behind the cloud of distraction and forgetting, the glimmer of insight that might prove to be the first ray of brilliant sunshine just coming up over the horizon. A little ray of insight comes, something you’ve never spotted before, an idea that you’d never thought of before. If you keep reading at that moment without jotting that little glimmer down, I promise you, it will usually disappear.

It’ll just sink behind the horizon, because it’s so new. It’s so fresh. It has such a non-hold on your heart at that moment, that if you don’t quickly write it down, you could lose it in a minute and may never come back. It may never come back. Capturing quickly, and this isn’t just when you’re preparing sermons. Having devotions, if you get any glimpse of anything fresh and new, I didn’t bring it along, but I keep in my briefcase these little camel, journal type things, about fifty pages, sewn in the middle, about this big, and I’m just constantly making notes in there from devotions and other things.

That’s where all my tweets come from, by the way. I write them all. Nobody writes for me, and they’re just right out of my devotional life or my reading. On this scribbling sheet, draw arrows from one word in one sentence to another word in another sentence to show the connection in your mind. Circle a word here and a word there, and jot a possible meaning in the margin at a ninety-degree angle if you must. Look up a phrase in the concordance to track down its biblical usage, and then note that on the sheet. Then notice amazingly that this usage, when you take time to write it, sheds light on a thought noted in the upper left corner of the paper. Quickly draw an arrow, lest you lose it, then you will notice another connection with this new insight as you continue to ponder the text. On and on it goes, with more and more ideas pouring to your mind, and more and more ways of digging out the gold in this text.

Very often, the repetitions and arrows and circles on these scribbling sheets will offer the outline for the sermon. So I’ll step back an hour or two into this, and I’ll look at this meditation, notes, scribbles, ideas, and I’ll say, “Okay, that would be a possible conclusion, or maybe I should begin there, and then that probably needs to be emphasized, because that’s really significant. Here and there I’ll circle. How should this be put together?

I’m seeing these ideas. How do they get put together?” I never work with any set pattern of sermon structure. I have zero commitment to three points, introduction, conclusion, none, or five, or two, or one. To me, the text, what works with this text, what can help the people get at this text, is to try to let the text structure that.

You would put a one by this idea in the bottom right-hand corner, and then you put a two at the end of the arrow that connects it with the argument or inference in the middle of the page, written almost upside down because you had to make it fit when it all clicked after several hours of pondering and so on. You get the idea of the function of this piece of paper as you are reading through the text.

Arcing the Text

Now, I want to show you this arcing piece. What I’m about to demonstrate for you is what I learned at Fuller Seminary in 1968–1970 — the method that has stuck with me as the most fruitful thing I’ve ever seen.

My Experience in Germany

I went to Germany for three years. I sat in German exegesis classes, all in German, with world class New Testament scholars talking to eighteen and nineteen-year-old gymnasium graduates who would take four or five years to finish their first exam, become rectors in the local church and then become full pastors a year or two later. I’m watching how the University Lutheran System in Germany prepares pastors, and I was heartbroken. It was, frankly, pathetic. I felt here, an arrogant twenty-five-year-old that I am, just graduated from seminary, having spent three years there from twenty-two to twenty-five, I felt, “Let me have these students, let me have them, let me have them for just ten weeks, and I will give them a skill that will unlock the riches of these texts for forty years.”

Now, I didn’t know that at twenty-five, but I’ll say the same thing now, “Let me have them.” But what did they do? They read big, weighty tomes that others had written. They dealt with critical theories about this and that. They dealt with endless background issues. They never gave them a practical thing to do with a paragraph that they have to preach from and get solid, reliable truth from and say, “Thus said the Lord.” It was absolutely pathetic, and there is just no wonder why.

Here’s a little story, just so you’re not too enamored by famous things. Germany was considered the kind of “promised land” of biblical studies in many ways. The churches, by and large, except for a very few, everybody in Germany is either Lutheran or Catholic, or a few little sects like Baptist scattered in, or atheists. People are tied in. They support the churches by giving 1 percent of their income tax through the government to the churches. So nobody needs to be in the churches for them to be paid, and nobody is in the churches.

I went to a church called St. Johannes because I wanted to be culturally in. I wanted to go to a German church, a German kirche across the street from where Noël and I lived. It was called St. Johannes, and we were there. We looked around, the place held probably a thousand people, and there were sixty people, and maybe three of those were men, and nobody under sixty. I talked to the pastor afterwards in my broken German. I was just learning in those days because we didn’t stay in that church. I said, “How many people are in your gemeinde?” And he said “ten thousand.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “That’s the number.” Gemeinde is your parish, and it’s the place you’re responsible for. You’ll bury here, you’ll marry here, and you’ll worship here if you worship. So I said, “You have ten thousand people and sixty show up?” “Yep.” And that’s the Protestant church in that area. That’s the condition.

My dad was scared to death when I went to Germany. He’s going to lose his faith and throw everything away. Here I am sitting in a class, watching that happen. This is not rocket science. For me to be impressed with the university system of theological studies in Germany would have been asinine. Prescriptions for how to empty churches, prescriptions for how to be absolutely useless and meaningless. It’s still the case. I’ve just been back to visit for the first time in thirty-five years last fall and talked to people. There are some wonderful, younger, gospel coalition-type renewal movements, but as far as the main line goes, it was tragic.

How to Arc a Text

Well, the following method is what I was taught by Dr. Fuller in Philippians in the fall of 1968, and it was so mind-bogglingly fruitful for me, nothing has improved on it for forty years. I want you to get the principle. If you want to see it laid out in a book, Tom Schreiner, in his book Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, he has a whole chapter on it called “Tracing the Argument.”

Our guys have created a website called BibleArc.com. You can arc online and share them. It has Greek here, and English here, and if you pass your cursor over the Greek, it gives you the parsing. It is an unbelievably fruitful thing.

This is what I’m going to take you through. I’m showing you the way I do it because I don’t do it online yet. I may try to learn how to do it easier. They do it this way, and I do it this way. One more, I wrote a paper called “Biblical Exegesis” in which I spell out how to do this.

Okay, here’s the gist. You take a paragraph, for example, a paragraph in Romans or a paragraph in Luke, and the first thing you do, if you want to, is diagram the sentences, because sentence diagramming tries to figure out how words and phrases relate to each other. Arcing tries to figure out how propositions relate to each other. Now, you may think, “Why are we doing a class on exegesis here?” My answer is this: that’s how you prepare for a sermon. There is no other way. If you were going to preach on this paragraph right here, which I hope you do sometime, what would you do? What would be the first thing you would do?

Now, I said, generally, you just start reading the text and making notes, but if you know how to do this, then you would do this. You break it down into propositions, and as you break it down into propositions, you try to think of how logically the propositions are related to each other. Then you use connecting words. Sometimes, they’re in the text. Sometimes they aren’t in the text. When they aren’t, I put a parenthesis around them, and they provide the interpretive, logical link between the propositions.

Then you draw a line at the top and you create an arc for each of these propositions. Put the numbers that correspond to the verse parts. Let’s look at Luke 12:35–39. Luke 12:35 has two parts, A and B. And then, if you’ve done it, you know that there are twenty or thirty possible relationships, and they all have symbols. It sounds overwhelming at the beginning, but after a few weeks, it’s not at all overwhelming, and you don’t need to consult anymore. They’re all in your head.

Let’s just go through it, and I’ll show you how you put the arcs together. At the end, you have the main point of the text and how the other pieces fit together. “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning.” I’m going to put those two together. Sometimes, you have to put them together then come back and break them up because you found that this one should’ve gone with this one before it went to that one, but I’ve done this, so I know how I want to do it. Then the and here, I’m just going to make this a series and put “S” in there. “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning. Be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast.”

Now, I’m interpreting here. What’s the function of this proposition, “Be like men who are waiting for their master to come home”? And I’m saying, this interprets, explains this. How do you be like men who are waiting? You stay dressed for action. Can you keep your lamps burning? So, I’m going to connect it back with these, and I’m going to call it “action manner.” This is the action; this is the way. We used to call it “end way.” And Tom Schreiner created some new language, so I’m adjusting my old language to the new language, action manner.

Now, we have those three under one arc. “So that they may open . . . These people that are being like men who are waiting for their master to come. Stay dressed, keep your lamps burning so that. . . .” This is clearly some kind of purpose, right? “So that they may open the door to him at once when he comes.” I’m going to put the two together here with the when clause, and I’ll put a “T” under here for temporal. This is a temporal relationship to that.

“When he comes, you’ll be able to open the door.” Sometimes, you can put tentative ideas under here, so I’m going to stick under here a “P,” purpose. In fact, since I know how these are going to go, I’m going to go ahead and close this up. I’m going to put action, here, purpose. So, this right here has become the main point of text so far. Well actually, it’s the goal, but since this is an imperative, the purpose for the imperative might support the imperative. You can either circle the act, or you can circle the purpose. Let’s leave it open for now.

Now, you get the gist of what’s going on so far. “Be this, so that you can open the door when he comes.” That’s kind of an argument there that starts 37a, “for blessed, happy, well-off, full of peace, and well-being, are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes.” This is another temporal relationship.

I’m going to close that up. “When he comes for. . . .” What is this grounding? He’s going to be blessed when he’s awake. “When the master comes for I say to you, ‘he, the master will dress himself for service and have them recline a table and will come and serve them.’”

Now there appears to be not just a sequence here, but also some progression, right? First he changes clothes, became a servant, then he tells them to sit down at the table. I’m going to put those three together as progression. Now before I close anything up, let me finish it. “Therefore,” now that’s not in the text. All the text says is, “If he comes, if he comes in the second watch or in the third, and finds them awake, then blessed are those servants.” I’m going to put “progress” here. He comes, and he finds them awake. Now if that happens, they’re blessed, and that’s exactly what 37a said.

If you slow down long enough, you see these things. That’s a repetition. Then here, so I’m going to put “if then” and close that up. 37a and 38c are saying the same thing. Blessed are they. Now, since those are saying the same thing, and they have this in the middle, I’m going to close it up. We create this word for this. What this does in the middle is supports back this direction as an argument. Therefore, it supports this way, as the same kind of argument. We call it a bilateral (BL).

It’s supporting two ways. Why are they blessed? They’re blessed because when Jesus comes, the master — it’s a parable — is going to change his clothes. I presume that means that the white robe that’s stained with blood, that has “King of kings and Lord of lords” written on it right here, in Revelation, he can take that off. He’s going to put on, I don’t know, a denim shirt and Dockers.

You don’t wear Dockers. Dockers are not cool. I wear Dockers. He’s going to dress the way a waiter dresses, and he’s going to say to his church, “I want you all to sit down at this table.” And then he’s going to serve us. I find this simply, staggeringly, amazingly, almost unbelievable.

Every time you have two arcs like this, you need to relate them. How are they related? “For” is the ground. You can write it out if you have enough room right there. The ground of what? Well, whichever you decided it was the main point under here. There’s this purpose for this action.

The purpose is that we would be ready to open the door when he comes. Well, clearly, you want to open up the door because you’re going to be blessed. If he finds you ready to open the door, he’s going to serve you. If he finds you sleeping or beating up on the other servants, you’re not going to open the door, and you won’t be in the banquet. It could support the imperative, so stay dressed for action.

Okay, now what do you do now? The point of arcing right now is to give you a structure of the text. You’ve seen the way the argument works. You’ve seen the pieces. If I were doing this for the first time, I’d be writing notes everywhere. I would be circling things. I’d circle “blessed” here and draw the line like that. I think there’s a double. “Finds them awake” here. “Finds them awake” here, I’d draw a line like that. Everything I see, I’m drawing, connecting. Then I’d step back, and I’d do my little doodling with my other sheet of paper. But in the end, you have to decide to see the structure a certain way and that leads us to this next thing called levels.

Let’s see if I can make this plain. Every part of a text has an argument in it of some kind. That is, something is either repeating or supporting something else. It’s illuminating. There we go. It’s illuminating, or it’s supporting, and if it supports, you take it down a level. I see four levels in the argument here. You look at the content of these. We’ll start at the top, and I put them in reverse order. We’re arguing from the bottom to the top, but I’m going to start up here, so level number four. “Be vigilant in maintaining the obedience of faith.”

Now, you could tell me the huge leap of interpretation. This is after long reflection, because you’re going to have to preach this. You can’t leave it in mere parallel form. You have to say to them, “Okay, it tells us to be dressed for action and to keep our lamps burning.” What does that mean tomorrow afternoon at four o’clock? What do you mean, “Keep my lamp burning at work?” I’m working. I’m working on my computer, or I’m hammering nails. I’m changing the diaper, what? How do you keep your lamp burning? How do you dress for action? You have to think through, “What’s this talking about?”

My effort is to say, “It’s trying to get us to be obedient, faithful Christians out of faith, so be vigilant to maintain the obedience of faith.” We’re going to start at the top and go to the bottom here. 37c–e is the bottom of the argument. Nothing gets lower in this text than that. “Christ is going to serve a glorious banquet to those who don’t slumber in unbelief. Therefore. . . .” Therefore goes up. “Therefore, when he finds us awake, trusting him, we will be very happy.” Okay, 37a–b and 38 say the same thing, maybe “blessed are you, happy are you.”

Therefore, in order to open the door to this great blessing “be vigilant.” That’s the highest point. I’m arguing that the imperative is the highest point in the argument. When you got to this point, you can either preach this from the inside out, top to bottom, bottom to top. I have no rules. You might want to start at the bottom and open your sermon with the most shocking glimpse of the second coming people have ever seen, maybe that right there. And then you would move to the fact that if you’re ready for him when he comes, you’re included, and you’ll be very, very happy, blessed.

It’s arguing this way. If you are going to be blessed, and you want to be blessed, then by all means, be awake. Be awake when he comes, and to that end, keep yourself dressed. Now, that is not hard to build a forty-five-minute sermon around those four levels of argument. You would just flesh him out with lots of other biblical texts. You would draw in other teachings of Jesus, and you would apply them to people’s lives.

You’d pick out some. You’d go to the tsunami that might be hitting Hawaii right now, and you say, “Now, how does this text relate to a twenty or thirty meter wave wrecking hotels in Hawaii?” Which could be happening as I speak, I don’t know. You’d ask them that. Then you’d answer it. You’d work it out, the hope of having Jesus. Clearly, Jesus is going to triumph someday because he’s coming. The master is going to come. But when he comes, he’s not just mighty and powerful, he’s caring, and he’s loving.

I got this idea about the book of Revelation where it says, “John is weeping that no one is found worthy to undo the seven seals on the scroll which represents the unfolding of history. And the elders say, ‘Weep no more, for the Lion of the tribe of Judah is conquered.’” Everybody says in heaven, “Worthy are you to open the scroll, for you were slain, and by your blood, you ransom men for God from every nation.” Now, have you ever asked, “Why does God consider a throat-slit lamb the one worthy to finish history?” Because the finishing of this history is as bloody as it gets in the Bible. It’s as vicious and as horrible.

In my eschatology, we’re going to hear a lot of story about earthquakes at the end. You have numbers like a third of the population being wiped out. Whether that’s literal or not, it doesn’t matter. That is a lot of people. That’s a lot of people. Why does God want to see to it that a throat-slit lamb finishes the history, which is going to be the killing of billions of people? I think the answer is something like this: He is both Lion of Judah and Lamb of God. He is both riding on a white horse with King of kings and Lord of lords written on his thigh with a sword coming out of his mouth, and he’s this.

God has entered into history and gotten his arms out to the world like this and said, “I have died, and I will take anyone. I am redeeming anyone who will come to me through my Son.” That’s the man who will finish history. It will never look like God got his backup and didn’t give a rip about the world and is just wasting people with his sword. It will never look like that, because the being riding on the horse is the Lamb who is slain. He’s already been crucified. He’s already paid for the world. If anybody dies, they die because they don’t believe that. They’ve rejected God. They’ve rejected his grace in the world.

This, brothers, is the most fruitful tool of exegesis that I have had for the last forty years of my life. I commend it to you with the resources here to help you get it. There are groups that form online there, and they talk to each other about their arcing. You might want to try it.

Here’s the bottom-line: I don’t do this for every text that I read in the Bible because now, after years and years, I’ve arced my way through lots of books in the Bible. I was teaching it at Bethel, so I have notebooks in my shelves down here. When I run into trouble, I still do it. But my mind so works this way now that I can almost do it in my head. You see the Bible a certain way when you’ve learned that skill.

Does Genre Affect Method?

Does the method change when you work through different genres? Yes. That is, it doesn’t work so well in the book of Proverbs. The book of Proverbs, although it keeps me from answering too quickly, whether it doesn’t work in Proverbs, because you should at least try. Try to ask whether these Proverbs coming back-to-back are there in that order for any reason. Most of the time, I can’t find it, so I’m assuming they are kind of strung together without a lot of logical interweaving. Yet, I could be blind. Arcing will force me to ask the question, say, with the collection of Proverbs, maybe there’s some relationship here.

There certainly is a relationship for some of them. Sometimes, there’s a clump of three or four, then another clump. How do I know these three that don’t look like a clump are a clump in the writers’ minds, and they were put here back to back for that reason? It doesn’t work so well.

What about long narratives? What you do is you take big chunks and draw divisions or lines. Then, you would pause, and you would make all kinds of observations in here about the narrative. Words and repetitions, so on. Then you’d do it here, and then you’d be able to see connections. Then, some of them begin to do this arcing like the thing at the top, so it doesn’t work exactly the same, but the principles of relationship are the same and applicable to every kind of story.

For example, if you take the Prodigal Son, or take the whole chapter of Luke 15. You have the parable. First, you have the introduction. Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, and because they complained about him eating with tax collectors and sinners, he told them these parables. He tells three parables: The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son. Now, I didn’t see that for twenty years. I didn’t see that those three parables were about him eating with tax collectors and sinners. That’s just so obvious now. Yet, I didn’t see it. But if I were asking questions about, how does this all fit together, how do these three parables fit together, how do they relate to the context, then I would have seen, “Oh, these three parables are the unpacking of the meaning of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners.” Duh, why don’t I see these things? It’s because I don’t do this enough.

Then, you might ask, “Okay, within this third parable, is it all one?” Now, you get the older and younger, how do they relate to each other? Should there be four parables, or is it older and younger, and they are woven together? Yeah, it’s a good question. No, it doesn’t work simply the same everywhere, but the principles of asking about how things are woven together, fit together, and illumine each other do apply everywhere.

Sermon Structure

When it comes to how should sermons be structured, if you said sermons should have three points, an introduction, and a conclusion, you’d come to this, and you’d make it work. If you see this, you’d say, “That’s the way I’m going to build my sermon. I’m going to build my sermon with these four observations, these four points. I’m going to show the people that these levels exist. I’m going to point them to the ‘therefore’ and the ‘because’ and the ‘in order that’ and the ‘so that.’ I want to help my people see this for themselves.” This sermon is probably going to have four units to it, and I might do something by way of introduction, and something by way of application and conclusion at the end, but really, I’m going to be applying all the way along.

Be Humbly Courageous

I think there’s a huge need for courage today. Courage, very often, doesn’t look humble. That’s why I put the two together. You start courageously, standing up for the uniqueness of Christ in a Jewish context, a heavily Jewish context or heavily Muslim context. I mean the world I work in right now in Minneapolis is so different than it was thirty years ago. Muslim, Islam, was not on my mind thirty years ago. It should have been, probably, globally, but it wasn’t. The pressures were not that. Now, I’m surrounded by fifty thousand Somalis.

They’re on every street corner. They’re in every coffee shop, and they live near our church. None of them believe in Jesus, none. There’s a little tiny fellowship. We’ve been working at this for a long time with just a few weak believers. We have different kinds of outreach, literacy efforts, neighborhood grocery drives, friendships, mentoring, and Christmas efforts to explain. But I never even thought about that.

Now, I could get shot. I really believe in Minneapolis that it would not be surprising for you to hear that some gay person, very hostile, or some pro-choice person, or some radical jihadist just took me out. I walk to church through this neighborhood every day. I hardly ever get in my car. I live an eight minute walk away, and I don’t like cars. I love to walk. I’ve walked across that bridge ten thousand times in the last 27 years since I moved across the bridge.

I walk in the middle of the night. I walk in daytime. I don’t feel any danger in my neighborhood, even though it’s a simple downtown, urban-type neighborhood. But, when you look at what’s happening around the world in terms of Islamic militancy and the viciousness that some people can feel when you preach something, using this love language that they call hate language towards homosexual people, you, who are part of this church, know the kinds of things that can happen. I don’t have a bodyguard like some pastors do, and I don’t blame them. I remember going down to MacArthur’s church one time and speaking at the Shepherd’s Conference, and he said, “That’s Paul. He’ll be with us. He’s armed.”

When you’re on the radio, and you take stands like John MacArthur, then I suppose that’s appropriate. But I’m not there yet. I think courage is really important, especially if you’re going to raise up courageous people. You’re preachers. Think, “I want to raise up radical people. I want to raise up couples who go to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Chad, Eritrea, and put their life on the line.” I’m preaching for those people. So, I was just going to refer to this text from Luke 12. I say to you my friends, “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that, have no more that they can do.” I preached that one time years ago when I was trying to get people to move into the city. I hate white flight.

I came to the city, and I looked at the neighborhood, poorest neighborhood in the city in those days, to the South Phillips Neighborhood, to the north of Technical Corridor to the west, downtown to the east, University of Minnesota with fifty thousand students, and I thought, “Perfect. Absolutely, perfect.” Students, professional people, technical corridor, and the poorest neighborhood in the city, and I moved into that neighborhood, right across the street called Philips Neighborhood. We bought a house for sixty-five thousand dollars and turned it into a duplex, so we always have people living with us downstairs.

Do Not Fear Man

Now, I preached a sermon early on, and I said, “Now look, we’re going to turn this thing around. We’re not leaving this city. We’re coming into the city. It’s just absolutely inauthentic to have a church in the city and drive into the city, so we’re not going to live in the suburbs, at least a lot of us aren’t, so join me,” and I used this text. My paraphrase was, “Fear not; you can only be killed.” I thought that was a very good paraphrase.

Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that, have no more they can do. You can only be killed, they can’t really hurt you. Now, that takes a worldview that is just off the charts different from your friends. There are way worse things that can happen to you than dying, like falling in love with your car and your boat and your house and your carpet that you don’t want anybody to step on.

Fear God

But I will warn you whom to fear. Fear the one who, after he has killed, has the authority to cast you into Hell. Yes, I tell you fear him. I think that’s God, and so does this translation, obviously, with a capital “H.” “Are not five sparrows sold for two cents, yet not one of them is forgotten before God? Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.” When you’re preaching on that, you have to put those together. I tell you, fear him. He’s commanding them to fear.

Here he says, “You’re more valuable than many sparrows, so don’t fear.” How would you do that? I believe that what will keep people coming back to your church is not mainly how culturally cool you are but whether you spot things like that, show them, trouble them, and solve it satisfyingly, textually. Then they’ll want to know, what problem are we going to see next Sunday? You’ll become like a Sherlock Holmes. We see tough things in the Bible, and then he takes us down from the tough things that look like problems and look like they can’t fit, and he goes down to the common root. We go deep together in the Bible. I want that. I think that’s pretty much why people come back to me. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows. God values you, and God doesn’t forget the sparrows, so he’s not going to forget you. He’s not going to let anything happen to you that’s not good for you. Therefore, fear him.

I think that means, fear not trusting him. Fear living a lifestyle that says I have to protect myself with deadbolts and suburban living because God won’t. That makes him mad. Be afraid of him. I’ve told my people this illustration, goodness, a dozen times. My six-year-old Carsten with me at Dick Teigen’s house, opens the door and a German shepherd, mammoth dog, looks at him eye-level in the face. Now, Carsten likes dogs, but he wasn’t sure this horse was safe. He looked up at me, and Dick said, “Sorry. He’s safe.” He said, “He’s fine.” Carsten walks in, pets the dog. In a minute, I said, “Carsten, I forgot to get something in the car. Would you run and get it out of the car?” He runs out, and the dog runs out with him. This six-year-old starts running to the car, and the dog comes up behind him with a low growl. Dick leans his head out, and he says, “Oh Carsten, maybe you better just walk. He doesn’t like it when people run away from him.” I stood there thinking, “That’s in the sermon next Sunday.”

I have never heard a clearer illustration of the fear of God in my life. Be afraid of running away from this dog. You stay with the dog, put your arm around him, hug him, kiss him, and he’ll lick your face. But if you run from this dog, he’s after you, and he might bite your head off if you run long enough. Don’t be afraid of God. You’re more valuable than the sparrow. Stay right there with him. Put your arm around him, and he’ll lick your face. He will take care of you in the city, or wherever, Saudi Arabia. He’ll take care of you. He loves you. But you run from him, you start building your life on something else, and you better fear him. I think that’s what it means. That’s my best shot. It’s an interpretation, and that’s what pastors do. They try to figure out tensions in the text. That’s a text to help you and your people be courageous, and you preach it that way.

Before we go quickly to the last one, pray for boldness. Pray on my behalf. Pray on my behalf that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Now, I just include this here because I don’t know if you’re as amazed as I am that the apostle Paul, who suffered more than any of us ever will, and seemed to me so relentlessly courageous, would humble himself to ask baby Christians to pray for his boldness. I have a prayer team, and I got on the internet this morning. I emailed them, and I said, “God sustained me last night. Thank you so much for praying.” I know they’re praying for me all through this. I said, “My throat is really raspy this morning, and so I think I’ll make it. But please, I don’t take it for granted; intercede for me.”

These are ordinary folks, and I’m a big shot. I’m a big shot, famous pastor, and I’m desperate. God could take me out in a minute. He could take this voice away, stop my heart, and do anything he wants. I am unbelievably fragile, so I try to do what Paul did. I want to have power for these guys. I want to be able to do tomorrow morning, so pray and ask for prayer for your opening of your mouth with boldness.

Fight for Humility

Humility is a tough thing to define, tougher to pursue, and tougher to experience. We need it so bad because the more successful you are, whether it’s a church of fifty in a village where no other church has fifty, or a church like this one with thousands, the temptation to be proud and self-reliant, and self-aggrandizing is just addictingly strong. We have to fight like heaven, way more than like hell. Fight like heaven against pride. Therefore, knowing the dynamics of humility and what it is and where it comes from.

Strong and Sweet

The sweet and tender effect of speech that exalts the greatness of God — that’s one thing the preaching is, and the severe power of God’s word in judgment is another thing. I simply point it out as an issue for you to struggle with. Try to be the kind of preacher who is known to be able to experience and speak both ways. For example, “Give ear, oh heavens, and I will speak. Let the earth hear the words of my mouth. May my teaching drop as rain, my speech distill as the dew, as the gentle rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb, for I will proclaim the name of the Lord and ascribe greatness to our God.”

Now, you all have personalities that lean either this way or this way. This is the tender sweet, and this is the severe power, and some of you are wired one way. I would say Driscoll is this kind of guy. He comes across really forceful and kind of matter-of-fact. He doesn’t strike me as being warm and intimate and tender. Now, objectively, he talks about his family that way, and I’m sure he is. I saw Grace put her hand on his arm last night during dinner. I notice these things. This is good. I’m glad I saw that.

But, personality-wise, we know his background. He wears boots that look dangerous. What are you saying with those boots? I’m going to tread on you if you get out of hand or something? These boots were made for walking. I’m going to walk all over you. So he knows. He not only is who he is, he’s cutting a certain swath in the world. Mark has to work at this, that his speech would drop like rain and distil as dew, like gentle rain and tender grass. I think I have to work at this. I feel very at home down here. “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” Yeah! That’s not bad.

If you’re only this, if you’re kind of known as the soft, tender, kind, counseling type guy, that’s okay if that’s who you are. Let it also be known that he can talk like this. He can talk like this because God is like this, and God is like this. I just put that out there for you to move towards your weakness. If you’re at home in this kind of preaching, keep leaning in to the other, and if you’re at home in the other, keep leaning into the other, so that the wholeness of the whole counsel of God will find its expression in your preaching.

Preaching Seeks to Make Conceptual Categories

Preaching not only translates and contextualizes the Bible’s meaning for the audience, but it also seeks to construct conceptual categories that may be missing from the worldview or mental framework of the listeners. Now, all I’m doing here as we close is try to enlarge your sense of your task and how hard it is. Contextualization is hard enough. That is, say something that they don’t say your way and don’t have language to express your way in their categories such that truth is transferred.

I’m saying yes to that. Yes, yes, yes, that’s what translation is. That’s what contextualization is, but there are truths that they don’t have categories for. Your job is much harder than taking one truth and one set of categories and putting into another set of categories. That’s hard, but it’s even harder when you look and say, “They don’t even have any categories that I could find comparable language for to put into their life.”

All persons are accountable for their choices, and their choices are ultimately ordained by God. Your average person on the street does not operate with a category for that. Therefore, they’re always forcing you to choose between them. That’s where Arminians come from. Arminians can’t live with this paradox. I got an email last night from Roger Olsen. I think Roger Olsen is one of the most prominent and articulate and careful Arminians in America. He wrote a book on Arminianism.

He writes me regularly, because he’s teaching at Baylor University, and his students were asking John Piper questions and Arminian questions. He’s watching videos and reading stuff, so he writes things, and what would you say if my student says this? Last night, I got another one, so I wrote him an answer. The answer was about where did the first sin come from? It sounded like we were operating with two different conceptions of the term “mystery” because I don’t know how the first sin came into being. I don’t know. I have questions I don’t have answers to. That’s one of them.

I don’t know why Satan sinned the first time. If you put the title “free will” on it, that has zero explanatory power for me. It’s just a name. It’s just words. Why would he do it? What was the motive for him to exercise his free will, when there was nothing evil in the universe to draw it out of him at all? That’s no explanation to call it free will. It’s just a name. He wouldn’t like me saying that, but he said, “You don’t think it has any explanatory power?” I don’t.

He said, “But you call it mystery. How can it be mystery if you exhaust all the conceptions that are possible, and you don’t have one?” I wrote back, “That’s my definition of mystery.” I exhaust all my efforts to explain, and I don’t have one. I said I don’t know. It’s mystery. The average person on the street doesn’t like mystery when it comes to two things that look like they’re contradictory in the Bible, and you need to help them with this.

This is not contextualization. This is category creation. It is not sin in God to will that there be sin. Most people don’t have a category for that. If God wills that there will be sin, he’s a sinner. No, he’s not. When God wills that sin be, he’s not sinning. Most people don’t have that. God’s will of decree is not always the same as his will of command. God may command you to do something, which he disapproves of you doing. Most people don’t have the category for that, and there are many such things in the Bible. Your job is to take this book with all of its fullness, the whole council of God, and contextualize what you can without losing any truth, and to create categories in people’s brains so that they can embrace the fullness of biblical faith.

I’ll close by just going to 2 Timothy 4:1–2, “Brothers, I beseech you in the presence of God and to Jesus Christ who will judge the living and the dead by his appearing and his kingdom. Preach the word.” Preach the word.