What’s for Dinner?

It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word of God.
~ Luke 4:4

Whole Words

Have you ever eaten like a pig? Have you ever been so starved you ate like a hungry dog when food was set before you? Have you ever said you were starving? Were you actually starving? Probably not.

You’ve probably seen, or could imagine a scene where a starving man at last lays hold of food and he can’t shove food and drink in his mouth fast enough. What do you think would happen if you sat a starving man down to a feast of rich food? Reality is probably much different than what you imagine.

To Build a Bridge

In 1942, the Japanese captured Scotsman Ernest Gordon and others as they attempted to sail from Indonesia to Sri Lanka and took them back to Singapore. They were force marched to a prison camp in the jungles of Thailand. There Gordon was part of the labor crew forced to build the infamous bridge on the River Kwai. The bridge was a part of the Japanese railway to transport supplies and support their planned attack on India.

The conditions in that concentration camp were reportedly some of the worst known in World War II. Unlike many others, Gordon survived the prison camp for over three years until the Japanese surrender in 1945 and he was liberated. Gordon endured malnutrition and extended starvation among other unimaginable tortures and sufferings. They had been fed just enough to barely keep them alive. It was not enough for many. It was said that for every railroad tie laid there was one life lost among the prisoners. Gordon himself was even sent to the “death house” in the camp where they sent prisoners who were expected to die soon, and yet he still survived.

When Gordon was freed, he was taken to a British military hospital set up in Rangoon in Burma for treatment. Gordon described himself and the others as living skeletons and they did not fall on tables of food when they first arrived like hungry lions on a wildebeest. They did savor some fresh brewed tea and fresh baked white bread, but they couldn’t eat much of anything they did eat. What they could eat was nothing very solid and Gordon said it was quite a long time before he could eat any meat at all. These men had to be slowly brought back to life and relied on small portions of soft food and heavy doses of vitamin and mineral supplements. Most of us have never known starvation like that.

If you’re like me, you look forward to all the family gathered around the Thanksgiving table for the best meal of the year. You probably even skimp on breakfast and lunch in preparation. What if this Thanksgiving the family was all gathered around the table and Grandmother didn’t bring food to the table, but instead brought pictures of turkey and ham? What if instead of anyone eating anything, she read aloud some of her recipes for sweet potato pie and cranberry salad? Would you be pleased? Would you in any way be satisfied?

As Gordon and the other men survived extended starvation and malnutrition in the camp, they began to be more interested in pictures of food than pictures of calendar girls. They pinned up pictures of roast beef, apple pie, potatoes, and chocolate cake on the walls of the hut. They took great pleasure in listening to a recipe for angel food cake being read aloud, and were tantalized by the pronounced ingredients. Of course, they couldn’t have truly enjoyed what they most longed for if roast beef and potatoes along with hot apple pie were set in front of them. That’s the sad reality of their situation.

The Bible is Food

The Bible compared to food is a common metaphor in the Bible itself. The prophet Amos spoke the word of the Lord about a time coming when there would be a famine, not of bread and water, but a famine of “hearing the word of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). Job treasured God’s word more than his meal (Job 23:12). Jesus charged Peter to “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Paul charged the elders of the Ephesian church to “feed the church of God” (Acts 20:28). Peter echoed the charge he had received as he charged elders to “feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2).

The food Christians need fed is the word of God. The primary job of preachers is to feed people the word of God. Bad preaching is bad food. A steady diet of bad preaching is like a steady diet of junk food. In twenty-one years of ministry I’ve been persistently dismayed by the amount of junk food preaching coming from pulpits. I’ve been even more dismayed by the number of people that prefer junk food preaching over wholesome and nourishing preaching. They pass by roast beef and potatoes preaching for potato chip and candy bar preaching.

Paul warned about people having itching ears and it shouldn’t surprise us when sugar-addicted children choose the line doling out sugar sticks as opposed to the line where real meat, fruit, and vegetables are well-prepared and served. It is sometimes the case that people prefer junk food preaching because they’re always chasing a sugar rush through light snacks that any grandma worthy of the matronly office would tell you will ruin your dinner.

Gordon and the bridge builders in the Valley of the Kwai would tell us it’s not always the case though. It is sometimes the case that people have been malnourished and starved for so long that they cannot tolerate hearty and substantial food. Their praise of bad preaching in churches and at conferences is more like Gordon’s men drooling over pictures of roast beef and potatoes while they were nowhere near ready to actually eat such a meal. Like POW’s, many Christians are so used to being fed only enough to barely sustain life that they are just not ready to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast.

A Prescribed Food Regiment

A preacher’s job is not to beat and berate such sick sheep who are ready to die, and to give them only a thick steak to eat would be cruel. Paul told Timothy that Christ’s servants must be gentle, patient, and meek to feed, or teach, God’s flock with the greatest care (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Being “right” doesn’t give you the right to be harsh, hot-headed, and rough instead. God’s flock needs to fed with the faithful word (Titus 1:9) in order to be healthy and mature properly (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Paul put it best when he charged Timothy, “Preach the word” (1 Timothy 4:1). That “word” means all the scripture, or the whole Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Faithful, persistent exposition of the Bible gives people God’s words and is like taking the best fresh ingredients and preparing a hearty meal. It is a proper balance of sweet and savory. It is a nourishing and satisfying blend of spices mixed with the raw ingredients.

You may have been suffering biblical starvation for so long that you’re more concerned with the idea of real food than you are actual food. For the good of your soul and the souls of your family, ditch the junk food and go to where you will be nourishingly fed God’s whole words (Proverbs 19:27).

Why Exposition is Unnecessary

Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things
~ Isaiah 30:10

What if we play Pick-a-Passage-for-the-Pastor?

I know the game isn’t likely to catch on, but you don’t never know sometimes. Suppose you were adequately blindfolded so you could not see. Don’t worry. You won’t have to eat or drink anything gross. Suppose you were handed a Bible. You fanned the pages and stopped at random. You put your finger down, either to the right or the left, and whatever verse(s) you pointed to, your pastor had to preach a sermon from that text. Though your choice was truly random to you, let’s further suppose that your pastor had never preached from that text before, so he cannot whip out an old outline to preach from. What would he need to do to preach that text? How would he go about it?

His method, or process, will depend on what kind of sermon he intends to preach. How many kinds are there? Not as many as you might think. By referring to the kind of sermon, I’m not talking about style of delivery, which varies with every different preacher. I’m talking about the way the sermon is built, or what it is built around. Speaking in the broadest possible terms, there are few options.

Topical

A topical sermon is built around a topic or subject. It could be delivered in a variety of styles, but the content of the sermon is structured around a topic. If your pastor intends to preach a topical sermon from the text you selected, he will look at the text for key words, phrases, or suggested images. He would be looking for words or suggestions of topics like faith, love, grace, hope, sin, God’s word, or the church. Having identified a topic in the text, he will next think of three points he wants to make about that topic. Of course three points is a rule of thumb and not an inviolable law of preaching. He might have two points, or four. He could optionally make the points rhyme, have the same rhythm, or start with the same letter.

For each of his points, he will need some supporting verses. He will use a concordance, possibly Strong’s, to search for words related to his points and select a few verses to reinforce his points. If it’s a familiar topic, he may already have many verses to use so he looks those up to make sure he gets the reference right. Along with supporting verses he will need some illustrations. He can sift through his own experiences and come up with some. He can borrow some illustrations from other preachers. Depending on his personality, he may not give this too much thought ahead of time and rely on off the cuff illustrations.

He will need some introductory and concluding material. He has many options at this point. He can talk about why this topic is important, why it is needed, or even why it is neglected. He may include actionable steps of application so you will be prepared to pray more, sin less, have more faith, or be more forgiving.

Expositional

Exposition is a big word little used except in certain circumstances. It has an archaic meaning: to expose to view. Simply put, exposition is a comprehensive explanation of some source material. Exposition is not a sermon, but a sermon is considered expositional, or expository, when it is built around the explanation of the meaning of a text. Exposition is the structural core of a sermon that holds it all together. Whatever points of observation are made, whatever points of application are made to the saved or lost, they come from the explained meaning of the text.

If your pastor intends to preach an expositional sermon from the blindfold text, he will start with a big picture, then zoom in to minute details, and zoom back out to put the sermon together. Exposition means getting to the original, intended, and contextual meaning of a passage. He will start with the big picture. Where is this text? Is it in the Old Testament or New Testament? Is it in a wisdom book, historical book, a Gospel, or an epistle? Those questions may seem too obvious to ask, but they are vital to properly interpreting a passage.

Once he has the aerial photo, he needs to zoom in drastically. He has to focus on the text and its setting. He has to consider biblical backgrounds, biblical languages, grammar, logical structure and flow. He has to start zooming out slowly to the broader context of the passage, the book it is in, and what it contributes to the book as a whole. He has to keep zooming out to consider the text’s place in the storyline of scripture, intertextual connections with other books, quotes, references, and allusions outside the text.

Next, he has to zoom out so that today is in the picture. Once he has properly interpreted the passage for its intended meaning, he has to connect that to today to make application to his modern hearers. If his text is in the old covenant dietary laws or Sabbath laws, does that mean we have to follow those today? What relevance do they have? If his text is a miracle of Jesus, how does that apply? If the text involves John the Baptist, does that mean we should all move to the desert, wear camel hair girdles, and eat locusts?

His introductory material will likely consist of background and setting of the passage, so it can be understood. His points will be developed from the passage itself. His concluding applications will come from the exposition of the passage and understanding of its place in the progress of revelation. He then brings home the relevance of the passage for us today.

Tribal

The tribal sermon could come under the topical umbrella, but it is quite the specimen and deserves its own pin and info card in the display case. If you talk about tribal rhetoric today, you will most likely be understood to talk about blind, fanatical political allegiances and groupings, i.e., tribes. Tribalism is just that, blind allegiance and loyalty to one’s own group. Tribalists blindly adhere to the worldview of the group, the tribe’s body of dogma, and jargon. Tribalists are immediately skeptical of anyone or any ideas not within the group, and they immediately know who is in and who is out. Tribalists presuppose their own group and collective groupthink to be superior to all others.

What is a tribal sermon? Tribal sermons are generally topical, but stick to an approved and acceptable set of topics. Tribal sermons are immediately critical of everything outside the tribe and reinforces the superiority of the tribe by either directly affirming the group or indirectly affirming the group by censuring all the non-group. One evidential feature of tribal sermons is the preacher making statements and using key phrases, which are accepted and applauded without any explanation or actual expositional proof from the Bible.

If your pastor intends to preach a tribal sermon, he considers whether the text is one of the tribal prooftexts. He may recognize this text is where we go to prove X doctrine, or that text is where we go to prove Y principle. If the text is not one of the standard prooftexts, he will consider if it is equivalent or close to one of the prooftexts. If the text is not a standard prooftext, or it doesn’t intersect conveniently with a prooftext, he has more work to do. He must consider the tribe’s set of approved and acceptable topics and find some way to either preach that topic deliberately from the text, or bridge from the text to the topic.

He will need the appropriate introductory and concluding remarks. He will probably not try to get too creative and just stick with the tribal boilerplates. Regardless of the text or topic, tribal sermons tend to abide certain conventions at the bookends of the sermon. They start with some variation on how important the subject is that is about to be preached, how nobody today is preaching on this subject, how everybody else is wrong about it, or how nobody else knows or understands it. Advanced onset tribalism will even press these critical claims toward those “within the group” who are not sufficiently emphasizing the tribal talking points. Tribal sermons tend to be thin on application and more about what you know and who knows and don’t know. There’s always a looming threat of being “out” of the tribe and so loyalty is reinforced.

Summary

What sermon would your pastor preach from the selected text? What sermon does he preach from the texts he selects? One of the questions or debates about preaching is whether exposition is necessary or not. It may surprise you to hear this, but exposition is not necessary all the time. If your pastor intends to preach a topical sermon as described above, exposition is unnecessary. He can find inspiration for sermons all around him. He may even have a sermon he wants to preach and needs only find a text to preach it from. In that case, exposition is unnecessary.

If your pastor intends to preach a tribal sermon, exposition is unnecessary. The tribe already provides a set of topics and prooftexts that are acceptable. The Bible must always be filtered through these, so the real work involved is figuring out how to fit a text in when it doesn’t seem to fit naturally. He can make pre-approved statements and exposition is unnecessary.

Of course, exposition is always necessary if he intends to the preach the word as God gave it. Sorry, but I don’t know any way around that. So, who’s ready to play?

Call me Ali

They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.
~ Mark 10:37

’cause I’m the greatest

Doctrine. To some, the word causes fear, trembling, and gnashing of teeth. May the hooves of a thousand camels stamp it and may the last camel die upon it under the burning noon sun of the desert. May doctrine be as the filthiness of the Gentiles and not be once named among us. Don’t talk to me about doctrine. In other words, some people would rather avoid it.

To some others, doctrine is where it’s at. They’re all about it. Give me some of that doctrine. Though Isaac sustained Jacob with grain and wine, I will run in the strength of that doctrine for forty days. Though I start on the journey of a thousand miles and the sun is hidden from me behind wet, stone gray clouds, I will fear no evil as long as doctrine is beside me, beneath me, and before me. In other words, it’s all in all to such folks.

I suppose, by now, you suspect me of dealing in extremes and setting up my heroism in forging some middle way. Why would I do that? Why would I want to find a way to be in between follies? I could be slathered with mayo and mustard and paired with cheddar between two slices of problems and I still would only be lunch meat. No, I want to find a better road entirely, the biblical road. What does the Bible have to say about doctrine?

What is doctrine?

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us all Scripture is inspired by God and all of Scripture is useful for doctrine, or teaching. That is what doctrine is. It’s teaching. The Greek noun here is didaskalian, and it means that which is taught. When Luke refers to the Apostles’ teaching in Acts 2:42, he refers to their doctrine, the body of teaching they taught.

The doctrine of the Bible is simply what the Bible teaches. The biblical writers wrote consciously of a body, or system, of instruction in the Bible. Paul charged Timothy to stick to the pattern of Paul’s teaching (2 Timothy 1:13). The Apostles’ doctrine is sufficiently formalized so as to be a standard of measure for all teaching (1 Timothy 6:3-5).

Biblical doctrine is never imposed on the Bible in part or in whole. Biblical doctrine is the Bible. The Bible is a book of sixty-six books and each of those books is made up of narratives, poetry, and paragraphs of prose. We have to give detailed attention to the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs of the biblical books. We have to study the flow, the logic, the grammar, the rhetoric, and the parallels and contrasts with similar passages in the other books of the Bible. Through this process, we come to the contextual meaning of the passage, and that is doctrine.

What is the purpose of doctrine?

The aim of the Bible’s teaching is not mere knowledge. Mere knowledge results in pride (1 Corinthians 8:1). Mere knowledge, no matter how vast its scope, is worthless (1 Corinthians 13:2). Paul often described doctrine in the pastoral letters with a Greek word that means sound, or healthy. The word literally means having good physical health. Biblical doctrine is healthy like a human body free of disease or sickness, but it also healthy like a nutritious meal that nourishes and enriches the body to perform its tasks (1 Timothy 4:6; 2 Timothy 3:17).

Biblical doctrine is foundational to growing in faith, obedience, and practical righteousness (1 Timothy 6:3; Titus 1:1; 2:11-14; 2 Peter 1:3-7). Doctrine sanctifies us and fills us with joy (John 17:13-17). Doctrine grows our discernment and protects us from error (Hebrews 5:11-14; Ephesians 4:4). Doctrine is also instrumental in making disciples, as God’s word creates God’s people (Matthew 28:18-20).

Conclusion

As pastors minister in their congregations, we aim for people to be brought to faith, grow in grace, grow in love, grow in unity, grow in witness, grow in joy, grow in worship, and grow in expectation of Christ’s return. That does not, or will not, happen apart from good doctrine. We simply cannot feed the sheep without exposition of all the words God gave us that forms accurate doctrine, which is then applied to the very people in front of us. Doctrine is a vital part of connecting people today to the Bible written so long ago.

In other words doctrine is essential to ministry. You cannot jettison doctrine and maintain ministry. Ministry without doctrine becomes manipulation. Whatever the means employed, people are conformed to whatever vision the pastor has for them, but they are not really transformed by the teaching of God’s word. On the other hand, often doctrine is not viewed as essential to ministry but the entire goal of ministry. Doctrine becomes a measuring stick by which we can tell who will be the greatest in Heaven. It is a quick check by which we can measure our distinctiveness from our neighbor. People are prepped by such a ministry as if Heaven requires a No. 2 pencil and fully filled ovals.

Doctrine is essential. Doctrine that does not lead us to making more and more of Jesus Christ and less and less of ourselves, is not sound and is not biblical. On second thought, my name is not Ali after all.

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