Archives for category: Bible

prepare

A few people have asked me recently how to prepare a text to preach or teach in a Bible study. In the next few posts, I will share some tools that I have learned to help to read the biblical text better, understand its meaning and purpose, and share that with others.

This first post gets to the most important part: the need to understand our text well and identify its main claim. The idea is to find out the central motivation in the text. What is it trying to get done? This will be what we want to communicate in a sermon, not our own ideas. Doing this part well will give power and authority to the message, because you won’t just share your words, but you will open the Word of God for your hearers.

The tool I propose below consists in six questions to ask your text to get to its main claim. These are taken from Greg Sharf’s book, Prepared to Preach, (Christian Focus, 2005).

Once you have your text (a basic logical unit), read it a few times, in different translations, and try to answer the following questions. While you study the text, jot down notes in another notebook or text file: things that are strange, that surprise you, that you don’t get, that could be a good illustration, etc. These notes will be useful later for preparing the presentation.

This phase can take from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the text.

1. What is the text I am reading functionally?

E.g.: a poem, a letter, a historical narration…then go more specific: an exhortation, a command, a story, an illustration, a hymn, etc.

2. What is the main subject?

E.g.: faith, perseverance, the magnificence of God, etc.

Note: identify only one main subject. There will be more things, but there is one that will be prominent amongst all the rest. This one controls the text. If there really are a few different ones, you might need to cut down the chunk of text you are going to share from.

3. What is the author saying about the subject?

E.g.: Faith is a gift from God, perseverance marks the Christian life, etc.

Note: many times the sub-themes that you found earlier enter into this category. They help explain the main subject.

4. What response is the Holy Spirit requiring from believing readers?

E.g.: Increase their faith, encouragement by remembering God’s work, to abandon an idol that has substituted Christ in their life, etc.

Note: It is helpful here to think of the historical context to find out what response was sought in the original listeners.

5. How is the Holy Spirit eliciting the intended response?

E.g.: With a story of someone who didn’t have faith but God gave her faith anyway, with a logical argument, etc.

Note: Often in this phase you finally get the grammatical structure of the text: how the pieces are fitting together to prop up the main point (e.g.: the three arguments Paul uses to convince his reader to believe the gospel). Try to write this structure down, or draw it out. This will be very useful for the sermon or presentation later.

6. How does this particular passage contribute to the large picture, that is, to the story of redemption?

Ask yourself, What would be missing in this book if this passage wasn’t here? What would be missing in the canon (the whole Bible) if this passage wasn’t here? Considering the period when it was written ask, How does this contribute to point towards the cross and the gospel of Christ (is it before his death, resurrection or ascension or after it, how does that influence our understanding of it)?

Note: this is a step that we often forget, but it is absolutely crucial for a Christocentric sermon (i.e. a Christian sermon). We must see how Christ is seen in this passage. Remember that he is the fulfillment of all the law, the prophecies, and the stories. If it is a command, how is Christ reflected and how has God’s grace in him affected it?

After answering these questions, What should I have?

  • The text’s “proposition” or main claim: This is the central purpose of the text, what it is trying to get done. Write it out in a sentence with only one verb. This is the focus that is going to control your presentation of the text.
  • A basic grammatical structure: Here is where you put together the pieces, answering the question, How does the author present his proposal?
  • A bunch of notes of stuff that can be included in your presentation, such as application ideas, insights, even illustrations that may have come to mind.

With what you have now, we’ll go on to the “bridge” phase, which will take you from the biblical message to a message to share with people here and now. I’ll talk about that in the next post.

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For Christians, prayer is our way of communicating with God, in the broadest sense of the word. This includes, but (ideally) it is not limited to, asking God for things. Often our churches teach – directly or indirectly – that getting a positive response from God depends on the requester’s amount of faith. This leads to the think (1) that getting what we want is, at the end of the day, our merit, and (2) that God’s will is subject to ours. Like a genie in a lamp, if we have enough faith, God has no other option than to give in to our desires.

Stemming from this, a faith hierarchy emerges in churches, where the more spiritual types are those who receive positive answers from God. So, often, we end up making up stories, and finding answered prayers everywhere, thanks to our faith. We turn prayer into a sham, where having faith means predicting the future. If you don’t “confess” what you want out loud, you don’t have enough faith. We affirm that the miracle will happen, as if saying it makes it more probable, or as if we can blackmail God: “Now that I’ve said it, you have to do it to not look bad.” The Christian Circus results from all this irresponsibility: we cross the line that separates faith from superstition. We turn prayer into a magic formula. When it doesn’t work, it makes us look ridiculous, which wouldn’t matter a bit if it didn’t also ridicule God.

This “faith-itis” is often founded upon Bible verses taken out of context, like Mark 5:34 (your faith saved you), Matthew 21:22 (whatever you ask for in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith), Mark 9:23 (all things are possible for one who believes), and many others. Christians, especially those of us coming from more Pentecostal backgrounds, love to allegorize with the Bible. Ignoring its spatial-temporal dimension, egocentic as we are, we pretend that it is only all about us, here and now. Please don’t misunderstand me. Just as it says on my Bible’s cover, I do believe that God speaks today. However, there is a reason why the Bible was written the way it was: the order of the stories (and I’m not referring to the book order), the words that were chosen… Each author was trying to communicate something very specific. This is why they wrote books rather than a collection of aphorisms that we can interpret as we choose, and accommodate them to our own interests. If we really believe that the Bible is the word of God, we should be TERRORIZIED at the way we manipulate it.

This is how we end up exalting an abstract faith. “YOU MUST HAVE FAITH!” Sure, but faith in what? Faith in God, or faith in our own faith? Are we teaching faith in God (all powerful AND sovereign), or faith in what, in our opinion, God should do?

Prayer is not a faith contest, it is our communication channel with God. The Bible states that God is omniscient and that he already knows what we are going to ask him for before we do it (cf. Matt 6:8). So, why do we pray? By praying, we recognize God’s sovereignty. We recognize our inability to resolve our own problems. We recognize his power. We recognize who’s the boss. When we place our petition before God, we give it to him, trusting in faith that he will do what is best with it, not whatever we want. If God did everything we asked him to do, it wouldn’t be us having faith in God, but God having faith in us. Since we aren’t God, we trust him and his decision.

No matter what Joel Osteen says, faith does not consist in believing in something with enough persistence to make it happen. Faith is surrendering into God’s hands, regardless of what happens, just as Jesus did when he taught his disciples to pray: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10), or when he prayed to the father, “if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). We do not believe that God will do something, but that God himself, who could do anything, will do what he wants, because he is God. Faith is believing that his will is best. Our faith is not in a capricious God, but in one who loved us so that he created us, despite knowing that he was going to have to sacrifice when we messed it all up. Our faith is in the God who left his throne, made himself the least privileged of men, and died in order to reconcile us with God the Father, even while he knew that many would reject his sacrifice. This is the God we believe in and that we pray to. This is our faith.
Marta

marquee

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity of preaching at the First Evangelical Free Church of Racine, Wisconsin, with marquee and all. They asked me to preach on Psalm 40. I’m really fond of all the psalms, but this one I had memorized some months ago, so it has been a privilege to be able to go over it again and again to take out what it has to offer.

You can listen to it below or download it here (right click, “save link as”).

PSALM 40
For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.

1 I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.

2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.

3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.

4 Blessed is the one
who trusts in the Lord,
who does not look to the proud,
to those who turn aside to false gods.

5 Many, Lord my God,
are the wonders you have done,
the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you;
were I to speak and tell of your deeds,
they would be too many to declare.

6 Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
but my ears you have opened[c]—
burnt offerings and sin offerings[d] you did not require.

7 Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—
it is written about me in the scroll.

8 I desire to do your will, my God;
your law is within my heart.”

9 I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
I do not seal my lips, Lord,
as you know.

10 I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
from the great assembly.

11 Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord;
may your love and faithfulness always protect me.

12 For troubles without number surround me;
my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails within me.

13 Be pleased to save me, Lord;
come quickly, Lord, to help me.

14 May all who want to take my life
be put to shame and confusion;
may all who desire my ruin
be turned back in disgrace.

15 May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!”
be appalled at their own shame.

16 But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who long for your saving help always say,
“The Lord is great!”

17 But as for me, I am poor and needy;
may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
you are my God, do not delay.