Friday, 8 May 2009

Preaching is God reaching out to us

In Isaiah 53:1 the prophet uses an interesting image when he connects divine revelation to the arm of the Lord. Three interpretations are given of this illustration. One suggestion is that it is a divine title, whether of God or of the Messiah, depicting him acting in power on behalf of his cause. The second suggestion is that the illustration depicts God’s divine attribute of omnipotence which he uses on behalf of his people. Obviously both suggestions are similar.
I prefer a third suggestion, which I read in John Brown of Edinburgh’s work on Isaiah 53 – he said that the illustration ‘arm’ of the Lord is the same as the prophet’s report mentioned in the first half of the verse; in other words, in the act of delivering the message the human side is the words of the prophet and the divine side is the arm of the Lord active as the sermon is delivered.
What truths does this picture indicate we should want the Lord to do during a sermon?
Firstly, an arm is used to indicate an action of reaching out towards another person. So in a sermon we want God to reach out to us; indeed a true definition of a sermon is God reaching out to the listeners.
Secondly, we should desire the Lord to reach out in power during a sermon. A weak person is very grateful when a strong person stretches out his hand to help, who shares his strength with another. Whenever we listen to a sermon we are weak for a variety of reasons – our sinfulness, our current temptations, our difficult providences. We come to listen to God and receive his power.
Sometimes we wonder in what ways God can display his power. Amazing miracles come to mind. Yet I would suggest that the most awesome display of God’s power is a sermon, not because of the eloquence or brilliance of the preachers, but because of what God is doing in a sermon. Often a sermon is an occasion of salvation, but we must not forget that also it can be a place of divine hardening (2 Cor. 2:14-17). In a sermon, people are being prepared for heaven or hardened against the gospel.
Thirdly, we should desire the Lord to reach out in tenderness and love. Coming to a sermon, we remind ourselves that we deserve his judgement. If he were to use his power in that way, we would have no hope. But we realise that he can use his power tenderly in order to express his love. We long for God to caress our souls in a sermon and this he often does as he warms our hearts with the sweet story of the Saviour’s love or by reminding us of the many gracious promises of the Bible or by assuring us of the glories connected to his eternal purpose.
Fourthly, we should desire the Lord to reach out, pointing out to us where we should go. In other words, a sermon is often the occasion when the Lord stretches out his arm in guidance. We come to the sermon in a confused state, puzzled by what is happening, whether in the world, in our country, in our denomination, in our community, in our congregation, in our lives. We need the Lord to give his assessment of where we are. It is good to get the wisdom of friends, or even to recall the insights we may have received from God in the past. But when we come into the presence of the Lord we get a fresh word from himself in a sermon.
Therefore, during a sermon we should encounter the arm of the Lord reaching out to us in power and tender love, giving us guidance concerning our lives. The sermon is always his Word for the present situation in our lives.

Preaching that is painful

I spoke recently on Isaiah 53:1 ('Who has believed our report? and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?'). The verse gives interesting insights into Isaiah's understanding of his calling as a prophet and therefore provides help for preachers who preach God's Word today.

Sometimes we imagine that preachers with a special calling will have significant success. Isaiah had a very impressive calling by God to function as a prophet and its details are recorded in Isaiah 6. Yet God informed Isaiah that he would not see wide acceptance of his ministry (Isa. 6:9-13); instead only a few would listen to what he had to say, and the remainder would become increasingly blind in a spiritual sense. Isaiah had been called to serve God during a time when the Lord was about to bring judgement on Judah because of their sins, a judgement that was fulfilled in the Babylonian captivity.
This verse indicates that Isaiah had three comforts in addition to knowing that he was obeying the will of God. First, he proclaimed a great message about the future Deliverer who would come as the Substitute of his people and suffer divine judgement in their place before restoring the prosperity of Zion. Both the suffering and the prosperity are described in this Servant Song found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

Second, Isaiah was aware, along with other prophets, that he was in fact serving a future generation of believers who would appreciate his message; Peter states specifically that God revealed this aspect to the prophets (1 Pet. 1:10-12), surely an encouragement that their work would not be in vain.

Third, Isaiah appreciated the company of his colleagues in his calling (note the plural pronoun ‘our’); in the schools of the prophets there were those who shared his outlook. To that company can be added all other proclaimers of the good news; indeed Paul cites this verse in Romans 10:16 when he explains various features of true preaching.

Although Isaiah had received a divine commission that stressed God’s judgement, the prophet was not a stoic, unaffected by the rejection of his message by his listeners. He felt in his heart the disappointment of such few converts, he longed for his listeners to receive God’s mercy, and he regretted how little success he saw. Of course, he was faithful and he will receive God’s commendation for serving in this way. Yet we can ask an important question: ‘Who is there who can understand the prophet’s pain?’ One obvious answer is that his fellow prophets would. Yet we can move beyond them to later times.

This combination of awareness of divine judgement and powerful concern for those facing it is also seen in the heart concern displayed by the apostle Paul for his own people, the Jews: ‘I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit – that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh’ (Rom. 9:1-3). It would have been easy for Paul to have responded by saying his opponents deserved to receive divine judgement or that their fate was all part of God’s plan. Both answers are true, but neither of them is appropriate. It is not a godly attitude to be indifferent concerning the state of the lost.

Even more wonderful is the fact that Jesus, the one who commissioned Isaiah in Isaiah 6, would also experience this strange spiritual dilemma. Recall his response concerning Jerusalem, a city which he knew would yet receive divine judgement: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”’ (Luke 13:34-35). The facts that they had rejected God’s servants and experience divine judgement did not prevent the Saviour from desiring that his contemporaries would receive spiritual blessing.

Like Isaiah, we who preach can have similar spiritual comforts and experiences.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

In Pastor Kim's study

What did we do in Korea? We often posed for pictures. If I tell you that I don't have a beard, you will work out who I am.

More on Korea

Since I visited Korea a few weeks ago, I have paid more attention to references to the Korean church. I was reading the other day about Paget Wilkes, a missionary to Japan, who visited Korea in 1910. His description of the Korean Church was very interesting to me, a Scottish Presbyterian. After saying that the Protestant church had gone from zero to 200,000 in twenty-four years, he gave five details of the Korean Church that impressed him. This is what he wrote:
  1. The love for, and earnest perusal of the Scriptures everywhere, and among all classes -- men, women, children. The Bible is undoubtedly the book of Korea.
  2. Their wonderful observance of the Lord's Day. All Christians close their shops, and abstain from every kind of work--like Scotland in the old days.
  3. The remarkable way in which the Koreans give to God's work. Almost all the churches are built with Korean money, and the pastors and workers are similarly supported. This is especially true of the Presbyterian church.
  4. The personal service and desire to spread the Gospel among the people. Many of the leaders, who in the early days were taken up with Evangelistic work, are now called upon to teach, and instruct, and train workers.
  5. The expectation and hope (especially in the Presbyterian Church) of the coming of the Lord. The majority of the missionaries also in the country teach it plainly to the people.

Wilkes also pointed out the harmony and love that existed in the church in Korea even although there was a variety of doctrinal views and national backgrounds. In addition, at that time, the destructive and devastating effects of higher criticism had not yet appeared in the church in Korea.

My first response to Wilkes' description was a sense of amazement. But a couple of seconds later I realised that his description was of normal, biblical church life. I'm still amazed and still looking for biblical normality.

More About Calvin Would I Know

Last week I went to the Banner of Truth conference in Leicester. I was glad to meet up with old friends, including some Free Church ministers, and meet several new ones. The lectures were interesting and helpful (one motivation for going was the quality of the speakers -- Lindsay Brown, Sinclair Ferguson, Mark Johnston, Derek Thomas, Garry Williams). It was also an opportunity to purchase some books. Further it was good to sit and talk and learn from one another.

As with many conferences this year the main focus was on the life and ministry of John Calvin. I think all the delegates knew he was a great man of God, and no doubt he has contributed to their Christian understanding through his varied writings.

Most people who read theological literature will know about Calvin’s emphasis on the majesty of the sovereign God. Five other details from Calvin’s ministry challenged me as I listened to the various lectures.

First, there was his commitment to preaching the word of God in a regular, consecutive, expository way. Second, there was his determination to help the church of Christ throughout Europe and elsewhere (I found the lecture on his interest in mission fascinating). Third, there was his awareness to defend the truth of the gospel by courageous involvement in disputes and by careful analysis of the writings of his opponents (I found this lecture very moving). Fourth, there was his conviction that theology had to be accompanied by piety. Fifth, there was his pastoral heart, concerned for the spiritual state of his listeners/readers.

If all I remember eventually from the conference is these five details, I will be satisfied. But in the unlikely event of any of the speakers reading this blog, please be assured that at present I can recall a lot more of what was said.

Of course, attending a conference has its obligatory good intentions. Mine at the moment is to try and read Calvin’s commentaries over the next few months (I have consulted some of them already when preaching through Bible books). They have been looking down at me from my bookshelves for several years now. They are also on my computers. I have a plan on how to proceed (twenty or so pages a day), but as usual time will tell.