For as long as I can remember I have been brought up to love books. I was blessed with parents who loved to read and who passed that love on to their children. On leaving school my first jobs were in libraries and Christian bookshops. I cannot imagine a world without books. Through many years in Christian ministry I have become more and more grateful for the amazing resources that are available to serious readers and students of God’s word in the way of books.
Some time ago I came across this quote though I don’t know the source of it:
“My books are my tools, and I use them. I cannot afford to be a book collector; neither the budget nor the diminishing shelf space . . . permits such a luxury. . . . I enjoy my library. Each book is a friend that converses with and teaches me. Better to have fewer of the best books than to clutter your shelves with volumes that cannot serve you well. Above all, love your books, use them, and dedicate all you learn to the service of Jesus Christ.“
I cannot comprehend how any serious student of God’s Word, any Bible teacher or preacher, could not be an avid reader of good books and indeed believe it is a crucial discipline that we need to build into our lifestyle.
As John Piper has said,
“For your own soul and for the life of your church, fight for time to feed your soul with rich reading. Almost all the forces in our culture are trivialising. If you want to stay alive to what is great and glorious and beautiful and eternal, you will have to fight for time to look through the eyes of others who were in touch with God.”
Here is some advice that I hope will be helpful. I would love to get your comments and recommendations.
If reading and study is so important –
- make time for it, you won’t find time for it
- start good disciplines of reading early in your ministry experience
- educate and encourage family, colleagues and church members to help safe-guard times for study
- block out times for reading; John Stott’s practice is a great model: one hour every day; one morning, afternoon or evening every week; one day every month and one week every year.
- always have books at hand so that you can make the most of every opportunity – by the bed, in the car, on the coffee table; have a small book always in your pocket so that you can make the most of what would otherwise be fruitless and unproductive times in the day
- write in and mark your books extensively – but, of course, only yours and not those that are really valuable
What should we be reading?
- commentaries to help with our teaching and preaching ministry
- books on theology and doctrine
- church history
- Christian biographies
- world mission facts, figures and biographies
- secular issues and biographies
I would encourage:
- the reading of one ‘old’ book’ for every ‘newer’ book read
- choose one writer, preacher, theologian and make it your life’s task to read everything about and by that person
My wife, Caroline, and I are currently enjoying a holiday break on the beautiful Fife coast in East Scotland. It’s a place we love and where we have a retreat we take advantage whenever we can. For me, one of the joys of holiday is the opportunity to do some extra reading and I thought I would share here the books I have brought away with me. Tomorrow, I’ll post on reading as a necessary discipline for preachers and Christian workers.
- John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God (John Piper)
- A Life of John Calvin (Alister McGrath)
- Dig Deeper (Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sach)
- The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church (vol.2) (Hughes Oliphant Old)
- Choosing to Preach (Kent Anderson)
- The Book of Leviticus (Gordon Wenham)
(Just in case that last one appears a bit pretentious, this is background reading for my own personal devotions in that book but also in preparation for a series of lectures on Leviticus.)
I have just finished reading this short book I have seen advertised for some time now. I have posted a full review here but here are a couple of quotes to hopefully stimulate your interest.
“less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon…of the sermons I’ve heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point…Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read…Such sermons are religiously useless.”
“At a faculty meeting at Gordon-Conwell once, someone reported that a study had disclosed that one-half or ordained ministers leave the profession before retiring. Most of the faculty gasped at this, but my good colleague Doug Stuart remarked: ‘I wish the number were higher; only about one in five can preach.’ ”
I’m continuing to blog through Hughes Oliphant Old’s first volume (see first post here) on the history of preaching and teaching Scripture and in this post we look at what Old has to say about the preaching ministry of Jesus as depicted in Mark’s Gospel.
“Christianity from its earliest beginnings was a preaching religion. At the centre of its worship was the reading and preaching of Scripture. It was by preaching above all that it witnessed to the glory of God in the risen Christ. The kerygmatic dimension of its worship was characteristic. All of which went back to the fact that Jesus was preeminently a preacher.” (p111)
Old highlights the fact that, on the one hand, there was a direct link between Jesus and the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, and on the other, Jesus’ preaching minisrty initiated the ministry of the apostles. He was both a preacher and a trainer of preachers.
Jesus’ preaching ministry was undeniably expository in nature. Old shows how Jesus’ extended preaching in the Temple precincts, as recorded by Mark, were expositions of the Old Testament scriptures that would have been part of the worship liturgy of the worshippers in the Temple – passages like Isaiah 56v7; Jeremiah 7v11; Psalm 118; Psalm 110.
Jesus’ sermons were characterised by
- “considerable rhetorical sophistication – Jesus makes his points by making a riddle of his text
- “dialogue” – while Jesus preached his answers to those who questioned him, taking up the topics of the day, he deliberately did not get embroiled in diversionary subjects. “Jesus was no current events preacher, waving a newspaper in his hand.” (p122)
Aabove all, “The teaching ministry of Jesus, as the teaching ministry of any other rabbi at this time, was bsed on the interpretation of Scripture. These interpretations of Scripture were at the core of the teaching ministry of Jesus and of his disciples for generations to come….Expository preaching for Jesus is above all proclamation…that the promises of God have been kept and the scriptures have been fulfilled, for the kingdom is at hand….the preaching of Jesus was a trumpet blast which awakened the whole land to a new reality. The doors of the prison were opened and the prisoners released.” (pp121-123)
“To preach the gospel is to preach Christ.”
I have just finished Old’s first volume and made a start on the second where he explores preaching in the Patristic period. Really good stuff. But I want to continue to make a few posts from his coverage of preaching in the biblical period. Today we look at Ezra’s great exemplary exposition in Nehemiah 8.
Old draws out three lessons about the reading and preaching of Scripture at this time, to which I have added my own fourth.
1. The reading is “very specifically from ‘the book of the Law of Moses’ ” (p96) Old points out that what made Israel what it was was its hearing and understanding of God’s law. “…the systematic reading through of the Law is essential to the worship to the restored Israel.” (p97) We need to to reaffirm the New Testament parallel of that today – what makes the Church what it is is the hearing and understanding of God’s Word. The Church, like Israel of old, was called out ‘ek kaleo’ hence ecclesia) from the nations for this very purpose. The reading and preaching of the Scriptures must be the very centre, heartbeat and focal point of the gatherings of God’s people. It’s not a side-show or an optional extra. It is on of the things that distinguishes a true church from a religious organisation.
2. “reading is clearly worship”. (p97) There’s a good old Scottish Presbyterian tradition that the beginning of a service is marked by the church officer, the beadle, bringing in the Bible and placing it on the pulpit. That is the point at which worship begins and the Minister enters the church. Worship today has become synonymous with praise and singing but in many people’s thinking the reading and preaching of Scripture is not worship as such.
3. “after the Scriptures are read they are explained…the point of the sermon was to make clear the reading of the Scriptures.” (pp98-99) “Preachers were not asked to be historians or even moral philosophers, but to be interpreters of Scripture.” (p94) After the proclamation comes the explanation. Part of the job of the Levites was to read from the Book of the Law so as to help ‘making it clear and giving the meaning’. That would mean more than just explanation. Many of these returnees were now Aramaic speakers and needed the original Hebrew translated for them. But it is certain that the Levites were doing far more than simply acting as translators. They were engaging in one of the most vital parts of exposition – exegesis – unpacking the actual words of the text so that the listeners were left in no doubt as to the meaning of the words of Scripture.
There is a great example in the New Testament of what exegesis is. In John 1v18 we are told that “No one has ever seen God; the only God, (i.e. Christ) who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” The phrase ‘made him known’ is a translation of a Greek word from which we get exegesis and it can mean ‘to declare’, ‘to make known’ or even ‘to draw out from’. Jesus exegeted God – he made known to us what would otherwise have been unknown. Jesus took the truth that is in God and all that is in God’s heart, hidden from our sight and understanding and revealed it to us by, in his case, becoming the very embodiment of it. The task of the preacher is to do no less than that – to take the Word of God and draw out from it the meaning as it is found in the heart of its author – God himself.
Stott succinctly defines this task as “The expositor prizes open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed.”
4. The Scriptures were applied. Part of the ‘making it clear and giving the meaning’ was helping the people understand the relevance of these ancient texts for their present day lives and situations. “There was more to this than making the people understand the actual words that were being read. They needed to understand the sense, that is, they needed to know what that particular part of the Word of God had to say to them in their day and in their circumstances. Only then could the people take the Word away with them and put it into practice.”
Perhaps the evident spiritual state of the people on this momentous day – given their appetite for God’s Word (v1), their attentiveness to God’s Word (v3), and their attitude towards God (v5-6) – made them more intuitively sensitive and responsive to what God said to them through the Word. Certainly the reaction and response was striking and dramatic – weeping (v9) and a desire for further detailed instruction and obedience (v13). We mustn’t forget either that this great feast of exposition went on, in one form or another for seven whole days (v18).
This was not some cold, turgid, dry as dust reading of an ancient manuscript that left the listeners unmoved and cold.
- here is expository preaching that clearly teaches the mind as it gives teaching and instruction.
- here is preaching that powerfully touches the heart, stirring and affecting deep emotions.
- here is preaching that targets the life, eliciting a desire to be absolutely clear in knowing what God desires and then is keen to set about being obedient.
Spirit empowered, biblically faithful preaching will always affect men and women intellectually, emotionally and volitionally.
I have just begun to read the first volume of Hughes Oliphant Old’s masterly 7 volume series on The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures. The reviews of the series – volume 7 which brings the story right up to the present day has just been published – and recommendations from others have whetted my appetite and so I’ve decided to make a start on what should be a long but fascinating journey down through the centuries.
I plan to blog regularly along the way, beginning with this quote from the introduction to the first volume:
“If we are truly to understand Christian preaching, we must see Jesus Christ as its centre. First we must see the fulfilment of generations of preaching and teaching that went before him, and second we must see Jesus as the type, or perhaps prototype, of generations of preaching that have followed him. He is both the pattern of preaching and the gospel to be preached. We preachers make sense only when we are understood as continuing the ministry of our master. We have done our job only when we have borne witness to Christ, when we have taught all things that he has commanded us. It is the gospel of salvation in Christ that the preacher is commissioned to preach. Nothing the preacher does can be understood except in relation to this.”