God's Letter of Intent
God's Letter of Intent
Six questions that reveal what God meant to say in a text.
What follows rests on three assumptions.
First, all Scripture has two authors, one divine and at least one human.
Second, God intends something by all he speaks. He always speaks purposefully.
Third, by the grace of God and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, followers of Jesus may adequately discern what he intends to say and do in any passage of Scripture by prayerful, careful, submissive attentiveness to the words human authors use, in their respective literary, canonical, cultural, and theological contexts.
If any one of these assumptions is false, preachers are on a fool's errand. They have no authoritative, discernable message from God.
Our task as preachers is not to say whatever comes to mind when studying the Bible, but to discern what God had in mind, what he intended, when inspiring the human author to write it, and to show how that intent is relevant for our hearers. This article focuses on the first half of that task: discovering original intent. The meaning that the text has for us today must be derived from and consistent with the meaning it had for its original hearers. To determine that, we must go beyond observation to interrogation. We respectfully ask of the text basic questions that focus initial observations and help us discern the intent of the author in the text. At minimum we should ask six questions.
1. What is this text functionally? That is, what, on the basis of its content and structure, does the preaching portion do? Is there a name for that? Is it a reminder, an explanation, a plea, a rebuke, a command, or a description? We discover the answer by prayerful, submissive reading, carefully observing such things as words, their grammatical and syntactical relationships, the literary genre of the passage—whether it is narrative, poetry, epistle, and so on, and its textual context. We look for clues concerning what the passage is aiming to achieve.
Imperatives, for instance, point toward a command or exhortation. The presence of negative consequences suggests a warning; positive outcomes may signal a promise. Purpose and result clauses alert the reader to an argument or to an explanation or to some cause and effect relationship. Other features may lead us to conclude that the text is an example, a description, a rebuke, or that an event is being reported. Or the text may be a combination, such as an exhortation followed by reasons for obeying it. Asking this question suggests how the preacher will use the passage and helps us resist the temptation to turn everything into an exhortation.
2. What is the subject of the text? Answering this question requires weighing the various things the author mentions and discerning which of them is central. Sometimes in narrative, the subject itself is implicit. The story could be an example of loyalty or divine providence without the words themselves being used. Recalling the themes of the Bible Book may alert us to their presence in the text at hand. Every passage is about God and about humanity, yet for preaching we must narrow down the answer. A valid answer to this question could be a word: prayer, faith, hope, or judgment. Or it could be a phrase such as "God's dealings with the nations." The value of this question is straightforward. If the passage is about prayer, the sermon should be about prayer.
3. What is this text saying about the subject? If we have accurately discerned the subject of the preaching portion, everything else the passage addresses will relate to the subject in some discernable way. Now we read the text to let it say what it will about the subject. If the subject is prayer, the answer to this third question may be that prayer is essential or too-often neglected. In the process of answering this question, we may conclude that we have failed to answer the second question accurately. What we thought was central we now see to be supportive of something else that is in fact the subject. (At this point also, we may conclude that the text is too large to preach: it says more about the subject than can be handled faithfully and clearly in a single sermon. Or maybe it is too small and fails to include surrounding text that is an unmistakable part of what the author wants to say about the subject.)
Our task as preachers is not to say whatever comes to mind when studying the Bible, but to discern what God had in mind, what he intended, when inspiring the human author to write it, and to show how that intent is relevant for our hearers. This article focuses on the first half of that task: discovering original intent. The meaning that the text has for us today must be derived from and consistent with the meaning it had for its original hearers. To determine that, we must go beyond observation to interrogation. We respectfully ask of the text basic questions that focus initial observations and help us discern the intent of the author in the text. In this article, we look at the last three of six questions.
4. What response does this text call for? Accurate answers to the first three questions [see part one of this series] already incline us to certain answers to this question. So a text that is an exhortation concerning the indispensability of prayer fairly dictates the response a sermon from this text should seek: pray! The word response is used intentionally because too often application suggests action. God may want a change in attitude, thinking, feeling, or will, as well as action. There may be more than one response called for.
To ask and answer this question with integrity is to repent of textual abuse, commandeering a text as a pretext for a response we want as opposed to the one(s) God intends. Of course we must not invite this response of others without first letting the text begin to evoke the intended response in ourselves.
5. How does this text elicit that response? This question helps us expoundthe text as opposed to vaguely referring to it. Here we look more closely at the features of the preaching portion, not now for how they develop the subject (question 3) but for how they move the listener toward the response the Author intended.When preached as God's Word, the Bible goes to work in those who receive it as it is (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
This question looks for ways this text transforms the life of the believer by renewing the mind (Romans 12:1-2) and how it sanctifies him or her (John 17:17). Does it appeal to the hearer's mind, emotions, will, conscience, sense of duty, love for God, sense of need, or love of the truth? Does it use questions, examples, reminders, word pictures, Scripture citations, or argumentation? Is the means employed repetitive, hitting the same note again and again, or is it more cumulative, building a case for the desired response by a range of rhetorical techniques?
The sermon may use additional legitimate means of moving people to valid responses, but to neglect those within the passage itself is to rob ourselves of authority in preaching. More important, the Author's intent includes moving to a faithful and obedient response in appropriate ways.
For example, it is valid to challenge listeners from 1 Corinthians 15:58 to give themselves wholeheartedly to the Lord's work. But if we urge them to do so in order to increase the size of the congregation, we have violated the stated reason explicit in the context, namely that because of the resurrection such hard work is not in vain. Death does not annul our labors because of the victory of Jesus over it.
The goal is not merely for us and our listeners to do the right thing but to do it in the right ways and for the right reasons. So to neglect this question risks missing a vital dimension of the Author's intent.
6. How does this passage contribute to the larger drama of redemption? The previous steps may lead the preacher to thoughts that are consistent with the text but are inadequate because they are out of touch with how that passage fits into the larger picture, fulfilling a purpose in the whole like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Each preaching portion is an integral part of the biblical Book in which it is found, but also contributes to the history of redemption, and in some discernable way points to Christ. Our task as Christian preachers is to discover the connections and articulate them.
So for instance when we preach Psalm 110, we do not speak only, or even mainly, about David, but about Jesus, who applies it to himself as do Peter and the writer to the.We discover that here the Father is expressing to the Son his unshakeable commitment to his (the Son's) lordship. Until we preach that, we haven't really done justice to Psalm 110. Of course other passages are not so clearly linked to Christ, but according to Luke 24:27all of them serve this Christ-centered purpose in one way or another.
So for instance, a text may predict and anticipate Christ's first advent, as Micah 5:2 does. It may illustrate the universality of human rebellion that Jesus came to address, as 2 Chronicles 16 does. Or it may reveal how, after Christ's coming, the kingdom is here yet not complete, as Philippians 3 does.
We know, for instance, that the words of Genesis 15:6 ("It was credited to him as righteousness,") were not written only for the sake of Abraham but for our sakes as Christian believers (Romans 4:22-25). And we know from 1 Corinthians 10:11 that various events in Israel's history were written as examples for our instruction. Our task is to discern how other pertinent texts help us to interpret the words and events of our text in ways that reflect God's purposes for including it in Scripture.
There will be times when what an Old Testament text appears to be saying is neglected or overridden by a New Testament writer's use of it. For example, Paul quotes Psalm 68:18 ("your received gifts from men") in Ephesians 4:8 as "and gave gifts to men." In such cases, good, recent commentaries can be a great help.In principle we must submit to the New Testament use and allow that inspired handling to be a lens through which we gain a greater appreciation of the older text and of how it finds fulfillment in the New.
Is it ever permissible to preach a text for a purpose that supplements and builds upon the purpose for which it was apparently written? May we, for instance, preach a sermon on how to listen to Christian preaching from Acts 10:33? If the handling of the Old Testament by writers of the New is allowed to inform our answer, perhaps we may respond with a qualified yes. We may cite and employ a text as illustrative of a biblical truth that is not manifestly the subject of that text when the truth itself is plainly taught in other passages of Scripture and the text we are employing is at a minimum reminiscent of it.
So, to return to the example from Acts 10, we know that God is present when people are gathered in his name to hear his Word expounded and that he has commanded the preacher to tell the listeners what his Word teaches, two ideas Cornelius mentions in his invitation to Peter. These abiding realities free us to heed Cornelius' implicit advice and supply a narrative framework from the context in from which to communicate the thought.
Our calling as preachers is to discern what God is saying in the text and preach so that his voice is heard and his Word obeyed.