Questions That Put Muscle on Bones
Questions That Put Muscle on Bones
The first thing to ask when developing an idea.
How do you expand 15 sentences into 30 minutes? How do you go from the biblical outline (the Scripture writer's flow of thought) to your Sunday message?
You ask three developmental questions. Probing each statement in the outline with these questions causes the biblical text to expand and develop into a full sermon.
While there are many ways to phrase these developmental questions, they all get at the three essential areas of understanding, belief, and behavior regarding the biblical assertions:
As you ask these questions of each assertion in the biblical outline, you discover what needs to be said further about each point to make it intelligible, convincing, and practical to your contemporary listener.
Let's begin with the first developmental question: What do I need to explain? (In future columns we'll take up the other two questions.)
In the following outline on Colossians 1:9-12, some things obviously need to be explained:
I. We should continually pray for our Christian friends to know God's will.
A. Paul continually prays for the Colossians to know God's will (Colossians 1:9).
1. More than anything else, he wants them to know fully God's will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
2. He continually prays, therefore, for this to happen.
B. We should continually pray for our Christian friends to know God's will.
II. When our friends know God's will, they will live worthy of and pleasing to the Lord in every way (Colossians 1:10-12).
A. When they know God's will, they will live worthy of the Lord (Colossians 1:10a).
B. When they know God's will, they will live pleasing to the Lord (Colossians 1:10-12).
1. They will please him by being productive in good works.
2. They will please him by growing in knowledge.
3. They will please him by developing endurance and patience.
4. They will please him by giving thanks.
The first and biggest thing that needs to be explained is what Paul means by " God's will. " Does he have in mind the behavioral statements of Scripture, such as, " It is God's will that you should be sanctified " (1 Thessalonians 4:3)? Or does he mean the sequence of events God has in mind for your life/church, such as, " Those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good " (1 Peter 4:19)? Obviously we need to explain whether " God's will " is objective or subjective in this passage.
Another big thing that needs to be explained is the meaning of " continually pray. " Listeners might be thinking, " Pastor, I can't continually pray; I have to go to work. "
Other explanations might include:
When we give explanations, we should be as " picturesque " as possible. Avoid dictionary definitions and abstract descriptions that cause eyes to glass over. Instead create a visual picture in the listener's mind. For example, explain trust or faith by asking a member of the audience to stand rigid and fall back, trusting your promise to catch them. See if they really will trust you, or whether at the last minute they will thrust back one of their feet to protect themselves from falling.
Matthew 10:29 can be explained in picture terms: " Tomorrow morning, downtown, a pet store owner is going to open shop. He'll go to the glass area against one of the walls, take out two parakeets, and put them in a cage with a sign, 'Sale, 2 parakeets, $5.95.' Later that morning a woman will come into the store to buy a pet for her grandchildren. Because her son-in-law will not tolerate dogs or cats, she'll settle on the parakeets. She'll write out a check, put the cage in the back seat of her car, and drive off. A few blocks later a car will suddenly swerve in front of her. To avoid a collision, she'll jam on the brake. And in the back seat of the car the cage will tumble to the floor amid a flutter of 'brreet, brreet, brreet.' And God in heaven will know that it happened. Isn't that what Jesus says in Matthew 10:29? 'Are not two sparrows sold for a penny, yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father?' "
As preachers, we're usually good at this first developmental question. Explanation is easy; it's our strong suit. Our hours of study in the passage and the commentaries provide us with the information we need to develop this area, and we can usually think of illustrations or pictures to make it vivid and interesting.
But explanation is not enough to cause spiritual change in our listeners. " If we explain it, they will do it " is an inadequate approach to preaching. Knowledge alone does not produce godly behavior. Next column we'll see why.
To expand or develop our outline of the biblical author's flow of thought into a full sermon, we ask three developmental questions about each point or assertion in the outline:
In a previous article "Questions That Put Muscle on Bones (Part 1)," we briefly explored the first of these questions, and saw that many things in the Bible rightfully need to be explained. But often explanation is not enough to cause spiritual change. Knowing something does not necessarily mean we buy it or that we will do it.
Our own experience confirms this. For example, many of us probably had some secular theory or body of knowledge explained to us in college. Maybe in a class on child psychology the professor explained that spanking was the least desirable method of discipline for a child. At worst it was child abuse; at best it taught the child that might makes right and that he could impose his will on others by force. The professor may then have gone on to advocate distraction or isolation as preferable methods of child discipline.
As we listened to his explanations, however, something in our spirit said, That's not true. The Bible says, " He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him, " (Proverbs 13:24).
When the time came for the final exam, and we saw the question, " Compare and contrast different methods of child discipline, " though we knew the answer, we didn't buy it. (We got our A on the exam while preserving our integrity by writing something like, " According to the material presented in class " That meant, " I know what you want me to know, but I don't necessarily accept it as truth for my life. " )
In a similar way, our people know many biblical teachings: that wives are to be submissive to their husbands; that husbands are to treat their wives with consideration and respect; that we all are to avoid lustful fantasies, give generously to the Lord's work, marry Christians, intercede for others, and on and on. In fact, our people probably already know 90 percent of any biblical instruction we plan to give them. The reason they're not yet obeying biblical truth is not because they don't know it, but because they don't yet buy it.
We could simply explain it to them again for the eighteenth time, but this probably won't have any more effect on them than the previous seventeen times. Instead, along with our explanation we should begin to probe whether they buy it. Do they accept the biblical statement as an authoritative and energizing truth for their lives? Do they own it deep in their souls?
In order to probe and expand the biblical outline points with this second developmental question, it helps to know the three reasons why a person doesn't buy something. Whatever we need to say to convince them to own God's truth will depend on the reason why they may not yet have accepted it.
There are three reasons why people don't buy something. We'll explore the first one in this article, and then in subsequent articles take up the final two.
They don't buy it because they don't see the cause-effect connection.
For example, in the statement, " Be nice to your grandfather, it will help you have babies, " the meaning of the individual words and phrases is obvious. But the validity of the cause-effect relationship is not. Until the listeners can see why the statement is true, it will have no motivating power in their lives.
In such situations the listeners are not hostile or argumentative. They are willing to be persuaded if the speaker can simply answer the question, " Why is this statement true? What does being nice to that old man have to do with getting pregnant? " Until the listeners buy the truth of the cause-effect relationship, the statement as a whole will have no authoritative or energizing force in their lives.
In order for the listeners to be truly motivated to be nice to their grandfathers, the speaker could point out that their grandfather's secret recipe for BBQ sauce is an aphrodisiac, and if they are nice to their grandfather, he may give them his secret recipe, and this will help them have babies.
More likely, the speaker will remind his listeners that " the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective " (James 5:16). He will then explain that their kindness to a godly grandfather may lead him to pray on their behalf for the Lord to open the womb, and that such a prayer may enable them to conceive.
Our preaching must inevitably cover the many cause-effect statements of Scripture. The Bible continually uses language that implies causation — " this leads to this, " " this results from this, " " this produces this, " " this follows from this, " " this brings about this. "
For example, 1 Timothy 5:1 teaches, it is detrimental to a young man's ministry to harshly rebuke an older man. This is essentially a cause-effect statement: Harshly rebuking will cause the effect of a weakened ministry. But why is this true? On the surface, a young pastor may nod in agreement. But later, under pressure, he will blow up at an elder in a meeting, justifying it by thinking, Somebody needs to tell this man the truth. And from then on the young pastor's ministry will suffer because he never did see or buy the connection between a harsh rebuke and a diminished ministry.
We need to show why the statement is true.
But what if our text doesn't give the answer? How do we surface the correct cause-effect connection when neither our passage nor a cross reference spells it out?
Several sources can yield the insight we are looking for.
We should offer our cause-effect insights in language more tentative than " Thus saith the Lord. " Since the text itself does not amplify the connection, we will lead into our explanations with such phrases as: " Perhaps the apostle has in mind, " " It seems to me that, " " One explanation might be, " " Maybe the biblical author has observed what you and I have observed, that. " This kind of language helps convey that we are giving our best attempt to explain God's inerrant Word.
Granted, we will not have absolute certainty that our connection is the one the biblical writer had in mind. But as the insight satisfies our heart, and as the Spirit affirms it during the sermon to the hearts of God's people, we will have a high degree of confidence that we are presenting God's truth.
Showing why a statement is true is one way to expand the biblical outline into a Sunday sermon. In the next article, we'll see another way that the second developmental question, " Do they buy it? " can open up the power of a message.
A second reason reason people don't buy a biblical statement is they don't see the cause-effect connection: the biblical statement seems contrary to real life. Some people hear the Scripture and think, That's not how it is in the real world! For them, the statement is simply not true because their experiences contradict it.
For example, a woman's response to 1 Peter 3:1-2, " The way to win your husband is through a gentle and quiet yieldedness " (my paraphrase), might be:
I tried that, and it didn't work. When I let him do what he wanted, he joined five different softball leagues, and the kids never saw him at night. Instead of my winning him, he got worse. And if I let him handle the money, he'd take our savings and invest in the dumbest Ponzi schemes you ever heard of. Our family would be bankrupt. Maybe some other woman can win her husband that way, but not me. I have to lay down the law and then stay on his case.
Some people hear the Scripture and think, That's not how it is in the real world!
In such situations, listeners flat out disbelieve the biblical truth. Based on their life experiences, the statement is simply not true, and therefore they have no intentions of living according to it.
We must address these unspoken objections, or we will not accomplish anything in the message. Listeners sit with a " yeah, but " attitude, and the but deflects anything from entering their hearts.
Here are two steps for answering objections.
1. Define your terms
Make sure you and the listeners have the same meaning in mind for key words.
Make sure, for example, that when the wife hears yielding, she hears it as something that she should do after she has fully explained her position to her husband, countered his objections, and even pleaded with him. Explain that yielding does not mean " keep your mouth shut and do as you're told. "
2. Explain why Scripture is true
Even after you've made concepts clear, objections may remain. Therefore the second and more critical step in dealing with objections is to show that people's experiences do not contradict biblical truth.
This does not mean we deny people's experiences. We can't imply, " Oh, it wasn't that bad. " They would respond, " Were you there? "
But we can show that while their life experiences and attitudes may be real, they do not invalidate God's truth. For instance, if they have chosen to walk a different path than what God says, we can show that this will lead to worse consequences than those they hoped to avoid. Or we can show that the experiences of doing it God's way need more time to arrive at the desirable outcome. One way or another, by reflecting on their experiences we can show they actually reinforce what the Word teaches.
For example, we might show that when a wife fails to yield to her husband, instead of winning her husband, she actually drives him farther away. We might say:
When a man and woman come to marriage, each has expectations deep within. A man expects to be the leader in his marriage. That's strange because he doesn't have that thought in most other areas. Unless he is president of his company, a man doesn't go to work and say, " I'm supposed to direct this company. " He doesn't look at the government and say, " I'm supposed to be in charge of the country. " He doesn't go to church and say, " I'm supposed to lead the congregation. " But when a man marries, something deep within says, " I'm supposed to lead this marriage. " God has put that thought inside him; it is part of his maleness.
Similarly when a woman marries, she expects that this man will be her protector. She wants him to be her knight in shining armor. When children come, and she's vulnerable with them to the world, she wants him to stand guard. She wants to count on him to keep the family safe. These thoughts are part of her femininity, created by God.
Now, because we are sinners, we often don't act consistently with these thoughts. Because a man is a sinner, he sometimes doesn't lead as he should. Instead of caring for the best interests of his family, he may think only of himself.
And because a woman is afraid of the consequences to the family when she sees this happening, she may try to force the man to act as he should.
But by trying to compel his right behavior, she adopts a morally superior position. In essence, she stands over him with a scolding finger and says, " I will tell you what to do; I know better than you do. "
But this raises the man's hackles because now she is taking the leadership position in the marriage. She is acting as his mommy, telling him what to do. But she is not his mommy; she is his wife.
Therefore in the early stages, a man will resist her attempts to compel his behavior. " Don't tell me what to do, " he will shout. He will argue, fight, slam doors, and if he is really a sinner, he may even strike her. Though he is doing a bad job of being a leader, he will still do everything he can to hang on to that role.
As this fighting continues over months, eventually, the Bible says, a man will kick into a second response. He will shut down and become passive. In the words of Solomon, he will conclude, " Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. "
He will retreat to his hobbies or the television. He will pour his life into his career. His attitude will be, " I don't want to argue any more. I want peace. You can do whatever you want. You can decorate the house any way you want, send the kids to whatever schools you want, join whatever clubs you want. I don't care. "
And the wife will have lost her knight in shining armor. Instead of winning him, she drove him away.
And as the wife listens to us, she may start thinking: My husband never talks to me anymore. Whenever I suggest something or ask something, he just shrugs and doesn't comment much at all. I can't get him to interact. But I'm afraid to let him take the lead. I'm afraid of what he'll do. I'm afraid of bankruptcy.
At this point we are ready to go further into 1 Peter 3:1-6. We admit that her fear is real but also show how holy women of the past, like Sarah, put their hope in God, submitted to their husbands, and did not give way to their fears. We explain how Abraham twice put Sarah in fearful and compromising circumstances, but show how God acted both times to save her from the consequences of his poor leadership. Then we continue:
When you stand in a morally superior position over your husband, you essentially get between him and God. God can't get at him. God says, " Stand aside, honey. Let me take care of him. " But when the woman follows God's plan, God will hit him with a 4-by-4. The man will stagger, look into the heavens, and ask, " Whaddaya want, God? " A man will take from God what he won't take from his wife. And God will deal with him.
It may involve bankruptcy. But you can come back from bankruptcy; you can't come back from divorce. Afterwards your husband will say to you, " Honey, you were right. I'm sorry. " And instead of saying, " I told you so, " you'll say, " You're my man. We did it once; we can do it again. " And you will have won your husband.
In this way, a husband's folly does not remain an obstacle to God's truth. The wife can " buy " yielding as an action that will lead to God's blessing.
For us to search out how hearers' experiences line up with biblical truth, we ourselves must begin with the conviction that God's statements are always true. We must have the spirit of Paul: " Let God be true, and every man a liar " (Romans 3:4). Whatever God says is true, and anyone who says something contrary is wrong. We start with the conviction that no one's experience invalidates Scripture.
Then we can find motivation in the thought that while it is accurate to say, " Something is true because it's in the Bible, " it's even more accurate to say, " Something is in the Bible because it's true. "
Our job is to explain the ultimate truth, or reality, behind the biblical words. When we show what God knew that led him to say what he said, we help listeners really believe it.
Our insights into this ultimate truth come with experience, through reflection and prayer, from friends, spouses, older people in the congregation, or from members of a small group who help us think about each week's sermon.
In the next article we'll see the third reason someone may not buy the truth of Scripture and what we can do to help them.
Now we look at a third reason: people don't buy a biblical truth when something " more important " comes up.
On Sunday, our listeners may seem to assent to a particular truth. But during the week other factors come up that outweigh the biblical statement and prevent them from acting consistently with it.
In a vacuum, all things being equal, they buy the biblical truth. But real life is not a vacuum, and all things are not equal. People hold to a hierarchy of beliefs, a ladder of truths. Some values are higher on the ladder than others. They are more important; they matter more; we buy them ahead of others.
Suppose, for example, I detest rhubarb pie, and essentially buy the statement, " Rhubarb pie is to be avoided. " But suppose also that I'm invited to a friend's house and as we're waiting for the hostess to bring in the dessert, the husband says to me: " Don, you're in luck. My wife has prepared her secret-family-recipe, county-award-winning rhubarb pie. She doesn't do this for many people, because you have to drive two hours to get decent rhubarb and it takes four to five hours to soak, peel, and bake the pie. But for you, she's done it. "
Now, I may buy the statement, " Rhubarb pie is to be avoided, " but I also buy the statement, " You don't insult the efforts of a loving hostess. " Whichever one of these statements I buy the most is the one I'm going to act on in that situation. And you can probably guess that I'll choke down a few swallows before I announce, " I'm too full to eat another bite. "
A teenage girl may prayerfully commit herself in a Sunday school class " to dress modestly to the glory of God. " But you may then see her at a pool the next Saturday wearing a bathing suit that doesn't fit anybody's definition of modesty, and twined around some college guy. This doesn't necessarily mean she's a hypocrite. It may simply mean that while she buys dressing modestly to the glory of God, she also buys having a boyfriend, or getting appreciative signals that she is attractive in her femininity.
To get her to value God's truth most of all would require bringing up the other values on Sunday, acknowledging their tug on her, and then showing either the superior benefits of acting according to God's truth or the dangerous side-effects of acting according to contrary values. One way or another, the goal is to help her see the biblical truth as more important.
Suppose a woman named Helen is listening to you preach about being honest at the job. Let's imagine that Helen works for an entrepreneur named Sam who has developed a software program for the medical industry. Hospitals can use the program to track medical supplies, schedule operating rooms, handle payroll, and so on. Once a central hospital adopts the program, most doctors' offices in the community follow suit so as to be compatible with the hospital. Sam is the creative genius behind the program and markets it throughout the state. Helen is his business manager, holding down the fort and supervising two other women in the office.
Helen is a godly woman. Her husband is on the church board. They have a high school daughter and a junior high son, both active in the church youth groups. You wish every family in the church could be as this family.
Helen also appreciates Sam as a boss. He pays her well. He lets her take off a few hours to watch her son's soccer game or attend her daughter's after-school theater presentation.
As Helen listens to you preach about being honest at the job, she buys it. She nods at your applications: she doesn't take office supplies home for personal use, she doesn't call in sick unless she's really ill, she promises accurate delivery dates to clients. On Sunday, in church, she buys the biblical truth.
But then Tuesday at 1:30 in the afternoon, she gets a call. It's Sam. Before he can say anything, she blurts: " Sam, where are you? Did you forget about your 2:00 meeting with Dr. Shiller, the Hospital Administrator at St. Jude's? "
" Helen, that's why I'm calling. I accidentally double booked. I'm in a hotel an hour away getting ready to demonstrate the program to the heads of the major teaching hospitals in the country. If they go for it, we'll go national! We may even get a write-up in the New England Journal of Medicine. "
" But what about Shiller? He's going to be here in a few minutes. What should I tell him? "
" Tell him I'm caught in traffic, and I'll be there any minute. "
" Sam, I can't tell him that. By the time you demonstrate the program, answer their questions, and then drive across the city, you won't be here until 4:00. "
" Helen, you've got to tell him that. If he finds out I double booked on him, he'll storm out and we'll never get him back for a demonstration. "
" Sam, I can't lie for you. "
" Helen, you tell him that, or I'll get someone at that desk who can tell him that. "
Now, Helen buys being honest at the job. But she also buys having a job. Whichever one she buys the most will determine what she'll do when Shiller shows up at 2:00.
To help listeners buy God's truth above all other factors, we must surface on Sunday the competing beliefs or attitudes. We must help listeners feel their full force, and then we must show why acting on the biblical statement is even more desirable. We must bring up the potential conflicts that could arise, visualize them honestly, and walk our people through them to a commitment to God's truth above all else.
For example, we might say to Helen: " Even though it might mean losing your job, you should still be committed to honesty at work. Trust God's promise: If we are persecuted for righteousness' sake — we act with integrity, and pay a price for it — we are blessed. "
At this point Helen probably thinks, Okay, Pastor, you just got me fired. Could you work with that " blessed " part some more?
And so, to help Helen buy honesty more than keeping a job, we might continue along the following lines:
One way or another, you'll be blessed. God may give you a better job — higher pay, closer to home, better hours. I can't guarantee that, but the Bible says he feeds the ravens and clothes the lilies, and if you need the new joy, he'll give it to you.
I can guarantee you a clear conscience. You'll walk out of the office that Tuesday afternoon thinking, God, you're up to something in my life. I'm not sure what, but I just did something that pleased you.
Maybe the blessing will be the impact on your junior high son. Maybe Wednesday morning he'll see you at breakfast in your robe and slippers, and come to a wrong conclusion: " Do you guys have a holiday and we have to go to school? No fair! " " No, honey, no holiday. I'm just not going to work today. " " What's the matter, Mom, are you sick? " " No, honey, I'm not sick. To tell you the truth, I got fired yesterday. " " You did! What did you do? " " Well, the boss wanted me to say. But I wouldn't lie for him. " On his way to school your son excitedly tells his best friend, " My mom got fired because she wouldn't tell a lie. " On Sunday, as he shares a hymnbook with you, he looks at the pastor, and thinks, You don't know what happened at our house this week — my mom got fired for telling the truth! This stuff must be real. Helen, if getting fired will turn your junior high son into a man of God for the rest of his life, would that be a blessing? You bet!
Maybe the blessing is the impact it will have on someone in the office, perhaps even Sam. After you tell the truth and Shiller storms out, maybe you decide to make it easy on Sam by cleaning out your desk and leaving early. As you're putting your personal effects into a cardboard box — family pictures, plants, Far-Side Cartoons — Sam shows up sooner than expected. " Helen, what are you doing? " " Well, Sam, you said — " " Never mind what I said. Put that stuff back! Sit down! Work! You're not going anywhere. " Then, as he goes into his office and starts to return a telephone message, he looks back through the door and thinks to himself, That's one classy lady. A few months later, when Sam is having trouble with his teenagers and he needs to talk to someone who has their head screwed on straight, he may wander out into the office: " Hey, Helen, how long has it been since I've taken you to lunch? You like that Italian place around the corner, don't you? How about tomorrow? Good! Maybe my wife will join us. " And over lunch Sam is going to work his family situation into the conversation and receive godly counsel.
Maybe the blessing is that God wants you home for the sake of your teenage daughter. He's been trying to get you to quit, but since you haven't, he's getting you fired instead. Your family doesn't need the money as much as your daughter needs you. Have you noticed that her bedroom door is closed every evening, and she's on the phone for hours talking to her girlfriends? You knock on her door. " Who's there? " your daughter says. " It's me, Mom. " " What do you want? " " I have your laundry; can I bring it in? " " Okay. " While you're in the room, she's silent, phone cradled to her chest, waiting for you to leave. As you exit, she says, " Close the door, will you, Mom? " And then you hear her talking again. Your daughter is going through some heavy stuff right now, and she's getting all her advice from non-Christian teenagers. What she needs is a mother who's home. What she needs is to help with dinner, so that while she's peeling carrots she can casually drop that oh-so-important question into an everyday conversation. And your daughter, still peeling carrots, gets the wisdom of a godly mother to help her through life.
One way or another, you'll be blessed.
And Helen, listening to us preach, thinks to herself, I'll take any one of those results! Any one of those blessings is better than lying to keep my job.
By bringing up the competing beliefs or attitudes within the message itself, acknowledging their force and attraction, and showing why God's truth is even more desirable, we help our listeners to buy the biblical value more than anything else.
What does the biblical truth look like in real life? How does it show up in everyday situations?
Relevance occurs when the listener sees how the biblical truth applies to a specific situation. The word sees should be highlighted, underlined — with little red hearts drawn around it!
Unless listeners have a mental picture — a video running in their minds — of some real-life situation, the biblical truth remains an abstraction, vague and unhelpful. The message has no apparent bearing on their lives until they visualize some person, event, or circumstance in their everyday world.
Our discussion of this third question is not limited to the conclusion of a message. We are not necessarily talking about giving the listener at the end of the message " three tangible steps you can take to put this message into practice. " Instead, this question focuses on a relevancy that pervades the message; all through the message our listeners see the concepts in terms of everyday life.
For example, if in the introduction we say — " Did you ever obey God and have the bottom fall out of everything? Did you ever do exactly what God told you to do, and have disaster occur? " — we then suggest immediately what this might look like, how it might show up in everyday life:
All through the message — from the opening, and all through the concepts — we constantly ask, " What does this look like in real life? How does it show up in everyday situations? "
Our ultimate goal in speaking is not simply to add to the listener's biblical knowledge. Such knowledge can seem irrelevant. Suppose I'm teaching Genesis 11 and Genesis 12, about Abraham's leaving Ur of the Chaldeans. I describe Ur — a cosmopolitan, commercial, religious city — the center of the ancient Sumerian culture. I talk about its libraries and ziggurats and clay tablets. Because of my study I can give more chamber of commerce information about Ur than I can about my own home town.
Then, with PowerPoint, I trace Abraham's path leaving Ur — following the Euphrates river valley up toward Haran, staying in Haran until his father Terah's death, and then continuing down the fertile crescent into Canaan. Then I trace Abraham's movements down the hilly mountain ridges of Palestine, showing the high places where he built his altars. By the time I'm through, I've " taught " Genesis 11 and Genesis 12, but the listener is thinking, The guy's been dead for 4,000 years. What do I care?
Listeners wonder why I have given them all that biblical information. Was my purpose simply to tell a story of a man crossing great stretches of territory? If so, they would rather hear about Hannibal crossing the Alps — that story has elephants in it; mine just has camels. Biblical knowledge can seem irrelevant.
Our ultimate goal is not to " teach the Bible. " Our ultimate goal is to teach how the Bible's message fits our lives. The reason we are teaching Genesis 11 and Genesis 12 is God may come to one of our hearers and say the same thing he said to Abraham: Leave what is comfortable, leave what you're familiar with, and come with me without knowing what I will put in its place. Follow me without knowing in advance how it will turn out. God may say that to
Though knowledge alone is irrelevant, it is nevertheless possible to develop a large following from an information-oriented ministry. People get pleasure from learning something, like the Athenians in Acts 17:19-21:
Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, " May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean. " (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
But Scripture passes judgment on any preaching that is primarily information-oriented. That kind of ministry produces a prideful, arrogant people, exactly like the Athenians:
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1).
It produces a Pharisaism that knows the law but is unable to see how deeply it should be changing their lives.
Our ultimate goal in speaking is not to convey knowledge, but to stimulate godly behavior. The purpose of our ministry is not information, but Christlikeness:
The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).
Our primary intent is not that our listeners learn something, but that they use the Scriptures for all the practical ways intended in everyday life:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Until our listeners see how the truths of Scripture apply in the concrete situations of life, their Christianity is meaningless, and they are deceived about their spiritual growth:
But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash " (Matthew 7:26-27).
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the Word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it — he will be blessed in what he does (James 1:22-25).
In order for relevance to occur and godliness to form, we must make the applications. The listeners usually will not make them for themselves. This is not a criticism of them, but rather a realistic assessment based on my own experience when I am on vacation and listening to another preacher. At the end of his message — when the music is playing, the congregation is dismissed, and people are trying to step past me to get to the aisle — if he has not given me some concrete pictures of how the truth bears on my life, am I going to stay seated in my chair, blocking others, saying to my wife, " Honey, let me have a few minutes alone. I want to think of how this applies to my life. " No. I'm going to rise like the others, turn to my wife, and say, " You want to go to McDonald's or Wendy's? You get the girls, I'll get the boys. I'll meet you at the car. "
So the next time you find yourself saying, " May the Spirit of God apply this to your hearts, " what you are really saying is, " I haven't the vaguest idea of how it fits; maybe you'll think of something. " But they won't.
We must make the application. Our sermon must be an extended meditation on God's truth, which will result in an understanding not only of what is said, but also why it is good wisdom, and where it is operating or can operate in our lives (covering all three developmental questions).
How do we come up with relevant pictures that show where a Scriptural truth is operating or can operate in our lives ? Let me suggest four things to do.
1. Think where it would show up in your own life
Ask yourself, How have I experienced this? How am I experiencing it? How might I experience it? (Think in all three tenses; imagine realistic situations in the future as well as actual ones in the past and present.)
For instance, suppose you're talking about the kind of anger that erupts or explodes when we're impatient, irritated or frustrated. Ask, " When might this kind of anger show up in my life? "
Wherever it shows up in your life is probably where it also shows up in their lives, and you can visualize the situation for them. For example, the board member situation could correspond to when an in-law pooh-poohs some idea they have, or a co-worker ridicules their suggestion at work.
2. Run the truth through an expanding grid of the various groups and life circumstances in your audience
Visualize the different kinds of people you'll be talking to — men, women, children. Break them down into subcategories, and rummage around to see if your biblical truth shows up in some situation.
Break these subcategories down further, into sub-subcategories and sub-sub-subcategories. Not all husbands or fathers are the same, for example. What are the different kinds of husbands ? How do the men differ in their fathering?
How long they've been married
A 20-year-old married one year, first marriage
A 40-year-old married one year, first marriage
Whether this is the first marriage or a subsequent one for either of them
Whether they had role-models for husbanding in their own fathers
How many children
How old the children are
Whether the children are boys, girls, or both
Whether he's the biological father or a step-dad
Let's probe the work category. See if your biblical truth strikes fire with one of the scenarios:
Owns the business; is the boss
Bottom line; profit
Hiring, firing, training
Government regulations, OSHA, Worker's Compensation, competition; obsolescence of the product/service
Works for another; is an employee
Dead-end job, no advancement
Boring job, routine
Plays favorites, guilty of nepotism
Harasses, is crude, immoral
Safety concerns, health hazards
Commuting time or distance
Production pressures; stress; feeling in over one's head
Retired; on Social Security
Still consulting; a different part-time job
Struggles over self-worth, purpose in life
Adequate pension, retirement funds
What now fills up the time
How long between jobs; economic impact on the family
Age discrimination; likelihood of finding another equivalent job
Retraining necessary; new schooling
If nothing strikes fire in the work area, you would switch to another — their dwelling situations, or the different ages of marriage, still asking, Does my biblical truth show up in any of these circumstances?
3. Use pictures that apply the biblical concept, over ones that simply illustrate it
I define an illustration as a picture or analogy from an area outside our personal lives. By this definition you would be illustrating if you told of the courage of a civil-war general whose horse was shot out from under him, yet he grabbed his sword from the ground and shouted to his men, " Follow me. " To urge our listeners to have a similar courage may leave them unmoved since they can't identify with the situation. It's an illustration ,not an application .
Stories of Victorian widows, accounts of Indonesian prisoners being persecuted, analogies of geese flying in formation, explanations of how to make a dress — they are all illustrations. They may clarify, they may entertain, but they don't apply — they don't help the listener to see how it shows up in their lives.
In contrast, an application is a picture from the exact situation in your listeners' lives that the biblical author is talking about.
For example, suppose you're preaching on 1 Timothy 6:9-10, and your central idea is " The love of money can be your downfall. " An illustration would be to tell the story of King Midas, or of " Yusef the Terrible Turk " — a true story. In the 1940s Yusef comes to America to participate in a heavyweight wrestling tournament. One by one he defeats all his opponents and wins the grand prize of $10,000.
Two days after winning, he's ticketed on a ship to Europe and his native Turkey. He tells the promoters that he doesn't want his prize in the form of a check; he insists on gold coins — a universal medium of exchange. He buys a money belt and stuffs the 65 pounds of gold coins into the belt around his waist.
The ship's personnel offer to store the gold in the ship's safe, but Yusef prefers to have the gold on his person at all times. A few days out at sea, however, an engine malfunction causes the ship to be stranded. Another vessel is sent to transfer all passengers on board. Yusef tries to jump on board the new vessel, but he misses by a few inches and plunges to the water below. And that's the last anyone ever heard of Yusef the Terrible Turk.
After telling this story, you then solemnly warn your people, " The love of money will be your downfall. " And someone in the audience thinks, I'll remember that the next time I win a wrestling championship and am crossing the Atlantic on a ship.
Would I tell it in church? Probably. But I wouldn't deceive myself into thinking I had been relevant. I've been entertaining, but I haven't helped them see how it fits in their lives.
So if I tell that story, I also need to picture how the love of money leading to a downfall might show up in my listeners' experiences. I need to talk in concrete images about
An illustration brings interest and clarity. An application brings interest, clarity, and relevance.
4. Make your applications detailed and extended
Paint the picture. Visualize specifics, create conversations, act out the actions you want the listeners to do. Rehearse out loud the internal thoughts or reasoning process you want them to go through. Nothing happens in our listeners apart from specific pictures. No godliness forms unless the truth is related to concrete situations of life.
Suppose I'm teaching a fifth grade boys Sunday school class, and I say, " Guys, what does this mean to your everyday lives? It means, 'Be a good Christian.' "
" Uh, Mr. Sunukjian, what does that mean? "
" Okay, it means, 'Respond to those over you.' "
But respond is not a picture-word, and when you're in the fifth grade, everybody is " over you. " So I try again. " It means, 'Obey your parents.' "
Parents is a picture-word, but obey is not.
I must not be content with such vagueness and brevity. I must visualize in extended detail some situations in their lives, so that they can see what the godliness would actually look like in their lives. For example:
" Guys, it means when your mom gives you 65 cents and tells you, 'Use this at school to buy milk,' you use the 65 cents to buy milk and not Cheetos. "
Now the boys have a picture, and some small godliness can form in their lives as they anticipate pleasing God in some concrete situation.
The biblical narratives present truth through these kind of extended, detailed pictures. Since God uses extended pictures from the biblical world to present the truth to us, we should use equally extended contemporary pictures to carry forward the truth into our world.