I haven’t posted about it since, but I mentioned a while ago that I’m preaching through the first three chapters in Revelation, calling the series, “The 7 Last Words to the Church.” God still speaks to the church today, I believe, but these are the 7 last “words” (or messages) as recorded in Scripture.
This Sunday I’m preaching on the message to Ephesus, the first of seven churches to be addressed (Revelation 2:1-7).
If you are reading this post, it is at least possible that you read Words on the Word because of its nerdery and not in spite of it.
So I wanted to share how much fun I had this morning working through the Greek text (via Accordance) and making a mind map outline of the passage (with MindNode). This is my passage outline, which is not always the same as the sermon outline itself (generally I think of this much alliteration as verboden). Seeing the verses visually like this has helped me get a good grasp on the flow of Revelation 2:1-7. (Click or tap the image to enlarge it.)
I’ve just begun a preaching series on the first three chapters in Revelation, called, “The 7 Last Words to the Church.”
Just as Jesus uttered “7 last words” (or 7 series of words) on the cross, the Bible’s final book has 7 words (or passages) directed to individual churches in John’s day. Just about every interpreter that I can see, including yours truly, understands those passages as having significant universal application to today’s church.
The words to the 7 churches come in Revelation 2 and 3. Before that is one of the most remarkable chapters in all of Scripture. (I know… you can’t really rank these things.) Revelation 1 is rich and powerful and worthy of deep reflection in this season of Easter, soon to give way to Pentecost. In my church we’ll spend a number of weeks in Revelation 1 before moving to the 7 last words to the church in chapters 2 and 3.
The first week I offered our congregation the simple encouragement to read Revelation 1:3 and take it at face value. It says:
Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
Okay, I’ll admit: “face value” when it comes to Revelation’s “the time is near” is anything but agreed upon by those who read Revelation! That’s fine. John’s vision and words to the church still have a sense of urgency regardless of when “the time” is and how “near” it may be.
The book–this revelation from, by, and about Jesus Christ–begins with an apocalyptic beatitude. Maybe we’re right to be skeptical any time a preacher asks, “DO YOU WANT TO BE BLESSED?” But John begins his letter with an ironclad promise, endorsed by Jesus himself. Namely, if you read these words of Scripture, if you hear them, and if you take them to heart, you will be blessed, fulfilled, content.
It’s a great way to start this apocalyptic and prophetic letter-Gospel.
González notes that Luke’s story in Luke-Acts doesn’t really end per se: “Paul has suffered countless vicissitudes. He has been shipwrecked. He has finally made it to Rome. He is awaiting trial before Caesar. And then—nothing!”
(If you can never remember how Acts ends, rest assured! This may be why.)
Gonzalez goes on:
In telling his story and leaving it unfinished, Luke is inviting his readers to be part of it, to join the throng. ….But since the story is unfinished, it is more appropriate to conclude it with “RSVP,” like an invitation that awaits a response. This is what Luke demand from us: not satisfied curiosity about the past, but a response here and now. RSVP!
It’s neat to think about the church today as being a new sequel to Luke-Acts. Or, more accurately, the threequel to those two stories: Luke, Acts, the Church Today.
May God continue to empower with his Holy Spirit those of us who would RSVP faithfully to his invitation!
One essential step in my sermon preparation process is reading the book of which the preaching passage is a part. I find it a discipline to hold off on reading commentaries and sit with the text itself. This is easier with a short book like Joel, from which this Sunday’s Old Testament lectionary reading comes.
I find myself more focused to read through and outline the book in analogue fashion. Here’s what it looked like for me yesterday morning:
(Having fine writing implements like a fountain pen and nice paper helps!) I have since transferred my book outline to MindNode, from which I’ll continue my sermon planning. Starting device-free is important (and really enjoyable) for me.
Here’s my two-page provisional outline of the book of Joel, complete with a misspelling of “devastation”:
Greek for Preachers (Chalice Press, 2002) divides into three primary parts. Part 1 is “The Preliminaries,” where authors Joseph M. Webb and Robert Kysar suggest initial tools for preachers who want to use Greek. Part 2 offers “Ten Principles for Uncovering Greek Meaning,” which makes up the majority of the book. Part 3 focuses on “Using the Greek Text in Sermon Preparation,” and is a hands-on application of the principles the authors have taught in the second part. The book’s aim is simple: “to bring the Greek text of the New Testament within reach of anyone who wishes to explore its riches” (x). The authors want preachers who have lost their Greek (or not had any) to find the language “both usable and exciting” for use in sermon preparation (7).
Part 1: “The Preliminaries”
I worried a bit when I saw “uncovering Greek meaning” as the title for Part 2. Somewhere along the way I learned that Greek is not just a language to decode, as if there could be one-to-one equivalents for everything, with “hidden gems” available to ones with secret inside knowledge. But the authors are balanced here. In the Preface they say, “We do not believe there is anything intrinsically magic or even necessarily sacred about the original language of the New Testament, even though we both assert the importance of biblical languages for the Christian tradition” (ix). This approach resonates with me, especially as they go on to affirm, “But, judiciously and frugally handled, the joys of the Greek language of our New Testament are as bright as newly cut diamonds sitting in a store window waiting for someone to pick them up and share them with others” (7).
The first part focuses primarily on introducing the preacher to two tools: a Greek-English interlinear and an analytical lexicon. From there the authors go over the Greek alphabet, syllabification, pronunciation, and helpful immersion in a few practice texts. (The Greek font in this book looks good and is readable.) It is also in this first part that the authors introduce their approach to words and meaning, one that I am fully on board with: “[W]e should never assume that a word is used in the exact same way in different passages. The context in which a word is used is more important than how another writer in a different document might use the same word…” (5). This, in fact, has preaching implications for me, because I can make points like this in my sermons without even bringing “the underlying Greek” into the picture.
Part 2: “Ten Principles for Uncovering Greek Meaning”
Part 2 is the heart of the book. The authors give ten principles around specific grammatical features. Concepts they explore include: articles (and how their presence or absence adjusts meaning), verbs, participles, infinitives, cases, and more. There are lots of examples from the Greek New Testament, including possible sermon angles to derive from interpreting the Greek grammar. There’s a wealth of interaction with the Greek text for the reader to work through. There are charts, glosses, and plenty of material that any Greek reader will benefit from reviewing.
A highlight of the second part for me was the authors’ good distinction between grammatical gender and what they call human gender (also called social gender). They would support, for example, not using the generic “man” in English translations where the Greek has ἄνθρωπος. I am similarly deliberate in reading from the pulpit gender-accurate translations whenever I can.
While most of the instruction in this section is consistent with what I’ve learned from various grammars and exegesis courses at Gordon-Conwell (and reading Greek regularly since), there are a couple of surprising hermeneutical moves that I didn’t think were on firm footing.
The authors say, “Look for the articles, especially the ones associated with God” (39). With the last part of the verse (θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος), the authors rightly point out that ὁ λόγος becomes the subject because of the article. So, “the Word was God.” However, they go on to explore “the nature of the articular nouns as they differ from the anarthrous nouns “(39), considering that the anarthrous θεὸς could simply mean something less specific like “God-like.” They approach the translation with humility, but unfortunately conclude, “Theologically, it raises the issue of whether or not the text means that God and the ‘word’ are identical” (39). Though it’s tempting to criticize this interpretation on account of what sounds like heterodoxy, Greek grammar alone (at least I thought!) settles the issue, that, “the Word was God” (and not just God-like). I can recall at least two Greek professors at GCTS making a similar point that the anarthrous θεὸς should not be interpreted in the way the authors explore.
Also a curious was the interpretation of participles in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. The authors point out the three participles in those two verses, the first of which is aorist. “But the aorist participle,” they say, “that begins the sentence gives the idea of ‘going’ before it mentions the command to ‘make learners.’ Those who are addressed in this passage are already going” (65). As Roy Ciampa (from a 2008 Every Thought Captive blog post called, “As You Go, Make Disciples?“) and others have argued, that aorist participle is actually a participle of attendance circumstance, and it simply has the force of an imperative: nothing more, nothing less.
How does this interaction impact my own preaching, beyond my desire to critically engage with anything I read for my ministry development?
The authors model humility in how they approach the Greek, even when I disagree with them. I want to follow suit here.
On the other hand, some of their Greek-based hermeneutical moves seem like classic anecdotes of “what not to do” when moving from Greek New Testament to interpretation to pulpit. One wants to be careful not to make too much of subtle grammatical points that may reflect merely on what wording the author felt like using at the time of writing. As with the John 21 example where John and Peter dance between two different Greek words for love, a given author could simply be using a rhetorical flourish, and not intending us to derive any meaning more than that the author writes with creative style. (John 21 seems less clear-cut to me, though, than the examples above.)
Part 3: “Using the Greek Text in Sermon Preparation”
In the third part, “Using the Greek Text in Sermon Preparation,” the authors move the process into the pulpit. They list seven steps, each of which is easy enough to implement. And they have a stance on commentaries that I really appreciate, even as I’m aware of the discipline required: “We suggest that you use commentaries to learn what others have said about the passage but not necessarily to learn what you should say” (172). Great advice. I also resonated with their explanation of a topical sermon, where “the text gives you entry into an extensive issue that reaches beyond the text itself” (163).
The book closes with two full sample sermons using Greek, the first of which was a really interesting (and helpful) take on “submission” (as mutual) in Ephesians 5.
Greek beginners will want to turn to Part 1 right away, although I’ve had it drilled into me that interlinears are bad. I think they have their place, but a preacher who really wants to learn Greek might better avoid them and use a footnoted Reader’s Greek New Testament instead. The authors suggest that pastors actively using Greek can profitably skim Part 2 as a refresher–it can be consulted later as a reference–and cut right to Part 3 for the meat of using Greek in preaching.
I appreciate the desire of this book. On the one hand, the authors are right on when they say,
“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Novices in the Greek New Testament are in danger of slipping into the same mold. Greek is not a cure-all for biblical interpretation nor the key that unlocks truth. It is only one more tool to help us (176).
On the other hand, I really like the idea of teaching pastors the basics of Greek so that they can begin to get their feet wet with word studies.
Again, the drawback to using this book is that readers need enough Greek already to be able to discern what the authors are doing with John 1:1 and Matthew 28:19-20. The humility they model is admirable, though, and the majority of the other examples don’t make the same kind of questionable (in my opinion) conclusions those ones do.
For me, I try to use Greek as much as possible in my study. I’m reading through the Greek New Testament this year with a friend, and we’re taking (and sharing) notes as we go. I often find that insights from our conversations about the Greek text make their way into my sermons. So I wholeheartedly affirm with the authors that the integration of Greek reading and sermon preparation is a beautiful thing. Reading Greek for Preachers compels me to re-double my efforts in turning over the Greek (or Hebrew) text as an essential part of sermon preparation.
Greek for Preachers is at Amazon here, and at Chalice Press here.
Thanks to Chalice Press for sending me a review copy, which—I trust will be evident—did not influence my attempts at objectivity in assessing the book.
This is the text of the sermon I preached the Sunday after Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers were shot to death.
Michael Brown’s homicide in Ferguson, Missouri was almost two years ago. His encounter with a police officer set off a wave of protests and brought a conversation about institutionalized racism once again into the public square.
This week Michael Brown’s mother expressed the numbness and wordlessness that often comes after unjust killing:
When their children are killed, mothers are expected to say something. To help keep the peace. To help make change. But what can I possibly say? I just know we need to do something. We are taught to be peaceful, but we aren’t at peace. I have to wake up and go to sleep with this pain everyday. Ain’t no peace. If we mothers can’t change where this is heading for these families — to public hearings, protests, un-asked-for martyrdom, or worse, to nothing at all — what can we do?
We can at least remember the names of the deceased as we are gathered in the presence of God.
37-year-old Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
32-year-old Philando Castile of Saint Paul, Minnesota.
And then five police officers killed while they were protecting the people’s right to protest police brutality: Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, and Brent Thompson.
Let us remember their names and their faces and their families. They were and are loved deeply by God. May the Lord receive them into his loving arms, into his eternal care.
In one sense it would be missing the point for white folks to dwell on our cluelessness in what to say after another spate of gun violence. Though the thought keeps crossing my mind, I would be selfish to complain about having to find words for this pulpit after yet another week of killing in the United States.
Because as much as we may struggle in figuring out what to think and how to pray, there is an entire segment of our population that is worrying about how—worrying about if—they can live under these conditions.
Ty Burr, a writer for the Boston Globe, expressed it this way:
I understand; it’s exhausting. Social change asks a lot of us, but most of all our attention. To process all that incoming outrage, we have to become stronger in heart and clearer of head, and we have to decide when it’s time to stop watching the slipstream and dive into it instead.
If you hadn’t already, a week like this one all but demands that we followers of Christ dive in.
But… “what can [we] possibly say?” And “what can we do?”
Well, I don’t know. But I sure have read Ephesians 4 in a different light. And, so help me, God, may I not be shaken in my faith that Scripture always—always—will have something to say to us, even in our darkest hours.
With that conviction, hear again the first three verses of Ephesians 4:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4:1 is the pivot point of the whole letter. Paul moves from the theologically rich prayers and beautiful expression of Christian identity—chapters 1 through 3—to what we should do about it—in chapters 4 through 6.
“Therefore,” he says, “I—a prisoner of the Lord!—urge you strongly to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called.”
Paul lays a nice guilt trip on his listeners: Look, I’m in chains here! I’m a prisoner! The least you could do is live up to your calling as a Christian, like your poor Paul is urging you to do.
If you’ve been thinking about memorizing part or all of Ephesians recently, you could at least memorize 4:1, since it summarizes the whole book. Paul’s told them what their calling is in the first half of the letter.
He’s said: you Christians have been chosen by God, God delights in you, and you are sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit. He’s encouraged the church by saying: we are a people called to hope. We are God’s riches. And God’s power for us who believe—even for those who feel powerless—God’s power for us is immense. Nothing compares to it, and we who believe have the power of God.
Paul has also written: we were dead in sin, but God was rich in mercy, and God intervened. He made as alive with Christ, he raised us with Christ, and he seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms.
When he says, “Therefore,” or “Live a life, then,”—he’s got all of that in mind, everything in the first three chapters.
From here on out he’s going to get specific about how to live a life worthy of that calling. You are this, this, and this… so here’s how you can live like it.
“Live a life”—or as Paul first put it in his letter: “walk” in a worthy way.
It was a Jewish metaphor to talk about life as a walk. A sort of ongoing journey: active, with movement. “Walk the walk,” your “Christian walk”—that didn’t come from your evangelical youth pastor, it came from the Hebrew Bible!
Paul starts in right away with some of the ways Christians should walk.
He says in verse 2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”
Completely humble. Gentle. Patient.
As I studied the passage this week, I was surprised to learn that the particular word for humility in this verse was not really in Greek literature before the Bible. And then finally there was a Greek writer outside of the New Testament, Epictetus, who mentioned “humility” in the first century. He said it was the first character trait to avoid.
That could help explain why a humble and even humiliated Jesus was mocked on the cross. God had said, through Isaiah, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (66:2). But humility is a counter-cultural value; it always has been.
“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” Be gentle.
Jesus told Peter to put away his sword in the garden. Those who live by the sword, he said, will die by the sword. Or as I’ve heard it paraphrased, “When you fight fire with fire, the whole world burns down.”
Micah prophesies about a day when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
There will be a day, when what happened this last week, and all the evils leading up to it (that still exist!)—will not happen anymore. Nations will not go to war with other nations. Nations will not even feel like they are engaging civil war within their own borders.
This is what it means to be gentle. Loretta Lynch said, “After the events of this week, Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, uncertainty and fear … but the answer must not be violence.” Paul would agree: the answer must not be violence, but the answer must be gentleness.
I know… I almost picked another passage and didn’t preach on this one today because after Alton and Philando and five officers died, a gentle response felt like a cop-out.
I might as well have been reading, “Be tepid. Let it go. Don’t do anything about it. Just watch.”
Turns out, that’s not what Paul is saying. Harold Hoehner, who taught at Dallas Seminary for many years, says, “The word [gentleness] never connotes the idea of weakness. Rather, it implies the conscious exercise of self-control, exhibiting a conscious choice of gentleness as opposed to the use of power for the purpose of retaliation.” Self-control, not retaliation.
Aristotle talks about gentleness as coming between two extremes: “never being angry with anything” on the one hand and “excessive anger against everyone and on all occasions” on the other. Gentleness is somewhere in the middle. As another interpreter put it, if you’re gentle as Paul urges, you are “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”
Our model again is Jesus, the one who said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus was “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”
When Jesus saw oppression, hatred, and racial injustice—he got angry. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t gentle.
“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” That gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, a piece of evidence that we Christians are living lives worthy of the calling we have received.
Then to humility and gentleness, Paul adds this one more: patience.
The Old Testament talks about patience as long-suffering. Being patient doesn’t mean letting injustice go unprotested, but it does mean persistence… holding out hope… slowing down to wait and listen to the voice of another.
Those of us who have not been racially profiled and probably never will be, would do well to slow down and listen to our brothers and sisters who have. We need to exercise patience to hear the stories and pain of others… even to let it transform our own view of the world.
And now Paul gets into church territory—he says one mark of patience is “bearing with one another in love.”
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”
“Put up with each other,” he’s saying! This is the same word Jesus uses when he is exasperated by his faithless disciples: “How long shall I put up with you?”
Well… how long did Jesus put up with his disciples? He’s still doing it, right? He is still, even right now, interceding for us while we worship.
Patience—putting up with each other’s differences and even annoying habits—is required if the church is going to be a bastion of unity… a witness of one love to a divided world.
Eager to Keep Peace
Paul says, then, ”Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” He tells them to be eager to keep the peace.
But here’s a nice twist—he’s calling on them to be peacekeepers. The peace has already been made. Paul had said earlier, Jesus himself is peace. Jesus is the one who made peace—it’s the work he did when he broke down the dividing wall between so-called races—Jew and Gentile in the first century, a work that extends to black and white America in the 21st century.
“Keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Paul calls for Christians to be humble, gentle, patience, and eager to keep the peace that Christ himself established. Even as Jesus made peace, others try to snuff it out. But we’ve got to guard and protect the peace of unity—and for Paul that starts in the church and then emanates outward.
Paul reminds the church that the reason we can be practice a peaceful witness of unity is that God is not divided. God is one. And God is everywhere. God is, Paul says, “Over all and through all and in all.”
In other words, he’s still on this throne, though evil powers try unsuccessfully to unseat him. He’s still working through his church and his followers. And he’s still making his home with us. He walks alongside us, even as Paul calls us to walk faithfully in the world. It’s because of the strength of the God who is over all, through all, and in all that we can be faithful to our calling. God is with us. He walks with us to enable us to walk strong in our call.
God Speaks in Falcon Heights
I heard an echo of this promise in the horrific video of the Falcon Heights shooting.
A four-year-old girl saw what no child should ever have to see. Afterwards she says to her grieving mother, “It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.” That little girl had to have been full of the power of the Holy Spirit to be able to say that.
She was the mouthpiece of God: “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”
There’s a scene in Hoosiers, the greatest basketball movie, greatest sports movie, and—yea, verily—greatest movie in human history. The assistant coach, Shooter, stumbles out onto the court in the middle of a game, totally inebriated.
One of the players is Shooter’s son, who’s utterly embarrassed by his dad.
Coach Norman Dale pulls his player aside and says, “Hey, you keep your head in the game. I need you out there.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, friends: we’ve got to keep our heads in the game. God chooses to need us. God calls us to witness with humility to a world filled with the arrogant who are still getting their way. God urges us to witness with gentleness to a world where violence continues to make headlines. God needs us to show patience with each other, to work together as one body to witness to a hurting world.
So let’s keep our head in the game. As a classic lament Psalm says, “none of us knows how long this will be.” But as best as I can tell, God encourages us to wait it out anyway, to walk out our call every day.
And we don’t walk alone. Our generous God gives us each other, and even himself. He’s like that precious little girl telling us, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”
The one who calls us is faithful—he will freely give us his power so we can live out the humility, gentleness, and patience that seem at first blush too weak to us. But those virtues are, in fact, our strong and powerful witness. Humility, gentleness, patience, and peacekeeping—they’re all an expression of the calling we’ve received.
And we need to live it out now more than ever before.