As my brother was busy gazing at his bride-to-be and trying to remember his one line, I — as the best man — had plenty of time to examine the accoutrements around the altar. On Sundays, a little known European language was spoken in this edifice and everything in our surroundings, except for the few English words that were graciously included for this Saturday occasion, was a reminder of the old world.
The congregation, by the testimony of their pastor, had a high view of liturgical worship and a moderate to low view of Scripture.Yet, in a conspicuous location atop a glass-covered table was a beautifully carved, wooden-bound copy of the Scriptures in their mother-tongue, complete with an ornate metal clasp. Fortunately, no lock was on the clasp, but there might as well have been.
This congregation’s particular approach to the Word of God kept the Bible locked up and relegated to “somewhere in the past, far across the ocean.” The result was that this wedding altar was becoming the last stop for many of their young people. Not only were the youth leaving their church, but sadly, also their culture. The Word was spoken as if it had no bearing upon today.
Unfortunately, the overly-cautious, “high view” of Scripture found among professing evangelicals can often bind the message as much as the indifference of liberals.
“Context, Context, Context,” is the appropriate chant led by homileticians who seek to be faithful to the Word. “Historical-grammatical setting” is code for “I want to make sure I am representing the intended message in its original context.” Sometimes, however, we purists fall so in love with the original homeland that we drive by and ignore the proverbial “John Stott Bridge” that is intended to span the gap between the two worlds. Biblicists, for fear of being too creative with the Word or careless with application, sometimes do nothing more than recount a nice narrative without exposing the “timeless truth” that can give the hearer hope, purpose, direction, and above all, salvation.
What would you do if on Monday morning you realize the next text you are scheduled to exposit is Deuteronomy 25:4, You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain (ESV)? Typically, where would you go with this? You would certainly be delighted to be reminded in your research that the Apostle already applied this in his letter to Timothy and if you work it right you might even get a raise out of the deal.
Take the worst case scenario, however. Imagine you are working on one of those deadly Saturday night specials. In your haste you overlook the application given to this passage in the New Testament and on Sunday you blindly preach the naked words of Moses in the setting of his second giving of the law. In your sermon, would this truth stay with Moses in the wilderness or would you have the insight to distill the timeless truth and pour it over a present day situation?
The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, utilizes this passage to explain to Timothy that elders in the local church, especially teaching elders, are worthy of wages, even a double honorarium (1 Tim. 5:18). He also used this same passage to justify not having to be bi-vocational in ministry at Corinth (1 Cor. 9:9).
While one preacher might dismiss the original proverbial command as having no bearing upon today, much like a jeweler who sees no function for a gem and leaves it lying in a back storeroom, another preacher is just as guilty because he leaves the stone locked in a showcase, wanting it to be admired but never used. The true beauty of an exquisite jewel is when it is worn in its contemporary setting. Rather than being too careless, some good, God-fearing, Scripture-loving, Bible preachers and teachers are actually guilty of being too restrictive in their application.
One well-known professor from a top-rated evangelical seminary gave a tongue scourging to a student for “spiritualizing” the geographical locations included in the Matthean “Great Commission” passage. The student was accused of making a horrible hermeneutical and applicational error by comparing “Jerusalem” in the text to one’s local geographical area. Like a turtle he pulled back and lost confidence to make any application in his preaching, even obvious ones.
Somewhere in the process of sermonizing the preacher must turn up the heat on the passage and himself and discover the timeless, universal truth that remains. Warren Wiersbe, in his classroom teaching on homiletics, offers the metaphors of a picture, a window, and a mirror. We begin with a text that paints a picture from a time long ago. We can admire the picture, but at that distance we do not necessarily have to interact with it. That is, until we recognize that it is a window to the world right outside our door. Through prayer, study, and meditation we then discover the truth we are viewing is still alive and at work right around us. We find ourselves staring into a window, which, through gazing, actually transforms itself into a mirror.
Safe, ineffective preaching will leave the passage locked up in the beauty of its original setting. Those in the congregation who have an aesthetic appreciation for Bible knowledge might love such sermons. Most, however, will see those sermons as dry and useless.
Consider the plowing ox. What a nice picture the Word paints in Deuteronomy of an ox treading the grain. A paralyzed preacher will turn this passage into an art show, only holding up the beautiful image of God caring about the ox. Apparently Martin Luther did not believe the ox was the only one concerned here. When Martin Luther quoted this verse, he asked the question, “Does God care for oxen?” “No, of course not,” he said, “because oxen can’t read.” It was written for us, not for the oxen.
Think now, can’t you see there is a principle underlying this command? It has to do with God’s tender care for all who serve. You can’t just paint a still picture of a far-off time. Look around. It is more like a window to what is happening around you. Paul, however, also recognized it was like looking in a mirror. He was the ox! And just like the Lord was concerned about any abuse of ox, the Lord was concerned that he, too, would treat and be treated fairly.
For years I described to others the two rooms that I lived in every week as I prepared my sermons. The first room of exegesis was musty and full of books. The lion’s share of my time was spent in that room and the only intention was to understand the passage in its original context. I wouldn’t leave that room until I was satisfied, because once I left, I felt I couldn’t return. I needed to walk out of that room with a crystal clear vision of the original message in its original context.
Some of my seminary professors and congregational listeners wanted to consign me to that room, and I must say I actually enjoyed myself there, but eventually it became evident when it was time to leave. In more cases than not, the ticking clock and the turning of the daytimer would force me out. I would then crawl over the wall to the next room of application.
Several years ago I led a seminar on preaching with a little group just south of the border, across the Rio Grande, and I used this illustration. Surrounded by secluded courtyards with shards of glass strewn along the top of the adjacent block walls, I painted the imagery of the necessity of spending sufficient time in the first area and then crawling over to the next. The setting made it appear as an overly painful experience.
If you find yourself either too paralyzed to move out of the ancient room of the original context or if there is no apparent connection between Room Exegesis and Room Application, you, too, have made the gulf between these natural neighbors too expansive. On the contrary, not departing from the original room should bring pain. How can we take in the great truths of God and not be bursting to share it and apply it?
It wasn’t until later that I discovered that I didn’t need to crawl over the wall between the two rooms but that the key to the door that connected the compartments was the “Timeless Truth.” The timeless truth is the underlying principle that is based upon the Character of God and the truths of Scripture and can be applied just as readily today as several thousand years ago.
Sometimes we use terms like the “Big Idea,” the “Proposition,” or the “Textual Thrust” to identify the core idea of the text and, ultimately, the sermon. The timeless truth, however, is actually a further distillation of the core idea into its most basic structure, or the underlying principle that is driving the ancient passage. Its value and wonder for today is in knowing the simple truth also worked for the ancients.
A loyal environmentalist may discover oil in Alaska, but for fear of staining the pristine surroundings, would prefer to leave it buried under the ground in its original setting. A zealous capitalist, on the other hand, may be willing to trample over whatever is necessary to get the crude to the pump. Where is the individual who can deliver the genuine goods without destroying what God established?
You can be that individual! When you arrive at a passage, take a good, hard look without attempting to rewrite the story. Like an experienced detective, leave no stone unturned and stay as long as you need to in that room, but also leave the original scene undisturbed by you. Your seminary professors will be proud and your congregation will be blessed if you, as John MacArthur admonishes, “stay in your seat” and do the hard job of biblical exegesis.
Now before you leave, find the key that is in every passage. The key is the “timeless truth.” It is the underlying principle that unlocks the connecting door from either side. It is the truth that is driving the passage as originally told and it is the truth that can be applied today. Once you have used the key to open the door to application, the “timeless truth” will keep you from straying from the original context.
It has been my experience that whenever I try to give application to a text that I do not fully grasp in its historical-grammatical setting, the sermon begins to strangely look like the sermon I preached the week before. Some sermons are like the silly cartoon race that is often shown on the jumbotron to the live crowd during commercial breaks at a professional ball game. Ill-prepared preachers have about three hobby horses that show up at every sermon, racing around the track as the congregation cheers on their favorite stripe, never knowing, but always guessing, which one will triumph that day.
Above all, pray for the discernment to see the genuine timeless truth in every passage you preach. Jesus, Peter, and Paul fished in deeper waters and dipped further into the Old Testament texts than most of us will ever even attempt. Like the Sadducees, we often err, not knowing the Scriptures or the power thereof to apply and bring hope to real life situations today. Shallow water is fine. It is often good to drink and it is a great place to play, but it is not where the Great Fishermen drop their nets. Force yourself into some offshore fishing by scheduling and publicizing some hard and obscure passages and topics in your preaching calendar. Then don’t be satisfied with just telling a nice story about some lesser-known prophet.
All Scripture is profitable, but don’t be content to polish the jewel and merely show it off, protected under the case or hidden in the back room. It is made to be handled and worn. And by all means, don’t fall off the bridge as you bring the truth to the new world. Protect yourself against this by asking several listeners, “Did you catch the timeless truth in today’s text and how are ways you would apply it?”
It will frustrate your congregation to learn of a wonderful far off truth, but not to know how to live it in their own lives. Unlike the ornate Bible I saw so many years ago, let the Scriptures in your church be accessible, devoid of the academic, mental, emotional, and spiritual locks that so sadly bind up the Word among believers. Give every member the keys to keep the Word open — and don’t stop making copies.