Dual Level Preaching


It was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. Following an exposition of Matthew 2 in which I explained the typological significance of Jesus’ flight to Egypt against the background of salvation history, an older member of the congregation put his arm around me and asked if he could offer some feedback. “Please,” I replied, “I am a seminarian; this is the season of life in which I need input.” I’m not sure I believed it, but it seemed like the appropriate thing to say.

The old gentleman with striking blue eyes proceeded to educate me: “I realize that you are studying biblical theology under the likes of Greg Beale and that you’re captivated by the amazing scope and sequence of redemptive history, but you can’t live at 30,000 feet. The canon’s overarching themes, running from Old to New and culminating in Jesus, are absolutely crucial; but there is more to the Bible than simply the ‘meta level.’ In his incarnation, Jesus became a real man. He woke up in the morning, ate breakfast, walked on dirt roads, sweated, laughed, cried, and shed actual blood. Yes, there are wonders in the heavens above and signs in the earth below, but in this new covenant eschatology Peter and John also looked into the eyes of a broken leper sitting at a real temple gate before lifting him by the hand to stand upon strengthened feet and ankles. In other words, the inter-canonical drama must also include the sights, sounds, and smells of real human experience.”

Unintended Reductionism

I am concerned that many of us in our gospel-centered universe are susceptible to this imbalance. Praise Jesus that there is now a greater concern for canonical integrity, that “eschatology” is understood to be far more than future events, and that principles such as federal headship and corporate solidarity are increasingly part of our homiletical lexicon. For those of us who are big-picture thinkers, such an expansive view of the forest stirs the soul. “You mean Jesus recapitulated Israel’s wilderness wandering during his testing in the desert? Awesome!” That is how I feel at least. Still, we must not forget that the forest has a lot of important trees, put there by God for a reason, which we do well to examine.

Up to this point I have been emphasizing the danger that we maximalists face when we trace meta themes to the exclusion or neglect of the text’s personal elements. A similar problem that might actually be more common in neo Calvinist circles is when we press every passage in service of the “gospel.” By the way, anyone who may want to quote me out of context and beat me to a pulp, that last sentence is about as good as it gets. But notice that the word “gospel” is in quotes. Of course, every text of Scriptures in some way elucidates the gospel and this is the heart of our preaching. If you don’t recognize that, do yourself and your church a favor and arrange for someone else to preach on Sunday. But I wonder if there is a way to unwittingly reduce the good news so that the point of every message becomes “believe the gospel!”

Trees and Forest

My point is simply one of caution. It can’t be an either/or. Preachers who tease out the existential dimensions of a passage without explaining the larger redemptive historical and theological context will soon be in danger of reducing the Bible to a collection of moralistic lessons. Examples of this approach are common enough in American evangelicalism. Many preachers in my circles, however, will probably not drop their homiletical anchor here. More likely, it seems to me, we will fly at such a lofty, meta-narrative altitude, that we fail to see the sights and hear the sounds of Jesus actually among his disciples. Lloyd Jones helps us here:

The big difference between a lecture and a sermon is that a sermon does not start with a subject; a sermon should always be expository. In a sermon the theme or the doctrine is something that arises out of the text and its context, it is something which is illustrated by that text and context.[1]

The key statement in this quote is the concept of meaning “that arises out of the text and its context.” Such meaning should tell the story of Old Testament hope, explaining how the seed of Abraham is the Savior of the world. But it must simultaneously recognize that this “seed” was a red-blooded man, the God/man, who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Such perspective enables us to go home from Sunday morning worship struck by the miraculous coherency of salvation history and at the same time more deeply in love with the personal Savior who bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.

[1] Martin Lloyd Jones. Preachers and Preaching, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 71.

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