The process I will walk you through today is in 5 steps; (1) identify the boundaries of the text, (2) choose appropriate analytical tools, (3) interpret the true point(s) of the passage, (4) apply the passage, and finally (5) develop a rhetorical strategy for effective communication. I will use Philippians 3:1-14 as a test case for this process throughout this presentation.
The old question and answer, “How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” applies to the study of God’s word as well. The full counsel of God cannot be fully explored on any subject in a single sermon and so we must choose what passage or passages of scripture we will exposit. There are many approaches to setting these textual boundaries, but in the case of Philippians 3 we will utilize rhetorical analysis to identify the pericope for exposition. Verses 1 and 2 give us our first marker through the use of a very brief introductory narrative which introduces the audience, “my brothers and sisters,” Paul’s goal in writing, “a safeguard for you,” and the threat he is addressing, “beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” What follow are Paul’s proposition and his arguments for that proposition. We find our closing marker in verse 15, “Therefore,” which signals a shift from argument to praxis or from indicative to imperative tone.
Pick your tools
In approaching God’s Word for the purpose of interpretation and exposition, it is critical to first choose the tools that best fit the passage. In other words, the tool should fit the genre you are interpreting. The tools appropriate to interpreting a Psalm would likely differ from those you would employ in interpreting an Epistle. In our example of Philippians 3, Paul’s letter was meant to be read aloud to the churches. It is in affect a persuasive essay or speech, therefore rhetorical criticism, as we have already employed, would be a valid tool. The letter was written in a specific time and place in order to address specific challenges being had by the local church in Philippi. This would indicate that a historical-critical analysis, in particular Greco-Roman cultural analysis, as well as a 1st Century Jewish historical understanding, would be useful in providing the proper lens through which to examine the passage. In addition, a close reading of the text reveals some etymological questions that a careful word study would help in answering. Lastly, our ultimate goal for any exposition is to relate what the passage teaches us about God and about ourselves from God’s worldview. Therefore we must also pull the theological interpretive tool from the bag. Now we are ready to get to work.
What’s the Big Idea?
Whenever we are working with the inspired word of God it is important that we resist getting cute or inappropriately creative with our interpretation. While God’s word may be applied to many different circumstances, any given passage only has one meaning. Recognizing, not inventing, that meaning and communicating it to our audience is the goal. In our example of Philippians 3, Paul’s proposition in verse 3, “For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exult in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials,” is the main point he will elucidate in the following verses and defines the rhetorical situation he is addressing. In other words, physical circumcision as practiced by the Jews in this context represents the self-righteous acts of the law, while followers of Christ exult in His works of righteousness on their behalf and do so by faith through the Spirit of God, not depending on their own effort which adds nothing to Christ’s completed work. Following this rhetorical framework Paul then responds to the implied argument from his opponent that credentials matter. He does via a description of his own impressive credentials, “If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more,” which he then immediately dismisses three times in increasingly strong language. They are liabilities because of Christ, liabilities compared to knowing Christ, and finally, they have the worth of excrement compared to being found “in Christ.” In plain language, self-righteousness is a pile of useless dung when compared to the righteousness based on the faithfulness of Jesus. It is this righteousness from God that is available to us in Christ.
Once I have determined the appropriate interpretation or point of the passage, I take time again to read and reread the passage, meditating on what it means or has meant practically in my life. The best place to start with Philippians 3 is with Paul himself. What did it mean in his life? How would he apply this truth? He makes this clear in verses 10-14. Because of Christ’s faithfulness, Paul has four aims in life that we can share; to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death. In verse 11 Paul states the goal of these aims is to “attain” (Greek – katantaō) to the resurrection of the dead. It is important that we understand that the word “attain” here should not be construed as “earned.” The Greek verb means to arrive at or to come to. Paul’s desire is to be like Christ in everyway and persevere until His coming and the resurrection of the dead on the last day. In this sense Paul’s “striving” or running after in verse 14 is not a work in order to earn salvation, but a deep ceded desire to know Christ more and more. Having arrived at an interpretation and before beginning to compose a message, it is the cautious pastor who will look at some trusted commentaries to make sure he hasn’t made any fatal flaws or missed any nuggets that could be helpful to his final product.
Much as Paul employed rhetoric in writing to the churches of the 1st Century, so we will take the product of our interpretive work and put together the pieces in a way that is clear, convincing, memorable, and moves our hearers to action/application. In doing this we will ask ourselves questions like; what historical background or etymological information that I have uncovered will be useful in my opening narrative? How can I phrase my proposition in such a way that it will be memorable and complete? What will be my arguments from scripture for that point? What potential objections or questions might my hearers have and how I can answer them? How I can employ elements like parable, metaphor, or hyperbole to make the point more memorable and move my hearer to action? What combination of my personal testimony on the subject (ethos), emotional appeal (pathos), and logical argumentation (logos) will have the greatest impact on my hearers? What action or attitude do I desire to evoke from my audience? Answering these questions will assist us in developing our manuscript from which our sermon will derive.
As you apply these steps; identifying boundaries, choosing exegetical tools, arriving at an interpretation, finding application, and finally developing a rhetorical strategy for preaching, we must keep in mind our ultimate objective. It is not our purpose to reinvent what Paul said to the 1st Century church at Philippi, but rather to develop an interpretation and application that are faithful to the text and then to present them to the 21st Century church in a such a way that the power of God may be made manifest through it in their lives for the glory of Christ.
This is a departure from my usual postings in that I am speaking mostly to others who teach and sharing a little of what has worked for me. I pray that it will be helpful to others who answer the call to teach God’s word to people of all ages.
A Solemn Call
There is no more solemn responsibility in the church of Jesus Christ than that of teaching others out of God’s Word. James the brother of Jesus warns would-be teachers not to respond carelessly to this calling: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). However, it is God who calls and God who gives gifts to men, so neither should the person of faith run from a true calling to teach. “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly… if it is teaching, he must teach” (Romans 12:6-7).
Therefore, with all seriousness and diligence we, those called into a teaching ministry, must approach the holy Word of God with prayer and a reverence that drives us to give heed Paul’s advice to his disciple Timothy. “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). It is here, with this frame of mind, that we must consider the methods or process employed in both “rightly dividing” the word of truth as well as expositing that word in such a way that we do not hinder God’s power therein, but rather present a message that is both faithful to the text and complete in its ability to inform and move the hearer to action or belief.
Today we will discuss a process for figuratively picking up any passage of scripture and turning it around in the light so that it can be examined from every angle, observing it through the eyes of the author and original audience, recognizing the true meaning of the passage, and then both systematically and artistically presenting it to our audience in a such a way that the power of God may be made manifest through it in their lives. The process I will walk you through today is in 5 steps; (1) identify the boundaries of the text, (2) choose appropriate analytical tools, (3) interpret the true point(s) of the passage, (4) apply the passage, and finally (5) develop a rhetorical strategy for effective communication. I will use Philippians 3:1-14 as a test case for this process throughout this presentation.
The greatest battle that the church family currently faces is the knock-down drag-out fight with Satan over the hearts of the next generation. Raising a generation that knows Christ and makes him known will be the greatest gift & legacy we leave for the world.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Deut. 6:5-7
Considering our passage in its immediate context,
- Verse 5 – Preceded by the “greatest command”
- Verse 6 – It is a matter of the heart
Notice in Verse 7,
- Not a request – The imperative form is used. This is a command.
- “Impress them on your children” – Teach them diligently.
- Life on life discipleship
7 Principles for Walking Along the Way
Principle #1 – Don’t Freak Out – “Concern is healthy; panic kills.”
- Take the long view because God is writing a story in the life of your child. It’s a movie not a snapshot.
Principle #2 – Be Real
- Walking along the way means not being a pretender. You may fool a very young child for a little while, but they will find you out it will shake their faith to its core.
Principle #3 – More lens, less shield
- Spend more time giving our children the proper lens through which to see this world, and less time sheltering them from it. If we don’t someone else will.
Principle #4 – Enter their world – Jesus entered ours (Phil. 2:5-7)
- Make it a point to know the young person you are walking with.
Principle #5 – The target is the Savior, not behavior – Adjust your aim
- Lead them to the gospel (Romans 3:23, 6:23)
Principle #6 – Be joyful
- “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” 3 John 1:4
Principle #7 – No excuses
- Excuses may be valid, but they will be overcome when generational discipleship becomes a priority.
I hope that you found something here to challenge you and to encourage you to take seriously God’s call to generational discipleship and ask yourself the question, “What legacy are we leaving?” “Will we be mentioned in anyone’s story of faith?”
Questions for further discussion:
- If I could be remembered by my children or grandchildren for only one thing it would be…
- If you looked back at your life using Mike’s metaphor of the “snapshot” what period of your life might have given the adults around you reason to despair? How has God used that time period in the broader narrative of your life?
- Have you ever thought about your relationship with the children in your life as one of teacher-disciple? Why/why not? How might this perspective change the way you parent or engage with young people close to you?
- Did you ever view your relationship with your parents as one of disciple to teacher? Why or why not?
- In what ways does the teacher-disciple relationship change as children grow up and in what ways does it stay the same?
- How are you, or could you be, living out God’s command to “walk along the way” with the next generation?
Raphael the fearless
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3
Early on in our work in Brazil we made a lot of rookie mistakes. One in particular led to a wonderful story of the fearless faith of a child. I think it might just encourage the shark wrangler hidden within you.
We had begun our first outreach using a building belonging to a little church. As we reorganized the space to make space for our material we encountered a room full to the ceiling with used clothes. Clothing had been collected for a bazaar and these were the leftovers. The clothes were in good condition, but no one was quite sure what to do with them. So after getting permission from the pastor, we set a date to take the clothes and distribute them in a favela (slum neighborhood) adjoining the neighborhood where the church was located. On a typically balmy Brazilian summer afternoon we loaded the clothing into the back of our pick-up truck and headed out. My two boys, Michael (9) and Raphael (7) were riding along, as well as Pastor Tiago, my friend Marcelo, and another boy from the outreach, Adriano.
A Just Cause
As we pulled to a stop in the neighborhood we were immediately approached by curious children and then adults asking what we were doing. When they realized we were giving things away, the word went out and in an instant a sea of humanity surrounded us. People pushed and shouted as we tried to distribute the clothes in some semblance of order. About that time the door of the pick-up opened (I had forgotten to lock the door in the confusion) and some children jumped in and started grabbing at whatever they could find. My soccer ball went first and then one of them grabbed my handsaw and took off up the street. My youngest boy Raphael saw the whole thing and yelled to me, “Dad, that boy stole your saw!” I told him we had bigger problems and that we just needed to lock the doors now so that my wallet wasn’t next. He insisted, “But that wasn’t a donation! That’s stealing and it’s wrong!” Again, I told him to forget about it. Next thing I know, there goes by little boy, barefoot, up the street, through the favela after the saw. He didn’t hear me when I called to him so I asked Adriano to tail him and make sure he didn’t get into any trouble.
After a few minutes I was getting worried. The throng began to subside as the last of the clothing was carted off. Where was my son? I looked up and my heart jumped as I saw Raphael walking back toward the truck…with a triumphant look on his face and my saw in his hand. As scary as that was for a dad, I learned a lesson that day. When our mission is just and godly we cannot let fear stop us.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27
In the following chapters we will explore what this might look like in your life. We will hear testimonies of men and their families who are engaged in the fight in very real and practical ways and hopefully encourage you to step into the fray.
Chapter 5 – Of Bull Elephants and Shark Wrestlers
To begin unpacking Psalm 68:5-6 we need to first explore what it means to be a “Father to fatherless,” the critical role the church can and must play as the last man standing. We will see how that is reflected in the life of a godly man and, should he be blessed to have one, his family. We will also examine the role for the godly woman and the local Christian congregation in what at first may seem like mostly a “guy thing.”
Elephants behaving badly
Those who know me well know that I love a good story, especially a true one and extra-especially one with dangerous animals involved. My mother would tell you that not much has changed in that regard over the 42 years of my life. I am hoping that you like them to because I have a couple I’d like to share with you. This first one made headlines back in 1999 when it appeared in a report by CBS news. The tale goes something like this,
In South Africa’s Pilanesberg Park, white rhinos began turning up dead in astonishing numbers, nearly forty to be exact. This was alarming and confusing: alarming because it represented 10% of the whole population of white rhinos, and confusing because the deaths hadn’t been the result of poaching. The latter was made clear by the fact that the highly valuable ivory horns had not been removed. A little bit of investigation led the park rangers to the culprits, juvenile male elephants. But why? This was not normal behavior for juvenile elephants at all. What could possibly have led them, as was subsequently observed, to form into violent groups and rampage through the park, molesting, tormenting and eventually killing white rhinos? The answer to the question can be found by looking at the history of the park as well as elephant social structure.
For the sake of full disclosure, I am not an expert on elephants, but this story intrigued me so I did some reading. In elephant “culture” the young are raised by the females of the herd until a certain age. We’ll call that age adolescence. At that point the male elephants are pushed out of the group and will seek out the older bull elephants of their family (grandfathers, father and uncles presumably) in the wild where they will essentially, “learn what it means to be a bull elephant,” which, by the way, does not include murdering rhinos.
Street Thugs of the Savannah
So what went wrong at Pilanesberg? For that answer we need to travel back some twenty years from the time of the rhino killings. In those days another large reserve in South Africa, Kruger National Park, was having an elephant over-population problem. A government veterinarian (it just had to be the government right?) developed the ingenious plan to sacrifice the adults, because they were too difficult to move, and instead relocate only the babies. Where to? To Pilanesberg of course.
When these now “fatherless” baby boy elephants reached adolescence; they went out into the wild to look for their male “kinfolk.” When there were no bull elephants to be found these youngsters stuck together and formed gangs. Yes, gangs. Interestingly enough, one of the things older bull elephants do for their juvenile counterparts is to discourage them from mating too young. This keeps their testosterone in check and, as a result, diminishes some of their more aggressive impulses. Without older bull elephants to lead the way, the young bulls began mating and seeking to mate at a very young age, stimulating their testosterone levels through the roof and, just like that, dead rhinos and other such mayhem. Sadly, several of these delinquent elephants were put down before someone finally had a stroke of real genius.
Elephant Big Brother Program
Using modified trucks, larger, older bull elephants were trucked in from Kruger Park by rangers. What happened then must have seemed like a miracle. A new hierarchy almost immediately emerged as the older bulls quickly established themselves as dominant over the younger, smaller bulls. Through sparring with the younger elephants, the older bulls successfully discouraged them from being sexually active. This, predictably, lowered testosterone levels and the rhinos, once again, were safe to roam the savannah. In fact, since the big bulls arrived on the scene, not a single rhino has been molested.
Taking a page out of the playbook
Is this so different from what is happening with fatherless children in communities all around the world? It is precisely what we described when we talked about “street activity” and the missing “strong man” in our communities. So what is the lesson here? Fathers are important? Yes. Youth, and boys in particular, are trouble if left alone without supervision? Clearly. We’ve already established that the “strong man” has been tied up and what the ramifications of that are for our children and society. But this is more than a wild kingdom mirror image of what is happening in our communities and around the world, it is a road map for how the last man standing, the church of Jesus Christ, could and should respond.
Our neighborhoods are overflowing with fatherless children, both boys and girls, who are in desperate need of interested adults: in need of a provider, protector, teacher and friend. Remember what we said previously, it cannot be just any old mentor but a godly father figure, one who is committed to modeling a Christ centered life, is equipped for the battle and one who is engaged in actively teaching the truth within the context of a loving and safe relationship.
These children are waiting for the old bull elephants to come and put things straight. Whether they realize it or not, these “youth gone wild” are desperate for an old bull to come along and say, “Whoa there boys, not the rhino’s. That’s not how we roll. You follow me and I’ll show you the way it’s done.”
Fatherless girls need to hear an old bull say, “Sweetheart, you are precious in GOD’s eyes. You are loved. Don’t let those young bulls fool you into giving away your heart. Don’t throw yourself at them. Give them time to mature. Stick with me and I’ll protect you and value you for who you are, not what you can do for me.”
Several studies published over the last twenty years have focused on children identified as “students at risk” for behaviors ranging from out-of-wedlock pregnancy, drug use, and alcohol abuse. The students who did not get involved in those behaviors identified one common reason; someone took a personal interest in them in such a way that they felt loved and connected. Children at-risk are in need of some old bulls to ride in and say to Satan and his workers, as Jesus did in Matthew 18:6, “If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Can it make a difference? Can you make a difference? Let’s see.