All posts by Ben Clements

"Hi, I'm Ben! I'm a theological student at Ridley College. I've served in various Anglican Churches in Melbourne, Australia. I'm married to a wonderful woman and my three young children keep me pretty busy most of the time."

Psalm 110: The Unexpected Treasure

I wonder if you’ve discovered the unexpected treasure of Psalm 110 yet?

Of David. A psalm.

The LORD says to my lord:

“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”

The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
    “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
Your troops will be willing
    on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy splendor,
    your young men will come to you
    like dew from the morning’s womb.

The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.”

The Lord is at your right hand;
    he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.
He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead
    and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.
He will drink from a brook along the way,
    and so he will lift his head high. (Psalm 110:1–7)

Have you ever been shocked by how much something is worth? Has the value of something ever left you speechless?

Disney Adventures

I had an interesting experience last year during a COVID lockdown. Perhaps like me, you found yourself spending some time cleaning through old, unused things around the house. And after doing some digging, I came across this box filled with my old childhood Disney magazines. There was a lot of them, like, 135 of them!

Disney Adventures

And I’m thinking to myself: ‘Geez, I don’t want these. And they are just collecting dust and taking up space.’ And so I hefted them over to the recycle bin. But then I paused. I wondered, ‘I wonder if anyone will want these?’ And so I took them all out of the box, and instead of throwing them in the bin, I arranged them in date order and started taking photos. I mean, what have I got to loose? At the end of the day, if no one wants them, that’s fine—I was going to recycle them anyway.

But to my surprise, in less than a month, every single one was sold! Every… single… one. Clearly others saw value in something I had overlooked.

I wonder what you have lying around at home which is unexpectedly valuable? Now, to be clear, the reason I’ve mentioned all this is not because I’m suggesting you go and make a profit selling your things on Gumtree. No, I’ve started this way, because Psalm 110 is one I suspect many of us have metaphorically sitting in a cupboard or a box, collecting dust.

Psalm 110 is Weird

And I get it. Compared with ‘The LORD is my shepherd’ (Psalm 23:1), Psalm 110 is a bit weird. It doesn’t seem to make sense. It’s got ‘dew from the morning’s womb’—whatever that means. And some obscure Bible name starting with ‘M’. It sounds oppressive and violent to our modern cultural ears. My guess is you’re not going to find too many motivational posters at Koorong with Psalm 110 on it.

So what do we do with this weird psalm? Are you tempted to chuck it out? Well before you do, like my old magazines, it’s probably worth checking if others can see some value that might have overlooked.

Psalm 110 has ‘Gone Viral’

And what becomes clear very quickly, is out of all the Old Testament books, the New Testament authors quote the book of Psalms the most frequently. Then if you drill down one more level: Which Psalm is quoted the most in the New Testament? The answer: Psalm 110!

Is that surprising for you? It certainly was for me. Out of all the books and chapters of the Old Testament, this is the one the New Testament used the most! It’s the biblical version of ‘going viral’!

As Justin Dillehay expresses, for the New Testament writers, this messianic psalm was ‘highly significant for their understanding of [who] Jesus [was] … Few psalms are as influential for New Testament writers; none is as often quoted.’1 Clearly they could all see the immense value that we might miss.

The Unexpected Treasure of Psalm 110

Over the years, the more and more I come back to Psalm 110, I’ve come to realise the unexpected treasure that this psalm is. And my hope and prayer is that if you don’t already, you would come to see the immense value of this psalm too, both for our understanding of Jesus, but also what difference this makes for us personally in our day-to-day walk with him.

So I hope you’re excited to jump into Psalm 110! To give you an idea of where I’m going, first we’re going to spend some time zooming into verses 1 and 4, and work out why they’re so both important for our understanding of Jesus. And then with that in our minds, I want to spend some space considering how these wonderful verses can make a massive difference for our day-to-day walk with Jesus. Because they do.

And I’m not gonna lie, we’re going to have to do a bit of thinking along the way. I’m imagining one of those scenes of crime scene detectives trying to solve a case, with a whole bunch of string and newspaper clippings. It might make your head hurt a little, but Psalm 1:23 says a spiritual workout in God’s word is good for us. I believe the payoff will be worth it—trust me.

Detectives solving mystery

1. The King’s King (Psalm 110:1)

Of David. A psalm.

The LORD says to my lord:

“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.” (Psalm 110:1)

There seems to be a lot going on in just one verse here. I wonder what word or phrase stands out for you? Did you notice that there’s quite a few characters in this scene?

There’s the author of the psalm, David. And then there’s the LORD, and then there’s ‘my Lord’, and finally there’s a bunch of enemies being turned into an ottoman. What’s happening here?

Textural Context: Superscript, LORD vs Lord

There’s a couple of important background things that will help us unravel this mystery. First, if you take a look at our psalm, we seem to have a few different titles for it: ‘Psalm 110’, ‘Of David, A psalm’. Plus, possibly another heading, depending on your Bible translation: ‘Sit at My Right Hand’, ‘The Priestly King’, etc.

See the line that says: ‘Of David. A psalm’? This one is part of the original Hebrew text that makes up the psalm. These little headings are sometimes called ‘superscriptions’, and if you flick through the psalms, you’ll notice that over 2/3 have these at the start.

And so from this little line that’s part of the original text, we can see that King David is the author of this psalm. Jesus affirms this (Mark 12:36). This psalm takes place from David’s point of view. And that’s a really significant detail which we’ll return to in just a moment.

The second helpful thing for us to notice here in verse 1, even though the word ‘lord’ appears twice in quick succession, there’s a different Hebrew word for each. Whenever we see the word ‘LORD’ in capitals in the Old Testament, it’s always an abbreviation of the Hebrew name of our God Yahweh. But the second Lord here, is the word Adonai in Hebrew. And this word is a bit more broad in meaning: Adonai can relate to God, but it also can mean a human master, ruler or a person in authority. If you’ve ever watched Downton Abbey, think someone like Lord Grantham. He’s the master of the house, the leader of the town, he’s the boss and people answer to him. Okay, so in verse 1 we’ve got:

  1. David (author)
  2. Yahweh (LORD)
  3. Another master or ruler too (lord)

The King’s King

This gets even more interesting, because remember that David, the author, is the King of Israel. At the time of writing this psalm, David as king was seen as the highest authority in this kingdom under God himself. And yet, somehow David—the highest Master in the land—listens into this divine conversation, and writes:

‘Yahweh, says to my Master.’ (Psalm 110:1a)

Can you see how this is a bit peculiar? David’s the enthroned king, he’s the ‘Lord’ as it were, and so we would automatically assume that God would declare this oracle to him. But it’s not about him. David is clearly not talking about himself. In this psalm, king suddenly recognises someone else as his king. This psalm is about him. This psalm is about the King’s King.

The King’s Son

And if we fast forward to the gospels, Jesus uses this same unexpectedness of Psalm 110 to stump the religious leaders. You see, in Jesus’ day, the expectation was that God would one day send a messiah; a kingly ruler; and he would be a descendant of David.

35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, “Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36 David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
    under your feet.”’

37 David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?” The large crowd listened to him with delight. (Mark 12:35–37)

Old vs New

The impact of Jesus’ challenge might be lost on us, because in our culture we intuitively regard the newest things to be the best things. Obviously the iPhone 13 is better than the iPhone 7, because it’s newer. But in a generational, Jewish culture like this, they thought differently. You see, for them, the older something is, the more important it is. Forget about the new, find the old thingthat’s the best.

Western Wall in Jerusalem

I experienced this when I visited Jerusalem a few years ago and saw The Western Wall. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in the first century. And now, The Western Wall is the most ceremonially holy place for Jews to travel to and pray at. And this small section of retaining wall is seen as holy and significant because it’s so old, and people have been praying there for the longest time. A few years ago they opened up a ‘new and improved’ prayer area next to the old section, but hardly anyone goes to the new one. You can guess the probable reason: Why go to the new when you could go to the old?

The King’s King and Son

And so in Mark 12:35–37, Jesus uses Psalm 110 to effectively challenge to the religious leaders’ understanding. He’s essentially saying, ‘Sure, the messiah is a descendant of King David, but David wouldn’t call any mere human descendant his master. Because any descendant of David would automatically be inferior to him. They would all see David as master. And yet, David addresses this descendant as his master. How can that be?’

Jesus opens up this great mystery that the Pharisees couldn’t unravel. According to their own scriptures, their long-awaited messiah could only be someone who was somehow both David’s descendant and someone who came before him, otherwise David wouldn’t call him his master.

Jesus: The Glorious Paradox

There is only person who would ever step into this paradox:

15 John testified concerning him and exclaimed, “This was the one of whom I said, ‘The one coming after me ranks ahead of me, because he existed before me.’” (John 1:15)

In John 8, Jesus was asked by the religious leaders:

53 Are you greater than our father Abraham who died? And the prophets died. Who do you claim to be?” …

56 [Jesus answered] “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.”

57 The Jews replied, “You aren’t fifty years old yet, and you’ve seen Abraham?”

58 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.(John 8:53, 56-58)

Only in Jesus do we also see the divine, eternal son of God, who existed before David, before Moses, before Abraham, before all things came to be (Colossians 1:15–17; Hebrews 1:2). He is greater than David, greater than Moses, even greater than Abraham, the first recipient of God’s kingdom promises in Genesis 12. And then 2,000 years ago, in the hometown of David, a newborn cry is heard as the promised son of David is born.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory. (John 1:14)

It’s a glorious tension, which continues to blow my little mind. And I hope I’m not the only one. Hillsong Young & Free expresses the magnificence of the incarnation, in their song ‘End of Days’. I wonder if you’ve heard it before. In the verses they sing:

You came to earth that You created
You walked beneath the stars You named…
Jesus Christ the Lord our God…

You authored life and wrote Yourself in
You dwelt in time that You designed
Creator lived in His creation
Completely man completely God.2

The King’s King Sits Enthroned

Of David. A psalm.

The LORD says to my lord:

“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.” (Psalm 110:1)

In Psalm 110, the king’s king sits enthroned in the heavens, up by God’s side. And it’s clear from this psalm that he has complete conquest over all his enemies. They are under his feet (verse 1), he rules over them (verse 2), he will destroy opposing authorities (verse 5), he will cover the nations with corpses (verse 6).

This was certainly the expectation of what the promised messiah would do. In the days of the Old Testament, there were always enemies threatening the people of God: The Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians and more. In the time of Jesus, people expected their messiah king to liberate God’s people from the grips of the Roman empire.

David or Violent Jesus?

If we were to conduct a quick study into the life of King David himself, this certainly sounds like the victorious, conquering rule he had (1 Chronicles 18). But wait a second. We’ve already established that this psalm is about Jesus, not King David. And as far as I can tell, Jesus didn’t do any of those violent things.

In fact, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43–44). He even willingly let his enemies falsely convict him and execute him (Matthew 26:62–63). Again, we’re left scratching our heads: If this is about Jesus, how can this work? There must be more to the picture. We must have overlooked something. There must be another way of looking at this. And there is.

2. The Permanent Priest (Psalm 110:4)

In amongst all this language of conquest and defeating enemies, in verse 4, we find another mysterious declaration from God to the messianic king:

The LORD has sworn
    and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4)

This King is somehow also a Priest. The King’s King is a Permanent Priest. Now these days, depending on your experience around churches growing up, when we hear the word ‘priest’ we likely have different assumptions about what that is. But in the Old Testament, the priests were quite different. And they had a very important role.

The Enemy of Sin

Right from the start of the Bible it is clear that we have a God who wants to live amongst his people (Genesis 3:8–9). But ever since the fall in Genesis 3, there has been a great enemy preventing a holy God from dwelling with humans. And that enemy is sin. It opened the floodgates for the forces of evil at work in the world and in our own hearts.

And so, priests were in the unique position of being mediators between God and his people. They were representatives of the people to God, and they were representatives from God to the people. This vital sacrificial ministry of these priests acting on behalf of the sinful Israel around them, enabled these men and women to live in fellowship with God.

But sin remained perpetually a problem for God’s people. It’s the cancer of the soul. Even the great king David, for all his military conquests, was undone by his sinful heart (2 Samuel 11:1–12:14). The man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), would eventually find himself praying in Psalm 51:10, ‘Create in me a pure heart, O God.’

For the people of God, the real enemy wasn’t really the Philistines, or the Babylonians, or the Romans. The true enemy was the force of sin and evil, which no amount of military firepower could defeat. And sin is our problem too. Left to ourselves, we’re no better than those who came before us. We need more than just a king; we need someone who can defeat the power of sin. And so, Psalm 110 declares that the messiah will not only be a conquering king. For him to truly save his people both inside and out, he will need to be a priest as well.

The Defeat of Sin

We need someone who can defeat the power of sin. And this is how the New Testament understands Jesus’ work on the cross. When Christ gave himself in our place, on our behalf, it was a victory, a triumph over the forces of evil and sin. The spiritual enemies of God were defeated. I love how Colossians 2:14–15 and Hebrews 2:14 expresses it:

14 He [Jesus] cancelled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. (Colossians 2:14-15 NLT)

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14)

That sounds like Psalm 110 conquest to me. And in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul uses Psalm 110:1 language to show how Christ will defeat the final enemy, death itself:

25 For [Christ] must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet26 The last enemy to be abolished is death. (1 Corinthians 15:25-26)

All of a sudden, the imagery of defeating enemies in Psalm 110 becomes a bit clearer. We need someone who can defeat the power of sin once and for all. The messiah we need is both a reigning king and a perfect priest.

Multiple Titles: King and Priest

Our culture understands how someone could have two titles at once. It’s pretty normal to have two or more jobs these days. One of my friends is a lovely person who is both an Anglican Priest, and a lecturing Doctor of Engineering. These days most of us tend to have multiple roles and titles, in some form or another. But in biblical times, this was much less common. And particularly for kings and priests.

In fact, if you read 1 Samuel 13:11–14, we see how David’s predecessor, King Saul ultimately lost his crown because he was a king who tried to dabble in the ministry of a priest. You can’t have someone who is both a king and a priest. King David (and Jesus) came from the tribe of Judah (Hebrews 7:14). And according to the Old Testament law, priests must come from the tribe of Levi. And yet, in Psalm 110, God freely declares ‘you are a king’ and ‘you are a priest’. How can this be? The plot thickens, yet again!

What’s with Melchizedek?

But notice the last line of verse 4:

“You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4b)

Melchizedek? That’s a bit unusual. And you can imagine King David, when he hears this divine oracle… he probably sits back in his chair and starts scratching his head, ‘Melchizedek… Melchizedek… where have I heard that before?’ And he walks over to his collection of scrolls and starts reading through Genesis. Noah… the flood… Abram… Lot… and eventually he gets to Genesis 14:17–18, the only other place in the Old Testament where this name appears:

17 After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem [an abbreviation of Jerusalem] brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High. (Genesis 14:17–18)

Imagine David reading this. He looks up. ‘What did I just read? Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem… he was a priest of God Most High.’ A king who was also a priest.

Melchizedek: King and Priest

Turns out there is such a thing as a Priestly King after all. And what’s more, Melchizedek was on the scene during the days of Abraham, meaning his priesthood and kingship existed way before Abraham’s great-grandson Levi was born, and way before the Levitical priesthood (Hebrews 7:9–10).

Remember what we were considering before about how the older something is, the more important it is? In Melchizedek, not only do we have a pattern of a king and a priest together, but the fact that he also predates the Levitical priests by several generations makes his priesthood infinitely more valuable than theirs too.

And now in Psalm 110, it’s anticipating inauguration day. And God is swearing in a new leader, the messiah. He is the king’s king, and a permanent priest. He’s the trustworthy king we need. He is the faithful priest who will remain in office forever.

Hebrews 7:1–28

The author of Hebrews absolutely loves Psalm 110:4, and he beautifully brings this theme together for us:

19 … [Now] a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.

20 And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, 21 but [Jesus] became a priest with an oath when God said to him:

“The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
‘You are a priest forever.’” 

22 Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant.

23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

26 Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. (Hebrews 7:19–26)

3. Psalm 110: A Treasure for Us

Hopefully after our deep dive into Psalm 110, you’re starting to see why this psalm was so valuable for the New Testament authors and for us today. But if all I did was just fill your head with interesting stuff, that would be a real waste. Because I truly believe that the implications of Psalm 110 can and should make a real difference in our lives. And so, I want us to now turn to considering what this means for us in our day-to-day walk with Jesus this year. I want to mention just two things now, but I’m sure there’s more.

i. Psalm 110 Reminds Us that Our God is Faithful

Psalm 110 shows us that our God is faithful. I think we’d all admit that these past couple of years have been pretty tough:

  • Our churches have had to close their doors, with physical gatherings banned.
  • National and international fear as a virus silently wreaks havoc on jobs and families.
  • Children forced to teach themselves school.
  • Trusted Christian role models falling from grace.
  • World leaders wielding their power for division, distrust and violence.
  • Australia’s had the worst year for family violence than it has every experienced.3
  • And so many more stories and struggles that will never be told or heard.

Sometimes, we can be tempted to just lose hope, can’t we? But Psalm 110 speaks to our insecurities. We aren’t given the reasons why all these things happened, but we are reminded again and again, that we worship a God who is faithful. God can be trusted. He can be trusted to do what he says he will do.

Why? The fact that God makes a promise in Psalm 110, which see fulfilled in the pages of biblical history, is such an encouragement for me in these times of uncertainty. I love what Peter Adam says about Psalm 110:

The promise to Jesus made by God in Psalm 110… was fulfilled when God’s son became incarnate… when he died on the cross as the effective atoning priest and sacrifice, and when God raised him from death to his right hand, where he continues as a priest forever. The story of our salvation in Christ is the story of God doing what he swore he would do.4

The exhortation that Hebrews draws from Psalm 110 is grounded in the faithfulness of God, who has proved himself faithful:

23 Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, [why?] since he who promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:23)

ii. Psalm 110 Reminds Us What Jesus is Doing Right Now

A second thing which Psalm 110 shows us, is the answer to the question: ‘What is Jesus doing right now?’ Have you ever stopped to ask yourself that question? What is Jesus actually doing right now? So often we have such a small view of Jesus that basically reduces him to the guy who died 2,000 years ago and gives us a free pass to heaven—and that’s about it. And so often that’s how we communicate the gospel to others too. But it makes it sound likeJesus just been bludging for the past 2,000 years!

What is Jesus doing right now? Well according to Psalm 110, Jesus is currently sitting enthroned in the heavens as our high priest forever. And since God is faithful, ‘forever’ must mean include right now as well. He holds his priesthood permanently, and according to Hebrews 7:23, that means ‘he always lives to intercede for [us].’

Jesus intercedes for us

What is Jesus doing right now? He is interceding for you. Jesus himself listens to you cry out to him. He hears your gratitude. He forgives you when you bring your daily sin and failures to him. When we say that Christians have ‘a relationship with Jesus’, that’s not a cliché. It is totally and completely true. If you are a Christian, then you have a relationship with an actual person at the right hand of God, right now. How does that make you feel?

Jesus is safe and trustworthy

Maybe you don’t have many friends. Maybe you have had a history of abuse or trauma and just can’t bring yourself to trust anyone fully. Because of Psalm 110, we know that our compassionate God, through the person of Jesus provides ‘at least one real and healthy and safe relationship for each… person’.5 I think that makes a world of difference.

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus the Son of God—let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14–16)

I urge you today, as long as it is called today, to cling to our compassionate king and priest. And know that he is for you. Jesus will never leave you, never drive you away, he is our priest and king forever. I’m so thankful for the unexpected treasure of Psalm 110, and may we continue to see its immense value for our journey with Jesus.

I invite you to treat this beautiful song as a prayer to our king and priest.

Citizens & Saints – Before The Throne

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Christian Living

Baking a Multigenerational Cake at Church

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a multigenerational church. I’ve also recently discovered the disastrously hilarious show Nailed It! It’s essentially a cooking show where contestants with self-diagnosed mediocre baking talents attempt to recreate ludicrously complex cakes and desserts in a very short period of time. As you can imagine, the results are usually disastrous and hilarious!

Cake fails

After watching several episodes, I feel that problems arise when contestants either: (1) forget to add the necessary ingredients, or (2) don’t combine them properly or carefully enough. And believe it or not, the process of baking a cake can teach us a great deal about being a multigenerational church.

Not convinced? Intergenerational ministry expert Cory Seibel tells us how:

“The process of becoming a vibrant intergenerational church can be compared to baking a cake. In order to bake a cake successfully… combining the correct ingredients is essential. If the necessary ingredients are not mixed well, there is a good chance the cake will not hold together properly…

Similar observations can be made about multigenerational churches today. Many of us are eager to see our churches become characterized by a strong sense of cohesion between people of different generations. There are immense benefits that accompany the strengthening of intergenerational cohesion within the church. Nonetheless, the sad reality is that the experience of many churches in recent decades has been painfully similar to “cake fails.” In far too many cases, the generations have not held together well.” 1

Baking a Multigenerational Cake at Church

So when baking a cake, two important things to remember:

  1. Having all the right ingredients
  2. Mixing these ingredients well

And so, using this analogy, being a vibrant multigenerational church looks like:

  1. Welcoming all generations (i.e. Having the right ingredients), but also
  2. Creating opportunities for intergenerational learning (mixing these ingredients well)
The Right Ingredients and Mixing Ingredients Well

I quite like this analogy because it helps us make a massive topic easier to get our head around. (Also, every time you bake something, you’ll hopefully think about fostering a multigenerational community at your church!)

A precautionary word

Now, as a side note, just because an idea or metaphor or saying sounds interesting and it’s presented with confidence, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s biblical or wise. So we always need to turn to God’s word to see how it measures up. When considering multigenerational ministry, it evokes big questions like:

  • Does God actually desire a church where all generations are present together?
  • Should we instead aim for targeted church communities and groups where everyone is the same age and stage as us?
  • And if we do have different generations together, does God want these different age groups have anything to do with one another?

As we explore some passages that address this, I hope you can catch the Bible’s vision of a multigenerational church and that these generations should find opportunities to learn from one another.

Having the Right Ingredients: Welcoming all Generations

So first, when we think about having the right ingredients, both the Old Testament and the New have a wonderful vision for the people of God, as one where multiple generations are gathered and welcome together.

From One Generation to Another (Psalm 145:3–7; Psalm 78:1–7; Psalm 8:2)

God’s vision throughout the Psalms is that all generations join together in worshiping him and teaching one another. I love these wonderful words from Psalm 145. Where the Psalmist proclaims:

Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
    his greatness no one can fathom.
One generation commends your works to another;
    they tell of your mighty acts.
They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty—
    and I will meditate on your wonderful works.
They tell of the power of your awesome works—
    and I will proclaim your great deeds.
They celebrate your abundant goodness
    and joyfully sing of your righteousness. (Psalm 145:3–7)

Worship pastor John Bolin makes a great observation about this Psalm:

This passage gives us 5 activities that all generations should do together. They should commend, tell, speak, celebrate and sing. Is it just me or is that an incredible structure for one big worship service? I love how the Psalmist is so affected by this worship experience that it compels him to both internally meditate and externally proclaim.2

Passing the baton

Multigenerational ministry plays a vital role in entrusting the next generation to know the ‘praiseworthy deeds of the LORD’ (Psalm 78:4).

My people, hear my teaching;
    listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
    I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
    things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
    we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
    his power, and the wonders he has done.
He decreed statutes for Jacob
    and established the law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
    to teach their children,
so the next generation would know them,
    even the children yet to be born,
    and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God
    and would not forget his deeds
    but would keep his commands. (Psalm 78:1–7)

Graham Stanton shows the multigenerational heart of the Psalmist:

Psalm 78 invites all of God’s people to take our part in the ancient relay of intergenerational faith transmission… Psalm 78:3-6 describes a great relay race of intergenerational faith transmission: our “ancestors” handed on the faith to us, then we hand on the faith to “the next generation”, our children. Looking further forward, verse six speaks of “the children yet to be born”, and then further still to “their children”. The great vision of Psalm 78 is to see the faith handed down to our children’s grandchildren!3

Multigenerational praise

Jesus himself in Matthew 21, hearing children around him praising God, turned to the Psalter and recited Psalm 8:2: ‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’ (Matthew 21:16).

God’s vision throughout the Psalms is that all generations join together in worshiping him and teaching one another. And so we, as God’s people today, are to welcome and embrace people from every generation in this place. Your church community should be eager to welcome babies, boomers, retirees, students, singles, mums, dads, and everyone in between. And we need to ensure we have ministries in place that can meet these generations where they are at. We are called to participate in this multigenerational experience of worship, as we teach, praise, and celebrate God’s greatness together. How much does your Sunday gathering reflect this vision?

The Spirit Empowers a Multigenerational Church (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:12–18)

Through the prophet Joel, God promised that an age was coming, the age of the Holy Spirit, where the Spirit will be poured out on all generations of God’s people (Joel 2:28–29). It was a promised day when the people of God would be supernaturally empowered for this kind of multigenerational ministry.

And then many years later, on the day of Pentecost, God did as he promised. The Spirit comes. He is poured out on the church, and the world will never be the same:

12 Amazed and perplexed, [the crowd] asked one another, “What does this mean?” …
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. … 16 this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy…
39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:12–18, 39)

Men, women, old, young, even the lowly and insignificant… we see the Holy Spirit filling them and enabling them to minister to one another and edify the body of Christ. Since we too live in the age of the Spirit, this is what we should strive to see in our churches. The Spirit enables us to be a church where babies, teenagers, the elderly, pre-schoolers, parents and widows are welcome here.

We need help

But perhaps you’re sitting there thinking: ‘I like the sound of this, but I just don’t know if I’ve got what it takes to foster a church community like that.’ And if that’s you, you’re not alone. After all, it’s much easier to cluster around people like us, isn’t it? It’s easy to stick with our tribe. But welcoming others across barriers of age, ethnicity, gender, language, class… that is hard. And it doesn’t come naturally or automatically.

And I think that’s why we need the Spirit to help us. We can’t do this alone; we need God’s help. And in his goodness, he’s freely given us his Spirit, to empower us to live up to his vision of a multigenerational church. God is faithful—he is with us in this task.

Mixing Ingredients Well: CREATING Opportunities for Intergenerational Learning

To return to our baking analogy: as I’m sure you’ll know if you’ve baked before, as important as it is to have all the right ingredients, it’s not going to transform into a beautiful cake or biscuit if you don’t mix them together. You’ll end up with a weird, charred, powdery mess instead. The reason we add the eggs, the milk, the four, the sugar to the mixing bowl… is so they can be combined to form something spectacular. Something greater than the sum of its parts.

And in the New Testament, both Peter and Paul describe the church in really vivid language. Christ is at work bringing each of us together and forming us into a new family (Ephesians 2:19), a new body (1 Corinthians 12:12–27; Ephesians 5:30), a new temple (Ephesians 2:20–21; 1 Peter 2:4–5), a new kingdom (1 Peter 2:9–10), a new dwelling (Ephesians 2:22), a beautiful bride (Ephesians 5:31–32).

Ordinary people like you and I are transformed into a place where the glory of God resides and where people can experience that glory. Multigenerational churches can enable some of this transformation because they provide opportunities to learn from each other, as the generations interact with one another.

Adults Learning from Children (Mark 10:13–16; Matthew 18:1–5)

In the Gospels, we see that for Jesus, this intergenerational learning is vital for being a follower of him. Mark recounts:

13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13–16)

I don’t know about you, but I find Jesus’ words remarkable. Not only do we see his heart for welcoming children as genuine followers of him, but we also see in verse 15 that us adults need to learn about following Jesus from the children around us! On another occasion in Matthew 18, Jesus makes this even clearer, saying to the adults that ‘unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18:3).

Children as models for the kingdom

And this claim is even more striking, because as Judith Gundry-Volf notes, ‘nowhere in Jewish literature are children put forward as models for adults, and in a Greco-Roman setting [being compared] with children was highly insulting.’4

Yet in Jesus’ mind, God’s kingdom is for children just as much as it is for adults. And one key reason God wants his church to be multigenerational, is because adults and children each need opportunities to learn from one another:

  • On the one hand, children are highly dependent on adults to be taught about Jesus and grow in their knowledge and maturity,
  • And yet, us adults are to learn about the gospel from children and we grow when we become like them!

Adults and children shaping one another

Judith Gundry-Volf has done a lot of study into the way Jesus interacted with adults and children. And I love the way she expresses her findings. She writes:

[T]he Gospels teach more than how to make an adult world kinder and juster for children, and how to raise children in a Christian way for an adult world. The Gospels teach the reign of God as a children’s world, where children are the measure, rather than don’t measure up to adults, where the small are great and the great must become small… Adults need not only to shape children but to be shaped by them. And this being shaped is essential to their shaping children, but also to adults’ very relationship to Christ and their participation in the reign of God.5

Receiving ‘like a child’

Given its importance, what does it mean for adults to ‘receive the kingdom of God like a little child’? (Mark 10:15). R. T. France and James Edwards offer some wisdom:

[T]he reason the disciples were unable to appreciate the significance of children in relation to the kingdom of God is that they themselves have not yet learned to ‘receive’ it like children. Their ‘grown-up’ sense of values prevents them from being in tune with God’s value scale.6

To receive the kingdom of God as a child is to receive it as one who has no credits, no clout, no claims. A little child has absolutely nothing to bring, and whatever a child receives, he or she receives by grace on the basis of sheer neediness rather than by any merit inherent in him- or herself. Little children are paradigmatic disciples, for only empty hands can be filled.7

We need a multigenerational church, because it helps each generation recognise our own blind-spots, and together grow to become more like Christ. Just as a cake won’t work if the ingredients aren’t mixed well, we not only need to have all the generations present our church, but be prepared to humbly learn from one another in love. The church is enriched when all generations are heard.

Old and Young, Teaching and Learning (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:14–15; 2:1–2; 1 Timothy 4:12)

But it’s not just the adults and children paradigm. In the New Testament we have Timothy. As the Apostle Paul is writing to him in 1 and 2 Timothy, and we find that Timothy’s faith has been greatly shaped by those generations older than him:

1:5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. (2 Timothy 1:5)

2:14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14–15)

Timothy would certainly not be where he was without the formation he received from those older than him. But at the same time, the young adult Timothy is urged to shape the older generations in their faith and living, and promote a culture of intergenerational learning:

2:1 You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Timothy 2:1–2)

4:12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)

Timothy’s story is one of being both a multigenerational learner, and a multigenerational teacher. Old and young, teaching and learning together. Shaping and being shaped. This multigenerational vision is God’s will for us too.

ExperimentATION and Mess

When we’re baking, the fun is often in the experimentation. Let’s be willing to experiment with new ways of combining these generational ingredients. Graham Stanton has done some excellent work around children and youth ministry, and he offers an intuitive way of imagining what possibilities there are for intergenerational learning at church:8

Graham Stanton Learning Grid

By picking any two combinations of generations, we can ask:

  • What might this generation be able to teach the other? For example:
    • What might children teach young adults?
    • What might babies be able to teach teenagers?
    • Teenagers teaching adults?
    • Teenagers learning from elders?
  • How can I create opportunities for this intergenerational learning to take place?

Embrace the Mess!

Of course, mixing ingredients can get messy sometimes. What’s that old saying? ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.’ I have a vivid memory of attending at an all-ages service years ago, and one of the toddlers decided to use the ‘Greeting of the Peace’ time to come forward do shots of all the communion juice cups! Combining generations can get messy sometimes, our sensibilities may get offended from time to time.

But I say, considering what’s at stake, let’s embrace the mess. The saviour that we worship willingly humbled himself into the mess of our world, in order to bring us to God (Philippians 2:6–8; 1 Peter 3:18). Christ made a great personal sacrifice for our sake, and we’re called to do that for the sake of others (Philippians 2:3–5; 1 Peter 2:21). So let’s embrace the mess.

Keep the mess safe

And of course, there’s a big difference between being messy and being unsafe—both in cooking and in intergenerational ministry. 1 Timothy 5:1–2 exhorts us that when relating to those older and younger than us, we must do so ‘with absolute purity’. At least in the Anglican Diocese where I serve, with so many of us having recently competed Safe Ministry Training, we as a church organisation are excellently situated to imagine and embrace fresh opportunities for intergenerational learning, all conducted in a safe and life-giving way.

Sure, mixing generations can get messy, but when done well, and with Christ’s love and care, we will come to hear stories like one my friend’s, who returned to church after encountering the sense of belonging that both her children and parents both experienced at their church. Together, let us foster multigenerational communities in our churches, where people of all ages are welcomed. Let’s be a church where all generations would feel they belong and have a place here. And let’s embrace opportunities to learn from those older and younger than us. This multidimensional body is the church that God delights in, and may his Spirit empower us to be a part of it.

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Christian Living, Church, Ministry & Theology

Multicultural Church (1/2): Three Reasons You Need One

This is the first of a two-part contribution to the topic of multicultural church. See part 2 here.

Would you describe your church as ‘multicultural’? Is being multicultural even a good goal to pursue in a church? In this article and the next, we’re going to think hard about multicultural churches.  My goal in this first article is to persuade you that if your church exists in a culturally diverse context, then for at least three reasons, you need a multicultural church. Our second article then considers five common practical approaches when churches seek to move more towards a multicultural ecclesiology.

What is ‘multicultural’?

The task of assessing whether a community is multicultural is, of course, dependant on how we define the notion of ‘multiculturalism’. Demarcations of race and ethnicity are certainly major categories which constitute a person’s culture, but so are the varied generational age groups, as are differences in income, profession, education, and gender.1 It is advantageous to consider multicultural in ‘the broadest sociological sense’ of the term, however, particular focus in this article will be given to a person’s culture in reference to their ethnicity and race.2

Multiethnic or Multicultural?

In terms of identifying the essence of what it means for a church community to be multicultural (distinct from, say, ‘multiethnic’), I am drawn to Brouwer’s understanding. For Brouwer, a ‘multicultural’ church is one that extends beyond ‘an unexpected mix of nationalities, races, and skin tones’—as one finds in Acts 2:9–10—rather multicultural churches are ones that represent an engagement of people from varied nationalities, who still identify with and engage with those cultures to some degree.3 In other words, a multiethnic church in Australia might have a congregation comprised of people from different nationalities, but their distinctly monocultural expression of worship means that these peoples’ deeper cultural identities are not engaged with to a meaningful level. A multicultural church, by contrast, envisages a church which enables and fosters Chinese Christians worshipping as Chinese, South Sudanese Christians as South Sudanese, Anglo Christians as Anglos. Of course, this raises big questions about the tension between unity and diversity. How this might be done well is a discussion saved for our second article!

Three reasons why you need a multicultural church

Why might it be advantageous for churches situated in culturally diverse contexts to be multicultural in this way? I believe there are at least three arguments for churches to pursue a multicultural approach: (i) Church viability; (ii) Mutual edification; and (iii) Gospel obedience. It is my contention that each of these arguments are persuasive; and so, if your church is in a culturally diverse context, you need a multicultural church!

i. Multicultural for church viability

This reason for churches to pursue multicultural communities is arguably a pragmatic one. Yang claims that multicultural churches in culturally diverse contexts are necessary for the ongoing viability of the church. She holds that Anglo-Australian churches which remain monocultural are at an increasing risk of becoming unsustainable, since the context around them is increasingly becoming culturally diverse. A refusal to culturally transform Anglo-Australian churches will not only alienate themselves from the community they are desiring to reach, but will forgo plentiful opportunities for friendship and mission.4 Yang argues:

There is always a need to be relevant to the surrounding community and that community is bursting with many cultures. The Anglo-Australian church needs to become able to integrate people from other cultures and minister effectively alongside them; otherwise it becomes a monocultural church in a multicultural community. Often the Anglo church has buildings that are used for only a few hours a week, and may struggle financially to maintain the buildings.5

The importance of deliberate change

According to Brouwer, churches will not naturally become more multicultural simply because their context has developed and diversified. For this reason, culturally diverse churches will tend to be either newer establishments that were founded with the goal of being ethnically diverse, or else they will be older churches which have made conscious endeavours to better reflect the cultural diversity of their local context.6

Given the cultural context of Australia is undoubtedly becoming increasingly diverse, I find this pragmatic argument is persuasive for two reasons. First, for a church to choose not to pursue a multicultural vision is to unconsciously pursue a church that ministers to an increasingly declining demographic. For Australian churches already experiencing challenges around attendance and resources, their viability will be further challenged as their local context continues to change.

Following Paul’s example

Second—and hopefully more persuasively—Christians have an excellent example of this adaption to a diverse context modelled by the Apostle Paul:7

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.’ (1 Corinthians 9:19–23)

For their viability—or rather their vitality—churches in diverse contexts should be rejoicing at the ever-increasing opportunities to reach the global mission field outside their doorstep.8 In short, you need a multicultural church.

ii. Multicultural for mutual edification

Another reason you need a multicultural church rests upon the prospect of mutual edification when Christian cultures interact. According to Lewis-Giggetts, when contemplating cultural diversity in the church, Christians tend to intuitively fall into regrettable categories of either scepticism or naïve denial of the issue. One side argues that since people naturally gather in homogeneous ethnic groups, churches ought not be different to this. This leads to the prevalence of monoethnic churches—Asian, black, white, etc—and scepticism towards the notion of a culturally diverse church.9 Conversely, other seemingly open-minded Christians are ‘colour-blind’, tending to deny that racial difference ought to be a factor at all in the church (whilst usually attending monoethnic churches themselves).10 While someone’s claim to not recognise colour could be interpreted as flattery, to not recognise someone’s culture, in essence, is to not see them. It is a denial of a large portion of someone’s identity.11

Fighting ethnocentrism

Additionally, the ethnocentrism of Western Christianity, seems particularly at risk of presuming superiority over other cultures. According to McLaughlin, ‘the West must adjust to the fact that our culture does not own Christianity.’12 How do we navigate this challenge? You need a multicultural church. A sincere pursuit of a multicultural church is mutually edifying for believers, since it ensures that our own cultural biases, blind spots, and bigotry are challenged and corrected. Ortiz argues that it is only through a pursuit of multicultural ministry that ‘Christians [learn to] repent of their ungodly views and feel a fresh desire to learn from each other, declaring their need for their brothers and sisters.’13

Greenman persuasively argues that even in the academic sphere, Western perspectives on theology alone ‘cannot satisfy the global church’s search for truth and faithful service.’14 His solution, then, is for Anglos to humbly turn to their global ‘family’ in Christ, which is increasingly present ‘literally next door’ to us in the community, recognising them sincerely as ‘brothers and sisters as servants, as co-laborers and fellow pilgrims’.15 On this score, Greenman and others mount a persuasive case in favour of churches in culturally diverse settings becoming multicultural. In short, you need a multicultural church.

iii. Multicultural for gospel obedience

A third reason that churches ought to embrace multicultural identities is theological. A multicultural church is a clear outworking of obedience to God’s word and will (Acts 2:5–11; 15:1–21; Romans 15:7–14; 1 Corinthians 9:22; Galatians 3:26–28; Ephesians 2:11–16; Colossians 3:11; Revelation 7:9; plus heaps in the Old Testament: Genesis 12:3; Deuteronomy 10:16–19; Isaiah 56:7, etc).16 McLaughlin rightly affirms that ‘the Christian movement was multicultural and multiethnic from the outset.’17 Indeed, ‘Christianity is the most ethnically, culturally, socioeconomically, and racially diverse belief system in all of history.’ 18 And yet, Brouwer’s critique is not far from the truth:

No church I have served over the years has looked exactly like the neighborhoods and communities in which the churches were located. Instead we always segregated ourselves along racial and ethnic lines.19

Following the Great Commission

It is this multicultural global family of believers, that is commissioned for the task of bearing witness to all nations, by the power of the Spirit (Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8).20 And so, it is not accurate to suggest that church should be multicultural; rather, the church is multicultural. This is even more so if we approach this issue eschatologically, as Revelation 7:9 envisages a truly multicultural kingdom. As Lewis-Giggetts aptly remarks: ‘Heaven is going to look a whole lot different from your church right now.’21

The burden of proof surely must be upon those who are reluctant in obeying the clear multicultural imperative of the gospel. Effective global witness of the church is contingent upon culturally diverse Christians offering ‘their own distinctive gifts in service of the global body of Christ as it faces decisions concerning how best to “make real” the oneness of God’s people in the Spirit.’22

[W]e must align ourselves fully with the will of God. Christ is returning for a church that is without spot, wrinkle, or blemish (Eph. 5:27), and that church is dynamically multicultural, multiracial, and subsequently, multidimensional. It will take a church that looks this way to accomplish the will of God on the earth.23

Where to from here?

In summary, it is not only advantageous or strategic, but necessary that churches in culturally diverse contexts are multicultural churches. We’ve looked at three reasons that this should be so. The church in this age will always exist in a context with at least some degree of cultural diversity, therefore it is imperative for church leaders and members alike to seriously consider a contextually appropriate praxis for being a multicultural church. In short, you need a multicultural church.

In part two, we will consider five common approaches to achieving this multicultural vision. Read it here.

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Church, Ministry & Theology

I Just Wanna Feel Real Love (Romans 8:31–39)

When I was back in school, I remember loving the song ‘Feel’ by Robbie Williams.1 I had it on a CD and my family used to love listening to it blaring really loud on our stereo system, and feeling the floor shake when it got to the chorus!

The song itself tells a journey of someone who is restless, and the chorus begins with an evocative lyric that echoes the deep longing of the human heart. He sings:

‘I just wanna feel, real love’ – Robbie Williams

Real Love and COVID-19

As I write this, COVID-19 restrictions have been putting us in and out of lockdowns for over a year now. This season of lockdowns, quarantines, testing, vaccine delays, and constant disruptions to long-anticipated plans have been really, really tough for many of the people I know. Amongst the stresses of job security, staying infection-free, and working and churching from home, one father puts it aptly:

‘One of the most difficult aspects of this virus is the way it separates us’.2

One of the things I’ve missed the most is being able to hug my family. Being able to embrace my friends. And I know for some people, the separation caused by this virus has meant that you will never get the chance to embrace your parent or child or friend again.

It’s heart-breaking. Are you feeling it too?

I just wanna feel, real love…

If that’s where you are at today, I believe God wants to minister to your heart through his word. I believe God wants to show you real love. I believe God wants you to feel his real love.3 And if you want to grasp the depths of God’s love for you, there’s no better place than Romans chapter 8. Romans would have to be some of the most magnificent words ever written down. And the end of chapter 8 are my favourite verses in the whole Bible—I’m not kidding.

The Apostle Paul reflects on the amazing work of God in the life and saving ministry of Jesus. He reflects on the power of the Holy Spirit in confirming the adoption of you and I as children of God. He thinks about what all this means for our daily experience as Christians. Then Paul asks: ‘What, then, shall we say in response to these things?’ (Romans 8:31a)

What does Paul say? Four things:

1. God is for us (8:31)

First Paul asks: ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Romans 8:31b)

Can you believe that? What the gospel means for our lives is that ultimately God is for his people. The creator and sustainer of the world is for us… the God of the universe is for you! And if God is for us, everything else that rails against us in our everyday lives, as powerful as they may appear, everything else, even COVID-19, is ultimately powerless by comparison.

We have a God who is for us! Do you feel that?

2. God is generous to us (8:32)

Have a look at Romans 8:32:

‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’

In other words, since God has already done the impossibly hard thing in giving up his own beloved son for us, there’s nothing else he can’t do for his people! God as our adoptive father is generous to us and wants us to approach him as freely as a child approaches a kind father (Romans 8:14–17).

Our God is lavishly generous toward us! Do you feel that?

3. God will not condemn us (8:33–34)

Paul poses another question in Romans 8:33–34:

33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.’

If you are feeling like you aren’t worthy enough to be loved by God; if you are feeling anxious that you will get to the end and God will turn around and reject you; listen to these words! In Mike Bird’s view, Paul is saying:

‘The only one [even] capable of condemning us is Christ Jesus. But he has died, risen and ascended for [you] and is now interceding on [your] behalf… he’s not going to turn around the next minute and condemn [you]!’4

And so, the verdict of Romans 8:1 stands firm: ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’! Do you feel that?

4. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (8:35–39)

In light of all the above, Paul asks the big question: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’ (Romans 8:35a)

35b Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Who or what can possibly separate us from being loved by Jesus? Will COVID-19, unemployment, sickness, death, distress, our foolish decisions, the secular government, the evil of others, our own weakness separate us from experiencing the real love of Christ? NO! Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!

I just wanna feel, real love…

Is your heart singing: ‘I just wanna feel, real love’? The wonderful news is: YES! Yes, you can feel real love, and it’s lavishly available to us in Christ! American Pastor Tim Keller once wrote about the love God offers to us. He said:

‘To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial.  To be known and not loved is our greatest fear.  But to be fully known and truly loved is, well…  It is what we need more than anything.’5

Doesn’t it just blow your mind that God knows everything there is to know about you, warts-and-all, and yet he loves you deeper and more completely than anyone else can? And in Christ Jesus, we are loved like this!

I’m reminded of the final words of the hymn When I Survey the Wonderous Cross. It ends with:

‘Love so amazing, so divine; Demands my soul, my life, my all.’

From God, we have an amazing, divine, real love, that demands all our energy, all our affection; all our lives in return.

Do you feel that love?

God, our loving keeper

In 2020, the Christian world heard of the passing of much-loved theologian and Anglican churchman J. I. Packer. Packer himself reflects on the comfort of Romans 8 in his book Knowing God. And as we conclude, I thought it would be fitting to share his words that particularly encouraged me when I first read them, many years ago. He writes:

‘God is adequate as our keeper. ‘Nothing… can separate us from the love of God,’ because the love of God holds us fast… Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.’6

However the coming years of COVID pan out, be encouraged. Embrace the real love that God offers to us in Christ, and let’s keep on persevering and walking with him.

38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38–39)

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Christian Living

The ‘Anomaly’: Baptism in the BCP

The theology of baptism expressed in The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has been likened to the ‘chief theological controversy of the early and mid-nineteenth century’.1 For Evangelical Anglicans, the central contention that conversion occurs at the time of one’s personal faith in Christ is exceedingly difficult to reconcile with statements in the BCP baptism liturgy that declared an infant to be ‘regenerate’ by the end of the service, well before they had opportunity to express such faith.2 Consequently, for Bebbington, that this wording remains in the BCP1662 infant baptism liturgy, is something of an ‘anomaly’ which continues to ‘trouble… Evangelical Anglicans’ to this day.3

This essay received the 2020 Leeper Prayer Book Essay prize. I am thankful to Rhys Bezzant for his invaluable feedback.

This essay examines and critiques the theology of baptism expressed through words and shape of the baptism service in the BCP1552 and BCP1662. I have structured my argument into two main sections: First, we examine the shape and words of the baptism service itself. Second, we evaluate the BCP theology of baptism in two contentious areas: (1) The so-called ‘anomaly’ of baptismal regeneration; and (2) The validity of vicarious repentance and faith.

Upon evaluation, I believe that while the vocabulary used in the infant baptism service appears to communicate a theology at odds with the Evangelical Anglicanism, the shape of the service, validates the Evangelical place of repentance, faith and regeneration. In other words, I believe the theology of baptism expressed in the words and shape of the 1552 and 1662 service is consistent with that of Evangelical Anglicanism, though it is not without issues.

As may be surmised from the above statements, the Evangelical Anglican tradition will form the basis of my critique of the BCP baptism service.4 Since the Anglican Church upholds the theological legitimacy of paedobaptism, our discussion will concentrate on the baptismal liturgy itself.5 We will be primarily examining the 1552 and 1662 versions of The Book of Common Prayer, though when necessary, reference will be additionally be made to the BCP1549 and BCP1559 editions.6 Finally, we will be examining the BCP baptism liturgy on its own merit, rather than later debates in the 1840s.7

A. Shape and Words of 1552 & 1662 Baptism Service

In this first section we examine the shape and words of the baptism services themselves. By means of introduction, I must point out that the shape and words of the public baptism service in both the BCP1552 and BCP1662 are virtually identical to one another, with only minor modifications to the liturgy between the two. I will make mention of any noteworthy differences as we proceed.8

In terms of the formation of the baptism liturgy, the BCP1552 ceremony was shorn of the exorcism, triple-immersion and chrism anointing present in its 1549 predecessor.9 By contrast, the BCP1662 liturgy retained virtually all of the shape and words of 1552, with the most obvious change being the addition of a new baptismal rite to ‘such as are of Riper Years’ for those who weren’t baptised during the interregnum.10

Baptism service shape and liturgy

The elements of both the BCP1552 and BCP1662 public baptism services form a mirrored shape that I summarise as follows:

___(i) Necessity of baptism and regeneration,

______(ii) Infants as embraced recipients of baptism,

_________(iii) Repentance and faith,

______(iv) Infants embraced as they receive baptism,

___(v) Declaration of regeneration.

(i) Necessity of baptism and regeneration: exhortation and opening prayers

The initial exhortation is centred upon the words of Christ in John 3:3–7, beseeching the congregation to pray that God would mercifully receive the child in baptism.11 Alongside this, the explicit language of ‘regeneration’ first occurs in the opening exhortation. While Carson cautions against postulating an explicit relationship between water baptism and spiritual regeneration from John 3:5, the BCP certainly sees the two as connected entities, as did the early church.12

The two prayers that follow contain various scriptural echoes, presenting safe passages through waters to establish a covenant motif for the congregation: the protection of Noah and his family in the ark, the safe passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea, the baptism of Christ, and the promises of God.13 Upon this basis, the second prayer is an appeal for God to ‘give now unto us that ask’, that he would grant ‘remission of [the infant’s] sins by spiritual regeneration’.14 The shape of these elements rests the effectiveness of the baptismal rite upon God’s grace and the faithful prayer of the congregation.15

(ii) Infants as embraced recipients of baptism: Scripture reading, exhortation and prayer

After reading Mark 10:13–16, the minister exhorts the congregation, reasoning that since Christ, ‘by his outward gesture and deed… declared his good will toward [children]’, ‘he will likewise favourably receive this present Infant; that he will embrace him with the arms of his mercy’.16

It is remarkable that this Markan pericope forms the basis of Cranmer’s apologia for infant baptism, particularly as it is clearly speaking of blessing children, not baptising them.17 Brooks goes as far as calling the BCP treatment of Mark 10 an example of eisegesis.18 At the very least, we must concede that ‘the wording of the narrative establish[es] a positive context in which to consider the question of infant baptism’.19 The exhortation is followed by prayer that God would grant this, using the same theological language as the exhortation.20

(iii) Profession of faith: preamble to sureties, vicarious repentance, faith and vow

What follows is then a profession of faith, where the candidate’s sureties respond to a demand of repentance, an affirmation of faith, and a desire to be baptised into the Christian faith. The BCP1662 additionally calls for a vow of Christian obedience.21

Strictly speaking, in the wording of the liturgy, Children make this profession by their sureties, rather than parents make profession on behalf of their children.22 This conveys a heightened sense that the rite belongs not to the family, but to the church. According to Motyer, the vows in the service represent a further parallel with the covenant motif: to renounce, believe and keep.23 The proxy nature of these vows is an issue which demands further examination, therefore we will discuss the validity of vicarious repentance and faith in the second section of this essay.

(iv) Infants embraced as they receive baptism: prayers, immersion and sign of the cross

After the candidate makes their declaration (by their sureties), the Priest prays that God would grant the results of their profession, followed by a second prayer pertaining to the forthcoming baptism.24 The immersion itself is a straightforward affair: the child is first taken up into the arms of the Priest (cf. Mark 10:16), is named, then dipped (or sprinkled) while the Priest recites the familiar words of Matthew 28:19: ‘N. I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen’.25 Immediately after this, the Priest makes a cross upon the child’s forehead, stated to be a ‘token’ of their declared allegiance to the crucified Christ and to the church.26

(v) Declaration of regeneration: declaration, prayers and closing exhortation

The liturgy of the final section contains two further references to regeneration; first, to the congregation: ‘Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this Child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church’; and then in the second prayer: ‘it hath pleased thee to regenerate this Infant with thy Holy Spirit’.27 These confident declarations prompted some commentators to pronounce an ex opere operato theology of baptism in the BCP.28 This major doctrinal issue of baptismal regeneration will be critiqued in the second section of this essay.29

The baptism liturgy concludes with a congregational declaration, a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, followed by a final prayer of thanks for God’s work in the baptised infant.30 The final element in the service is a closing exhortation made to the Godparents, reminding them of their ongoing responsibility for the development and growth of the child. Again, the language used makes clear that the child made the profession:

Ye must remember that it is your parts and duties to see that this Infant be taught, so soon as he shall be able to learn, what a solemn vow, promise and profession he hath here made by you.31

The BCP1662 then converts the final 1552 rubric into a spoken command to the Godparents, stating that they must bring the child to be confirmed as soon as they are able to take this profession upon themselves.32

The shape of the baptism service

We have seen that the baptism service follows a deliberate shape: What begins with the need for regeneration, concludes with the declaration that the candidate is regenerate.33 Christ’s welcome of infants is defended and affirmed, this is then mirrored through the gestures and words of the Priest. And these are all drawn together in the centre as a profession of repentance and faith is made.34

The language of baptism in the BCP

The language used to describe baptism in the BCP has been concerning for some writers. Upon closer examination, however, it is clear that what the Articles, Catechism and services state about the meaning of baptism is consistent with the teaching of Scripture.35 Stott helpfully organises the data into four categories, which we will briefly outline below.

(i) Baptism signifies union with Christ

The final prayer in the baptism service states clearly that the candidate is united in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.36 Motyer notes that the relationship between baptism and union in Christ’s death and new life in Romans 6:3–4 was ‘complete justification for the statement in the Prayer Book concerning Baptism and Regeneration… At the very point where even some Anglicans themselves have uneasy consciences, the Book of Common Prayer is merely echoing the words and formulations of Holy Scripture’.37

(ii) Baptism signifies the forgiveness of sins

The liturgy regularly refers to the ‘forgiveness’/‘remission’/‘release from’/‘death to’/’washing away’ of sin.38 There are clear scriptural links between baptism and these concepts (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5).39

(iii) Baptism signifies the gift of the Spirit

Before the profession of faith, the Priest prays, ‘Give thy Holy Spirit to this infant’.40 Again, these concepts are linked in Scripture (Matthew 3:11; Acts 2:38–39).41

(iv) Baptism signifies incorporation into God’s people

The closing section of the liturgy announces that the child is ‘grafted into the body of Christ’s Church’, being incorporated into the God’s people.42 The union of the church around baptism is clear from Ephesians 4:4–6. To further understand the function of baptism, many advocates of paedobaptism appeal to covenantal theology, but this curiously finds ‘no verbal support in the liturgical text’.43 However, even though the specific language of ‘covenant’ is absent from the articles and baptism liturgy, the permeation of allusions and echoes of God’s covenant dealing (as mentioned prior) are ‘very present and very evident’, according to Motyer. He concedes that the ‘absence of the explicit use of the word ‘covenant’ is, of course, greatly to be regretted’.44

As we have seen, while the language employed in the liturgy to describe baptism remains concerning for some writers, what the baptism services state about the meaning of baptism is consistent with the teaching of Scripture. However, both the pervasiveness of ‘regeneration’ language and the centrality of a vicarious profession of faith in the liturgy demand further examination before we can adequately evaluate the BCP theology of baptism.


We have examined the shape and words of the baptism service itself. In this section, we will evaluate the BCP theology of baptism in two contentious areas: First, we evaluate the so-called ‘anomaly’ of baptismal regeneration in the BCP, which I argue is consistent with Evangelical doctrine when understood correctly. Second, we determine the validity of vicarious repentance and faith, concluding that the concept is supported by Scripture, and therefore valid.

1. The so-called ‘anomaly’ of baptismal regeneration

Ryle rightly observes that the BCP1662 language implying baptismal regeneration is something that troubles the ‘minds of many true Christians in the Church of England’.45 Again, for Bebbington, the language proves to be something of an ‘anomaly’.46 That this concept was troublesome is evidenced by the complete removal of regeneration language in Australian updates to the baptism liturgy.47 Motyer, however, is quick to challenge a simplistic interpretation of the liturgy:

It would be wrong, for example, to conclude in a superficial way that, because the Service includes the words, ‘seeing now that this child is regenerate’, therefore the Church of England teaches automatic and invariable regeneration in baptism. Evidence improperly used ceases to be valid evidence on the point.48

Even so, the BCP liturgy appears deliberate in bringing baptism and regeneration together.49 We must therefore determine the relationship taught by the BCP between the rite and the effect of baptism.

Ex opere operato view

Demarest believes the BCP explicitly teaches ex opere operato baptism—the view that the sign always conveys the gift.50 For Cranmer, this Roman Catholic view of baptism meant that all baptised persons are regenerate, particularly infants.51 By the 1540s, Cranmer, influenced by Augustinian theology, rejected the concept of a sacramental rite conferring grace without faith.52

The baptismal account of Simon Magus (Acts 8:13–24) is germane to our discussion, as Scripture itself depicts a baptism which conferred no spiritual advantage to Simon at all.53 ‘If faith is necessary for salvation, then the unbelieving candidate is not saved through baptism’, as Stott argues.54 Accordingly, Article XXVII states that only those who receive baptism ‘rightly’ are grafted into the church, meaning that ex opere operato baptism is not taught in the BCP.55

A sign which seals blessings

Article XXVII just referenced describes the Anglican position on baptismal regeneration: ‘… they that receive Baptism rightly, are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed’.56 In other words, the sign not only signifies the gift, but seals (pledges) it in such a way as to convey not the gift itself, but a title to it.57

Following the Old Testament relationship between rite and blessing in circumcision, ‘baptism has replaced circumcision as the covenant sign’, meaning that if and when the baptised person believes, they will inherit the blessings which are entitled to them. According to Stott, the baptised person then may receive this gift by faith—which is expressed at a point not dependent of the timing of them rite itself. ‘The receiving of the sign and seal, and the receiving of the blessings signified, are not necessarily (or even normally) simultaneous’.58 Stott continues:

It is possible to receive the sign before the gift, as is usual in the case of infants, or to receive the sign after the gift, as is usual in the case of adults.59

The gift, therefore, is not tied to the time of the sacrament’s administration.

Nevertheless, if baptism doesn’t technically confer grace, why does the BCP liturgy use words that suggest that it does?60 The answer is simply that the only baptism performed in the BCP, is that of a professing believer (whether adult or infant); it never envisages baptising unbelievers.61 The assumption in any Christian liturgy must be that participants are Christians. Ryle writes: ‘A Liturgy for unbelievers and unconverted men would be absurd, and practically useless!’62 The BCP, then, describes the ideal, where the members of the church are presupposed to be ‘in reality what they are in profession’, and the shape of service means that the statements of regeneration are made after the profession of repentance and faith (albeit done vicariously).63

And so we can conclude, the BCP assumes the separation of the rite from the grace signified, and correctly announces regeneration after repentance and faith. This teaching is consistent with Evangelical doctrine, though frustratingly it requires meticulous study for this distinction to be maintained.

2. The validity of vicarious repentance and faith

Obijole believes the crux of the controversy around infant baptism, is the appeal to the vicarious nature of professed repentance and faith.64 Upon examination, though this method of profession is controversial, we will see that vicarious faith is supported by Scripture, and therefore can be valid when performed rightly.65

As we have established, the infant baptism service is centred around the required profession of repentance and faith. The Catechism pre-empts the inevitable objection: ‘Why then are Infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform [repentance and faith]?’66 The Catechism then simply states that parents do this because infants cannot answer for themselves.67 It might frustrate us that no further justification is given for this ‘proxy-faith’, but the BCP sees the problem as merely ‘administrative, and the office of god-parenthood is offered as the solution’.68

The strongest evidence supporting the validity of vicarious faith is the witness of Scripture itself, where we find numerous accounts describing healing and forgiveness, each being granted through the petition and faith of someone else (Matthew 8:5–13; 15:21–28; Luke 5:17–26; 8:49–56; John 4:46–54).69 In these examples, it is remarkable that three instances are of a parent making a faithful petition to Christ on behalf of their child. Legitimate vicarious faith is both recognised as valid and is even praised by Christ (Matthew 8:10; 15:28). Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 7:14, the Apostle Paul supports vicarious faith, where the faith of a parent is unambiguously said to sanctify their children (and partner).

The efficacy of the baptismal rite, therefore, rests on genuine conversion amongst the parents, all being underpinned by God’s grace in bringing about repentance and faith.70 ‘The right of Christian infants to baptism is only through their parents.’71 Stott’s conclusion highlight’s the crux of our discussion:

Our task [as ministers] is to be faithful in teaching the significance of baptism and the conditions of its efficacy; and then not to baptize any but those who profess to be penitent believers, and their children.72


This essay examined and critiqued the theology of baptism expressed through words and shape of the BCP baptism services. I have argued that the theology of baptism expressed in the words and shape of the 1552 and 1662 services is consistent with that of Evangelical Anglicanism. The shape of the service highlights the importance of genuine repentance and faith, before regeneration is declared. The language and allusions used throughout the liturgy are consistent with Scripture’s teaching on baptism. The blessings attached to the rite are conditional, not inevitable. And genuine vicarious repentance and faith by sureties is supported by Scripture.

Unfortunately, as has become clear in the second section, developing an Evangelical defence of baptismal regeneration and vicarious faith in the BCP is possible, though I must concede that the theological complexity of such a task is tedious and I fear that the BCP liturgy may be at risk of killing the simplicity and magnificence of Christian baptism; much ‘like a joke that stops being funny after you have explained it in too much detail’.73

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The Irony of ‘Relevant’ Preaching

During our drive to church each Sunday, my wife and I regularly find ourselves tuning into our local Christian radio station. During this time, there’s this segment where they broadcast a collection of praise and worship songs, followed by a ‘relevant’ sermon, chosen from a pool of local churches.

While I do think this is an innovative initiative for the growth of the gospel, after listening to these sermons week-after-week for some time now, it’s revealing an ironic and concerning trend in today’s preaching: The desire to be relevant. Don’t believe me? Here’s some of the most recent broadcasted sermons:

  • ‘How to live a Life of Influence’
  • ‘How to be a Courageous Person’
  • ‘How to find Security in an Insecure World’
  • ‘Being Successful in Singleness’
  • ‘Your Role in God’s Plan’
  • ‘How to Grow in your Relational Health’
  • ‘Praying when you’re having a Bad Day’
  • ‘Living the Refreshed Life’
  • ‘How All Things Will Work Together for Your Good’

Now, don’t get me wrong, as a preacher I am all for giving messages which are accessible, applicable, relatable and relevant. What concerns me about this list is what’s not on there: simple, expository, Biblical sermons. There is this underlying assumption in much of today’s preaching that for a message to be ‘relevant’, it must be centred around an everyday part of life: relationships, money, career, anxiety, God’s (most probably positive) plan for you, relationships, disappointment, children, relationships (again).

And if we compare the above against messages like: ‘1 Corinthians 6 (part 2)’, ‘John 12:12-19’ and ‘Leviticus 21’, it’s obvious which of the two groups come across as irrelevant, dry and boring. And it shows in preaching programs of many churches today. I know of a pastor who visited 11 churches during a recent sabbatical. He wrote:

In only one of the 11 weeks did the preacher present the Bible expositorily… [that is, using] the Bible verses as the basis for what they present. Only one person did this. Many of them made passing references to the Bible. Two of the speakers told their story the whole time and barely even acknowledged the Bible at all.1

Ironically, it seems that too many of today’s preachers are ditching solid Bible preaching in favour of ‘relevant’ topical life-skills (backed up with a verse or two).

And I’m sick of it. I’m sick of ‘relevant’ preaching.

But this article is not a rant – the opposite, in fact. Put simply: I believe there is a better way of being relevant. A deeper, more powerful and (dare I say) more Biblical way. And it all starts with expository preaching.

What is expository preaching? American pastor Bryan Chapell describes it like this:

It is this simple: the meaning of the message is the message of the passage. The meaning of the message (or the sermon) is the message of the passage. So, what the passage means is what the sermon will be about.2

I firmly believe this method of preaching to be profoundly relevant in today’s churches for five reasons. Here they are:

1. Expository preaching is relevant because it allows God to change hearts

God can and does change hearts through his word. And since expository preaching revolves around scripture, the most helpful thing to do here is to give you a sense of scripture’s view of itself. I could give you many passages that demonstrate God at work through his word. Here are a couple:

Isaiah 55:11:

‘my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.’

God’s words have purpose and real power – when God speaks, things happen.

2 Timothy 3:15-17:

‘from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’

Gary Millar in his preaching book Saving Eutychus makes the point that while it’s right to see the scriptures in terms of their ‘usefulness’, in these verses Paul is really highlighting how it is that God works:

How does God make us “wise for salvation”? Through the Scriptures. How does God act – when he teaches, reproves, corrects and trains us? God equips us to live for him by shaping us through his word.3

When we let God speak through his scriptures, allowing the text to shape our preaching, we unleash its shaping power to change us and our hearers.

Hebrews 4:12-13:

‘For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.’

God himself is alive and active through scripture: it’s ‘God’s power in verbal form’.4 By his word he deeply exposes us our hearts, intentions, attitudes and souls, and by his word he skilfully and surgically changes them.

God softens hearts, saves lives and transforms them, all through the communication of his word (see above, plus Romans 10:13-17; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2; James 1:18, 21). Through expository preaching, this powerful word is proclaimed plainly and clearly.5 What could possibly be more relevant for our churches than allowing God through his Spirit-filled word to transform lives? (Hint: it’s not another message on dating)

I like how Bryan Chapell puts it:

Who or what alone can change the hearts of men and women? Can you do it? No, you cannot. The Holy Spirit working by and with the Word in our hearts alone can change people.6

2. Expository preaching is relevant because it ensures God is setting the agenda for his church

We all want to be part of a church that is letting God take the lead, don’t we? Expository preaching is relevant because it does just that. Of course, those planning the preaching schedule for the coming months would have some level of understanding of what’s in the certain books and passages chosen, but a church that is devoted to regular, book-by-book expository teaching is led by God as he (through his word) determines what every sermon will be about. American pastor Timothy Keller makes an apt remark about topical messages in his book on preaching:

We tend to think of the Bible as a book of answers to our questions, and it is that. However, if we really let the text speak, we may find that God will show us that we are not even asking the right questions.7

By contrast, ‘Expository preaching lets God set the agenda in an obvious and public way,’ as former principal of Ridley College Peter Adam has said.8 And this also allows for the church to move forward and not always get bogged-down in addressing every single issue that arises in congregational life. And working through sections of the Bible week-to-week also means that God is active in bringing us to address tough topics that our denomination or our pastor would normally avoid.9

3. Expository preaching is relevant because it ensures God is setting the agenda for the sermon

As a preacher, I feel the burden of passages like James 3:1 and 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. We want to know that we are preaching God’s truth and not our own musings and opinions. While the Senior pastor of Hillsong Church, Brian Houston wants all his preachers to prove their points from the Bible, expository preaching is the only way to truly know that God is endorsing your message.10 The preacher’s job is to go wherever the single passage takes you, using the logic of that passage.

Expository preaching also leaves little room for preachers returning to their own hobby-horses and pet-peeves every week. Whether it’s taking pot-shots at our culture, over-emphasising aspects of social justice, or their favourite recent ‘breakthrough work of the Spirit’; when the meaning of the text is faithfully exposed each week, it is only appropriate to bring these up if the passage invites it.11

Expository sermons, when applied properly, are always relevant to their hearers. As theologian D. A. Carson once said: ‘all true preaching is properly applied’.12 This certainly needs to be true for expository preaching (which often has the reputation of being a dreary lecture straight from a scholarly commentary). When the message of the text is applied adequately to the hearers, it will be relevant. Expository preaching done well will also always be both stylistically fresh and gospely consistent. As Gary Millar writes:

No two sermons should look the same or sound the same, but to careful listeners our sermons should always sound the same gospel note. They should be utterly predictable. And yet, at the same time, our sermons should be deliciously unpredictable. Why? Because we have such fantastic source material, inspired by God himself, to change people’s hearts.13

4. Expository preaching is relevant because it demonstrates the authority of the Bible

In some senses this could be the primary case for expository preaching: it confronts people with the whole Bible as God’s authoritative, relevant word. As mentioned above, expository sermons will inevitably cover tough and challenging parts of scripture. Expository preaching demonstrates that the authority rests with God and his word, not the preacher. When we faithfully expose, explain and apply the Bible – even for tough passages – a preacher can say with confidence, ‘Do not listen because of what I say. Listen to the One for whom I speak for.’14

On the other hand, if a sermon touches only lightly on scripture, spends most of its time in stories, jokes or gimmicks, a listener could quite easily wiggle out from any tough or controversial teaching, simply concluding, ‘Well, that’s just your interpretation.’15

5. Expository preaching is relevant because it teaches the congregation to read their Bibles well

Consistent, expository preaching is relevant because it models and teaches the congregation to read their own Bibles well. It teaches them how to think through the movements of a passage and see how the main idea is built. It gives the congregation confidence that they can read and understand the plain meaning of scripture for themselves, not needing the authority of the church or savviness of the preacher to interpret it for them. It teaches hearers the nuances of different Biblical genres and styles and how they affect its meaning. Expository preaching helps church members grasp the rich ‘unity-in-diversity of the biblical revelation’ and its culmination in the person and work of Christ.16 And since the authority rests in the Bible, as the congregation grows in their knowledge of the word, they will keep the preacher accountable to the truth.

A dangerous aspect of a consistent diet of topical preaching is that it does none of the above well. The late John Stott shares his thoughts:

[O]ne of the dangers of taking an isolated text each Sunday is that it gives the impression that the Bible is a mere anthology of unrelated fragments, with no common themes or overall message.’17

Where to from here?

You may notice that while I have given a case that expository preaching is relevant for churches today, I haven’t gone into detail about what this should look like in practice. The reality is this will look different for each church context.

John Stott recalls that he covered the Gospel of Mark in sixty-two sermons over a period of three years! Gary Millar suggests that however we decide to tackle books of the Bible, ‘you need to move quickly enough to capture the flow of the book but slowly enough to allow people to get their heads around the details.’18

And of course, all this is not to suggest that topical preaching has no place in churches – of course it does. In fact, a topical series can be the best way of teaching big biblical themes. But if your weekly church preaching diet is mostly topical preaching, then that’s a problem. As one person has humorously said:

Topical preaching is like fast food. It takes [sic] great but is not good for you. McDonald’s will make you happy and it does taste good but a steady flow of McDonald’s is not good for you… Granted, there is nothing wrong with a hamburger from McDonald’s from time to time but it should not be our diet.19

I wholeheartedly believe that expository preaching is relevant for the church today. It allows God to change hearts through his powerful word, it ensures God is setting the agenda for his church and for each sermon, it demonstrates the authority of the Bible in a clear way, and it teaches churches how to read their Bibles well.

Will you join me in letting our God transform lives through his word?

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