What do you tell the man who’s barely pays the family bills when he asks, “Pastor, how does this unrelenting financial pressure fit into what God’s doing in the world?”
Or how do you comfort the single working mother who worries about bullies picking on her youngest at school?
Pastor, do the members of your church know how their lives join God’s mission in the world?
For that matter do you?
If you’re unable to connect their hard work, their sacrifices and their suffering with something larger than themselves, how in the world are you going to motivate them to sustain energy and passion around serving God through the ministry of your church?
What keeps the simple tasks that keep the church doors open from being just one more task on the to-do lists of tired, anxious people?
Or maybe we’re called to nothing more than hanging on?
That’s what this series of articles is about – what God is doing in the world and how our lives fit join in and advance his purposes.
This is the seventh post in a series about the mission of God. This series is written to help discouraged, defeated pastors bring renewal to declining churches by reconnecting them with the mission of God. Renewal occurs when the people of God organize their private and corporate lives around God’s work.
The last post explains why God’s mission is necessary – because of humanity’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden. An earlier post summarized the grand inclusio that encompasses the “big picture” – a simple overview of God’s mission that anyone can grasp.
Those “big picture” motifs bracket the biblical narrative and guide our exposition of biblical texts. The chart in that post presents a grand, ad sensum literary structure known as correspondence.1
Correspondence is a type parallelism or inclusio that applies to subjects rather than words. Although Bullinger’s analysis of correspondence concerns paragraphs or single books of the Bible, his observation about its significance also applies to the grand inclusio.
In whatever form we may have this figure, it is always of the greatest possible use and importance. It enables us not merely to perceive the symmetrical perfection of the passage, but to understand its true sense; to see its scope and thus be guided to a sound interpretation.2
Correct biblical exposition will take this grand correspondence between the opening chapters of Genesis and the closing chapters of Revelation into account. This is the broadest of all biblical contexts, the one that encompasses all others. It circumscribes and completely contains the biblical narrative as it unfolds and expands between Genesis 3 and Revelation 21.
Missional manifesto and manifestation
This suggests that the Bible is a manifesto and a manifestation of God’s mission.
It is manifestation of mission because it is the product of God moving toward us by revealing himself. The Bible we hold in our hands, read during the week and preach on Sunday testifies that God has moved toward us. He has condescended into our world. He has employed human language to show himself to us. He has chosen to explain his actions to us. The inexhaustible God has constructed an exact if (necessarily) incomplete revelation of the Creator and made it accessible to the creature.
The Bible’s existence of the Bible is incontrovertible evidence of the God who refused to forsake his rebellious creation, who refused to give up, who was and is determined to redeem and restore fallen creation to his original design for it…. The very existence of such a collection of writings testifies to a God who breaks through to human beings, who disclosed himself to them, who will not leave them unilluminated in their darkness, … who takes the initiative in re-establishing broken relationships with us.3
The Bible is also a manifesto. Through the biblical covenants God has published his intentions for restoring the status quo ante humankind’s rebellion in the garden. Through successive, increasingly specific covenants, he has revealed both his intention to redeem and the means by which said redemption would be accomplished.
Exposition of the Mission
The missional nature of scripture and the missional narrative it conveys should govern our study and exposition of scripture when we preach and teach it to Christian believers who themselves are partners in God’s mission.4 Biblical exposition begins with reference to the missional context that gave rise to the biblical text and the instructions or the narrative it conveys.5
For example, exposition of the Book of Exodus should connect to its role within the development of God’s promise to Abraham. God had promised to bless the nations through Abraham, which included promises of countless descendants (Genesis 13:16) who would dwell in their own land (Genesis 12:7 cf 13:14-15,17).
As the Patriarchal narratives unfold it became clear that a temporary sojourn in Egypt was necessary to protect those promises. Abraham’s descendants needed to become numerous and strong enough to dispossess the Canaanites. But when they were few they needed protection from the corrosive influence of Canaanite culture.6 The sojourn in Egypt, isolated from Egyptian society,7 provided time to multiply while free from corruption of pagan culture. In time they became numerous enough to displace with Canaanites.
Exodus looks back on the promise and the reason for the sojourn by opening with direct reference to God’s mission and the promises that entailed. The first chapter notes that the Israelites were “fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them (Exodus 1:7),” to such a degree that the Egyptians feared them. “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us (Exodus 1:9).” In spite of the Pharaoh’s efforts to exterminate the newborns, “the people multiplied and grew very strong (Exodus 1:20).”
Finally, when it was time to act, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob (Exodus 2:24).” The point is that Exodus does not stand in isolation from preceding biblical narrative. No part of scripture does. Exodus advances the narrative of God’s mission to redress humanity’s sin in the garden and repair the dreadful consequences that have corrupted every corner of God’s creation.
Or take the entire New Testament as yet another example of how exposition isconnected to the mission of God. I. Howard Marshall asserts that the New Testament is a missional document.
New Testament theology is essentially missionary theology. By this I mean that the documents came into being as the result of a two-part mission, first the mission of Jesus sent by God to inaugurate his kingdom with the blessings it brings to people and to call people to respond to it, and then the mission of his followers called to continue his work by proclaiming him as Lord and Savior and calling people to faith and ongoing commitment to him, as a result of which his church grows. The theology springs out of this movement and is shaped by it, and in turn the theology shapes the continuing mission of the church.8
Preaching the Mission
Your sermons must connect the people of God with the mission of God. In making that connection you must seek to understand what the author of the text intended his original audience to understand.9 This means that your exegetical findings (e.g., grammar, syntax, word meanings, literary form and similar data) are determined by context. Context is a set of concentric circles that, at some point, must include the entire Bible.
Immediate -> Bible book -> authorial context -> testament -> whole Bible
The final context, with which your exposition of the text must fit, is the mission of God. This informs the content of your sermons and guides your sermon applications.
This is required by the fact that each biblical text is a link in the chain that stretches from creation narratives in Genesis 1-3 to the consummation of creation in Revelation 21-22. Exposition based on good exegesis and theology must explicitly or implicitly connect to the mission of God. Sermons that rise above Christian consumerism must show the people of God their role in the mission of God. Paul Borden states the matter concisely.
Fourth, sermons are like jigsaw puzzles. The idea, outline, applications, illustrations, and assertions must fit with each other as well as with the context and intent of the biblical text. The inability to connect an application to the text, for example, means the sermon is not strictly expository.10
If you are the pastor of a stagnant or declining church, you must teach church members to understand God’s mission in the world, their church’s role in that mission, and how they join God in that work. Apart from understanding what God is doing in the world and how their service advances that narrative, service in the church is nothing more than a set of tasks that have little or no meaning beyond the need of the moment.
And these days who has time for meaningless tasks that make little sense?
- Go back and check the previous articles in this series.
- Take an honest look at your preaching calendar and ask, “Am I connecting the people of God with the mission of God?”
- Start planning your next sermon series with a promise to yourself and to them. Never again will you preach a sermon that settles for “your best life now.”
- Promise that you will explain to them how their daily lives join God’s work and advance God’s mission.
If you do this faithfully and patiently, you will begin to see renewed energy in the people. In time this will lead to renewed hope and renewed life in the congregation.
- Bullinger, Ethelbert William. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. London; New York: Eyre & Spottiswoode; E. & J. B. Young & Co., 1898., 363. â†©
- Bullinger, 364. â†©
- Christopher J. H. Wright. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downer’s Grove, IL.: IVP Academic,2006), 48. Here Wright is quoting Charles R. Taber, “Missiology and the Bible,” Missiology 11 (1983): 232. â†©
- The nature of the Christian believer’s role in the mission of God will be developed more fully in the treatment of the New Covenant. â†©
- Wright, 232. â†©
- The rape of Dinah, Genesis 34, and the sordid story of Judah and Tamar, Genesis 38, indicates the corrosive influence of Canaanite culture upon small band of Abraham’s descendants. â†©
- Genesis 46:34. â†©
- I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 34-35. â†©
- Robert L. Thomas, “Exegesis and Expository Preaching” Rediscovering Expository Preaching, John F. MacArthur, Jr., ed. (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1992), 137. â†©
- Paul Borden, “Expository Preaching,” Handbook of Contemporary Preaching. Michael Dudit, ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 64. Emphasis added. The largest, most inclusive and ultimately determinative context is the mission of God. Your task in preaching any given portion is to understand how that portion fits in the grand narrative and to insure that the sermon applications are both appropriate for the listener’s context and related to the biblical context. â†©