A Not-So-Silent Night

29 12 2009

This is a bit late for Christmas, but will be useful for next year.

I was sent a copy of his new book, A Not-So-Silent Night: The Unheard Story of Christmas and Why it Matters, by my friend, and Zondervan senior editor, Verlyn Verbrugge.

Verlyn explores the ‘dark side’ of Christmas, setting the events of Jesus’ birth in their historical, scriptural, and cultural contexts. While there is of course much to celebrate at Christmastime, Verlyn argues that there is also much for sombre reflection. He likens Christmas to Good Friday: it’s good in a bad way.

It’s a great read. Some of the highlights include the exploration of the shame culture in which Mary suffered, being pregnant out of wedlock, the connections to the cross in the birth narratives, the debunking of the notorious “no room at the inn” story, and the many allusions to the beginning of a celestial war marked by Jesus’ birth.

The book is pitched at a popular level, so it’s short (98 pages) and easy to read (I read it in about 80 minutes). But it’s one of those books that, while being easy to read, is full of provocative (and in many cases, new) ideas.

I will definitely be dipping into this book for future Christmas sermons.

Posted by Con Campbell

A different kind of resurrection prophecy?

10 11 2009

Yesterday I wrote a talk for church on Luke 24:1–12. It’s such an interesting passage, and one of the things that comes out at me is how Jesus (might have) predicted the unbelief that followed the discovery of the empty tomb.

First, there are many references to unbelief in the passage:

v.1 = the women bring spices for Jesus’ dead body

v.3 = they didn’t find the body

v.4 = they were wondering about this

v.5 = the angels ask: ‘why are you looking for the living among dead?’

v.6 = ‘don’t you remember what he told you?’

v.8 = then they remembered

v.11 = the apostles did not believe the women

v.12 = After running to the tomb, Peter left wondering what happened


I think this may have been what Jesus had in mind in Luke 18:8: ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

In other words, with Jesus’ resurrection, not only were his own words (and those of the prophets) fulfilled, in that he was raised after three days, but his prediction regarding lack of faith at his ‘coming’ was also fulfilled.


Posted by Con Campbell

Galatians 1.1

18 05 2009


A well-known senior colleague and I are toying with the idea of writing a commentary on Galatians together. It’s very early days: we’re not even sure if we want to do this yet, but it’s looking promising. We’re thinking of writing a commentary that models how to move from the Greek text to the sermon. In other words, it would be a preacher’s commentary, working through all the steps that preachers need to make to go from text to pulpit.

I’ve started making notes on the first verses of the epistle to give us something to work on as we think through what the commentary might look like. I thought I’d share this as I put it down, and I’m keen to hear your feedback, comments, suggestions, etc.


This is a first draft. I haven’t revised it or edited it. And I haven’t read any commentaries yet.

These are just my first thoughts as they strike me from the Greek text.

With that in mind, comment away!

Galatians 1.1

Παῦλος ἀπόστολος οὐκ (ἀπ᾿ ἀνθρώπων) οὐδὲ (δι᾿ ἀνθρώπου)

Paul’s opening emphasizes his divinely-appointed apostolicity: he is an apostle not from men, nor through man. The prepositions from (ἀπό) and through (διά) are interesting here. Since apostle is cognate with the Greek verb to send (ἀποστέλλω), being an apostle from men conveys the sense of being sent by men. They are the senders; the apostle is the one sent. But Paul’s point is that he is not sent by men. It is less clear, however, what it would mean for the apostle to be through man. Perhaps the switch to singular man (ἀνθρώπου) from plural men (ἀνθρώπων) indicates the sense of humanity, so that Paul is an apostle not through human decision. So then, the function of the two prepositions and the plural men and singular man is to convey the sense that Paul is an apostle not sent from men, nor through human appointment.

ἀλλὰ (διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ θεοῦ πατρὸς τοῦ γείραντος αὐτὸν (ἐκ νεκρῶν)),

The negative opening phrase is immediately contrasted by the strong adversative conjunction ἀλλὰ, as Paul indicates through whom his apostolic appointment comes. He is an apostle through Jesus Christ and God the Father—the one who raised Jesus from the dead. What Paul means by this is straightforward. What is curious, however, is the inversion of the order of Christ and God compared to Paul’s normal expression. As illustrated only a few lines on (v.3), Paul’s normal phrasing is something like: ‘God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. Is anything to be made of his putting Jesus first here, or is it an inconsequential variation? It is difficult to answer such questions with certainty, though a suggestion may be offered. This may be a subtle reference to Paul’s experience of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–30); his encounter with Christ brought about his conversion, but also his commission as an apostle. Certainly this is consistent with the content of the second half of Galatians 1 in which Paul describes his reception of the gospel by revelation from Jesus Christ (1.11–24).

To Paul’s mind, his commission from Christ implies the agency of God the Father, which is why his apostleship comes through the Father as well as Christ. Indeed, this is confirmed later in the chapter in which Paul describes the revelation he received from Christ (1.12) and the call of God (1.15). Furthermore, it was God who revealed his Son in Paul (1.15–16).

The subtle reference to Paul’s conversion and calling to be an apostle may also explain one other curious element in this second part of verse one. We find here the only explicit reference in the whole epistle to the resurrection of Christ (τοῦ γείραντος αὐτὸν (ἐκ νεκρῶν)). If Paul seeks to establish the central themes of the epistle in his opening, as he consistently does elsewhere, it is odd that the resurrection of Christ is mentioned in the first verse of this epistle in which there is no further explicit reference to it. It seems most likely, however, that the reason for this reference to the resurrection here is related to Paul’s experience of the risen Christ on the way to Damascus. The fact that it was the risen Christ who encountered Paul is of course extremely important. It is Christ’s resurrection that establishes Paul’s entire Christology, as he comes to terms with the fact that Jesus really is the Messiah. By referring to God’s act of raising Christ from the dead, Paul further anchors his apostolic commision in the agency of God through Christ. The Father raised the Son, who was revealed to Paul by the Father as the risen Christ. Through this revelation, Paul was called to be an apostle.

Posted by Con Campbell

Evangelistic Preaching (08)

30 04 2009

hands_shakingjpg8. Introductions.

Chappo says that the introduction to a talk needs to be written last. I think it’s good advice, and normally works for me. The main advantage in this is that the tail doesn’t wag the dog. That is, you don’t write a great introduction that you have to keep pushing towards what your talk is really about. Write the talk first, then write a good introduction that suits it, rather than the other way around.

Another thing that comes from Chappo is that an introduction works best when it raises a problem or a question that is answered by the body of the talk. In other words, the introduction raises the ‘so what?’ issue: why should I listen to this talk? What is this talk going to offer? A good introduction will resolve those issues and encourage the listener to stay with you.

A final Chappo thing. You only have about 2 minutes before people will decide if they’ll listen to you or not. So don’t waste it. It’s pretty commonplace to say hi and introduce yourself and all that, but I think it’s much better to launch right into it and make those 2 minutes really count. I guess there all kinds of exceptions to this though: if you’re the pastor of a church, you may have things you want to raise before getting into the talk; that’s fair enough. And if you haven’t been interviewed before an evangelistic talk you’ll need to say something to build a bit of rapport. But I think it is much wiser to break the ice with an interview (not immediately before the talk), and then launch right in: let the beginning be the beginning.

Well, I guess it’s all Chappo for me on introductions. Not a bad thing.

Posted by Con Campbell

Evangelistic Preaching (07)

8 04 2009

7crayonsjpg. Illustrations.

Some people seem to think that illustrations in a sermon are from the devil. Others think they’re more important than the Bible itself (caricatures, both). Most of us are somewhere in between. Personally, I’m a fan of well-aimed, helpful, and relatable illustrations as a basic tool of good communication. It seems crazy to me to use illustrations whenever I teach pretty much anything, but when it comes to a sermon—well that tool should be left at home. But I also understand the critiques of preaching that overuses illustrations, or that uses them for cheap laughs, or does not handle them with care. They certainly shouldn’t blot out the sun, so that all that people remember are a string of illustrations with little substance or Bible.

As for evangelistic preaching, I think illustrations are all the more important.

a. First, because our hearers will probably need more help to grapple with biblical concepts, since it may well be the first time they’ve encountered such ideas. A good illustration can be the key to understanding something for the first time, especially an abstract concept.

b. Second, since there will be little or no existing rapport with our hearers, illustrations can help to bridge that gap. This is especially so with illustrations that come from our own experience and lives. Dominic Steele encourages itinerant preachers to use personal stories over other people’s stories for that reason: your hearers don’t know you, so throw them a bone and connect.

c. Third, illustrations can be used to provide some mental relief. The fact is that most people find it hard to listen to a talk for 20 minutes, and anyone who has been going to church for years has developed some staying-power. So, we can forget how hard it is for those who are not used to it. An illustration can be placed right at the spot in the talk where you think you’re going to lose people: help them to get back on board and stay with you till the end.

d. Fourth, illustrations can be used to model application, or a right response. This is one the best uses of an illustration in my view, because it can give an example of what it looks like to put truth into action. How does someone turn to Jesus as Lord? What difference does it make? This can make the whole thing far more concrete for our hearers.

Posted by Con Campbell

Evangelistic Preaching (06)

27 03 2009

african-elephant2jpg6. The big idea.

It really pays to know what your big idea is. If the preacher doesn’t know what it is, there’s no chance his hearers will work it out.

Being clear on the big idea of a talk is not just a neat communication technique. The reality is that most carefully chosen texts will contain a key concept to which most of the other elements of the text contribute or point.

So, if a talk doesn’t have a clear big idea, there may be one of two reasons for that: 1. the preacher doesn’t know what the big idea of the text is; 2. he has not crafted the talk so that it reflects the big idea. If the problem is 1, then the preacher needs to go back to the text and do more work (see my last post on this issue). If the problem is 2, the preacher’s sermon-craft needs work.

Here are a few suggestions to help with problem 2:

1. Chappo is helpful in suggesting that for every talk you should be able to write the big idea of the text in one sentence. If you can’t do that, you probably have more work to do (and sentences with 32 clauses do not qualify!).

2. The structure of the sermon and its subordinate points can each be employed to point out/establish the big idea. In that way, the whole talk supports and helps to communicate what the text is really about.

3. I think that clutter in a talk is one of the great enemies of the big idea. Without dumbing-down nor sacrificing nuance, talks need to be culled time and time again so that everything in the talk has a role to play and does not get in the way of the clarity of the message.

4. It’s also worth mentioning the obvious, that the big idea of the talk should be the same as the big idea of the text. For example, the big idea of the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2 is not that ‘your biggest need is the forgiveness of sins’. While that might be deduced from the text, the big point is ‘Jesus has the divine authority to forgive sins’.

Posted by Con Campbell

Evangelistic Preaching (05)

22 03 2009

pharisee-and-tax-collectorjpg5. Exegeting the text.

It may sound obvious, I know, but it’s worth saying. If you’ve worked out what text you want to use, it really pays to do the proper work on the text (d’uh!). Why bother saying something that is second nature to most preachers? Because I suspect that when it comes to evangelistic talks, some preachers will approach the task something like this: ‘I don’t need to do much exegesis of the text, because I already know what it’s about, and besides, I don’t need all the details of text, since it’s an evangelistic talk anyway.’ Right from the start, then, what the text may really be saying doesn’t get a look-in. If you ask me, that’s one the reasons that many evangelistic talks end up sounding same-ish, and why some talks really lack depth of insight.

We need to go to work on the text. Here’s an example. Take the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18.9–14). It’s obviously a great text for preaching about the sheer mercy of God, and how the repentant sinner is right in God’s sight, whereas the self-righteous religious person is not. OK so far.

But here are some points about the passage that I have rarely heard preachers acknowledging (i.e. I suspect they don’t know these things about the text):

1. The setting is likely one of the two daily atonement services at the temple.

2. The Pharisee does not ask God for anything, but his prayer is really a declaration.

3. Because the setting is likely an atonement service, there are other people present, which means that the Pharisee’s prayer publicly denounces the tax collector (v.11).

4. Because the setting is public, the tax collector’s standing far off emphasizes his shame (v.13).

5. It was extremely rare for men to beat their chest in public, and they would only do so in an instance of overwhelming grief (v.13).

6. The tax collector asks God TO BE PROPITIOUS toward him (λάσθητί μοι, v.13).

7. And thus, the tax collector is justified in direct connection to propitiation at an atonement service (v.14).

I think that those things—which can only be understood through really working on the text in its historical and literary context—bring the passage to bear in a way that few evangelistic preachers would allow.

Posted by Con Campbell

Evangelistic Preaching (04)

18 03 2009

pauljpg14. Epistles.

Preaching evangelistically from an epistle can be great. For one thing, you can select a passage that deals directly with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and by-pass the whole issue that I touched on earlier: whether or not to ‘import’ ideas from outside the text. So if you want a talk to focus on the cross, you can choose something that gets right at it. Likewise Jesus’ resurrection.

But, there are a number of potential drawbacks when preaching evangelistically from epistles. First, the talk may end up being a bit too conceptual, since some things will require explanation. Second, epistles usually lack characters, story, plot, etc., which means the preacher needs to work hard to keep people engaged. Third, it takes extra effort to show why the text relates to normal people. As such, I think a decent rule of thumb is that preaching from epistles may require more illustrations and application than preaching from narrative.

There’s also the issue of plucking a few verses out of their context. This doesn’t need to be as concerning as it sounds, however. I remember Peter Jensen once saying in a class that it wouldn’t hurt us to preach evangelistically from one verse every now and then. He said that he understands the importance of handing the verse appropriately according to its context, but there’s no reason why the full context needs to be part of the evangelistic talk. I think that’s good advice!

Posted by Con Campbell

Evangelistic Preaching (03)

13 03 2009

Bible3. Old Testament texts.

One issue that relates to my previous post is that of preaching evangelistically from the Old Testament. I take it for granted that any Old Testament text needs to be read within a biblical-theological (or canonical) context, which means that one’s preaching of an OT text will ultimately point to Christ, one way or another. But in parallel with my thoughts in the previous post, some texts are going to be better for this than others. While the whole OT points to Christ, some texts obviously provide a more direct ‘path’ to Christ than others. I think for an evangelistic talk it would be well advised to go for one of those more direct passages.

Having said that, I think it is very difficult to preach evangelistically from an OT text, and to do it well. Not because the OT doesn’t point to Christ (since it does), but because of the extra leg-work that’s required to handle the text faithfully, and then to show its biblical-theological framework, and then to speak of Christ as saviour and Lord. In fact, I’ve only ever heard one evangelistic talk from the OT that I thought ‘worked’: Ray Galea on Psalm 2, about 9 years ago. I’ve heard other talks that have led me to think, ‘wow that was clever’, which is probably what other preachers who heard the talk thought. But I suspect that many non-Christians who heard the talk thought, ‘what the heck was that about?’.

Posted by Con Campbell

Evangelistic Preaching (02)

10 03 2009


2. Narratives.

Preaching evangelistically from narrative texts, particularly parables, can be wonderful. There’s a story. There are characters. There’s a plot. And in the case of parables, there’s a big point, normally related to the Kingdom of God. Everyone loves a good story, and stories are often immediately relatable. They’re also good for postmodern listeners!

But it took me a while to turn on to preaching evangelistically from narratives. The issue for me was always: how do I say what needs to be said, when the narrative doesn’t provide the material I need? For example, the parable of the rich fool is a great one for today’s hearers. The big idea is: don’t be rich toward yourself, but be rich toward God. Don’t trust in wealth, but trust God. But then does the preacher also want to say something about trusting in Jesus specifically? That he is Lord? That he died and rose again? That our sin and guilt are done away with through his death and resurrection? What do you do?

I suppose the two major options are: 1. just stick with the main point of the narrative; 2. import other ideas as you deem necessary. I’m sure there are good reasons for both approaches, but I’m going to side with the former. While I used to think that every evangelistic talk needs to unpack penal substitutionary atonement (caricature: otherwise the talk is pre-evangelistic, rather than evangelistic), I no longer think that (and here I may part ways with Chappo). There are a few reasons for this. First, evidently Jesus and the apostles did not ‘say everything’ every time they preached. The Acts of the Apostles shows us that the resurrection was a much bigger theme in preaching than the cross; sometimes the cross is not mentioned at all (even if the speeches in Acts are ‘summaries’, the absence of the cross is nevertheless notable). Second, there’s only so much you can say effectively and still make your point. If you just stick to Jesus’ main point in the parable of the rich fool, is that a bad thing? By heading off to the cross and resurrection (not to mention PSA!) the main point may end up diluted, and your hearers may not hear it as well as they might.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of preaching on the cross and resurrection of Jesus! But with a narrative text, I fail to see how the average preacher can really land a hit, do justice to the narrative, and pack it all in at the same time. Besides, if you really want to speak about more central things, then you can choose a text (a non-narrative one, perhaps) that deals with such things, like Romans 5:8, for example. What do you think?

Posted by Con Campbell