A Warning Against Experience-Based Theology

Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions – Colossians 2:18

This is a warning against basing theology on experience. The person described here claims to have seen something (some translations say “visions”), possibly something supernatural associated with angels, and uses this to puff himself up and gather followers.

But, Paul says such a person is “unspiritual” and full of “idle notions.” What the text literally says is “puffed up by the mind of the flesh of him.” This implies his visions are the product of his flesh, not encounters with God or angels.

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Why Did Jesus Teach Using Parables?

Why Did Jesus Teach Using Parables?
Parable of the Sower (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

There are questions we have about the scriptures that simply will not be answered this side of eternity. We can speculate about them, within reason, but in the end, we must realize God has chosen not to reveal the answer to us in His Word and be content with not knowing.

Things in this category range from “What was Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’?” to “When will Christ return?” We get in trouble when we answer questions like these definitively when Scripture has not. For example, enough egg has landed on the face of American Christianity from well-meaning people telling us when Christ will return to make an omelette the size of (The Late Great) planet earth.

By the same token, there are questions scripture does answer directly. Where we go wrong in those cases is to either pretend scripture doesn’t address it or to dislike scripture’s answer and substitute our own answer instead.

So where does the question in the title of this post fit?

I’ve seen this question addressed with a variety of responses, most of which  view the use of parables as some kind of teaching technique we should emulate or some learning strategy Jesus is employing.  But is that right? How can we know for sure? If only someone had asked Jesus this question during his earthly ministry and one of the gospel writers had written down His answer!

Oh, wait…

10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’ – Matthew 13:10-15

 

Did you get that? Jesus didn’t teach in parables to make things more clear or to help simple people understand complex theological topics or any number of other reasons commonly given. He spoke in parables to hide His message from those who were perishing, those to whom the Kingdom of God had not been given. Jesus teaching in parables was a form of judgment on the nation of Israel.

The Old Testament passage Jesus quotes is from Isaiah 6:9-10. It occurs immediately after the Lord asks who He can send and Isaiah responds “Here I am, send me.” The Lord sent Isaiah to the people as a judgment. Isaiah was to deliver a message that the Lord had already ordained would not be believed by many, a message that would further harden their hearts and would leave them without excuse before almighty God. Isaiah wasn’t preaching to his contemporaries only about judgment to come in the future. His presence among them preaching a message they were unable to understand was also God’s judgment on them in the present.

Jesus is doing the same thing for the Jewish leaders and many others in the nation of Israel during His day. He preached a message of salvation to those with “ears to hear” (Matthew 11:15) but for the rest His words were designed to prevent them from understanding and coming to repentance. Mark says this even more directly:

11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that

“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.” – Mark 4:11-12

 Jesus spoke in parables to cloak His message from the reprobate because they had not been given to Him by the Father (John 10:28-30) and therefore were not citizens of the Kingdom of God.  Wow. There’s no denying that’s a difficult teaching. And that’s why I think so many people answer this question wrong. They don’t like Jesus’ answer so they come up with one of their own that’s more palatable.

But, no matter how difficult the teaching, we must present it as the scriptures present it. We’re called to be the King’s messenger, not His editor or His spin doctor. As Augustine said: “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”

How Sermons Work by David Murray

How Sermons Work by David Murray
Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I want to learn to build a birdhouse or make Coq au vin or speak German there are any number of simple,  step-by-step guides from which I can choose. But what if I want to learn how to prepare and preach a sermon? Though there are many books on preaching, my experience is none of them is what you’d call simple and straight forward. Most read like seminary text-books (perhaps that’s because many of them are seminary text books!). But, David Murray’s How Sermons Work, is not like that at all.

This is the best book on sermon preparation I’ve read. Murray approaches preaching as a skill that can be learned, not a mystical talent delivered from on high to a select few. While it is true certain men are more suited for ministry than others, it is equally true that having a “calling” to ministry does not negate the need to learn good sermon preparation techniques. Murray makes it clear that a man called of God to deliver His word has a responsibility to put in the time necessary to become good at what he does.

The book is very logically organized with chapters on how to select a text, how to organize the information and how to apply the text in a way that is helpful to the listener. Never having been to seminary, the most helpful part for me was the chapter on exegesis. I found the list of exegetical questions particularly helpful. I’ve created a template of these questions and have begun using it to prepare Bible lessons.

While a systematic approach and simplicity are the book’s strengths, Murray doesn’t assume those are all that’s needed to teach God’s word. He has an excellent chapter on preparing to preach that emphasizes the importance of prayer and familiarity with scripture as prerequisites for God-honoring, life-changing preaching. He also emphasizes the importance of character in one who teaches the Bible, quoting Al Martin:

Next to the presence of Christ, there is no greater companion to the minister than that of a good conscience. To have the Lord at your side and a peaceful conscience in your breast – these are the preacher’s two greatest companions.

The only complaint I have about the book is not about the content but the Kindle version I read. There was no active table of contents, in fact, no table of contents at all. I find the table of contents helpful both in getting a feel for a book before reading it and in gathering my thoughts about it for things like this review after I’ve read it. With that in mind, you may want to consider the print version of this book unless that has been changed in the Kindle version.

If you teach the Bible either as a pastor or otherwise, this is a book to read and add to your library. Like William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (which interestingly Murray references in his book) this is a book I will review periodically and keep handy as a reference.

How Sermons Work