Trees, Worry, and Weeds

2020-03-29T17:29:38-04:00 March 30th, 2020|

Let’s take a little test. I’ll give you pairs of like-sounding words. What do you think of first? Here are the pairs: dye or die, sleigh or slay, fowl or foul, pane or pain, mown or moan. Rather than thinking of pleasant things such as newly mown grass, we groan over the bad behavior of fellow workers. Our hearts fill with anxious thoughts. As already outlined, anxiety is a control issue. Things are out of control at the office. We do not know how to regain control. We worry and fret. Since anxiety is a control issue, to overcome worry, we don’t center our thoughts on food, clothing, and the future. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). We must learn submission to the sovereign, gracious control of God.

We do so through God’s word given in the Bible and through preaching and teaching. But look at Matthew 13:22. “The one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). The word is the message of the kingdom. It is the message about the sovereign rule and reign of Christ. Christ died, rose, ascended, and reigns. “Christ is Lord” (Romans 10:9). Redemption, freedom from the anxiety of sin and guilt, comes to us through Christ.

However, anxiety chokes the word Christ gives us. Crowds press, surge and push us, and the close quarters frighten us. We find ourselves at the mercy of others. Likewise, weeds choke plants in a garden and prohibit growth. The word of God is a precious seed. Anxiety is a weed. Anxiety chokes the life from the tiny plant.

Jesus couples anxiety with the deceitfulness of riches. Adequate food, clothing, shelter, and comfort concerning the future yield a measure of contentment. Eagerness for riches undermines contentment. We think more money will quell anxiety. Greed works with anxiety to choke the word. As a result, we lack the fruit of peace and contentment. We are anxious.

Here is a danger. We need the message of the kingdom, the message of God’s control over all of life, to overcome anxiety. Yet this very anxiety chokes out the word in the gardens of our lives. We become too distracted to read the Bible or listen to a sermon, the very things we need. This reaction is nothing new. God knows. For this reason, is why He instituted the church and gave us His word as a means of grace. Anxiety signals our need.

We are “like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:3). We dwell on what we see, the leaves, and the clothing. But the leaves drop off in winter, and we mourn their loss. We must cultivate the hidden, the root. We must root ourselves in Christ. We must seek first the kingdom. Without the root, the tree dies. With the root, even when the leaves are gone, the tree remains strong. When we are deeply rooted in Christ, we gain contentment. Our priorities change. We learn contentment. We grow in our service to God and our faith in God.

We seek freedom from anxiety indirectly. For example, anxious children find security in the arms of their parents. Similarly, our safety is in God. We seek Him. We seek His Kingdom, first of all. As we do so, the things unbelievers seek, contentment, and freedom from anxiety are ours.

Denny Prutow

What? Me Worry?

2020-03-20T14:30:13-04:00 March 23rd, 2020|

A frightened wife calls us. Her husband is in a state of panic, locked in a bedroom. Two of us coax him out and restrain him. It is a classic panic attack, an anxiety attack. Worry and anxiety are real, but they are devastating and can be disabling. They are more common than we think. Jesus commands, “Do not worry” (Matthew 6:31).

Anxiety often presents itself in men as panic or fear. It frequently presents itself in women in the form of phobias. When anxious, we see the world as a fearful place. The future is uncertain. There is a sense of helplessness. We may have headaches, nausea, chest pain, and fear a heart attack. A man measures his pulse every few minutes. It seems erratic. He panics. In the midst of anxiety, we are seldom satisfied. We are fidgety. We incessantly bounce a leg under the table. We are irritable. When a panic attack occurs, we are sure we are going to die, or we think we are going crazy.

Anxiety has to do with how we view life. It is a control issue. We sense life is out of control. Anxiety also has to do with how we react on the inside. It has to do with internal events, with how we think. Because anxiety is a control issue, giving someone more to do or increasing job demands is not the answer. Giving control lessens anxiety.

Three typical anxieties dominate our lives. Matthew 6:25 mentions two of them. “Do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on.” What am I going to take to the fellowship supper? What are we going to feed our company? Such anxiety escalates to war over food within families and between nations. We also fret about clothing. What am I going to wear to the dance, the theater, the wedding? Young people kill for basketball shoes and designer jackets.

Matthew 6:27 and 34 mentions a third worry. “Who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” And, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” Can you add minutes or hours to your life? Suppose there is cancer? Suppose we have arthritis, bad vision, paralysis, old age, or some new and heretofore unknown disease. Will we add days to our lives? We do not ultimately control these things.

The answer to worry and anxiety is rooted in God. Matthew 6:19-21 exhorts. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What do you treasure? Are fields, farms, houses, cars, computers, and jobs more important than God? We want God but not at the expense of a special car, a specific computer, or particular clothes. Anxiety rises because God is in our way.

When anxiety is high, faith is low. “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith” (Matthew 6:30). Anxiety is indeed a control issue. We are not in control. God is. God provides adequate food and clothing. God also controls your future. To overcome anxiety, don’t center your thoughts on food, clothing, and the future. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

Denny Prutow

When God’s Word Touches You

2020-03-14T11:01:07-04:00 March 16th, 2020|

Preaching in a large assembly of pastors and elders, I quoted W. G. T. Shedd, where he speaks about how impressive it is when the Word of God touches us. See the full quote below. After the sermon, one of the pastors in the congregation countered me, and Shedd, on this characteristic of preaching. “You lost me at that point,” he said. However, Christ intends His gospel arrows to not only touch the heart but to pierce the heart and to elicit a response (Psalm 45:5). Note the effect of Peter’s preaching, how his message touches feelings and moves emotions. “Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37).

Remember, in biblical Greek, the heart is the “center and source of the whole inner life, w. its thinking, feeling, and volition, in the case of the natural man as well as the redeemed man” (A Greek-English lexicon of the new testament, 1963). In biblical Hebrew, the heart includes “the inner man … comprehending mind, affections, and will” (A Hebrew and English lexicon of the old testament, 1962). While addressing the mind, we touch and influence emotions. There is a chain reaction. How people feel about what we say influences what they do.

Calvin (2018b) opens his exposition of 2 Timothy by saying, “In truth, if we read this letter carefully we will see that God’s Spirit there reveals himself with such power and majesty that we cannot avoid feeling thrilled” (pp. 1-2). He then affirms, “If we want the kind of testimony to God’s truth which will pierce our hearts, we can do no better than tarry here” (p. 2).

Calvin also emphasizes the importance of God’s Word profoundly touching us. “God’s word cannot rightly thrive in us unless we have clearly understood what is presented to us, unless we are deeply touched by it … ” (Calvin, 2009, p. 607). Yes, sitting under the preaching of the word of God, we must be touched by the Word coming to us in the power of the Spirit. As Calvin urges, we should, “when we come to preaching, let the word of God touch us and awaken us” (p. 634). Westminster’s “Directory for the Public Worship of God” agrees. It indicates that the application of the Scripture in preaching ought to make us “feel the word of God” (“Directory,” 1988, p. 380). In speaking about the Flood, Calvin (2009) also declares, “But when the events are made specific for us, we get a vivid picture of God’s wrath and are touched even more … ” (p. 642).

T.H.L. Parker (1992) quotes Calvin similarly on the word of God preached: “It is a living reality and full of hidden energy which leaves no part of man untouched” (p. 30). Parker quotes Calvin’s first sermon on 2 Timothy more extensively:

It is certain that if we come to church we shall not hear only mortal man speaking but we shall feel (even by his secret power) that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher (meistre). He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it (p. 42).

In speaking about plainness in preaching, W. G. T. Shedd (1877) again reminds us,

There is a prodigious power in this plainness of presentation. It is the power of actual contact. A plain writer, or speaker, makes the truth and the mind impinge upon each other. When the style is plain, the mind of the hearer experiences the sensation of being touched; and this sensation is always impressive, for a man starts when he is touched (p. 64).

The sermon should be constructed as oral communication to strike the soul, to “touch” and “start” the people. The sermon is an arrow to pierce the heart. When God’s Word touches you by the power of the Spirit, it is like someone coming up behind you unexpectedly and touching you. The contact surprises you. You start. Each time you sit and listen to your pastor, you should listen actively. Anticipate that God, by His Word and Spirit, will touch your soul and change you. Trust him to use this means to conform you more closely to the image of Jesus Christ, your savior.

As a teacher or preacher, you must prepare Bible lessons and sermons as gospel arrows intended to contact, pierce, and change individuals who are listening. I wonder if those of us whom God calls to proclaim His Word believe that preaching is His chosen instrument for change. Oh, yes! We memorize the Shorter Catechism Q&A 89, “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.” Do we preach as though we earnestly believe this truth?

There are potentially aggravating factors. We emphasize that pastors are teaching elders (1 Timothy 5:17). In doing so, we often buy into the modern notion of teaching: Give people enough correct information, and they will make the right decisions. We become sharers of information rather than proclaimers of truth. In keeping with this model, pastors and professors believe that putting together a sermon, intended for listening, is just like writing a paper, designed for reading. Pastors become scribes who, after doing their study, disseminate information rather than preach with authority (Mark 1:22). When you implement such a perspective, God’s Word does not “touch” and “start.” Gospel arrows become blunt instruments.

Several years ago, after morning worship, I said to my wife, “Pastor is writing another book.” She asked quizzically, “How do you know?” My answer was simple, “We just heard the first chapter.” Did our pastor prepare his sermon with the people in mind? Perhaps. From the perspective of content and structure, his preparation also had the printing press in mind. Biblical preaching and teaching ought to press God’s truth into minds and hearts first of all rather than into notes and books. Failure to do so weakens the force of preaching. God’s Word does not “touch” and “start” those listening. Gospel arrows become blunt instruments.

Denny Prutow

Copyright © 2020

Soul-to-Soul not Paper-to-Paper

2020-03-06T13:27:25-04:00 March 9th, 2020|

A well-used Bible is a dear friend and sometimes needs to be rebound. The seminary library where I taught had access to a book bindery, and I had my Bible nicely rebound. When a friend of my oldest daughter needed her Bible rebound, I suggested we do it through the seminary. When I received the Bible, there were sermon notes stuck in the Bible every few pages. It took some time to pick them all out so the Bible could be rebound. I wondered, “What did this young lady do with all those notes?” I shook my head. Her Bible was a storage bin.

When you look around in church during morning worship, quite a few people are avidly taking notes. And some pastors organize their sermons to help the people take notes. The objective seems to be to facilitate the transfer of information from the pastor’s notes to the people’s notes. If that’s the goal, I ponder, “Why not just reduplicate the pastor’s notes and pass them out to the congregation?” OK! Perhaps I’m overstating the case. But there is a philosophy of ministry here. In my view, preaching is to be heart to heart or soul-to-soul instead of paper-to-paper.

As I have indicated elsewhere, good communication is a two-way street. When you cultivate this reciprocal relation, it involves a mutual sympathy of soul-to-soul. R. L. Dabney (1979) writes, “The heavenly flame must be kindled first in your own bosom, that by the law of sympathy it may radiate thence into the souls of your hearers” (p. 247). W. G. T. Shedd (1877) emphasizes the need for plainness in preaching style. Consider his statement in light of the reciprocal soul-to-soul relation between preacher and people.

There is a prodigious power in this plainness of presentation. It is the power of actual contact. The plain writer, or speaker, makes the truth and the mind impinge upon each other. When the style is plain, the mind of the hearer experiences the sensation of being touched; and this sensation is always impressive, for the man starts when he is touched (p. 64).

Remember the importance of non-verbals in the communication process. See the previous post. When the preacher frequently consults his notes, he breaks eye contact with the people. Note-takers also often break eye contact with the preacher, concentrating on their note-taking task. The more notes there are between the pastor and the congregation, the less eye contact there may be. The less cognizance of facial expression and body language there is. This note-taking process, therefore, impedes two-way communication.

The sermon should be constructed as oral communication to strike the soul, to “touch” and “start” the people. The sermon is an arrow to pierce the heart. Therefore, Jonathan Edwards (1987) says, “The main benefit obtained by preaching is by the impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered” (p. 394).

In this same context, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (2014) says: “I would add that I have often discouraged the taking of notes while I am preaching. It is becoming a custom among evangelical people; but it is not, as many seem to think, the hallmark of spirituality!” (p. 360). Tim Keller (2006) frames the discussion as follows:

The informational view of preaching conceives of preaching as changing people’s lives after the sermon. They listen to the sermon, take notes, and then apply the Biblical principles during the week. But this assumes that our main problem is a lack of compliance to Biblical principles when, in fact, our problems are due to a lack of joy and belief in the gospel. If that’s our real problem, then the purpose of preaching is to make Christ so real to the heart that in the sermon itself people have an experience of God’s grace such that false idols and false saviors lose their power and grip us on the spot. That’s the experimental view of preaching we see in someone like Jonathan Edwards.

It may be that note-taking during sermons was a Puritans innovation. In his discussion of Puritan preaching, Joseph Pipa (1985) quotes Millar Maclure to the effect that, “Note-taking at sermons was very common” (p. 30). Pipa goes on to say, “Sermon note-taking, in fact, was taught in school” (p. 30). And the practice may be the outgrowth of Scholastic teaching. John Broadus (1893) notes, “The scholastic method of dividing and subdividing without end reappears in these great Puritan preachers as nowhere else” (p. 204). Pipa goes on to quote William Mitchell: “Mitchell relates that one Puritan schoolmaster expected his students to record: ‘1. The text, or part of it. 2. To mark as neere as they can, and set down every doctrine, and what proofs they can, the reasons and the uses of them’” (Pipa, 30).

But Lloyd-Jones (1971) adds this note about the Puritans: “I think we need to be judicious in our use of preachers like the Puritans. The danger is that we read them and say, ‘This is marvelous, this is the way to do it.’ But if you try to emulate them, you may find that it is not the way for you to do it” (p. 197).

Jared Wilson (2015) quotes a Tim Keller sermon, saying, “I don’t mind if you take notes at the beginning of a message, but if you’re still taking notes at the end, I feel like I have not brought it [the message] home.” Keller follows Edwards (1987) at this point, “The main benefit obtained by preaching is by the impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered” (p. 394). Design your sermons and Bible lessons to be gospel arrows that strike and pierce heart and soul at the time of teaching or preaching.

Denny Prutow
Copyright © 2020

Broadas, J. (1893). Lectures on the History of Preaching. New York: Armstrong and Son.
Edwards, J. (1987). The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Vol. 1). Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth.
Keller, T. (2006). “Informational vs experiential preaching.” Retrieved from
Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1971). Preaching and Preachers. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (2014). The Puritans, Their Origins and Successors. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth.
Pipa, J. William Perkins and the development of puritan preaching (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Westminster
Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA.
Shedd, W. (1877). Homiletics and Pastoral Theology. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co.
Wilson, J. (2015). “Thoughts on note-taking during sermons.” Retrieved from

Gospel Arrows: Feelings Matter

2020-02-27T10:41:00-04:00 March 2nd, 2020|

The student critique was loud and clear, “Professor, you spend too much time on presentation and not enough time on content.” My response is threefold. First, in seminary, the bulk of the curriculum guides students in the proper interpretation and understanding of the content of Scripture. The Master of Divinity requires the completion of 135 quarter hours. Of these, the seminary devotes nine quarter hours to preaching, less than seven percent of the course load. However, it is in the teaching and preaching of the Word that the rubber meets the road. This perspective does not downplay Bible studies, discipleship arrangements, and personal counseling. However, the preaching of the Word is the most prominent and visible activity that publicly interfaces with our communities.

Second, a significant portion of my homiletics text discusses the exegesis of various genres of Scripture. In other words, the proper understanding of the content of Scripture passages is a major thrust of my Sermon Preparation Procedure. Preaching and teaching is the delivery of content. Delivery and content of necessity go together; you cannot separate them.

Third, how people receive the content of your sermons and Bible lessons is also bound up in your delivery or presentation. It is not entirely the responsibility of the audience to engage with you as the speaker to grasp your content. A burden rests upon you as the speaker. You may present the same material in an energetic, winsome, and compelling way or a dull monotone with gestures and facial expressions communicating apathy and indifference. Listeners will receive the first presentation more readily.

On the presentation side of things, we usually discuss the tone of voice and body language. Body language includes gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact. We can boil down these items into three areas: content, use of voice, and non-verbals. If you want to communicate surprise, you say the word “surprise” with lively punch and rising tone. You add a facial expression having an open smile, wide eyes, lifted brows. These three components act together in instant impactful communication.

When you tell a story to children, you not only communicate content. You use your voice to mimic the characters. Your tone of voice indicates anger or joy. It also portrays praise or distrust. You use hand gestures to show the children should stop at a crosswalk or beckon them to cross the street as a part of the story. Your facial expressions enter in as you bend over to savor a pretend bowl of beef stew or get a waft of the bottom of a putrid trash barrel. Failure to combine content with voice and non-verbal expression evokes howls of complaint from the children, “Come on, tell us the story!”

But how do your tone of voice and body language contribute to understanding? They do so indirectly by communicating feelings or attitudes. In communication, how people feel about a message has much to do with what they grasp and understand. In his Silent Messages (1971), Albert Mehrabian kicks off a debate on these issues. After studies and experiments, Mehrabian says, “Generalizing, we can say that a person’s non-verbal behavior has more bearing than his words on communicating feelings or attitudes to others” (p. 44). Note the emphasis on emotions and attitudes. Words matter, but feelings also matter.

Good content supported by appropriate use of voice and accompanied by suitable body language is an invitation to listen. This combination elicits good feelings. When people feel good about what they are hearing, they engage with the message. Two-way communication takes place. The people indicate their attentiveness with their facial expressions, eye contact, and body language, often leaning forward toward the speaker. Their attention tamps down extraneous noise. “Palpable” or “pliable” moments occur. “Often you can sense that people are coming under conviction. One sign is usually the lack of fidgeting, foot shuffling, and throat clearing. The audience gets more silent and still” (Keller, 2006, p. 22). There is a connection between preacher and people, and a sense of contact and touch. God is dealing with the souls of men and women and children. Words matter, but feelings also matter.

Gospel arrows are messages from the heart to the heart. The heart is the “center and source of the whole inner life, w. its thinking, feeling, and volition, in the case of the natural man as well as the redeemed man” (A Greek-English lexicon of the new testament, 1963). Words matter, but feelings also matter—fashion gospel arrows with this truth in mind.

Denny Prutow
Copyright © 2020

A Greek-English lexicon of the new testament. (1963). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Mehrabian, A. (1971). Silent Messages. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Pericope to Purpose to Power

2020-02-21T03:39:26-04:00 February 24th, 2020|

Preaching on 2 Timothy 3:16, Calvin notes the two crucial sides to proclaiming the Word. “Teaching on its own is not sufficient, for we are cold and indifferent to God’s truth. We need to be pierced. The preacher has to use vehemence, so that we may know that this is not a game.” (Parker, 1992, p. 12). Of course, adding vehemence or earnestness to preaching does not produce the effect of piercing the heart. In the same sermon, Calvin answers his question. “So what are we to do? We must apply the Word of God to our use, so that we may be woken up instead of being far too sleepy; we must start giving better thought to ourselves; we must no longer put God and the salvation of our souls out of our minds but be attentive to it” (Parker, 1992, p. 13).

Examining Calvin’s Preaching (1992), T. H. L. Parker zeros in on the expository method. He makes this pithy statement in which we see the two aspects mentioned above. “Expository preaching consists in explanation and application. Without explanation it is not expository; without application it is not preaching” (p. 79). A question remains. Does pointing to and moving toward application in a sermon and adding earnestness produce the effect of piercing the heart? No, not necessarily. There must be unction. The Holy Spirit must energize the preacher and permeate the message.

To move in the direction of preaching that does indeed piece the heart (Acts 2:37), take another look at the preaching event. In expository preaching, there is an appropriate preaching text, a pericope. The preacher derives his purpose from this pericope. When the preacher derives his purpose from the pericope, it is the purpose of the Holy Spirit. Preaching the purpose of the Holy Spirit yields a power or force that pieces the heart. All of this, of course, is under the unction and anointing of the Holy Spirit.

What is a pericope? It is a verse or set of verses, which forms a unit of thought. The key is unity. Haddon Robinson says, “Base the sermon on a literary unit of biblical thought” (2002, p. 55). W. G. T. Shedd (1867) puts it this way, “A text should be complete in itself … It should be single, containing only one general theme” (p. 166). R. L. Dabney (1870) counsels the pastor in selecting his preaching portion, “But the chief consideration to guide him here will be the unity of the topic” (p. 94). Dabney means there must be unity of subject or theme.

This unity implies another essential principle of interpretation. That is, “words and sentences can have but one signification [meaning] in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle, we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty” (Terry, 1999, p. 103). In other words, a unified preaching unit or pericope has a particular significance. Think of this significance in terms of purpose. Ask the question: Why does this text, this verse or series of verses, exist in its specific context? What is the purpose of this text, this pericope? Knowing this purpose reveals the Holy Spirit’s purpose. Selecting an appropriate pericope should lead to study that unveils the purpose of the pericope.

Remember, expository preaching means the explanation and application of a particular text of Scripture. Knowing the purpose of a passage leads to preaching the purpose of this text and to the purpose of the Spirit. “The importance of discerning and preaching according to the Holy Spirit’s purpose has not been emphasized in exegesis or homiletics courses. Yet nothing is more fundamental to solid biblical preaching” (Adams, 1982, p. 9). Therefore, Adams (1982) says, “In every passage that He inspired, the Holy Spirit (unlike many preachers) had some intention, some purpose, in view” (p. 10). He goes on to insist that the preacher should maintain “a focus on purpose as the controlling factor in the study, construction and delivery of the sermon … it is the unifying factor in all that is done … purpose is the controlling factor in preaching” (Adams, 1982, p. 10).

What is the upshot of following this course of thought? A unified pericope leads to the unveiling of the Spirit’s purpose in the text. Thus it also leads to the probability of preaching the text under the anointing of the Spirit’s power. Introducing a course deviation at the beginning of the process can mean missing the power of unction in the actual preaching moment. For example, determining the application ahead of knowing the Spirit’s purpose in a text introduces such a course deviation. The application becomes the objective. This course deviation results in missing the proper destination, the Spirit’s power in the presentation. Whereas first knowing the Spirit’s purpose in the text divulges the Spirit’s application and, thus the Spirit’s power in the presentation. Movement is from pericope to purpose to power.

Denny Prutow
Copyright © 2020

Adams, J. E. (1982). Essays on Biblical Preaching. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Dabney, R. L. (1979). Sacred Rhetoric. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth.
Parker, T. H. L. (1992). Calvin’s Preaching. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.
Robinson, H. W. (2002). Biblical Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Shedd, W. G. T. (2000). Homiletics and Pastoral Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.
Terry, M. S. (1999). Biblical Hermeneutics. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Opening First John (1 John #1)

2020-02-08T03:09:53-04:00 February 10th, 2020|

The consensus among commentators is that the Apostle John wrote what we call 1 John late in the first century, perhaps around 90 A.D. The Epistle carries the language and phraseology of the Gospel and thus appears to be written by John (Wescott, 1966, p. xxx). The witness of the early church seems to confirm this point (Nicoll, 1961, p. 151-2). Therefore, we call it John’s First Epistle, although it does not have the usual salutation of a letter, nor does John directly identify himself. Instead, he stands among those who are eye-witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (1 John 1:1-4).

Stephen Smalley (2008) calls 1 John a “paper” (p. xxv). Alternately, “It is probably best to regard it as a tract written to deal with a specific problem; it is a written sermon or pastoral address” (Marshall, 1978, p. 14). John probably wrote this piece in Ephesus for circulation among the churches he planted in Asia Minor.

The common perception among readers and commentators is that 1 John weighs in against heresy, particularly Gnosticism, within the Christian community of Asia Minor. Brooke (1964) puts it succinctly, “The connection of the Epistle with Gnosticism is quite apparent” (p. xliii). Robertson agrees, “The Epistle is not a polemic primarily … Yet the errors of the Gnostics are constantly before John’s mind” (p. 200). Marshall (1978) takes exception, “It remains, however, doubtful whether Gnosticism in the full-blown sense of the term existed in the first century” (p. 52). Gnostics, it should be noted, “believed in salvation by enlightenment” (Stott, 1981, p. 46).

Smalley believes that tension developed between two strains of heretical belief, Ebionite and Docetic (2008, p. xxi). Wescott (1966) adds, “The main questions of the debate are gathered around the Person and Work of the Lord. On the one side, He was represented as a mere man (Ebionism): on the other side he was represented as a mere phantom (Docetism)” (xxxiv). Yes, the Ebionites saw Jesus as a mere man; “Both the divinity of Christ and His virgin birth were denied” (Berkhof, 1975, p. 44). Also, the Ebionites gave “an exalted place to the Jewish law” (Smalley, 2008, xxi). “This sect really constituted the continuation of the Judaistic opponents of the Apostle Paul and was of the Pharisaic type” (Berkhof, 1975, p. 44). They tended toward legalism as a part of their outlook. Marshall states further “that what John condemns is a Docetic or similar christology and a lowering of Christian ethical standards rather than a full-blown Gnostic system of teaching” (p. 52). In other words, the Docetic position, in part, manifested antinomianism.

Well, it may be fine to explore the false teachings that are behind the exhortations of 1 John. Such explorations tickle the ears and excite the intellect. However, it is perhaps more useful to take the text at face value rather than seeking to explore what may or may not be in the background. Are there modern counterparts to the Docetic and Ebionite heresies? The problems of both legalism and antinomianism are close at hand. But we can address these aberrations directly in the application of specific texts within this little book. Taking a detour into the thicket of particular heresies places emphasis upon them. It then seems that John’s primary purpose is to correct particular false doctrines and practices when he actually has a more profound purpose in mind.

A review of Calvin’s commentary on The First Epistle of John (1961) reveals that the great expositor does not mention Gnosticism, Gnostics, Docetism, or the Ebionites. He speaks of heretics once in his dedication, once concerning 1 John 2:22-23, and twice regarding 1 John 4:1-3. The latter text reads as follows,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.

Calvin (1961) says in part, “But he only repeats here what we have heard before; that, just as Christ is the object at which true faith aims, so He is the stumbling-block on which all heretics stumble” (p. 286). Continuing to comment on verse 2, Calvin goes on to say, “Therefore, the ancient heretics departed from this faith, partly by denying Christ’s divine nature, partly his human … ” (p. 286). The Ebionites denied Christ’s divine nature. Docetism dismissed Christ’s human nature. But Calvin does not pursue these avenues of discussion. Instead, he is anxious to move to contemporary application and points directly at the Papists. “Therefore, the ancient heretics departed from this faith, partly by denying Christ’s divine nature, partly his human, so the Papists today” (p. 286). Calvin refers to the Papists nine times in his commentary on 1 John.

And so, Calvin sticks close to the text. He does not diverge from the main point of the Epistle. Consider 1 John 4:4, “You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” As Calvin says, “The apostle’s aim was to encourage believers to resist imposters bravely and undauntedly” (p. 287). Calvin adds this word of assurance, “As to the general tenor of this passage, it is a great comfort that, with whatever tricks Satan may attack us, we shall stand in the truth of God” (p. 287).

In my exposition of 1 John, I do not seek to unravel the supposed thoughts of those to whom John writes. Instead, I aim to follow the example of Calvin. I pupose to stick close to the text and apply it to contemporary life. In doing so, I anchor my exposition in the primary purpose of this book: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). This emphasis is pro-assurance instead of anti-heresy.

Denny Prutow
Copyright © 2020

Calvin, J. The Gospel According to St. John 11-21 and the First Epistle of John (T. H. L. Parker, Trans.). D. W. and T. F. Torrance (Eds.). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Berkhof, L. (1975). The History of Christian Doctrines. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth.
Brooke, A. E. (1964). A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Smalley, S. S. (2008). 1, 2, and 3 John, Revised. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Stott, J. R. W. (1960). The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Wescott, B. F. (1966). The Epistles of St. John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

The Purpose of John’s Purpose (1 John #2)

2020-02-06T14:11:10-04:00 February 3rd, 2020|

While serving as a seminary Professor of Homiletics, I assigned sermons to students based upon texts from various books of the Bible. We always took class time to discuss the assigned book. In particular, we zeroed in on the purpose of the book. If the writer gives a specific purpose statement, we took a hard look at it. If the writer does not state a purpose, we undertook a study to determine the purpose and formulate such a statement. In doing so, we recognized that an author might have many reasons for writing. However, what we sought was the primary purpose of a given book.

Why is identifying the primary purpose of a book of the Bible so important? A book’s purpose acts as a lens through which to view each section of the book. This lens offers the proper perspective on individual pieces of the book. Using the comparison of a well-cut diamond, the various parts of a biblical book present different facets of the book’s content. A diamond has many facets or faces. Each facet shows a different face of the beauty of the stone. Similarly, each piece of a well-written letter, paper, or story, adds substance and depth to the central theme or purpose of the story. As a result, knowing the meaning of individual parts of a letter, paper, or story, depends upon understanding its primary purpose as a whole.

First John was one of the books I used in my preaching classes. Some thought that the concepts 1 John raises are difficult and often confusing. I don’t see it this way. If we take the primary purpose of 1 John seriously, the difficulties melt away. If we look at the various sections of 1 John through the lens of its primary purpose, clarity emerges. Problems arise when we fail to use John’s purpose as a primary guidepost. So, what is the purpose of this little book?

As is true for the Gospel of John, 1 John gives us its purpose. The Apostle John wrote his gospel for evangelistic purposes. “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). He wrote 1 John, his tract or paper, to foster assurance. He wrote to believers to encourage them in the experimental knowledge of their eternal life in Christ. “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

That this statement sets forth John’s principal purpose seems clear. To be sure, I review the statements of several commentators speaking to 1 John 5:13. First, consider John Calvin (1551), “There should be daily progress in faith; and so he says that he is writing to those who already believed, so that they might believe more firmly and certainly, and thus enjoy a full confidence of eternal life” (p. 307). B. F. Wescott (1883) says, “The Apostle looks back upon his work, and records the aim which he set before himself” (p. 188). The Expositor’s Greek Testament (1961) records this comment, “The purpose for which St. John wrote his gospel was that we might believe in the Incarnation, and so have eternal life (xx. 31); the purpose of the Epistle is not merely that we may have Eternal Life by believing but that we may know that we have it” (p. 5:197, italics original). John R. W. Stott (1960) adds,

The Epistle was written … that ye may know that ye have eternal life … The Gospel was written for unbelievers, that they might read the testimony of God to His Son, believe in the Son to whom the testimony pointed, and thus receive life through faith. The Epistle, on the other hand, was written for believers. John’s desire for them is not that they may believe and receive, but having believed, they may know that they have received … (p. 184, italics Stott’s).

I Howard Marshall (1978) comments on John 5:13 as follows, “We are fortunate that John has given us in his gospel a statement of purpose in writing it (Jn. 20:31). In the same way, he here summarizes his purpose in the composition of this epistle” (p. 243). A few sentences later, Marshall adds, “John now sums up by saying that the effect of what he has written should be to give assurance to believers that they do possess eternal life” (p. 243). Finally, in the Word Biblical Commentary, Stephen S. Smalley (2008) indicates that 1 John 5:13 “states one of the aims lying behind 1 John as a whole” (p. 276). Although this may be the case, Smalley states that “the primary intention of 1 John can still be delineated as the instruction and encouragement of the faithful” (xxix). In his comments under 5:13, Smalley adds, “In favor of this view is the close parallel existing between v. 13 and John 20:31 where the writer sets out the purpose of the Fourth Gospel” (p. 277).

Again, the purpose statement of 1 John is a lens through which to examine and properly apply sections of the book. Here is an example. First John 1:3-4 relates a secondary purpose. “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.” Fellowship is an essential aspect of our jointly held Christian faith, as is our fellowship with the Father through and with Jesus Christ, the Son. This fellowship precipitates joy, a fruit of the Spirit. But this fellowship and the consequent joy are not ends in themselves. Experiencing this fellowship in Christ and an experimental acquaintance with this joy testify to our participation in eternal life (1 John 5:13). They provide evidence undergirding our assurance of salvation. Seeing 1 John 1:3-4 in the light of 1 John 5:13 illuminates its real significance within 1 John.

Denny Prutow
Copyright © 2020

Calvin, J. The Gospel According to St. John 11-21 and the First Epistle of John (T. H. L. Parker, Trans.). D. W. and T. F. Torrance (Eds.). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Nicoll, W. R. (Ed.). (1961) The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Smalley, S. S. 1, 2, and 3 John, Revised. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Stott, J. R. W. (1960). The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Wescott, B. F. (1966). The Epistles of St. John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Using “You” in Teaching and Preaching

2020-01-23T16:18:18-04:00 January 27th, 2020|

Students, pastors, and teachers are reluctant to use the second person. As a result, the first person use of we dominates. There is also frequent use of the third person he and they. But this is not the biblical pattern. “It is not arrogant for God’s appointed servant to proclaim God’s word directly, even pointedly, to those to whom he addresses it” (Jay Adams, Truth Applied, 25).

Listen to Moses as he reiterates the covenant in Moab. Moses pointedly lays out the negative, “Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4, italics added). He similarly sets forth the promise of God, “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6, italics added). Listen to Joshua challenge Israel. “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15, italics added).

Consider the early preaching of Peter. The emphasis is mine. “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross” (Acts 2:23, italics added). “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36, italics added). “[You (implied)] Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38, italics added). “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered and [you] disowned in the presence of Pilate … But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:13–14, italics added). “Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified … ” (Acts 4:10, italics added).

Then there is Stephen. “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did” (Acts 7:51–53, italics added). And there is Paul. “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10, italics aded). We could multiply these by many biblical illustrations. For example, in the New American Standard Bible, you or your appear one hundred and ninety-eight times in the one hundred and nine verses of the Sermon on the Mount.

But there is a biblical argument for the use of we coming from Hebrews. This epistle is very likely a typical sermon delivered in the synagogue of the day. It is a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22) like the “word of exhortation” Paul delivers in the Synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:15).

The preacher to the Hebrews was not one of those preachers who points his finger at his people and refers to them exclusively as “you.” Instead, he identified with his congregation by employing the pronoun “we.” The author uses “we” fifty-three times in this epistle. He includes himself in both the applications and encouragements of his sermon … The preacher treated his congregation as “we” not “you” (Anthony T. Selvaggio, “Preaching Advice from the ‘Sermon’ to the Hebrews,” Themilios Journal 32–2 (2009): 33.

However, Hebrews uses both we and you. The second-person plural pronoun you appears forty-eight times. This count comes from the NASB Update. If you reduce the count where the version uses you in translating participles and increase the count where you is implied in Greek imperatives, total usage is fifty. The possessive your appears twenty-seven times. The total is seventy-five times. Hebrews also uses let us twelve times and us alone twenty times. Including the fifty-three uses of we, the total for the first-person plural is then eighty-five. The use of we and you are comparable.

Here are four examples of the use of the second-person plural in exhortations. The emphasis is again mine. “[You] Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). “But [you] encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). “But [you] remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings” (Hebrews 10:32). “[You] Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you” (Hebrews 13:7).

And so, to follow the example of Scripture, you should use you in your preaching and teaching. Use we, but not exclusively. Use you a large percentage of the time. J. C. Ryle maintains this point.

[I]f you wish to preach simply, use a direct style. What do I mean by this? I mean the practice and custom of saying “I” and “you.” When a man takes up this style of preaching, he is often told that he is conceited and egotistical. The result is that many preachers are never direct—and always think it very humble and modest and becoming to say “we.” But I remember good Bishop Villiers saying that “we” was a word kings and corporations should use, and they alone—but that parish clergymen should always talk of “I” and “you.” I endorse that saying with all my heart” [John Charles Ryle, Simplicity in Preaching (London: William Hunt, 1882), 29–30].

Therefore, “I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly” (Hebrews 13:22, italics added).

Denny Prutow
Revised from So Pastor, What’s Your Point? 

The Power of Parables

2020-01-11T09:16:24-04:00 January 13th, 2020|

“The biblical parable is a very specific literary form. As it was developed in the biblical tradition, a parable was a device used by preachers to epitomize a sermon. A whole sermon could be packed up into a parable and put away in the memory and then later brought out again when the occasion arose and unpacked by a process of explanation and elaboration” (Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, 1:145).

Parables are pithy, to the point, and forcefully expressive. Their power lies in their being compact. “As it was developed in the biblical tradition, a parable was a device used by preachers [and teachers] to epitomize a sermon [or teaching]. A whole sermon [or teaching] could be packed up into a parable and put away in the memory and then later brought out again when the occasion arose and unpacked by a process of explanation and elaboration” (Ibid.).

But parables pack power for a more fundamental reason. “It is the parabolic nature of life which points to the parabolic nature of preaching [and teaching]. Meaning is conveyed by similitude, by analogy, by example” (Ibid., 146). The seeds for these similitudes, analogies, and examples are woven into creation.

The sowing of seed, its growth, fruition, and harvest is one of those signs, as is the beauty of a pearl. The sharing of a meal is a powerful sign. The relation of sheep to a shepherd, the relation between mother and child, the marriage relationship, and by all means the marriage feast—all are signs of the fundamental realities of existence. They are not only fundamental but ultimate realities (Ibid., 145).

What this truth means is that parables are not invented but found, if we have eyes to see and hearts to understand. As Hughes Oliphant Old aptly puts it,

[O]ne of the tasks of the Christian preacher [or teacher] is to interpret these fundamental similitudes of life. We must interpret them as Jesus interpreted them, to be sure. It is not our job to discover new similitudes or invent new parables any more than it is our job to invent new sacraments. The parables are there, built into life. They are discovered, not invented, but it takes the gospel to recognize them (Ibid., 146).

If we have eyes to see and hearts to understand powerful, parables are all around us.

Denny Prutow