The Fig Tree & the Tree of Life

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In 2 Timothy 1:10, Paul the Apostle tells us that Jesus came to abolish death and bring life and immortality to light through the gospel. I looked at this passage yesterday in a sermon titled “Born That Man No More May Die,” as part of our Advent series, looking at who Jesus was and why he came.

In the sermon I looked at a story that has always intrigued me: Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel in John 1, in which Jesus declares that Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28) was a foreshadowing of Him: Jesus is the bridge between Heaven and Earth, between mortal humanity and immortality.

What Was Nathanael Doing Under the Fig Tree?

In John 1, we read that Nathanael is skeptical when he hears that Jesus is from Nazareth; he cannot believe that the Messiah could ever come from a place like that. In my sermon, I explained that the reason Nazareth was despised was because it was a generally poor, working class town, where most of the people worked for the pagan Greeks in the nearby city of Sepphoris.

Nathanael is then introduced to Jesus, and immediately he lets go of his skepticism and is convinced that Jesus truly is the Messiah. What changed his mind? It was something that Jesus said to him as soon as they met:

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” (John 1:47-48)

What was Nathanael doing under the fig tree? According to some Jewish rabbis, Jewish people would traditionally read the Scriptures under a fig tree because of the belief that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (the tree Adam and Eve were told not to eat from lest they die), was a fig tree, because after they sinned and their eyes were opened to the fact of their nakedness, Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with fig leaves.

The statement about an Israelite in whom there is no deceit is likely as allusion to the story of Jacob, whose name means: “deceiver”, but after wrestling with God, he was given a new name: Israel, which means something like: “grapples with God”, “subdued by God” or “governed by God.”

These allusions to Jacob “the deceiver” whose identity was changed by his encounter with God, along with the mention of the fig tree lead many to believe that Nathanael must have been reading about Jacob in the Book of Genesis, and the fact that Jesus knew that, convinced Nathanael that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the promised Savior and king.

Cut Off from the Tree of Life?

Speaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, in Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve ate of it, they were cast out of the Garden of Eden, and an angel with a flaming sword was placed to guard the entrance of it, lest they – or anyone else – eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. (Genesis 3:22)

That verse might strike you as a little bit confusing: Doesn’t God WANT us to eat of the Tree of Life and live forever?

The answer is: Yes, but not in this fallen state. In other words, it was an act of God’s mercy that Adam and Eve were cut off from the Tree of Life, lest they eat from it and live forever in their fallen state. Instead, God allowed them to die, so that he might one day redeem them through Jesus, and ultimately resurrect them unto eternal life. For us as well, it is God’s mercy that he allows us to die “the first death” (physical death) and saves us from “the second death” (eternal Spiritual death, see Revelation 21:8).

Further Discussion

Mike and I sat down this week and discussed these and other topics in our weekly Sermon Extra video. Check it out:

“Preaching” or “Sharing”?

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Dictionary.com defines the word “preachy” as: “tediously or pretentiously didactic.”

Apparently this is what the word “preaching” evokes in the minds of many people. Perhaps for this reason, some people I have encountered have suggested that churches abandon the word “preaching” in favor of the word “sharing.” Rather than someone “preaching a sermon,” they suggest we ought to have someone “share a message.”

Is this just splitting hairs? Does it even matter?

A Matter of Semantics…

Semantics: the branch of linguistics that deals with the meanings of words and sentences

Words do matter. Words not only convey meaning, but the reason we have synonyms, i.e. multiple words for a given thing, is because each of these words relates to a slightly different way of thinking about or portraying that thing, and different words convey different feelings.

At the same time, words are culturally shaped, and the meaning of a word can change over time – even if it refers to an objective reality which does not change. Western society, with its emphasis on equality, tends to be more inclined to a word like “sharing” as opposed to “preaching.”

A Biblical Matter

However, we must also recognize the fact that the Bible uses the word “preach” over 150 times (in the NKJV), and doesn’t use the word “share” at all in the sense of speaking with other people about God.

I remember talking to someone once who claimed that Jesus only “taught”, he didn’t “preach”. Her point was that Jesus wasn’t “preachy”; the only problem with her argument is the fact that there are dozens of verses which tell us that Jesus preached. In fact, not only does it say that Jesus preached, but Jesus himself said that the very reason He came was to preach, and then he trained and commissioned his disciples to preach.

“I must preach the kingdom of God…because for this purpose I have been sent.” (Jesus in Luke 4:43)

A Practical Matter

To preach means to proclaim. It means to announce and declare something.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that what makes preaching unique, is that the one who preaches “is there to ‘declare’ certain things; they are a person under commission and under authority… an ambassador [who] comes to the congregation as a sent messenger.” [1]

To preach, in the biblical sense, therefore, is not to speak on one’s own authority, or to share one’s own thoughts. Preaching, in the biblical sense, is to convey a message from God to people.

For this reason, I believe we should hold onto this biblical term. However, I believe it is important that our preaching should not be preachyi.e. “tediously or pretentiously didactic.” It should not be condescending, and it should come from a person who understands and conveys that they are the equal of their listeners – and yet, they come to them not with their own ideas and musings, but with a message from God which deserves their utmost attention.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Role and Importance of Preaching

Here are some further quotes from Martyn Lloyd-Jones on preaching, from his classic Preaching and Preachers:

The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and the most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also.

You cannot read the history of the Church, even in a cursory manner, without seeing that preaching has always occupied a central and a predominating position in the life of the Church.

At this point, Lloyd-Jones clarified that ministry to and care for the poor and marginalized is a ministry and a duty of the church, it must happen simultaneous to, not in place of, the proclamation of the Word of God. He points to Acts 6 to make this point, where the apostles appointed deacons, capable people full of the Holy Spirit, to ministry to the needs of the needy in their community, so that they could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word, deeming it improper for them to neglect those things.

Paul’s last word to Timothy was: ‘Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.’

What is it that always heralds the dawn of a Reformation or of a Revival? It is renewed preaching.

Preaching is logic on fire. It is theology coming through a person who is on fire.

The chief end of preaching is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence.

Preaching should make such a difference to those who are listening, that they are never the same again.

The preacher cares about the people they are preaching to; that is why they are preaching. The preacher is anxious about them; anxious to help them, anxious to tell them the truth of God. So they do it with energy, with zeal, and with obvious concern for people.

May God use us to preach, teach, and share His truth with others, so that hearts, minds, and lives will be changed for the better.

Guest Teaching This Week at Ravencrest Chalet Bible College

This week I’m in Estes Park teaching at Ravencrest Chalet Bible College, part of the Torchbearers International organization, which has a network of colleges and retreat centers around the world.

I’m teaching Genesis to the first year students, and Leadership in the Local Church to the second year students.

We’ve really enjoyed getting connected to Ravencrest; we’ve had one of their leaders, Frank Cirone, down to our church to teach on a few occasions (listen to Frank’s messages here)

In this interview with Frank which we recorded at our church office after one of his visits, he shares the history of the Torchbearers movement, and some of his ministry experience around the world. It’s pretty interesting! Check it out:

This week Mike and I made our weekly sermon follow-up video up here at Ravencrest, in which we talked about church discipline, laziness, and being a busybody. Check it out:

Pray for the ministry of Ravencrest! They are doing great work discipling, equipping, and sending out young people into the world for the mission of God!

How to Write a Sermon: Outlining

The most recent episode of the Expositors Collective Podcast is a talk I gave at the Expositors Collective training weekend in San Diego back in April 2019.

I begin the talk with a story about my dad and his habit of starting to drive without knowing the destination, and how many people approach sermon or message preparation in a similar way.

I then explain the the process I go through each week in writing, which begins with studying and outlining, but also includes collaboration.

If you’ve ever wanted to see behind the curtain for how I go about writing a sermon, listen in: Episode 64 – Start With the Destination in Mind

Join us at an upcoming Training Weekend!

We already have the schedule for the next several Expositors Collective training weekends. More information is available at ExpositorsCollective.com

  • Howell, NJ – September 20-21, 2019
  • Las Vegas, NV – February 21-22, 2020
  • Seattle, WA – May 8-9, 2020
  • Honolulu, HI – October 16-17, 2020

 

Upcoming Expositors Collective Events

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The Expositors Collective is a growing network of pastors, leaders, and laypeople which exists to equip, encourage, and mentor the next generation of Christ-centered preachers through two-day interactive training seminars, a weekly podcast, and ongoing mentoring relationships.

Howell, New Jersey: Sept. 20-21, 2019

Our next event will be in Howell, New Jersey on September 20-21, 2019 at Cornerstone Calvary Chapel.

Click here for more information and registration.

Upcoming Events in 2020

If you can’t make it to Howell in September, considering joining us at one of our events in 2020:

  • February 21-22, 2020 – Las Vegas, Nevada
  • May 8-9, 2020 – Seattle, Washington
  • October 2020 – Honolulu, Hawaii

These 2-day interactive seminars are for young men and women ages 18-34 who feel called to teach God’s Word and would like to receive instruction and ongoing mentorship in this area. If that’s you, then you won’t want to miss this – or if you know someone else who would benefit from this, send them our way!

For more information and to sign up, go to: expositorscollective.com
On the website you can see a list of some of the Bible teachers who will be coming to the event to serve as group leaders and speakers.

Spaces are limited, so sign up soon!

Resources for Studying the Prophets

This past Sunday we began a new series at White Fields called “Remember the Prophets“.

The idea for the series comes from James 5:10, where James tells us to “remember the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Take them as examples of patient endurance under suffering.”  In this series, we will be looking at a different Old Testament prophet each week, considering their lives and their messages and what we can learn from them.

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We are moving through them chronologically, and so began with Amos, an interesting person with an important message. Click here to listen to that message: Amos: Faith that Works

This Sunday we will continue the series by looking at Hosea, a gripping story of adultery and faithfulness which gives us insight into God’s heart.

Resources for Studying the Prophets

Generally speaking, the prophetic books are not well known by many people who even regularly read the Bible. Part of the reason for that is because of the negative tone of some of the books, as well as the feeling that without understanding the context of the books, they don’t make sense.

People have asked me at times what books or materials are good to use if they want to get to know the prophetic books better. Here are my top two recommendations:

Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Prophets, J. Gordon McConville

Image result for exploring the old testament a guide to the prophetsI had the pleasure of studying under Gordon McConville at the University of Gloucestershire in England, where he is professor of Old Testament theology. This was one of my text books, but is part of a great series from Inter-Varsity Press and is very accessible to the average reader and also scholarly at the same time.

On the scholarly side, this book tends to get a little bit into the weeds about theological discussions and debates, but the introductions and outlines of the books, their themes and their structures are very good. In other words, you can use it to go as deep as you’re ready to go.

Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament, Irving L. Jensen

When I first became a pastor, one of my mentors told me, “You’re going to need some books.” He then walked me into the book store at the church we were at and pulled Jensen’s surveys of the Old Testament and New Testament off the shelf and handed them to me.

The benefit to these books published by Moody Press is that rather than being a commentary that tells you information, they instead instruct you about how to ask the right questions. Thus, you are the one doing the exegetical work, or the inductive Bible study, rather than just passively receiving information. They do, however, give you important background information in order to get the context you need, but they also tell you where to go to get that context if it is found in other places in the Bible.

I hope these resources are helpful for you, as they have been for me!

How Can You “Count it All Joy” When Hardships Come Your Way?

In the month of December, we did a month-long series at White Fields on the topic of joy, and how Christianity gives a unique perspective on joy because it finds the source of joy in a unique place.

This past week, Mike and I sat down to discuss Christian joy and what it means when the Bible tells us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials”, and what this means especially at the outset of the new year.

Here is a link to the Joy to the World series, where you can listen to those messages, and here is the video of our discussion:

(if you watch closely, I get a phone call in the 6th minute of the video!)

How to Not Be Boring

I gave a talk this past July at the Expositors Collective event in Denver which was posted this week on the Expositors Collective Podcast.

The message was on the topic of homiletics, which is the art of preaching well.

In the talk I described why it is that someone can present a message which is accurate and true, and yet so crushingly boring that it makes you want to cry. I also give some instruction on how not to do that, and how to teach and preach well by tapping into the power of narrative. Finally I give a few very practical tips about structure, illustrations and preparation.

Check it out:

What All Great Speeches Have in Common

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What do Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs and Adolf Hitler all have in common?

For better or for worse (in the case of Hitler), they were all incredible speakers, who were able to move people to action with their words.

I recently listened to a great podcast featuring Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Inc., and co-author of the book Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies and Symbols

Having analyzed speeches, particularly those which are exponentially effective in connecting with people and inspiring them to action, Nancy claims that the best speeches, sermons and talks all follow a similar cadence. She describes the pattern as “pumpkin teeth” — having a sequence of lows and highs.

Contrasting the Status Quo with a Vision of a Different Future

Stories that connect, she says, follow this pattern: they build tension and then have cathartic release. Great speeches emphasize contrast between what is and what could be; the speaker goes back and forth between contrasting today’s current reality (status quo) with tomorrow’s possible future. They start with the way things are, and then give them a vision of a different, brighter future.

Nancy, who is a Christian and moved to Silicon Valley with her husband originally to plant a church, points out that Jesus was a master at this kind of communication. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus is constantly contrasting the way things are now on Earth, with the way things are and will be different in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus said things like, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”, and things like “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” (Matthew 20:25-26). Note the contrast between what is, and a vision for what could be.

Steve Jobs did this with his keynote speeches at Apple for years. When he introduced the iPhone, he used a hockey analogy to tell people that unlike other tech companies, Apple would always skate to where the puck will be, not where it is – essentially giving them a vision of a brighter future in contrast to the mundane present.

Ending: the “New Bliss” and a Cautionary Tale

Great stories and speeches, Duarte explains, tend to end with two key elements:

  1. A description of the “new bliss”, a picture of the great future that will come about if you adopt the new idea the presenter is putting forth
  2. A cautionary tale, explaining that the danger of not adopting this idea, and what will happen if you ignore it.

A perfect example of this is found at the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock… And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand… (read the whole passage here: Matthew 7:24-27)

Case Study: “I Have a Dream”

Martin Luther King Jr. did this in a masterful way with his “I Have a Dream” speech. He ended with a vision of the world that could be. Take note of the cadence of his speech:

[Positive: the Ideal] Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

[Negative: the Status Quo] But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

[Cautionary Tale] It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.

[Enduring Bliss] I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

How this Applies to Homiletics and Preaching

If you want to move people to action, you have to make a clear differentiation between what is now, and the future you’re inviting them into. In order to be persuasive, you must have contrast in some form.

For those who preach or teach the Bible, this is important to keep in mind and take note of, because every time we open the Word of God, we do so with a telos (aim or objective) not only to instruct, but to move people to action and response; to move them away from some things, and towards another thing – faith, repentance, decision, etc.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we seek to persuade others… God making his appeal through us: We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God! (2 Corinthians 5:11,20)

It’s important to keep these things in mind, and see that Jesus himself was the master of this kind of effective communication.

The goal is to present the problem and the solution in a way that truly reveals to the recipient both the urgency of the peril and the beauty of what makes the “good news” of the gospel so glorious, that they might respond in faith and action.

Video

Here is a TED talk that Nancy gave on this topic:

The Problem with Facades

In Exodus 34, we read an interesting story: when Moses went to meet with God on the mountain to receive the tablets of the 10 Commandments, it caused Moses’ face to glow.

It says that when he came down from the mountain, the people were frightened to see his face glowing. In another place we are told that they couldn’t look upon it, because the glow was so bright.

behind-the-veilBut then an interesting thing happens; if you read the text it says that Moses would first let the people look at his face (or at least see that his face was glowing), then he would cover his face with a veil (supposedly for their sake), and then whenever he would go in before the Lord, he would remove the veil, get “charged up,” then come back, let the people see that his face was glowing again, and then put the veil back over his face.

Now, think about it: If the reason Moses covered his face was for the sake of the people, so as not to blind them by the glow on his face, then why let them look at his face first, and only then cover it up until the next time he went in before the Lord?

There is something implied there which is made explicit in another place in the Bible: in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul tells us that the reason Moses covered his face was because he didn’t want the people to know that the glow was fading away…

In other words, Moses hid behind the veil in order to keep up an appearance before the people, that wasn’t really true. Moses didn’t want people to know that he was just like them. He liked having people look up to him and be in awe of him, so he hid his face, lest everyone see that the glory was fading.

It was a facade.

That’s what a veil is: it’s something you hide behind. It’s a kind of mask that you use to cover up your blemishes, lest people see the real things about you that might change their image of you.

As a pastor, I see this a lot.

There are many examples of this today, in our own culture. Oftentimes people are willing to help other people deal with their “messiness,” but they don’t want anyone to know about the messy things in their lives. People tend to be quick to offer help, but reticent to admitting that they need help, or accepting help when it’s offered. They’d rather keep up a facade that they’ve got their stuff together, that their face glows with the glory of the Lord, even when that’s not the case.

In other words: “Life is messy, and that’s okay – as long as it’s not my mess.” “Community is about serving each other, and that’s great, as long as it’s me serving others and not me being served.”

Veils hinder true fellowship and community. Facades can hinder people from getting help when they need it. If your curtains are on fire, but you don’t want to call the fire department, lest your neighbors see that there was a problem at your house, then the fire will spread until the entire house burns down. All too often, that’s exactly what happens.

If your curtains are on fire, but you don’t want to call the fire department, lest your neighbors see that there was a problem at your house, then the fire will spread until the entire house burns down.

Furthermore, when leaders put up a facade, like Moses did, that things are better than they actually are, or that they are more spiritual than they actually are, it creates a culture which encourages people to not be honest about where they are really at. I believe that people deserve to have leaders they can look up to, and that they should expect more from leaders: to be a leader means to be out in front; after all, how can you follow someone, unless they are a few steps ahead of you? However, it should be authentic and not contrived. What Moses did was contrived.

In Genesis 3, we read about the first time people tried to cover up their shame: Adam and Eve had been naked and unashamed until they rebelled against God, but when sin came into the world, they were overcome with a sense of shame, and they tried to hide it by covering themselves with leaves. Leaves are good for a lot of things, but they made terrible coverings. They’re itchy. They’re drafty.

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Here’s what God did: he said, “I will make a covering for you,” and he made them coverings of animal skins. Do you know how you get animal skins? By killing an animal. In other words: because of their sin, an innocent creature had to die, in order to cover their shame.

Are you picking up what the story is putting down? The only way for us to be covered, is by the death of another. That other, the ultimate covering for our sin and shame, was Jesus – the “lamb of God.”

Any of your attempts to cover yourself will be not only uncomfortable and drafty, they will be insufficient and unhelpful. Facades create unnecessary barriers which hinder fellowship and growth. Embrace the covering of Jesus, and pursue authenticity rather than facades in your relationships and in your spirituality!