Preaching the Point

What is the meaning of Psalm 1? The psalmist describes the “blessed man” as one who, on the positive side, meditates on the law of God day and night, becomes like a tree planted by streams of water, and bears fruit and prospers. On the negative side, he doesn’t walk, stand, or sit with the ungodly.

There is a school of preaching, called “redemptive-historical,” that has done much good in restoring “Christ-centered” preaching to our pulpits. I know something about Christ-centered preaching, I’ve written on the subject (see my The Parables of Jesus, chapter 2, “The Bible is About Jesus,” pp 29-39; and also The Case for Traditional Protestantism, chapter 3, “Solo Christo,” pp 47-74). More importantly, I have devoted Sunday mornings for the last 26 years to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts, the latter of which the “glorious physician” bills as “all that Jesus continued to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). Once every 3-4 years I’ve interrupted my gospels & Acts preaching to do an epistle. Otherwise, nearly all of my Sunday morning preaching for a quarter of a century has been devoted to what Jesus did and taught, from right out of gospel texts. Calvin taught me this pattern of ministry. I concur with those who emphasize that “nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified” is the message of “all the Scriptures” (1 Cor 2:2; Lk 24:27).

However, the disciples of this school do what many disciples do: they go too far. Let me cite some examples –– they typically will preach Psalm 1 as “Jesus is the Blessed Man.” The problem with this is that Psalm 1 is not about Jesus. The first Psalm is the “gateway” psalm teaching us the rewards of Bible study and meditation. It is a wisdom Psalm that exhorts and encourages us to be students of the Psalter specifically and of all Scripture more generally. One might want to show in one’s sermon how Jesus is the best illustration of what it means to be this blessed man, though because the New Testament never portrays Jesus meditating on Scripture that might be a problem. Still, Jesus learned the Bible somewhere (in the synagogue probably) and used it mightily in battle with His foes (e.g., Mt 4:1ff; 21:33-34; 22:23-40; etc.). A preacher might also want to demonstrate that Jesus is the central message of that Scripture upon which Psalm 1 would have us meditate. However, the point of the Psalm is the importance of our meditating upon Scripture. To make “Jesus is the blessed man” the point is to miss the point, however true it might be. What difference does it make? We always miss out when we make the point of a passage something other than that which the Holy Spirit was intending when He inspired its inclusion in the canon.

Let’s take another example, the “Beatitudes” (Mt 5:3ff). What is the meaning of the Beatitudes? Some redemptive-historical preachers tell us that the point of Matthew 5:3-12 is that Jesus is the Beatific One. The Beatitudes are about the character of Jesus. Note, they are not saying merely that Jesus is the best illustration of the Beatitudes. That is a perfectly valid and important point to make. Neither are they merely saying that Jesus alone can transform us so that we may become characterized by the Beatitudes. This too is an important point that should and must be made. I say both of these things in Grace Transformed, my book on the Beatitudes (e.g., pp 25-35, 104-108, 139ff, etc.). No, they say that the point is that Jesus’ life embodies the Beatitudes. He teaches the Beatitudes so that we’ll notice that they are His characteristics. He alone fulfills them, and don’t miss this point, we no longer have to fulfill them because He has done so on our behalf.

I say, to make that the point is to miss the point. The Beatitudes are set in Matthew 5-7, the largest single portion of ethical teaching found in the four gospels. Jesus there is teaching His disciples the ethics or character of the kingdom of God. Jesus is the best model of the ideals, and Jesus alone enables us to realize them in our own experience. Yet, the point of these ideals is that we are to aspire to embody them ourselves not that Jesus fulfills these ideals for us.

One more example: the Good Samaritan. These preachers will say that the point of the parable is that “Jesus is the Good Samaritan.” Again, they are not saying merely that Jesus best illustrates the Good Samaritan, a valid and important point to make. Neither are they saying merely that we cannot become like the Good Samaritan without the grace of the Holy Spirit, another necessary and vital emphasis. Indeed, I make both of these points in my book on The Parables of Jesus (302-307), and again recently in our sermon series on Luke’s gospel. No, they say the point is that Jesus is the Good Samaritan who fulfills the ideals of the parable on our behalf. Because of the “finished work of Christ” we are liberated from the burden of being Good Samaritans, which we could never be because of our sin. This, I say, is to miss the point, which is this case Jesus makes explicit: “You go, and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). The point of the parable is the one Jesus makes. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, which means to behave towards our neighbors as did the Good Samaritan.

The problem with the redemptive-historical extremists is three-fold. First, the ethical thrust of the New Testament, which is not inconsiderable, disappears. All preaching becomes about Jesus and the cross, that is, about justification by faith. Everything else is a footnote to justification. As a consequence, preaching becomes predictable, cliché, and boring. Flights of redemptive-historical fancy become commonplace, as texts are twisted to say what they do not say, forced to teach what they do not teach, while what they do teach is lost.
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