Everyone has their favorite preachers. For some, delivery is most appealing; for others, it is giftedness in thought and creativity; still for others, it is the gentleness, joy or boldness with which one preaches. While all these things have their place–and while God uses different personalities and gifts to impact different people–my favorite preachers are those who most faithfully preach the text in context. For some reason, Reformed ministers from the UK tend to do this better than ministers in the US. This may be due in part to their educational upbringing or to the long history of that sort of preaching in their tradition. Whatever the reason–apart from biblical-theological reflections made in sermons–nothing is more impacting to me than having a minister point out contextual connections to the text he is preaching. So what is meant by, “contextual connections?”
In his sermon “The Greatest Rest You Will Ever Enjoy,” on the words of Matthew 11:25-30, Sinclair Ferguson drew out one of the richest textual observations. Reflecting on Jesus’ words “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you…rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29), Ferguson explained:
Jesus claims to be the One who can do what only God can do for your soul–He claims to be the One whom God had promised who would bring rest. And it’s veery interesting the way Matthew spreads before us his story of Jesus, that immediately you come into chapter 12. In a way that should be more obvious to us, he tells us Sabbath day stories. You just glanced down at the beginning of chapter 12, “At that time Jesus began to go through the grain-fields on the Sabbath;” and then the next story in verse 9, “He went on from there and entered their Synagogue.” And he begins to tell us Sabbath Day stories. Of course, “Sabbath” (שַׁבָּת) is “rest.” And he gives us these marvelous examples of how Jesus was able to give what the Sabbath Day only typified, only pictorialized. He comes to this man with the withered hand–a man who is surely burdened and heavy laden and helpless; and, on the day of rest, He gives this man rest and peace and hope. Then there is this demon possessed man, in chapter 12 verse 22, who is blind and mute–oppressed by evil spirits, unable to see, unable to hear, burdened and heavy laden; and, on the day of rest, Jesus demonstrates that He is actually the One to whom that day of rest, week after week after week, had pointed. He gives the rest that He promised. It’s a beautiful way, Matthew shows us, that Jesus not only claims to be the One who is able to give us rest, but actually proves that He can keep His promises by giving rest to individuals with such diverse needs–as though, Matthew were saying, “Don’t you see, that If He could give rest to these needy ones then He can keep His promise–this great emphasis–to give all who come to Him rest.
The more I listen to Ferguson, the more I find this to be one of the fixed strengths of his teaching and preaching. In almost every sermon (especially in those upon passages in the Gospels), Ferguson draws out some of the most profound contextual connections (see, for example, “A Tale of Two Seekers” and “Beginning with Love“).
Another example of the importance of contextual connections is found in the juxtaposition of the baptism and temptation of Jesus in the Gospel records. We learn from Luke’s Gospel that when Jesus was baptized, “heaven opened…and a voice came from heaven which said, ‘You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased'” (Luke 3:21-22). Then, during His time of temptation in the wilderness, Luke tells us that Satan prefaced his temptations with the formula, “If you are the Son of God” (4:3, 9). The devil was trying to get Jesus to doubt the affirmation that He had just received from His Father–and, in so doing, to act in his own strength–and according to his own agenda–to prove that He was indeed the Son of God. We cannot fully understand the temptation of Jesus if we miss this connection.
One final example will suffice. The words of 1 Corinthians 15:29 are some of the most difficult in all the Scriptures. Legion are the interpretive solutions offered. While it is, in no way, without it’s own weaknesses, the contextual interpretation offered by Jonathan Edwards is that which I have found most satisfying. Taking the flow of the argument of the Apostle Paul that if there is no resurrection of the dead then the dead do not rise, and, if the dead do not rise then Christ is not risen, Edwards offered his solution to the words of verse 29:
Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” What folly is it to baptize for persons that are dead and not risen again, nor ever to rise! What folly is it to baptize in the name of such! But this is our case, if there is no resurrection of the dead; we are baptized in the name of a dead Man. But who are we if He is not risen, nor to rise? [So] the foregoing verses, speaking of the resurrection of Christ, as from the 16th verse, “For if the dead do not rise then is not Christ raised: and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” And if so, surely our baptism is also vain, as in this verse; and why stand we in jeopardy every hour, if Christ is yet dead and so to continue.
Edwards noted that the section begins with Paul’s statement in verse 16, ‘For if the ‘dead’ do not rise then Christ is not raised.” There, the plural of “dead” is used, and Christ is categorically in view by virtue of His being included among “the dead” (i.e. those who have died). It is no stretch then to conclude that Paul again picks up on what he began in verse 16 in verse 29. When he says, ‘Why the are they baptized for the dead,” he is essentially saying, ‘Why then are they baptized in the name of (on behalf of) a dead man, namely, on behalf of Christ.
Many will find their reading of Scripture hindered by failing to grasp this principle. Much preaching also suffers by a neglect of it. In the world of realty, the key is “location, location, location;” in the world of biblical interpretation, the key is “context, context, context.” Whatever else may be said on this subject, we can conclude that God’s people must labor to read the Scriptures in context and His ministers must learn to preach the contextually connections (see this post) that He has inspired. While there may be portions of Scripture unconnected from their immediate contexts (e.g. Psalms, certain sections of Proverbs, etc.), generally the immediate context is that which will help to yield the fullest interpretation of a given passage.
1. Jonathan Edwards Notes on Scripture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) p. 53