Monday, December 06, 2010

Preaching in the Advent Season

(cross-posted at

When it comes to Christmas, some preachers are faced with one or more dilemmas:

  • Should I temporarily step away from the book I am preaching through to preach a special Christmas message or series of messages throughout December?
  • What texts and topics shall I cover?
  • How can I present the old, old story without coming across in a stale way? How do I stay fresh with texts and topics I feel I have exhausted?

Some preachers will not deviate from their normal preaching, but will continue through the book or series they are working through. Some of these will probably recognize the season somewhere in the service. Others will continue their normal preaching rotation, but may use the Christmas story as an illustration of the text. If they are preaching on humility, they may point to how Christ’s first coming provides a perfect example of humility.

Others, however, will devote entire messages to the themes of Christmas. If this is your preference, here are some ideas that may help you present fresh, helpful, Biblical messages for the Advent season, whether you are a pastor or are filling in this month.

Expository Series

  • Preaching through a portion of a book – the most obvious idea here would be to preach through Matthew 1 & 2 or Luke 1 & 2. One year, I had the opportunity to fill in at a church in December and preached consecutive messages from Matthew 1:1-17, 1:18-25, 2:1-18, and finished with 28:18-20 (connecting the coming of the King to His marching orders in the Great Commission).
  • Preaching through selected passages – one could take a theme and preach expository messages from key passages related to it, for example: “Christmas prophecies made and fulfilled” or “Christmas with the patriarchs & prophets.”
  • Preaching stand-alone messages – one could select various passages to preach messages that are not part of a series, except that they share the Christmas theme (such as Genesis 3:15, Genesis 12:1-3, Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 9:1-9, Micah 5:2, Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2, John 1:14, Galatians 4:4-7, Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 1, etc.).

Topical Series

  • Biographical studies – perhaps “the characters of Christmas”; could focus on the significance of the individual in the larger story and lessons we can learn (positive & negative) from individuals such as: Mary, Joseph, shepherds, magi, scribes, King Herod, Elizabeth, Zacharias, John the Baptist, Simeon, Anna, the angel Gabriel, Caesar Augustus (well, maybe not a whole message on him, since he is just mentioned in passing… but there could be some great contrasts between him and the true Ruler), God the Father, God the Holy Spirit and of course, Jesus.
  • Geographical theme - trace the events from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth to Calvary or something similar.
  • Christmas carols - take the song title as the sermon title, give the background to the song in the introduction and the preach on the main text or truth the song declares (make sure it does teach truth — see the next suggestion).
  • Christmas: fact or fiction? or “the myths of Christmas” – could debunk common errors (Really a “silent” night? Is it true that “little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes?” Did the shepherds look up and see a star? Did the wise men visit Jesus immediately after the shepherds?) and focus on giving an accurate account, encouraging the people that it is necessary to know what God’s Word actually says for ourselves.
  • The scandal of Christmas – man finds fiancĂ©e pregnant before marriage! king born in a cow trough! etc. — there is plenty of shocking material in the Christmas story that points to the glory of God in using the lowly and unexpected to bring His plan to pass.
  • The wonder of Christmas – could deal with all the wondering and marveling that the people in the narratives do (Luke 2:18, 33) and how we ought to be far more amazed at what God has done than we are.
  • The necessity of Christmas – we don’t need a lot of the stuff we have or get, but we desperately needed for Jesus to come; one could preach a series on our accountability to God our Creator, the punishment our sin deserved, how Christ was qualified to be our sacrifice, and what He accomplished in His life and death

There are many ways to preach helpful, biblical messages for the Advent season. And they can be intermingled as well (for example, preaching a biographical message each year and using the rest of the Sundays for an expository series). But none of them will be as helpful and as biblical as they should be unless you also remember to do the following:

  • Connect passage to its context and main point, even if you’re focusing on a minor point.
  • Locate the Christmas story in the storyline of the Bible – particularly in how it is fulfilling God’s promises to bring salvation to sinful mankind.
  • Be sure to bring out who Jesus is, and the wonder of the incarnation – God taking on flesh, fully God and fully man (but perfect)it is also good to connect His humble birth, perfect life, substitutionary death, victorious resurrection, exalted title, and His future glorious return.
  • Explain why Jesus needed to come – although you could preach a whole message on this topic (one of the suggestions above), it needs to be present in some way any time we preach, if we are to be “gospel” preachers who preach the gospel. And the whole reason Christmas should be so glorious is that it is an announcement of the gospel: “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10).

The Unashamed Workman blog also has some suggestions for dealing with the “Challenges of Christmas Preaching” here.

Two related articles:

"An Ambivalent Hallmark Calendar Guy" by Dr. Michael Lawrence

"100 Failed Human Predictions" by Dr. David Murray

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Christmas through the eyes of... Gabriel (Reflection #2)


Summary of Biblical Testimony

The Bible contains four direct references to Gabriel - two in the Old Testament book of Daniel (8:16, 9:21), and two in the New Testament book of Luke (1:19, 26). The only other angel in God's service who is named is Michael (Daniel 10:13, 21; Jude 1:9; Revelation 12:7).

We know that Gabriel appeared to at least three individuals to communicate and clarify God's message for them. Taking the form of a man (Daniel 8:15), he appeared to Daniel to explain prophecy and even to indicate when the Messiah, God's anointed, promised Savior would first come (Daniel 8:16ff., 9:21ff.). He appeared in the temple to the elderly Zacharias to announce the conception, birth, and ministry of John the Baptist, who would prepare people for the coming of the Lord (Luke 1:19). Gabriel describes himself as "standing in the presence of God" and as being sent to give good news to Zacharias (Luke 1:19). God sent Gabriel to Nazareth to announce to Mary that God had favored her: the Holy Ghost would come upon her and a son would be conceived - Jesus, who would receive the throne of his ancestor David (Luke 1:26ff.). He left Mary after she verbally consented to the prophecy (Luke 1:38). In all three instances, Gabriel dealt with the glory of God in accomplishing what was humanly impossible - predicting in great detail the rise and fall of future kingdoms and the timing of Messiah's coming; announcing God's choice to give barren Elisabeth a child in her old age; and the virgin birth of the Son of God, who would reign forever.

It is possible that Gabriel appears in other places, but it is conjecture without the actual mention of his name. However, the usage of "an angel of the Lord" and "the angel of the Lord" seems to be interchangeable in these New Testament passages ("an angel of the Lord" in Luke 1:11 is later identified with Gabriel in 1:26), and it is possible that Gabriel was the one who appeared to Joseph in a dream (or dreams) in Matthew 1 & 2, and that he was the one leading the heavenly host in their glorious announcement in Luke 2.

Lessons from His Character

Gabriel stood in the presence of God. He did not receive what he shared second-hand, but actually stood before the Lord. While we are not part of the angelic host as Gabriel was, if we have repented of our sin and trusted Christ, we can stand before Him through the presence of His Holy Spirit, by virtue of being united to Christ, as we draw near to hear His voice in the Bible and commune with Him in prayer.

Gabriel was sent. He was conscious of being commissioned to go, obey God, and minister in the ways that he did. (The word "angel" is derived from has the connotations of being a messenger - one who is sent.) It may be that the sending would not have happened without the standing in God's presence. God calls people to different avenues of service, but if we know Him and stand before Him, we will know that He has called us to obey Him and serve in particular areas, especially the next two points.

Gabriel communicated God's Word. As he explained and communicated prophecy, he was simply passing on what God wanted Daniel to know. As He told Zacharias and Mary how God had blessed them and what He would do for them and through their sons, He was simply communicating God's Word. As people with a message, God sends Christians to communicate God's Word, not our own opinions, but what the Most High God says.

Gabriel announced the gospel. His focus was on the preparation for and coming of Jesus. Christians also ought to see the announcing the good news of Christ as their most glorious privilege in serving God. We must announce, from the Scriptures, that Christ, the Son of the Most High God, has come, and fulfilled the promise of God. He offers forgiveness and eternal life to all who turn away from their rebellion and trust Him who is King forever and ever. He will return one day to judge the living and the dead, and we must come to Him on His terms if we are to experience His salvation and are to eagerly anticipate meeting Him face to face.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Christmas through the eyes of... Joseph (Reflection #1)

I hope to spend some time reflecting on some of the people often associated with the first advent of Christ, and share some of those thoughts over the next few weeks. I hope to give the Biblical background of the people and think about their character and and consider them as models (or warnings) for us today.


Summary of Biblical Testimony

The New Testament books of Matthew and Luke are our primary source of knowledge about Joseph. While Joseph is a relatively obscure individual, we do know some things about him - some stated and some implied.

In Matthew 1:1-16, we learn his genealogy, which is traced through Israel's patriarch Abraham and also through King David's line (particularly, the kings of Judah), as well as through Zerubbabel (governor of Israel after their return to the land) and then through some obscure individuals. (It is also interesting to note the "outlaws" and women who are named in the genealogy, but that is beyond the scope of this somewhat brief meditation.) The wording of Matthew 1:16 does not name Joseph as the father of Jesus, but as "the husband of Mary." Regarding Mary, it says "of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ."

In introducing the birth of Christ, Matthew 1:18 begins by telling us that Mary was betrothed to Joseph (cf. Luke 1:27), which, in that day, was a commitment as binding as marriage, dissoluble only by divorce. Yet Mary was "found with child of the Holy Ghost" before they ever came together. Matthew 1:19 describes Joseph as a "just man" (that is, a righteous man), who did not want to make Mary a public example, and so considered divorcing her privately. The angel of the Lord interrupted his thoughts, coming to him in a dream, telling him not to be afraid, but to take Mary as his wife. The child Mary bore was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was to be named Jesus because He would save His people from their sins, in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. Joseph awoke, obeyed, and took Mary as his wife, but did not know her intimately until she had brought forth Jesus, her firstborn son.

Before Jesus' birth, Joseph took Mary, "being great with child," to Bethlehem (since he was descended from David) to be counted in the census ordered by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-5). When the shepherds went to see the newborn babe, Joseph was there with Mary and Jesus (Luke 2:16).

God communicated with Joseph in another dream, probably when Jesus was about two years old, when King Herod was seeking to have him killed. In this dream, he was instructed to take Jesus and Mary and go to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). Later, he was instructed in a dream to return to Israel (Matthew 2:19-20). He then dwelt in Nazareth, to fulfill prophecy (Matthew 2:21-23).

Joseph, along with Mary, was diligent in observing the Mosaic ordinances, including having Jesus circumcised (Luke 2:21). They went to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice for Mary's purification and to present Jesus (Luke 2:22). The offering of two birds instead of a lamb suggests that Joseph was not a rich man (Luke 2:24, cf. Leviticus 12:6-8).

Joseph "and his [Jesus'] mother" were in wonder by the things spoken about Jesus by Simeon (Luke 2:33).

Joseph is referred to as a "carpenter" (Matthew 13:55), which could also be translated as "woodworker" or "mason." John MacArthur writes: "It may have been that he did both. If he built houses he would need to be able to lay bricks and frame windows and doors too. At any rate, he worked hard for a living and probably was anything but rich." (The Miracle of Christmas, pg. 56)

Lessons from His Character

God certainly knew what He was doing when He chose Joseph to be the earthly guardian of Jesus, but it is also true that Joseph's calling was not an easy one. The difficulties that Joseph faced show us several things about his character.

His thinking about how to deal with Mary (before he knew the truth of the conception), showed Joseph to be a righteous and caring man. According to Deuteronomy 22:20-21, Mary could have been executed by stoning under the Mosaic law if she had lied about her virginity to her betrothed husband. The Roman rule over Israel would not allow this in Joseph's time, yet she could still be publicly shamed. He showed a graciousness and concern that went above and beyond what some would have done, in his inclination to divorce her privately.

Joseph was a man of reflection. He thought about the situation. He wasn't hasty. He considered the situation and the implications of a course of action. He was given a difficult set of circumstances to process, but he did not despair, but rather took his time to try to think through the matter.

Joseph was a listening man. When God communicated with Joseph, he paid attention. He listened to what he was told. He was open to more information and wisdom than he had on his own!

Joseph was a man of faith and obedience. He not only listened, but believed and obeyed. When God told him to do a particular thing, he did it. And he apparently obeyed without question or hesitation, as we never read of him raising objections to God's directions. (We never see, "But Lord, this is too embarrassing to be married to a woman with a child I didn't father; it's really a long trip to Egypt; etc.") Because of his faith and obedience, he married Mary, named her son Jesus, left for Egypt, and returned to Israel.

Joseph was a working man. Probably a carpenter by trade, he worked diligently to support his family.

From all indications, Joseph was a man of humility who listened to God, and thought of others, believing God and obeying Him. Although we do not know what became of Joseph in Jesus' later years, we have a picture of him in Jesus' early years that shows us a man worthy of respect and honor, with traits worthy of emulation.

Following these traits in and of themselves do not make us right with God. But if we have turned from our rebellion and put our trust in this Jesus, who was born to save His people from their sins, and therefore died on the cross in place of sinners and rose again, these character qualities will help us walk worthy of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Immediate Context of Deuteronomy 6:4-9

a few reflections on this passage... how I need these reminders from God's Word constantly!

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: 5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. 6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: 7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. 9 And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, KJV)

This passage instructed Israel
-to pay close attention to the truth that Jehovah (YHWH) is One (4).
-that they were to love Him with all that was within them (5).
-that they were to have these words in their hearts (6).
-that they were to diligently teach them to their children, with regular conversations and reminders (7-9).

The surrounding verses in the chapter reveal that
-these commands were given that they might obey them when they went to possess the land (1)
-they may fear God and keep His commands - they and their children and grandchildren
- and have their days prolonged (2-3)
- they could easily forget God their Savior amidst all His blessings if they did not do what is instructed in 6:4-9 (10-13)
- they could easily become idolaters if they do not do what is instructed in 6:4-9 (14)
- they could incur the wrath of God if they do not do what is instructed in 6:4-9 (15)
- their diligent observance of God's commands would result in it being well with them, in possessing the land He gave, and in the overthrow of their enemies, as God had spoken (17-19)
- their diligent observance of these commands would naturally lead to opportunities to testify of God's glory to future generations (20-23)
- for their good, their preservation, and their righteousness (24-25)

The relevance for us is that
- just as Israel failed to heed these commands, did fall back into idolatry and was eventually banished from the land for their disobedience, we too have failed.
- none of us has loved God completely - with our whole heart, mind, soul, and might; we have not treasured His Word as we ought
- Jesus, God the Son, who humbled Himself to become a man, taught and obeyed these things perfectly. He always pleased the Father, and took the punishment for sinners on the cross, so that we might have His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21)
- just as Israel received these instructions upon being delivered from bondage in Egypt, Christians receive God's instructions on how to live after experiencing His salvation; keeping commands does not reconcile one to God - repenting of sin and trusting in Christ alone for salvation does that - yet, He lets His children know how they need to live to please Him
- keeping God's commands flows out of our love for Him, as a response to His character and works. Truly keeping God's commands cannot be done merely as a duty, and certainly not as a scheme to merit His blessings.
- the command to teach our children has not been rescinded (Ephesians 6:4). Fathers particularly bear the responsibility to be sure that their children are taught and trained up in the Word of God.
- the instruction of our children should include frequent conversations at all times of day and phases of life. (Regular family worship should be an important part of this too.)
- like Israel, we too are prone to forget God and lapse into worshiping things other than Him (1 Corinthians 10:1-14).
- the only way for Christians to truly advance in sanctification and achieve any measure of victory over sin is to keep our focus on loving God supremely and diligently obeying and teaching His commands with the help of His indwelling Spirit.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pastor Lester MacKinnon, 1937-2010

The pastor emeritus of our church, who served for over 50 years, went home this past Lord's Day.
God greatly used his servant - a young boy from Canada who came to the USA for training and planted his life in a church and a community (Fellowship Chapel, Bristol, Virginia).
I have set up a memorial site at the link below, with the obituary, sermon audio, video, etc.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Philippians 1:1, Part 1

Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: (Philippians 1:1, KJV)

“Paul and Timothy”

Thus begins this ancient letter, the New Testament epistle to the Philippian saints. Its author, the apostle Paul, wrote at least twelve other New Testament epistles. Although the salutation is from Paul and Timothy (Timotheus is the Greek form of the name, transliterated accordingly in the KJV), the pronouns and subject matter throughout the epistle show that the thoughts being communicated, humanly speaking, are Paul’s. This verse is the only time Paul is mentioned in the third person, whereas Timothy is always mentioned in the third person in this epistle. All the first person pronouns (I, me, my, etc.) refer to Paul.

Paul and Timothy first visited Philippi about ten years prior to this epistle if Paul wrote to them from a Roman imprisonment around AD 62, the same time period as the composition of Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (the other “prison epistles”). The view that Paul wrote from Rome is the traditional one, and the only view that is older than competing theories that have surfaced in the last few hundred years.

After a life-changing encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 9), Saul of Tarsus (later called Paul) was changed from a chief enemy of the church into a follower and apostle (officially commissioned and sent messenger) of Jesus. He went on to spread the good news of Christ to many others, planting numerous churches, including the church at Philippi.

Acts 16 records the first meeting of Paul with the Philippians. He arrived at Philippi on his second missionary journey. This encounter brought the gospel to European soil for the first time. Silas, Luke, and Timothy accompanied Paul during this part of his journey. Acts 16 contains the Bible’s first mention of Philippi (16:12), and it also contains the first mention of Timothy (16:1), the son of a believing Jewish mother and a Greek father.

The Philippians would have remembered Timothy, and Paul communicates his intention to send Timothy to them as soon as possible (Philippans 2:19-23). Timothy, who was highly regarded by those who knew him in Lystra and Iconium (Acts 16:2) and by Paul (Philippians 2:20-22), was evidently present with Paul at the writing of this epistle (Philippians 2:19, 23).

In the next article of this series, we will consider the significance of the identification of Paul and Timothy as servants, or slaves, of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"God the All"

There is no comfort in anything
apart from enjoying thee
and being engaged in thy service;
Thou art All in all, and all enjoyments are what to me
thou makest them, and no more.
I am well pleased with thy will, whatever it is,
or should be in all respects,
And if thou bidst me decide for myself in any affair
I would choose to refer all to thee.
for thou art infinitely wise and cannot do amiss,
as I am in danger of doing.
I rejoice to think that all things are at thy disposal,
and it delights me to leave them there.
Then prayer turns wholly into praise,
and all I can do is to adore and bless thee.
What shall I give thee for all thy benefits?
I am in a strait betwixt two, knowing not what to do;
I long to make some return, but have nothing to offer,
and can only rejoice that thou doest all,
that none in heaven or on earth shares thy honour;
I can of myself do nothing to glorify thy blessed name,
but I can through grace cheerfully surrender soul adn body to thee,
I know that thou art the author and finisher of faith,
that the whole work of redemption is thine alone,
that every good work or thought found in me
is the effect of thy power and grace,
that thy sole motive in working in me to will and to do
is for thy good pleasure.
O God, it is amazing that men can talk so much
about man’s creaturely power and goodness,
when, if thou dist not hold us back every moment,
we should be devils incarnate.
This, by bitter experience, thou hast taught me concerning myself.

from The Valley of Vision: a Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions, ed. Arthur Bennett, pg. 4 (published by Banner of Truth Trust)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Blogging at

After over a year of virtually no blogging, I have decided to blog again on a limited basis, primarily over at This is the official website of the Cumberland Area Pulpit Supply, a ministry from which I received training and in which I now teach hermeneutics and serve as the Tri-Cities area representative.
Every month, there should be some "fresh" content (at least a couple of posts), but there will be quite a bit of resource reviews and links. The focus is on issues related to the pulpit supply ministry, training for ministry, and the pastorate, especially in the small rural church. Topics to be covered include hermeneutics, homiletics, spiritual disciplines, practical helps, and study tools (including book reviews). I plan to have about two posts per week. You may subscribe via the email subscription link on the sidebar of, or via our RSS feed.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Is the Old Testament Still Relevant Today?

"Is the Old Testament Still Relevant Today?"
Dr. David Murray, professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, addressed issues related to this question in a recent conference at Fraser Valley Bible Conference in British Columbia. You can access the media from the conference by clicking here.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to all the sessions, and was especially moved as Murray clearly demonstrated that the Old Testament is a manual for Christian living. I found his treatment of Hebrews 11 and 12 to demonstrate this point beyond the shadow of a doubt. It is not a manual in a moralistic sense of do this, do this, do this - rather, we live a particular way because we are looking to Jesus in faith.
In addition to these lectures, I have been thoroughly enjoying Dr. Murray's blog, "Head Heart Hand" and his weekly 30 minute podcast with Tim Challies, Connected Kingdom. I have been refreshed with the Gospel and gained helpful insights through these resources, and commend them to you.
"Is the Old Testament Still Relevant Today?" In a word, YES, and I encourage you to check out Dr. Murray's lectures to see how it points to Christ, shows us how to live, and shows us how to read the New Testament.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Link: "The Sinkhole Syndrome" by Dr. Don Whitney

Here's a link to "The Sinkhole Syndrome," an article by Dr. Don Whitney. Great material for the kind of regular spiritual check-ups we should engage in.

A couple of quotes:

"I'm sure you're already familiar with many factors that undermine intimacy with Christ. Realize that it's almost certain that the 'time-thieves' trying to steal from your time with God will only increase as the years pass. My hope is that this article will alert you to this subtle, creeping tendency so that it won't overtake you."

"Resolve never to let your daily life keep you from Jesus daily."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sermon Critique Form

Here is a helpful sermon evaluation/critique form (developed by Pastor D. Scott Meadows/Calvary Baptist Church, Exeter, New Hampshire-used by permission) (Word document) (.pdf file)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Resource for Guest Preachers and Churches: Church Information Form

CHURCH INFORMATION FORM (feel free to distribute this form freely)

If you are a guest preacher or a church planning to host a guest speaker, the items on the form below can help make sure the preacher and the church are on the same page. Click here to download the church information form in Word document format.