Rediscovering the Distance Between Us: Preaching the New Testament

By Kris Rolls on February 22, 2017

What types of biblical literature are easiest for you to preach? What portions of Scripture do you feel most at "home" in while preaching or reading? If you're a Protestant evangelical, chances are you are most at "home" in the New Testament, and even more comfortable in Paul's letters. When compared with Law Code portions of Leviticus, prophetic visions in the Minor Prophets, narrative complexities of the Gospels or the apocalyptic language of Revelation, Paul's letters feel close, accessible and familiar to us. Even as I write this post, I am having flashbacks sitting in my church's basement reciting the "Romans Road" for a youth program!

The upcoming Talking Points conference, "Bridging Worlds: Preaching the Ancient Story Today," may disrupt our nostalgia for Paul's straightforwardness. It may cause us to take a closer look at those familiar texts we tend to read straight over. Our "closeness and familiarity" may be taken for granted. All of this excites me because it ultimately brings us back to pay closer attention to the Bible and to the heart of God. Is there more to grapple with than we might assume, like the historical context or theology as developed in Second Temple Judaism? As interpreters, we are reading someone else's mail. Therefore, expecting to apply the text "directly" to our situation often violates what the text is actually trying to communicate in the first place! If we are to wrestle faithfully with the New Testament, we must rediscover the distance between our world and the world of the biblical authors.

In order to unpack this topic, I interviewed Dr. Timothy Gombis, associate professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and one of the conference presenters.

KR: What about the upcoming Talking Points conference, "Bridging Worlds," excites you most?

TG: Many faithful proclaimers of Scripture want to feed God's people with God's Word and they seek to do so with the resources they have. Yet, understanding what God said in the ancient contexts of Scripture is quite a challenge. I know from personal experience that it is easy to read familiar biblical texts and apply them to my life with understandings and interpretations of those passages that make sense in my own context. And I've had many experiences when I've come to greater clarity as to what those passages are really saying when I've understood them in their historical contexts. This has made me hungry to continue pursuing a more faithful understanding of Scripture, especially so because the life-giving and liberating Word of God speaks powerfully the more accurately it is understood. Having experienced this and having seen this process in text after text, I'm excited to work through this process with pastors and proclaimers and to provide resources for them as they seek to fulfill their callings for the people of God.

KR: Your academic specialty is in Pauline Studies. Can you speak to how your work in this discipline will shape your view of preaching Scripture in its historical context?

TG: Paul's letters are some of the more frequently used passages in pulpit ministries. He writes in a way that seems immediately understandable and when we read his letters we feel he is speaking directly to us! We may feel that there is not much historical study that can add to an understanding of what he said and what the Spirit is saying to the churches today. But even very familiar passages can be preached in ways that reinforce our own understandings of the gospel rather than having our understanding of the gospel shaped and re-shaped by what Paul was actually saying.

For example, in Ephesians 2, Paul glories in the wonderful work of the gospel of grace as God has saved people by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 are very familiar to many of us. But that celebration of the gospel is embedded within a larger discussion that celebrates God's cosmic work in overturning the awful effects of evil cosmic powers on God's good world. Once we take in the larger context of chapter 1:20 through the end of chapter 2, and understand what Paul said against the ancient backdrop of God's cosmic warfare against the powers of evil, God's work of salvation comes more clearly into view.

So, it's not that our entire understanding needs to be overthrown, but we can sometimes set what we know within a larger context when we are more aware of the ancient mindset within which Paul proclaimed his gospel.

This also highlights the thrust of the conference. It's not that we're proclaiming the ancient world of the Bible, but we're trying to get at what the Bible says in its ancient context.

KR: In your view, what can pastors learn from recovering Paul's vocation as "pastor" over and against his often-characterized identity as "theologian"? To put it differently, how does Paul teach us to be better-contextualized preachers and teachers?

TG: Great question! Paul is both theologizing in his context for his churches and he is providing theological truth for the church to draw upon in its proclamation. We sometimes miss how it is that Paul draws upon Scripture (the Old Testament – his Bible!) to speak to his churches to solve problems or give encouragement in his day. So, in this sense, Paul is a model for how pastors today can draw upon the Old Testament and the New Testament to speak to people today.

Paul was doing what we need to do, and we sometimes miss that he had the same challenge we have: how do we take an ancient text and discern how God wants to speak to people in our day? Paul took the Old Testament, which was spoken to Israel, and theologized about how God wanted to speak to and transform gentile churches outside of Judea/Palestine. That's a model we can follow as we take these ancient texts to theologize about how God is speaking to and wants to transform our churches in radically different contexts in our own day.

KR: What is one "take-away" from the New Testament that you hope pastors will encounter through attending this conference?

TG: I hope pastors come away encouraged by the wealth of resources for getting into the ancient world of the Bible, and I hope they come away with a renewed excitement about hearing familiar texts in new ways so that they can gain new insights into the gospel and its transformative power so that they can ignite the imaginations of their churches to grasp the gospel in their own communities and open up new vistas for seeing God powerfully at work. I hope we all come away encouraged and challenged.

Conference Details

Join us for a time of enrichment and encouragement as we open God's Word together. Drs. Jonathan Greer and Tim Gombis will offer a deep dive into Old Testament and New Testament backgrounds, and experienced preachers will dialogue about practical ways to communicate the background of a passage and resources they have found most helpful.

  • Topic: "Bridging Worlds—Preaching the Ancient Story Today"
  • Date: Tuesday, March 14, 2017
  • Time: 8:30 a.m. - 4 p.m.
  • Location: Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
  • Registration Fee: $30.00 (Student Rate: $15.00)

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Categories: Interviews, Theology