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Occasional Letters - Encouragement for a Young Preacher

D Newell, Glasgow

Thanks for the recording of your recent ministry meeting. Having listened to it, I am, as promised, giving you my honest responses. I hope these will be of some encouragement to you, as I know from experience that it can be a risky thing to ask for feedback. The sleeve note accompanying a CD of Max Bruch’s delicious violin concerto includes the following historical anecdote. With much enthusiasm and sweat, the composer played the whole thing through to his respected older friend Brahms, a man not noted for extravagant praise or tact. "Well, what did you think of it?", Bruch asked, breathlessly, when he had finished. Brahms picked up the music and looked slowly through it. "Where do you obtain your manuscript paper? It is first rate." I shall endeavour to be a bit more helpful than that! So let’s consider your message under some analytical headings.

Subject: I thought it was an excellent idea to tackle the Apostle Philip, not simply because you share his name but because he is commonly overshadowed by the better-known disciples. In fact, he proves the truth of John MacArthur’s book title – the disciples of the Lord Jesus were indeed twelve ordinary men. Philip was as run-of-the-mill as you and me. Biblical character study is undoubtedly one of the simplest ways to glean clear, practical truths from the Word. It is therefore a superb method of public teaching. And I must say you drew out some splendid points about Philip – his recognition that the Lord Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament expectation, his willingness to point another to the Saviour, his love of speaking about spiritual matters, his refusal to "sugar-coat" the gospel, his identification with the Lord, his easy approachability. Like you, I see no criticism of Philip in John 12.21-23: understandably perplexed, he sought counsel from another believer (good advice). You handled him especially well in John 14.8-9: "had Philip never asked he would never have learned" – a good point neatly expressed.

Organisation: Starting with quotations from other Bible teachers was most effective – it illustrated some negative views of Philip while serving to highlight your own more positive approach to him. That was good. Noting the meaning of his name ("lover of horses") was also an interesting way into your subject but, clever and intriguing as it was, I thought it at times a bit stretched. I find Bible names most unambiguously significant when their meaning is built into the text of Scripture. We are otherwise in danger of going off at a tangent. More seriously, I think you ought to have included a reading from God’s Word at the very beginning of your meeting – if only because it makes the point that the Bible is more important than anything we may say about it. Always give prime place to the public reading of the Scriptures. The teacher, we must keep in mind, is simply opening up the Word.

Delivery: You speak generally with remarkable clarity, suitably varying your pace and volume. In fact, your oral presence is both attractive and compelling. Good! The occasional injection of humour (especially at your own expense) was also pertinent. Of course, I could not see your face, but I’m sure you realise the value of smiling occasionally. When we are nervous that’s perhaps the last thing we are likely to think of, but it will actually help your audience feel more at ease as well as showing that the Word is a joy to your own soul. But make a point of being very careful how you speak about the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot be too reverent and respectful in our public allusions to the Saviour. Remember – how you refer to the Lord Jesus will influence others. Some colloquialisms are just out of place when speaking of Him. Occasionally you misused some words ("Philip was conflicted"), although no one would have misunderstood. When in doubt, check with the dictionary!

Accuracy: There were one or two moments where I thought you needed to prove more convincingly why you believe what you do. For example, you say that in Scripture "horses speak of faith in worldly strength" – but where? And why? This needs demonstration. Always explain to your congregation how you arrive at your interpretation. Otherwise people may get the false impression that we can make God’s Word mean anything we like. And there were a few other questionable bits.

• You misunderstood Isaiah 63.13: "That led them through the deep, as an horse in the wilderness, that they should not stumble?" Think about this. Were you to read the context (vv.11-12) you would grasp the meaning. The horse itself does not lead, it is led (just as God led Israel through the desert). It rather ruins your good point about Philip leading Nathaniel to the Lord!

• We are always safer quoting rather than loosely paraphrasing Scripture. Just pause, turn to the passage, get your congregation to do the same, and read it aloud. Your paraphrase of Psalm 139.1-2 was especially unhappy. Here is what you said: "You know me – You know my good points, You know my bad points, and You love me". Compare that with what David actually wrote (which never mentions God’s love for him at all). Let Scripture say what it says, not what you think it ought to say.

• You maintain that "the Lord Jesus Christ should be seen in us" – yes, indeed. But you could usefully take this a stage further by indicating that the only accurate account of the Lord Jesus is in Scripture, not in the saints. The invitation, "Come and see" (Jn 1.46), must today include reading the infallible Word. At best we are imperfect testimonies, but the Bible never fails.

• John 6. You make some fine comments on this great miracle, the only miracle of the Saviour recorded in all four Gospels. It is found in Matthew 14.13-21, Mark 6.30-44, and Luke 9.10-17. It might supplement your thoughts to read alongside the other narratives John’s close-up account (the only one to mention individuals by name). I suspect Philip’s query was simply representative of all the disciples (as in John 14). Never forget that those men were slow to learn. We’d have been the same. Indeed, we only see things clearly today because by God’s grace we live on the far side of Calvary and the resurrection.

• You told us that "you should never need to tell your workmates that you are a Christian". Mmm. This assumes people know what a Christian really is and what he believes. Do they? Certainly our lives should back up our message; but the Christian life alone (however kind and selfless) saves nobody. Some atheists are remarkably courteous. It is a specific message that rescues sinners (Rom 1.16-17), and people have to hear that message undiluted. In our postmodern society most people have no notion of who God is, let alone any awareness of His provision in Christ. Until he learns about the awesomeness of God the sinner will never see his desperate need. Listen to Paul: "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom 10.13-17).

Having said this, I thought it was a really good message. Thanks for letting me hear it. But keep on learning, always aim to improve (for example, by listening to your own recordings), and never give up. After all, we should seek to give the Lord our very best.

To be continued.

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