Expositors Collective: Character Formation and Biblical Interpretation

Character Formation and Bible Study

Andreas Köstenberger speaks with Mike Neglia on a broad range of topics related to personal formation and Bible study and proclamation.

You will hear about:

  • The formative role that both the joy of family and marriage have played as well as the pain of betrayal have formed him as a Bible teacher
  • The value of Biblical Theology in understanding individual texts as part of the bigger picture
  • Esther as a Joseph-like deliverer
  • The types of quotations that preachers should use in their sermons
  • The right and wrong way to use commentaries

Note: The following is not a transcript of the podcast but covers several of the questions discussed.

What was your first sermon like? And how regularly do you preach these days?

Wow, that was quite a while ago, and I’m not even sure it was my very first sermon, but one of the first sermons I preached was on John’s prologue. My main proposition was that being precedes doing. In Jesus’s case, he is the Word, the agent of creation, who preexisted with God before the world began, and so everything he did while on earth flowed from his divinity. My application, as you might guess, was that we’re often too concerned about doing, about programs and activities, and while these are important, we should not neglect character, integrity, and growth in the fruit of the Spirit and in Christlikeness. I felt good about my message, because I was convinced it was faithfully proclaiming and applying God’s word, and I felt my audience really needed to hear that message.

Probably the greatest compliment I got is that just a couple months ago, close to 25 years after I preached that message, I had someone come up to me at a car inspection place who told me that they still remembered that message. Considering that people often don’t even remember last Sunday’s message, that was a great compliment and encouragement to me. In terms of how often I preach these days, I am often invited to stay on and preach on Sunday when I do a marriage or parenting conference or have some other speaking engagement. That’s been rare lately because of COVID, but hopefully we’ll be back to normal soon.

How have you grown as a Bible teacher since then? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

Good question! But hard to answer in just a few sentences, as I think I’ve grown quite a bit in the over 20 years since then. I’d say I grew in both knowledge and character. In terms of Bible knowledge, I’ve had the opportunity to study, teach, and write rather widely, covering the entire New Testament and even some of the Old Testament. So, I’ve gotten to know God’s word better, both as far as individual Bible books is concerned and also in terms of biblical theology, that is, how the various books of Scripture are connected along the biblical storyline.

In terms of character, since then my wife and I raised four children to mature adulthood, and have been married for over 30 years, so I’ve learned a lot about life, how to get along with other people, and how to deal with a variety of challenging situations, such as conflict resolution, dealing with slander, jealousy, and envy, or various forms of suffering. I’ve also grown as a communicator and learned to target my work, both writing and speaking, to different audiences and age groups, like high school or college students.

What do I know now that I wish I knew then? Well, since I am a native Austrian who came to this country only in my late 20s, I wish I had known American (esp. Southern) culture better back then. I still got lots to learn, but hopefully I know the culture a bit better now than I did 20+ years ago.

What sort of bad habits have you overcome in the pulpit or study? What sort of bad habits do you see in younger preachers these days and how can we outgrow them?

Well, if I may, before talking about a few bad habits I’ve observed, let me say that I am genuinely hopeful about young preachers today because of their zeal, their energy, their commitment to community and authenticity, and their interest in theology and application to current topics such as justice, male-female roles, and so forth. As far as some of my own bad habits, when I started out I was mostly preoccupied with myself – my mastery of the material as well as my delivery and presentation – but gradually I was able to focus more on my audience and on really connecting with them and engaging them. Then, there are all sorts of smaller things I’ve been working on, from not constantly saying filler phrases such as “you know” to awkward facial expressions or mannerisms, not to mention my German accent, my tendency to use run-on sentences, and other bad habits.

What bad habits do I see in younger preachers? One bad habit is trendiness – a tendency to try to be cool, and to jump on theological fads that are potentially hazardous. Another bad habit I see quite a bit is the tendency to skip over the historical setting in a passage and to jump straight to contemporary relevance. One habit that I’ve seen not only in younger preachers is using illustrations from the preacher’s own life which can come across as self-absorbed. I understand the desire to be personal and transparent, but I think it’s important for preachers to try to relate to where people are at in their congregations and to use illustrations related to where they are at rather than focus mostly on themselves. Think of Jesus, who used illustrations from a wide variety of spheres of life, whether farming, business, household management, and others.

Speaking of illustrations, I recently heard a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul talks about the body as our earthly tent. The preacher gave an illustration from a family camping trip, but I wasn’t sure how this illustration helped his audience understand Paul’s teaching in that passage better. It may have been better for him to talk about the fact that Paul was a tentmaker. He also could have explained what ancient tents were like. In this way, the illustration would have actually been helpful to understand what Paul was saying rather than merely helping people relate by pointing to their common experience.

What connection do you see between expository preaching and Biblical Theology? How do they depend on one another, and what should expository preaching enthusiasts be doing to have a greater fluency in Biblical Theology? 

What connection do I see between expository preaching and Biblical Theology? Actually, I believe that Biblical Theology can significantly strengthen and undergird expository preaching. The strength of expository preaching is that a preacher explains a passage phrase by phrase, line by line, but in addition it will be very helpful in understanding the passage to draw connections between a given passage and other passages in Scripture. For instance, if you preach through Galatians, look at Old Testament passages Paul himself cites, especially in chapters 3 and 4, and show how the situation in Galatians relates to earlier Scripture. You should also place Galatians in the flow of the book of Acts and the mission of the early church, particularly to non-Jews. In this way, you help your people think theologically and become better readers and interpreters of the Bible.

Or take the book of Esther, for example. Rather than preach Esther in a vacuum, you can draw connections with earlier Scripture. In chapter 3, the author mentions that Haman, the villain in the story, is an Agagite. Now 1 Samuel says that God told Saul to deal with the Agagites, but because he failed to do so, several hundred years later there is still a descendant of the Agagites, Haman, who threatens the survival of the Jewish nation. The point is, if Saul had dealt with the Agagites as God told him to, there would be no Haman! Also, there are numerous intertextual connections between Esther and earlier deliverers in Israel’s history, such as Joseph or Moses, so the author of the book presents her as a female deliverer in the vein of earlier national figures such as Joseph or Moses.

As far as developing greater fluency in Biblical Theology is concerned, there is no better way than to read large chunks of the Bible and to take note of any connections you see. Also, read good books or series on Biblical Theology. Lexham Press has a new series, the Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, that I can highly recommend. Also, the New Studies in Biblical Theology series edited by Don Carson has many excellent volumes, as does the Biblical Theology of the New Testament series which I edit. Finally, as a heads up, I’m on sabbatical this year and am working on a Biblical Theology of my own together with an Old Testament co-author. It’ll still be a couple of years before the volume is published, but you can be on the lookout for that, and hopefully, it will be a helpful resources for preachers when it comes out.

I have been preaching through John’s gospel and I am coming up to John 17: any tips? How should preachers be using commentaries? 

Well, on John 17, this, of course, is the final portion of the Farewell Discourse which starts in chapter 13 and ends with Jesus’s final prayer. I recently wrote an essay on John 17 for the TableTalk magazine if you’re interested. John 17 is a major passage in John’s mission theology. Jesus prays that his followers be united and love one another so that the world may know that the Father sent him. So we see that it is essential for our mission in the world that as a believing community we are one in purpose and knit together in love, or else our message will likely fall on deaf ears.

Writings on John: My next publication on John’s Gospel, to be released in the next couple weeks, is called Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel. This volume contains a series of messages I gave at several pastors’ workshops for over 200 pastors and seminary students each over the last couple years. My goal in this book is to assist pastors who are preaching through the Gospel to get a solid grip on what this wonderful Gospel is all about. I focus especially on the 7 messianic signs of Jesus in the first half of John’s Gospel, the Book of Signs, and also cover the Farewell Discourse and the Johannine Passion Narrative. My next project on John’s Gospel will be a major new commentary for Lexham’s Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series of which I also am the New Testament editor.

My new 1-2 Timothy and Titus commentary is part of the Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary series. It consists of a thorough introduction which includes a robust defense of the authenticity of these letters (i.e., their Pauline authorship); a standard unit-by-unit commentary on each of these 3 letters; and over 150 pages of material on the major themes in these letters: the mission theme, the theme of teaching and related terms, the teaching on God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as well as salvation; the Christian life; the church as God’s household; and the last days. I would recommend that preachers read these 150 pages ahead of time before preaching on these books in order to get a solid grasp of the major themes in these letters.

What is your sermon preparation routine? How do you interpret a passage, then develop a sermon from it?

First of all, one thing I feel strongly about is that no matter where my passage is located, I want to preach it in the context of the entire book. So, I make sure that I read the entire book multiple times and then outline the book by discerning the author’s own structure and organization. Of course, this will look different depending on the genre of the passage.

Then, I develop my sermon outline as it organically flows from the passage I’m preaching on. In some cases, that’s easy, such as when preaching on Jesus’s temptation narrative which naturally breaks down into 3 temptations. In other cases, it may be a bit more challenging to find the main points in the text. Essentially, I engage in what Abraham Kuruvilla calls “pericopal preaching,” that is, I preach on a given unit and relate it to the preceding and following unit in the book.

The hermeneutic I employ is what I call the “hermeneutical triad” of history, literature, and theology, that is, I determine the historical setting, literary flow, and theological message of a given passage. Listeners who are interested in this should get a hold of my brand-new book Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, now in its 2nd edition, where I introduce them to the hermeneutical triad and show how it works genre by genre. In that book, I also have a substantive chapter on preaching and application where I talk about matters such as preaching for character transformation, the difference between semantics and pragmatics, and application and the ethical dimension of Scripture. There is also an abridgment called For the Love of God’s Word and a book I wrote with my colleague Richard Alan Fuhr, simply called Inductive Bible Study.

What is something that you are currently trying to improve in as a preacher? 

Two things come to mind, authenticity and connecting with my audience. I speak to younger audiences quite a bit these days, and I’m getting older, so I’m grateful that I have 4 children who can help me stay in touch with the culture, with popular music such as the rapper NF or Kanye West’s latest album, or new expressions young people use. Also, being myself … not trying to be someone I’m not just so people like me – a perennial quest.

Note: For further study, see Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, The Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel and 1-2 Timothy and Titus. On Esther, see “Queen Esther.”

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