Preaching biblical narrative

How can we turn biblical narrative into sermons and still retain a sense of the story?

This following material provides some simple techniques. It assumes a Christ-centred gospel hermeneutic. In particular, it assumes you have asked the question, Why? Why does the author say this? Why does he say it here? Why does he say it in this way? What response does he want from his readers? How does he aim to elicit this response?

This material focuses instead on creating sermon outlines and headings.

1. Creating an outline
Here are three approaches to creating an outline for sermons on biblical narratives:
1. Plot
2. Characters
3. Literary features or biblical allusions

1.1 Plot
Identify the key moments in the narrative. Plots often follow the pattern: equilibrium – tension – resolution (perhaps with a new equilibrium). But there may be other ways of breaking up the narrative. The paragraphing in our translations may offer some pointers. The movement between action and dialogue may also help highlight the key moments in the narrative. There may be a chiastic structure.

Summarise what is happening at each stage in the narrative and the overall message of the story. Use this to create an outline.

Example: Plot-based outlines for Mark 6:30-44
1. Jesus provided rest for his disciples (30-32)
2. Jesus provided bread for the crowd (33-44)
1. Not enough (30-38)
2. Enough (39-42)
3. More than enough (43-44)

1.2 Characters
Identify the key characters in the narrative. Summarise the stance or contribution each character makes to the narrative. Or summarise the perspective or attitude they represent or exemplify. Use this to create an outline.

Example: A character-based outline for Mark 6:30-44
1. The people were in need
2. The disciples could not provide
3. Jesus could provide

1.3 Literary features or biblical allusions
Look for literary features or biblical allusions in the narrative. These might include:

  • repeated words or phrases
  • repeated imagery
  • repeated narrative patterns (like reversals or contrasts)
  • editorial comments or explanations
  • significant names or locations
  • inclusio (when a section is starts and finishes in a similar way)
  • sandwiches (when one narrative is contained within another so they mutually interpret one another)
  • quotes from other parts of the Bible
  • allusions to, or echoes of, previous stories in the biblical narrative
  • Identify a prominent repeated literary feature or repeated biblical allusions. summarise how each example functions within the narrative. Use this to create an outline.

Example: An allusion-based outline for Mark 6:30-44
1. Jesus is the new Moses (Exodus 16)
2. Jesus is the new Elisha (2 Kings 4:42-44)
3. Jesus is the new David (Ezekiel 34)
4. Jesus is the divine Shepherd (Psalm 23)

2. Creating headings for sermons on biblical stories
Use the section summaries you have created from plot, characters or literary features to create sermon headings. To form a bridge between the biblical narrative and your hearers create headings that are immediately descriptive of your hearers by doing the following:
1. Replace names with first person plural pronouns or generic terms
2. Replace the past tense with the present tense

2.1 Replace names with first person plural pronouns
Your summarises are likely to refer to the key characters in the narrative. Replace their names with first person plural pronouns – we, us, our.

  • E.g. God rescued Daniel -> God rescued us

You could also uses generic words and phrases like ‘the world’, ‘God’s people,’ ‘our enemies’ or ‘mediator’:

  • the crowd -> the world
  • the Israelites -> God’s people
  • the Philistines -> our enemies
  • Moses -> our mediator

2.2 Replace the past tense with the present tense
Your summarises are likely to be in the past tense because they are summaries of what happened in the past.

Both English and Greek often use what is called the ‘historic present’ in which we use the present tense to refer to past events in a lively way. E.g. We might say, ‘Paul says in Romans 8 …’ (present tense) instead of ‘Paul said in Romans 8 …’ (past tense). You can exploit the ‘historic present’ to write headings that simultaneously describe events in the narrative (in the past) and the situation of your hearers (in the present).

So create headings in the present tense, switching from the past tense if necessary.

  • E.g. God heard Daniel’s prayer -> God hears our prayers

Example: headings for Mark 6:30-44
1. We face a needy world (The people were in need)
2. We are needy people facing a needy world (The disciples could not provide)
3. We are empowered by a mighty Saviour (Jesus could provide)


1. Take a biblical story and identify sermon outlines using each of the following:

  • plot
  • character
  • literary features or biblical allusions

2. Convert your summaries into headings:

  • using first person plural pronouns or generic terms
  • in the present tense

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Review from The Church Times

I enjoyed this review of The One True Light from The Church Times:

The One True Light is by Tim Chester, who is a pastor at Grace Church, Boroughbridge, in Yorkshire. Judging by the ten commendations on the cover, he is a noted figure in the independent Evangelical movement. He is apparently “insightful” and “thoroughly biblical”. Church Times readers should not be put off. This is a splendid book, full of — yes — “insights”, theologically orthodox, but imaginative and often deeply moving. His daily reflections, a verse at a time, are followed by passages for meditation culled from a wonderfully rich spectrum — medieval Roman Catholic, traditional hymns, modern worship songs, and even the Book of Common Prayer. I have never read any of his 40 or so books, but it was a joy to encounter an author one can truthfully describe as a catholic Evangelical.

The One True Light is available here from thinkivp. It’s not yet available in the US.

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Managing expectations #3: the promise of communion

In previous posts I introduced the challenge of managing expectations within the life of a church. We saw that the story told in John 21:1-14 promises fruit from Christ. Now we see that it also promises communion with Christ.

Look at verse 9: ‘When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.’ Jesus is one step ahead of them. He’s already organised bread, fish, fire. Breakfast is cooking and Jesus is the cook. They’ve spent all night fishing and now Jesus invites them to sit and eat. Jesus is the host, inviting them to eat with him. Look at verses 12 and 13: ‘Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” … Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.’

We’ve already been alerted to the symbolic nature of this event. Jesus is going to turn these disciples into fishers of people.

Now the symbolism continues. Jesus provides for his people. As we cast our nets by proclaiming his name, he provides the harvest. As we step out in mission, Jesus meets our needs.

But more than that, he provides himself. This is the promise of communion, of relationship. A meal – then and now – is a powerful sign of welcome and friendship. Jesus is promising his presence, his comfort, himself.

The language here echoes John 6. In John 6 Jesus feeds 5,000 people with just five loaves and two fish. John 6:11 says: ‘Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.’ Now verse 13 says: ‘Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.’ ‘Took the loaves’, ‘took the bread’, ‘did the same with the fish’.

In chapter 6 the disciples learnt that Jesus provides for his people. Now he echoes that event as a reminder of that lesson. As they proclaim his name, he will meet their needs.

But it’s not just that he provides for them. Back in chapter 6 Jesus explains the sign of the bread by saying, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry.’ (6:35)

Jesus himself is the bread. He is what is provided. God himself in the person of Jesus will satisfy our hunger. He doesn’t just send an angel. He himself comes to us. In the end what he offers is himself. He offers communion. He offers his presence.

This is so important. We don’t know what this year will bring. I can’t tell you how many people will be saved in the coming year. Maybe it will be none. Maybe one. Maybe ten. Maybe more. Maybe it will be a year of great fruitfulness. Maybe it won’t. But whatever happens, we can always fall back on the communion that we have with God. Whatever happens we can be satisfied because we have Christ.

God’s favour, God’s friendship, God’s presence does not depend on our success. It depends on the kindness of the Father, the work of the Son and the presence of the Spirit. And nothing can remove or undo those things.

Even when we see no fruit, we can still be content because we have Jesus. Jesus gives us himself. He’s the bread which satisfies our souls.

And so today Jesus still invites us to a meal in the form of the bread and wine. It’s food which he has provided through his death. He invites us to the communion meal. And it is an act of communion. He is present with us by the Holy Spirit. The people that pass the bread to are just Jesus’ way of getting the bread off the table and into your hands. It’s Jesus who’s giving you the bread. He’s inviting you to eat with him.

This is what enables us to keep going when the work is hard and we see little fruit. Each week we come back to the gospel. We come back to the Father’s love, to Christ’s grace, to the Spirit’s presence.

Our identity and our status is not dependant on the numbers of people in our church or the number of baptisms we chalk up. Our identity rests on Jesus.

Remember verse 1 is literally ‘Jesus revealed himself’. He is the sign. And Jesus is the sign of God’s love and welcome. We are children of God. Whether we face times of growth or times of frustration, we can be content in Christ.

My hope and prayer is that we will keep at the task: we will proclaim Christ. And there will be many precious moment in which we enjoy Christ.

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The Ordinary Hero in Spanish

I’ve had a little batch of books come out in translation …

The Ordinary Hero is now available in Spanish as El héroe común. Also available in Spanish is Gospel-Centred Life under the title Una Vida Centrada en el Evangelio.

And Gospel-Centred Family has been translated into Italian as Famiglia Vangelocentrica.

In other news …

Yesterday I received a copy of Graham Beynon’s short book, Money Counts: How to Handel Your Money in Your Hearts and with Your Hands. Here’s the commendation I wrote for it:

Full of common sense advice on spending, saving and giving, Money Counts also offers the uncommon sense that comes from viewing life in the light of God’s generous grace and his promise of eternal glory. Read this book and learn to view giving as a liberating act of worship.

Money Counts is available from 5 January 2016 from and


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The One True Light – more copies now in stock

I’ve just had this message (and photo) from The Good Book Company: “After selling out the first print run in a record 3 weeks, new stock of The One True Light Advent readings are flying out of the warehouse.”

So if you’ve tried to buy a copy – don’t despair. And it’s not too late to buy a copy to read throughout in December – not that there’s a rule which says it must be read then!


The One True Light is available here from thinkivp. It will be released in the US next year.

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Managing expectations #2: the promise of fruit

In a previous post I introduced the challenge of managing expectations within the life of a church. In John 21 we saw the promise that God’s word is powerful.

The disciples have just reached a point where they are seeing-and-believing. But now in chapter 21 Jesus is preparing them to lead other people to the point where they are not-seeing-and-believing. Look at 20:29: ‘Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”’

The first disciples see and believe. Future generations will not see and believe. Instead, they will hear and believe.

But will this work? Will people really hear and believe without being able to see Jesus?

The evidence in our experience is mixed. As our church gathers we are the proof that people can not-see-and-believe. But we are few in number. Most people don’t believe.

Will people in your town really hear-and-believe? This is the question which is answered by John 21:1-14.

This story is the promise of fruit. It is the promise of a harvest.

John emphases that this is an impressive catch. Verse 6 talks about a ‘large number of fish’. Verse 8 talks about a ‘net full of fish’. The story describes the transition from ‘they caught nothing’ in verse 3 to a net ‘full of large fish, 153,’ in verse 11.

And John knew what he was talking about because John was a fisherman. He knew this was extraordinary.

On its own we might think this story is just another demonstration of the power of Jesus. But coming after 20:29-31 it becomes the promise of fruitfulness in mission. As we proclaim the name of Jesus, people will believe and find life is his name.

The Acts 29 church planting network is so-called to highlight the way the story of mission in Acts does not end in chapter 28. Acts is just the beginning. We continue to write the story. We’re writing the next chapter. We have the same idea in John’s Gospel. John 20 feels like an ending. Indeed some people have concluded that it’s the real ending of the Gospel and chapter 21 is later addition. But 20:30-31 are not the end of the story. The story of Jesus on earth is over. But the story of Jesus continues and we are writing it. The story of Jesus is continued through the mission of the church. So this big catch of fish is an exposition of 20:29. It is the promise that there will be people ‘who have not seen and yet have believed.’

It’s the promise that Jesus will bless our mission. As we work, Jesus will work – sometimes without us recognising that he is at work

You see, it’s the disciples who catch these fish. They’re the ones who let down their nets. They’re the ones who drag the net ashore. But it’s Jesus who gives the bounty. They are completely depend on him. In the same way, we cast out the net as we proclaim the gospel. But it’s Jesus who gives life.

Some of the disciples were expert fishermen. But expertise is not everything. They needed Jesus. In the same way, we can be expert evangelists – nothing wrong with that. But expertise is not everything. We need Jesus. He is the Lord of the harvest.

Without Jesus, the disciples were fishing in the dark – they were in the boat at night. Apparently that’s a good time to fish. But ‘night’ for John is often symbolic of life without the light of Christ. His Gospel starts with the light shining in the darkness as Jesus comes into the world (1:5) Now in this story as morning breaks Jesus appears on the shore. And through his command the disciples catch a great number of fish.

Will people really hear-and-believe? The answer is Yes. The word of Jesus produces a harvest. In 1942 a missionary called Mary Sander wrote to Barclay Buxton, the founder of the Japan Evangelistic Band, with whom she had served in Japan:

I feel, on looking back, that the way God used me to win Japanese to Christ was in the way you taught us in the use of the Scriptures, His own Word, the weapon of the Word, and His Spirit. It did the work. I remember feeling what comfort it was that not our weak words, but His eternal Word was the weapon of our warfare. It seemed like a strong friend at hand. (Cited B. Godfrey Buxton, The Reward of Faith in the Life of Barclay F. Buxton, Japan Evangelistic Band, 1949, 263.)

Think about seeds. They typically look dead – like little bits of grit. But they produce life – even if they are trampled underfoot, sometimes because they are trampled underfoot. And the Bible often says God’s word is like a seed. It may look dead. It may be trampled underfoot. But it produces life.

This story echoes another story of a miraculous catch in Luke 5:1-11 when Jesus calls the disciples to be fishers of people (see also Mark 1:16-17). So people have wondered whether the disciples were wrong now to return to their fishing. Is this a return to their old way of life when they should have been fishing for people? I’m not persuaded they were in the wrong. After all, they had to eat while they waited for Jesus meet them again.

But this is not the action of Spirit-filled people. None of them are fishing in the book of Acts! At this point, the disciples believe in Jesus, but they’ve not yet received the Spirit because the Spirit has not yet been poured out at Pentecost.

But Pentecost has now happened. The Spirit of God has been poured out on God’s people. Every Christian is in-dwelt with the Spirit.

And so now we Christians cannot return to our old way of life – at least not in the same way. A new Christian may well continue as a fisherman, builder, shop-worker. But we’re all called to be fishers of people. We return to our old life as people with new life living with a new purpose. Our workplace becomes the context for mission.

We can proclaim the name of Jesus in the expectation that there will be fruit. There will be a catch of people. People will believe in Jesus and find life in his name.

I can’t tell you how many people will be saved in 2015. Maybe it will be none. Maybe one. Maybe ten. Maybe more. But there will be a harvest. I don’t know why Good doesn’t convert more people in the UK (though he is doing so elsewhere in the world). But there will be a harvest. Dead seed will burst into life.

Our job is to obey the command of Jesus, like the disciples, and let down the net by proclaiming his word. After that, it’s over to Jesus. He gives the harvest. He will decide whether there is one convert or ten or more. The harvest is up to him. And so:

  • We proclaim Christ with confidence – because Christ promises a harvest.
  • We proclaim Christ with prayer – because it’s Christ who gives the harvest.
  • We proclaim Christ without pressure – because the harvest doesn’t depend on us.

Our job is to proclaim his name, confident that he promises a harvest.

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Managing expectations #1: the power of God’s word

One of the greatest challenge of leading a church – especially a small church in 21st century Europe – is managing expectations.

If our expectations are too low then we won’t be involved in mission. If we think it’s unlikely anyone in our town will trust in Christ then we’re unlikely to speak of Christ to people. If I think my neighbour is unlikely to convert then I’m not going an effort to invite them to experience the life of the church. If our expectations are too low then we won’t proclaim Christ.

But if our expectation are too high then we risk becoming disillusioned. And disillusionment would mean not getting involved in mission. I’ve been in churches were people said things like, ‘We should buy 500 song books because if we don’t have faith for growth then God won’t bless us.’ I’ve often heard people predicting revival will break out in the coming months. I’ve had people say we should pray for a thousand people to be saved or a hundred churches to be planted. And in one sense there’s nothing wrong with having big expectations because we have a big God. But a year later people are disappointed and frustrated. You can whip up enthusiasm with exaggerated expectations once, maybe twice. But people are not stupid. After a while they lose hope. They lose motivation.

So if our expectations are too low then we won’t proclaim Christ. But if our expectations are unrealistic then we become disillusioned and we won’t proclaim Christ.

John 21:1-14 speaks to this challenge.

A number of the disciples go fishing on Lake Tiberias (which is another name for Lake Galilee). They fish all night, but catch nothing. As morning comes Jesus appears on the shore. They don’t recognise him, probably because it’s still twilight. He shouts, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish.’ The word translated ‘friends’ is a colloquial word. It’s equivalent would be something like, ‘Hey lads, you caught anything? Try on the other side.’ When they do they can’t pull the net up because it is so full of fish. At this point they realise it’s Jesus. ‘It’s the Lord.’ When they land, they find Jesus already cooking breakfast for them.

At the end of the previous chapter Thomas declares: ‘My Lord and my God!’ In many ways, it’s the climax of the Gospel. This is John’s big idea. He wants people to see Jesus and declare, ‘My Lord and my God.’ Everything builds to this moment.

John’s Gospel has a number of signs – miracles that point to the identity of Christ. And John numbers his signs. In chapter 4, for example, Jesus heals the son of a royal official. And John tells us. ‘This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed.’ (4:54) John presents a sequence of signs to prove that Jesus is the Son of God.

Now in the closing chapters he presents a number of resurrection appearances. Look at how this section begins and ends. Verse 1 begins: ‘Afterwards Jesus appeared again to his disciples.’ And verse 14 says: ‘This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.’ And notice how, like the signs, John numbers these appearances. We’re given (1) the proof of the signs and (2) the proof of the appearance.

In verse 2 John includes ‘Nathanael from Cana’. Nathanael has not been mentioned since chapter 1. The point is that Cana was the site of Jesus’ first two signs. The people of Cana saw the first two signs of the incarnate Christ. Now Nathanael from Cana witnesses of the third revelation of the glory of the risen Christ.

When John describes the first sign (the turning of water into wine) this is his comment: ‘This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.’ (John 2:11) The word translated ‘revealed’ (‘revealed his glory’) is exactly the same word as the word translated ‘appeared’ in verse 1. Verse 1 is literally ‘Jesus revealed himself’. Through the signs Jesus revealed his glory. Now Jesus reveals himself.

Jesus himself has become the sign. Imagine following a sequence of signposts as you travel to a town. And then you drive over the brow of the hill and there is the town itself. You don’t need the signposts anymore because you can see the town itself. The signs of Jesus have pointed to his identity. But now he has risen. Now he himself is the sign. And he beckons us to come to him.

So John is carefully piling up the evidence that Jesus is ‘our Lord and our God’. And the biggest piece of evidence is Jesus himself, risen from the dead.

And he really is risen. In this story Jesus has breakfast with his disciples. Luke tells us he ‘ate [a piece of fish] in their presence’ (Luke 24:42-43). This is not simply a vision or a dream. Jesus hasn’t merely risen in some metaphorical or spiritual sense. Jesus has risen physically. He has a real body that can prepare and eat food.

Verse 12 says: ‘None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.’ They know this is Jesus risen from the dead. But they don’t know what to make of this. They don’t know what to say. It’s another reminder that they didn’t expect the resurrection. The disciples were not gullible or superstitious. They weren’t ready to believe anything.

But as they see and hear and touch the risen Christ, they put their faith in him. They declare, ‘My Lord and my God.’

But this raises a problem and John is alert to it. What about those who don’t get to see and hear and touch? What about us? What about the people of your town?

Look at what comes just before our story in 20:30-31: ‘Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’

The solution is God’s word. People who can’t see the risen Jesus, can hear God’s word. As God’s word is read and proclaimed, people will believe in Jesus and find life in his name.

Actually this theme has been rumbling away throughout the Gospel. Look at 2:18-25.

The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’

Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’

They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.

Notice two things.

  1. Faith from seeing is suspect

First, faith based on seeing miracles is suspect. ‘Many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.’ (2:23-24) Jesus doesn’t trust faith based on miracles. It’s not hard to imagine why. Faith based on experience is all well and good when our experience is good. But what about when life is tough or when persecution comes? Will it survive? Jesus doesn’t entrust himself to such faith because he knows people. If we follow what suits us, then we will readily change sides when that suits us.

Indeed in 11:47-48 it is because the Jewish leaders believe in reality of his miracles that they plot to kill Jesus. When the miracles of Jesus threaten to strip them of their power and prestige they plot against Jesus. ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ (11:48)

  1. Faith from hearing is genuine

Second, notice how true faith arises in John 2. Verse 22 says: ‘After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.’ The disciples believe because they believe ‘the Scriptures and the words of Jesus’. Their experience of the risen Christ is combined with faith in God’s word.

This is true faith. It’s not dependent on our latest experience. Nor it is swayed by any immediate advantage. This faith doesn’t simply say, ‘Give us bread’ as the crowd does in chapter 6 (6:34). It says, ‘My Lord and my God.’

True faith comes through hearing God’s word. So, no matter what results we see, this must be our approach and this must be our confidence.

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Why do mission?

This post is an edited and adapted extract from my book Mission Matters. Mission Matters is available in the UK from ThinkIVP and in US from

Why do mission? Why should you be interested in world mission? How would you answer that question?

There are many ways we could answer the ‘Why mission?’ question. We could talk about the need to change our broken world and combat injustice. We could talk about the need to rescue people from the judgment of God. We could talk about the command of Christ and his call in the Great Commission to go to the nations.

Almost by definition in this session I’m preaching to the converted. But I want to provide what I think is the deepest and most glorious foundation to the question of ‘Why mission?’

The Father delights to share his delight in his Son
All of these are good answers. But none of them are the starting point of mission. The starting point is this: God the Father loves his Son.

When Jesus was baptised the voice from heaven said: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) The Father delights in his Son. And, because the Father delights in his Son, he delights to share that delight. He loves it when others delight in his Son. The feeling is mutual: the Son delights in his Father and wants to glorify his Father. They rejoice in each other through the Holy Spirit and want to share their joy with others.

This is the starting point of mission. Everything else flows from this. The word “mission” is a Latin word that means “sending”. For the first fifteen centuries or so in the story of the church the word was only ever used to describe what God does. Mission is God sending his Son in the world and sending his Spirit into the world. Our mission is the extension of the mission of the Trinity. And the mission of the Trinity is to share their joy and love.

In John 17:24 Jesus prays: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” Notice how these statements link together. Jesus wants people to be with him. Why? So they can see the glory that God has given to him. Why? Because God has loved him from before the world began. Mission starts with the Father’s love for his Son.

God didn’t create the world to meet some need that he had. God wasn’t up in heaven on his own feeling lonely. He doesn’t need the world. It doesn’t add anything to him. God wasn’t a frustrated Ruler looking for something to rule. Nor was he a frustrated Creator looking for something to create. He wasn’t even a frustrated Lover looking for something to love. He was a Father with a Son living in perfect love through the Spirit. The reason God created the world and is now redeeming the world is to share his delight in his Son. God created us to be his children and he recreates us as his children out of the overflow of his love and joy.

At the 2012 Olympics the South African swimmer Chad Le Clos won a gold medal. His father, Bert Le Clos, was famously interviewed afterwards. His joy was uncontained. “Look at my boy,” he kept saying. “He’s so beautiful.” God the Father creates us so he could say to us, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Mission is God saying through us: “Look at my Son. He’s so beautiful.”

In Proverbs 8 “Wisdom” speaks. It’s a reference to Jesus. Jesus, the Wisdom of God, says: “The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be” (22-23). When Jesus says he is the “first of God’s works” it doesn’t mean there was a time before God created Jesus. It’s saying that Jesus was eternally begotten before anything else was created.

Wisdom continues: “Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in the human race” (30-31). What was Jesus doing before the creation of the world? He was “filled with delight … rejoicing always in God’s presence.” And what was Jesus doing at the creation of the world? “Rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in the human race.” Notice the repetition of the words “delight” and “rejoice”.

Before creation Jesus delights in God and rejoices in his presence. At creation Jesus delights in those made in God’s image and rejoices in God’s world. Creation is the overflow of God’s joy. Humanity is the overflow of God’s delight.

The Son delights in his Father’s love and delights to share that love. Both the Father and the Son are out-giving, out-pouring love. And they pour out that love between themselves through the Spirit and out from themselves to others through the Spirit. “God’s love” says Paul in Romans 5:5, “has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Preaching from John 16 Gottfried Osei-Mensah, the African missionary statesman, told the Keswick Convention: “The four words, ‘He shall glorify me’, summarise the entire mission of the Holy Spirit … And the way he would carry out this work … was clearly spelt out: he takes what belongs to Christ and his discloses it to those who belong to Christ.” (Gottfried Osei-Mensah, ‘The Helper from Heaven,’ God’s Very Own People, Keswick Yearbook 1984, STL, 1984, 165.) The persons of the Trinity delight in sharing their love with others and they delight in each receiving love from others.

On the night before he died, Jesus prayed: “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:25-26) Jesus knows the Father and now Jesus has made the Father known to his disciples. Jesus is loved by the Father and now Jesus has made the Father known to us as our Father so that the Father’s love may be in us. God wants us to enjoy the love of the trinitarian community, to be part of the trinitarian community. We are united to the Son so that we can be as much part of the divine family as the Son is.

The cascade of divine love
Near where I live is Chatsworth House. It’s one of the finest grand houses in Britain. It’s believed to have inspired Pemberley, the house of Darcy, in Jane’s Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. It was certainly used as the location for Pemberley in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The house and its gardens are open to the public. In the garden is a huge cascading fountain. It runs all the way down a hillside in a series of steps. The water flows from one step to another. The public are allowed to paddle in the fountain and walk up the steps.

It’s a good image of God’s love. The Father is fountain of life and love, and his life and love fill the Son and overflow through the Son to the world. That love overflows to you and then through you it keeps on flowing to a needy world.

Where does all the water come from? From the top. It’s not that we have to generate love. We don’t bring love into existence through an act of will, screwing our faces up to get on with it. All we do is sit under the cascading fountain of Father’s unfailing love, flowing to us from the Father through the Son by the Spirit. We sit there, getting drenched in love, until love flows out from us to a needy world.

We see this cascade of love between the Father and the Son and between the Son and his people in John 17:

  • The Father gives words to the Son who gives words to believers:
    “I gave them the words you gave me” (8, 14).
  • The Father sends the Son who sends believers:
    “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (18).
  • The Father is in the Son who is in believers:
    “… you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us …” (21).
  • The Father gives glory to the Son who gives glory to believers:
    “I have given them the glory that you gave me” (22).
  • The Father is one with the Son who is one with believers:
    “… that they may be one as we are one” (22).
  • The Father is known by the Son who is known by believers:
    “Righteous Father … I know you, and … I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known” (25-26).
  • The Father loves the Son who loves believers:
    “… that the love you have for me may be in them” (26).

What happens when we sit under the fountain of God’s love? We become loving people. The Apostle John says: “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love … No-one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us … We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:7-13, 19-21) The cascade of love continues. Those who are loved by God love like God.

The sunshine of divine love
The great advantage of this motivation for mission is this: it never runs out!

One of the jokes at the Keswick Convention is that it’s easy to predict the weather: if you can see Skiddaw, the mountain just to the north of Keswick, then it’s going to rain and if you can’t see it then it’s already raining! Yet even in Keswick when there’s a sunny day, no-one worries that maybe the sun will run out of light. We don’t wander around, full of concern, saying, “Much more of this weather and the sun will run out.” Light and heat just pour out of the sun.

In the same way, love pours out of God in an inexhaustible stream. God is pouring out life and love. The Father constantly and continually radiates love to the Son and the Son to the Father through the Spirit. And God delights for that love to be shared. It’s the Father’s great pleasure for the Son to love others and to be loved by others. It’s the Son’s great pleasure for the Father to love others and to be loved by others. This outpouring of life and love pours out of the Trinity as he creates the world, loves the world, redeems the world.

Jesus reflects the Father’s glory. He is the image of God. Think of it like a mirror. The light of God’s glory is perfectly reflected in the image or mirror of his Son. The Father sees in his Son a perfect reflection of his perfections. From all eternity God’s perfections pour out from the Father to the Son and back to the Father through the Spirit. And this is how we glorify God. It’s not that we shine our torches into the sun, saying, “Here you are, sun, here’s some extra light.” It’s not that we sing or work or speak, saying, “Here you are, God, here’s something extra to add to your perfections.” No, we’re mirrors. When we glorify God we’re reflecting back to God glory that started with him in the first place.

Maybe you have heard people talk about Jesus being eternally begotten. It’s a way of saying that Jesus has always existed. There was never a moment when he was first created. He is “begotten” from his Father, but he is eternally begotten. We’re used to think about what this means for Jesus. But think what this means for the Father. It means he is eternally giving life. He is a fountain of life. The Son is eternally loved and the Father is eternally showing love. He is a fountain of love. Life and love pour out from God.

This motivation for mission is one that can be sustained. Mission is often tough. You may often feel like giving up. You may face opposition and hostility. You may face discouragement and set backs. You may feel homesick. The people you thought had become Christians may later turn away from Christ. What do we do when these things happen?

We need to go sunbathing! We need to put ourselves again in the sunshine of God’s love. The building in which I work is cold. It’s an old building with thick walls built into a hillside. So even on a sunny day we’re all wearing several layers. You can feel chilled to the bone. But then you walk out into the sunshine and the chill starts to dissipate. We live in a cold, graceless world. But when we step into the warmth of God’s love our cold hearts are warmed and our weary souls are energized.

Why should you get involved in world mission? For the same reason God sent his Son: out of the overflow of divine love.

In 1903 Barclay Buxton, together with his co-worker Paget Wilkes, launched the Japan Evangelistic Band (Kyoden Nihon Dendo Tai) at the Keswick Convention. Buxton went on to serve in Japan for nearly 30 years. During this time he saw much fruit, but also endured many hardships including the death of two of his daughters. His son writes:

To him there was but one purpose in view. “Father, the hour is come; glorify Thy Son.” [John 17:1] He believed each opportunity was God’s hour to impart to someone the great salvation procured for us on Calvary. The secret of the blessing which followed his Bible studies lay in a message that was Scriptural, a life that was prayerful and a purpose which was God’s glory. (B. Godfrey Buxton, The Reward of Faith in the Life of Barclay F. Buxton, Japan Evangelistic Band, 1949, 185.)

The same purpose inspired Samuel Zwemer, one of the great missionary leaders of the early twentieth century. He was nicknamed “the Apostle to Islam” because of his work across the Muslim world. He worked as a missionary for nearly 40 years before becoming Professor of Missions at Princeton Theological Seminary. His work was often costly. Like Buxton he lost two of his daughters. In Zwemer’s case they died, aged four and seven, within eight days of each other. What drove his remarkable missionary endeavour was this vision for the Father’s glory in his Son. “The chief end of missions,” he said, “is not the salvation of men but the glory of God.” (Samuel Zwemer, Thinking Missions with Christ, Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1934, 67.)
“God has created the entire world that it should be the theatre of his glory by the spread of his Gospel.” (Samuel Zwemer, ‘Calvinism and the Missionary Enterprise,’ Theology Today 7:2, 1950, 208.)

Zwemer visited the Keswick Convention on a number of occasions. In 1923 he closed his address to the Convention with a paraphrase of the prayer of Jesus in John 17: “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son in the Islamic world that thy Son may also glorify thee in the Islamic world!” (Cited in Walter B. Sloan, These Sixty Years: The Story of the Keswick Convention, Pickering & Inglis, 1935, 85.)

It may be that Zwemer’s prayer is being answered in our generation!

This is an edited and adapted extract from my book, Mission Matters.

Mission Matters is available in the UK from ThinkIVP and in US from

In the Beginning – an extract from The One True Light

Here’s an extract from The One True Light, my new book of advent readings based on  John 1.

“In the beginning …” (John 1 v 1)

My father’s father was a butcher from North Yorkshire. He would collect animals from the train and then drive them through the village to be slaughtered behind his shop. My mother’s father was Scottish. He moved to Darlington in County Durham to work at the steel mill. He would come home each evening with livid burns up his arms…

Many biographies start a generation or two back with the subject’s parents or grandparents.The aim is to build a picture of the kind of family and conditions a child was born into.

Not John’s Gospel.

As John settles down to write the story of a man called Jesus, he thinks of his earthly parents, and of their fathers and forefathers. But the clock keeps spinning backwards until he draws breath and slowly writes, “In the beginning”.

Immediately, we understand that this is not an ordinary story of an ordinary person.

John’s “in the beginning” is not the start of one person’s life. This is the start and source of all life. This is the story of creation. The words echo the opening words of the opening book of the Bible. Genesis 1 v 1 reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. John is retelling the story of creation with Jesus the Word at the centre.

So this is a big story. It’s not the story of one person, but of every person. This is my story. And your story.This is the story of the universe, and specifically of planet earth.

* * *

The story of creation in Genesis 1 came to a climax when God formed the first human being, Adam. John’s “Christmas story” will also come to a climax with a man taking on human flesh. Genesis shows us the first man—Adam. But Jesus will be “the last Adam”. In both cases a man enters the world. Jesus is coming as the true Adam or the true man.

But Jesus is more than a new, improved human being. This is not simply “Humanity 2.0”. John could have started with the story of the birth of Jesus. That’s what Matthew and Luke do. But John wants us to realise that, unlike the story of any other human being, the story of Jesus does not begin with his human conception. It’s true that Jesus was born as a human being in our world. But that’s not when his story begins. His story goes back to the beginning. Indeed the story of Jesus doesn’t even start “in the beginning”. For, as John will go on to say, Jesus already “was” in the beginning. His story has no beginning for he “was” in eternity. He has been for ever.

Did you know that Santa once threw a punch? The name“Santa Claus” is derived from “Saint Nicholas”. Nicholas was a bishop who attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325. The council had been called in response to the teaching of a man called Arius, who claimed that Jesus was a created being. He was willing to affirm that Jesus was the first created being and so supreme in creation, but, according to Arius, he was created. In other words, there was a time when Jesus did not exist.

The story goes that at first Nicholas listened quietly to the arguments of Arius. But in the end he could take it no longer. He stepped across the room and slapped Arius across the face. So maybe on Christmas Day we should punch heretics instead of giving presents. (Or maybe not.)

The point is that this truth mattered deeply to Nicholas. It was not just a debating point—it was of crucial importance for the salvation of our souls. If Jesus was created, then he is not truly and fully divine. And John is clear: Jesus the Word already “was” in the beginning.

But why does John start here, looking back to the beginning of creation? Because the story John is about to unfold is the story of re-creation. The world God made is no longer the same world in which we live. God made a good world, a beautiful world. And there are still signs of that all around us. But there is also evil and pain.

Our world is broken. And we are the ones who broke it.

John starts “in the beginning” to give us a hint of what Jesus will do. Jesus is going to mend the brokenness of our world. The story of creation went into reverse when humanity rejected God. Creation gave way to de-creation. God’s beautiful world began to unravel. But Jesus is about to pick up the pen, as it were, and write the next chapter—another chapter of creation.

In the beginning…

Lord Jesus,
thank you that you have rewritten the story,
thank you that you are reordering our world.
In your mercy,
come and rewrite my story;
come and reorder my world.

The One True Light is available here from thinkivp. It’s not yet available in the US.


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