Friday, April 16, 2021

"Hooked on Classics" Revisited



C. Philip Slate

Over thirty years ago several people were listening to—and even doing their aerobics to—“Hooked on Classics,” a collection of popular excerpts from operas, symphonies, and other larger pieces of music.[2] The smaller pieces were strung together uninterruptedly without plot or structure, a patchwork of pleasant sounds held together only by a steady beat.

At the time, it occurred to me that listening to “Hooked on Classics” bore a resemblance to what can happen when listening to some topical/subject sermons as contrasted with those that involve the use of extended texts.

The Parallels

In “Hooked on Classics” one may hear a small section, the finale, of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” and have no idea how it fits into the larger work. Indeed, over time the finale may become associated with something the composer never dreamed, something like the theme music for the Lone Ranger program. Evidence of that’s happening is found in the amusing but inaccurate definition of a “cultured person” as one who can listen to the finale without thinking of the Lone Ranger!

In “Hooked” a segment of “On the Trail” is heard, probably because it was popular as the theme melody for the “I Love Lucy” television program. The short piece is likely not heard as a part of the five-sectioned “Grand Canyon Suite” by American composer, Ferde GrofĂ©. Consequently, on hearing it one thinks primarily about Lucy and fails to hear the hee-hawing of the burros as they begin the journey down the canyon trail—fail to learn of other sections of the suite, such as “Sunrise,” “Painted Desert,” and “Cloudburst.”

Similar injustices, as music lovers would consider them, are done to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Strauss, and others in “Hooked.” It is a musical version of quoting Dickens’ “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” without understanding how the words fit into The Tale of Two Cities.

When the Stakes are Higher

I am confident that people can go to heaven without knowing that the Lone Ranger theme is part of the “William Tell Overture” or that the popular section of “The Triumphal March” is part of Verdi’s opera, “Aida.” The way of salvation does not involve our being classic music buffs. It is another matter, however, if we treat Scripture the way music is treated in “Hooked” since it would thwart accurately understanding the text.

It is quite possible to be “hooked” on select biblical texts and have little idea of the larger contexts that shape their intended meaning. Cases in point are “handle not, taste not, touch not” (Col. 2:21), God hears not the sinner’s prayer (Jn. 9:31), “No one born of God commits sin” (1 Jn. 3:9) and many others. The preacher who quotes them as single thoughts may know their contexts, but do his hearers? Does his method of preaching allow the hearers to perceive the meanings supplied by the contexts or get a glimpse into the thought of the narrative or epistle?

When in the sermon no reference is made to the larger picture which either shapes the meaning (as in Col. 2:21) or enhances it (as in 1 Sam. 16:7), the hearers are put in the position of listening to “Hooked on Classics”. Unless it is done well, topical/subject preaching can put the hearers in that position. Such patchwork hearing will often deprive the people of both the correct meaning and the desired punch of the biblical text.

It is one thing to quote Eph. 4:1 (“Walk worthily of your calling”) as an admonition. It is a different matter to show how that verse is a hinge of thought in the epistle and gives meaning to the entirety of chapters 4-6. It is one thing to preach the story of the lost boy (Lk. 15:11-32) without reference to the context, but the situation is different when one relates the story to its companion parables (vs. 3-10) and the two introductory verses (1-2). Listeners have a right to hear the Word of God expounded accurately and in keeping with the biblical author’s intentions.

The systematic presentation of biblical material on various topics/subjects is certainly appropriate, even necessary at times; but those lessons will be presented and heard better against a background of habitual exposure to lessons on larger texts. The word is to be preached, as Paul instructed Timothy to do (2 Tim.3:10-4:5). So the questions is not whether but how we should preach the Word for the spiritual health of the hearers.[3]

The Whole Bible Like the Book of Proverbs?

The sixty-six books of Scripture take several literary forms. Over 40% of the Old Testament is narrative in form. The Psalms and sections of other books are Hebrew poetry. In the New Testament there are epistolary, parabolic, narrative, and other forms. Those forms influence both the authors’ meanings and ways of creating emphasis. Thus, Scripture should not be treated as an expansion of the book of Proverbs in which context often plays no significant part in interpretation. Biblical chapters and verses, while useful in locating passages, are a creation of man. Paragraphs divisions are intended to group thoughts, but that cannot be said of verses.

Stories have meanings as stories. They are not to be treated like diamond mines where one must sift through tons of useless material to get a few gems here and there. The story is worth the telling in its own right. Along this line, Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is still very valuable.[4]

Exposition of larger texts, or at least a well-defined unit of thought, is beneficial for both the hearers and the preacher. He will be less likely to misuse the text or intrude himself into the text or display his memory or knowledge (“No man can in the same sermon show both that he is great and God is wonderful.”). The hearers will learn more Scripture and be more likely to receive the author’s intended meaning and impact. Great benefit comes from handling Scripture correctly.


[1] Adapted from my longer article that appeared in Image magazine as “Preaching: ‘Hooked on Classics,’” 6:3 (May/June 1990):24-5.

[2] Now available on YouTube where the larger piece of music is identified by subscripts.

[3] The Greek word translated commonly as “sound” is a health word, as in “sound in body and mind.” Sound preaching is the king that contributes to the spiritual health of the hearers.

So well did it serve people that the book has gone through several editions.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Fathers are Important!

Fathers are Beyond Important

C. Philip Slate

Recently, I came across the following item in a communication that came to my computer. The facts are there, and this is no surprise to those of us who take God’s way seriously. Father and mother both make distinctive contributions to the development of children. I care to make two disclaimers, however, lest some get the wrong impression.

It is one thing to be brought up in a fatherless home when father dies early in the child’s life. You and I likely know several people who lost their fathers to death. It is a very different matter when the father abandons the family; that hurts physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Even then, you and I likely know cases where that happened, and the strong, godly mother somehow led the children on paths of righteousness. I am thinking of a couple of wonderful men who came from that kind of situation, one a preacher who has also taught in one of our Christian universities.

The other disclaimer is that in the absence of the biological father some people have benefited immeasurably by a “substitute father.” A couple of years ago a man said to me, “Mr. Slate, if it hadn’t been for you, I’d likely be in prison by now.” I was surprised. I had done nothing special for him; he was a childhood friend of my sons who was frequently in our home. Yes, he went fishing with us a few times and a few other things, but nothing special. I had no idea what he was picking up. Had I been aware of it I could have done him even more good.

But the statistics are still there. The ideal, the God-intended arrangement is for children to grow up with both mother and father. With that in mind, note the sad statistics from

  • 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes
  • 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes
  • 85% of all children that exhibit behavioral disorders are from fatherless homes
  • 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes
  • 75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes
  • 70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes.

Dads, you are beyond important! We are so grateful for all the amazing fathers and father-figures. Thank you for the sleepless nights, work-filled days, and sacrificial love!

Pass on the message! Do what you can to help married couples stay together, to the glory of God and for the welfare of their children. Men, be conscious of the ways in which you might be a “substitute father” to some little fellow.

Friday, March 19, 2021

A Passion for Souls

A Passion for Souls

by Joel Stephen Williams

And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus (Acts 5:42; ESV).

When I was young my home congregation supported several families as missionaries to Thailand. The missionaries often stayed in our home when they were back in America reporting on their work to their supporters. I listened with fascination to their many tales of life on the other side of the world in that exotic Asian land. One event stands out prominently in my memory. As a teenage boy I walked into the living room one morning and one of the missionaries was examining a book, an almanac. He said very excitedly: “Come here, Steve. Come here and look at this.” He was looking at population statistics for various cities around the world, especially in Asia. He would say: “This city has 100,000 people in it and there is no church there. And this city over here has...” On and on he went. I knew at the age of about fourteen or fifteen why he was willing to beg for support, to live on the other side of the world, and to learn a very difficult language. He had a passion for souls. One of those men and his wife are now in their late 80s and are still in Thailand. They have given sixty-two years of their lives to that work. That is a passion for teaching the gospel to those who need to hear about Jesus Christ and salvation from sin.

From one of my professors, I cannot remember which one, I heard a fascinating story many years ago. A young missionary was back in the States on furlough. His first Sunday at home he walked around the large, spacious church foyer where people were visiting with one another at the end of the worship assembly. He walked up to one man and said: “Hello. I am home on vacation, and I was wondering if you would be willing to take me with you this week as you make your visits or as you teach a home Bible study.” The man to whom he spoke was at a loss for words, but somehow, he broke off the conversation and got away from the young man as quickly as possible. Not one to be discouraged, the young missionary approached another man with the same question, only to get the same reaction. He was very lucky, though. The third individual he approached said: “Certainly. I have an appointment to meet with a family on Tuesday night. I would love for you to come with me.” That young man was a missionary on foreign soil, because he had a passion for winning lost souls no matter where he was. He was concerned about the lost before he went to the mission field and was still concerned about the lost while he was at home on vacation.

The point of these stories is evident and clear. The mission field is not necessarily over there somewhere in a distant land or over here in a large city. It is wherever the lost are – at school, at work, down the street, next door, or maybe at home. Also, the key ingredient to being evangelistic or being mission minded is attitude. We must have a love for lost souls and want to increase the population of heaven. Do we have a passion for souls?

Friday, February 26, 2021

God as the Benchmark

The More Excellent Way
Virtue, Goodness, and Integrity
Christian Moral Formation

Lesson #2: God as the Benchmark

by Joel Stephen Williams

There are many different types of ethical systems in the world. One key factor that distinguishes many of these ethical systems is the standard or and basis by which right and wrong are determined. This video will give a very brief review of utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue/character ethics. Then, a concise summary of biblical and Judeo-Christian ethics will be noted with a focus on the standard or the benchmark making ethical choices, which is the character or the nature of God, that is, his divine attributes.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Tree of Death

The Tree of Death

by Justin Imel

When my brothers and I had acted up at my grandparents' home, they gave us a choice--they could either spank us or they could call Santa Claus. Not necessarily an easy decision to make, but Mom and Dad could give us a choice because God created man with freewill.

In the Garden of Eden, God presented Adam and his wife with a choice--they could eat from the tree of life and live forever, or they could eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and sin against the I AM. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve chose poorly.

God gave Adam and Eve and all mankind freewill because he wants man to serve him of his own free volition. You and I have a choice to make--are we going to serve God, or are we going to serve self. As we face those decisions, we would do well to consider the consequences for our actions.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Battle the Burden of Expectations

“Battle the Burden of Expectations”

by Bill Bagents

I’m glad that titles can’t be copyrighted. This one came online and immediately caught my contrarian eye. Expectations aren’t inherently good or bad. “Expectation” is a neutral word like cold or hot. Cold ice cream seems so necessary as to be redundant. Most of us strongly prefer hot pizza.

Expectations have played a major role in my life. Overwhelmingly, that role has been positive. As we left home during the teenage years, Dad would say, “Remember who your mother is.” Message received: Don’t do anything that would embarrass, disappoint, or make her cry. We were expected to tell the truth and treat others with respect. We were expected to behave in school and to do well. We were expected to work and worship with passion. I can’t imagine a life without expectations.

Even at my advancing age, I’m still somewhat at war with my self-imposed perfectionist expectations. I’ve never yet done anything perfectly, but on some level, I still believe that I both can and should. To be fair, I got really close when Laura Lynn and I married. I’d be way worse without her.

I should not imply that the battle with perfectionism has been all bad. It’s kept me from being a lump who settles and surrenders at the first sign of challenge. It has helped fuel life-long learning. It has made me appreciate the people who can deal with me “warts and all.”

Especially in light of my advancing age, there’s a bigger and more dangerous battle with expectations. Inexplicably, I still expect the people around me to do right, be kind, act rationally, and live as if God’s judgment is certain. And that’s not all bad if I teach and live in a way that pulls them in those good directions.

You know where the bad comes. On weaker days, it makes for a short fuse, long sighs, and jerk-level judgmentalism. On the worst days, you can’t please me; I can’t even please myself. It’s a terrible choice to be ruled by unfair expectations.

What should this awareness lead me to do? How can God, scripture, and friends help me act better than I feel when that’s stunningly needed?

It’s a blessing to contemplate God’s expectations of us. All He wants is us—heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:28–31). If we give ourselves to Him, He opens unimaginable windows of blessing. That’s why Paul by inspiration calls the choice to be a “living sacrifice” our “spiritual worship” or “reasonable service” depending on translation (Rom 12:1–2). It makes no sense to save your life if saving it means losing it (Luke 9:23–25 and 17:33). Scripture is so good with paradox.

It’s a blessing to acknowledge and resist the STRONG human tendency to expect more of others than of self. Scripture speaks of it often (Matt 7:1–4 and 18:21–35; Luke 18:9–14, 19:1–10, and 20:45–47). Each time we acknowledge this terrible tendency, we remember Matthew 7:2, “For with the judgment you pronounce, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

It’s a blessing to show mercy every time mercy can be shown (Matt 5:7, 9:13, and 12:7). Think of Jesus with the compromised woman (John 8:1–11). Think of Jesus with Peter (Matt 16:21–23 and 26:31–35). Think of Jesus with Saul / Paul (Acts 9). Think of both the Father and Son with us (Rom 5:6–8).

In a nutshell, the Creator of the universe expects us to welcome His love and to love Him in return. There can be no higher or better expectation. If we find that good news to be a burden, MAJOR IMMEDIATE repentance is needed (Matt 11:28–30, 1 John 5:1–5).

Thursday, February 18, 2021

My Favorite Bible Verses

Reading the Bible

My Favorite Bible Verses

A Bible Lesson Idea

by Joel Stephen Williams

Every minister and Bible class teacher needs to have a couple of Bible lesson ideas ready for those impromptu, unexpected situations when you are called upon to teach, because another teacher did not show up or other scheduling problems arose. Even with the best of planning, it will likely happen every now and then. One easy Bible lesson idea you can teach that can work well, especially for a small group, is to study favorite Bible verses. You, as the teacher, can share with the class your favorite Bible verse or verses, why it or they are special to you, and a little of the meaning of these verses. Then, as time allows, allow others in the class to do the same. Conclude the class with a reminder of the sufficiency of Scripture and the importance of God’s written word in our lives.

For me, my favorite Scriptures have changed over the years. The same is probably true for you. Shifting to a new favorite Scripture is normal for several reasons. Sometimes we shift in our love for a new Bible verse simply due to discovery as we study different parts of God’s word. Even though we may have read a book of the Bible many times, some part of it may become new to us as we have grown older and have different needs or as we have matured in our thinking. What follows is a brief discussion of my three favorite Bible passages, at present.

Psalm 73:25–26

Whom have I in heaven but you?
                   And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
                   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (NRSV).

Asaph’s psalm is like the book of Job in miniature. Why does it seem like the wicked are doing well while the righteous are not? Is one wasting one’s time trying to live a godly life (73:13)? But while worshipping God, Asaph realized that the way of the sinner was ruin (73:17–20). But what is the reward for those who are godly? Their reward is God himself, nearness to him, and a relationship with him (73:25–26).

Ecclesiastes 8:12

Although a sinner commits crime a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I also know that it will go well with God-fearing people, for they are reverent before Him (HCSB).

In Ecclesiastes, the words of the Teacher are analyzed. What can we know about the meaning of life and man’s destiny (3:21; 8:17)? Injustice seems to be present everywhere (9:11). No one knows what the future may hold, and disaster can strike in an instant (9:12; 10:14). Despite uncertainty from his own observations about life and life’s seeming vanity, the Teacher makes a bold declaration of faith. Fearing God and obeying him is the right way to live, and it will go well with those who live this way (8:12; 12:11).

1 Peter 4:11

Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen (NRSV).

Whoever is teaching, exhorting, or sharing wisdom or knowledge (Rom. 12:7–8; 1 Cor. 12:8) in what might be called “authoritative speech in worship assemblies,” they should speak as one speaking the very words of God (cf. 1 Thess. 2:13). [1] Our teaching must be biblical. Preaching and teaching have eternal consequences. Those who teach will be judged with greater strictness, so let us be sober and serious about our task (James 3:1). In our ministry (diakonia) to others, let us humbly depend on God’s strength. Why do we do these things? So that God may be glorified through Christ. And thus we can pray or sing the doxology: “To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever, Amen.”


[1] J. Ramsey Michael, 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1988), 250.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The More Excellent Way: Christian Moral Formation (Lesson #1)

The More Excellent Way
Virtue, Goodness, and Integrity
Christian Moral Formation

Lesson #1: The problem

by Joel Stephen Williams

Where does the title of this series of video lessons come from? The apostle Paul wrote, “I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31; NRSV), and then he discussed Christian love. The more excellent way, the ethical Christian way of living, is the way of love. The sub-title “virtue, goodness, and integrity” is based on 2 Peter 1:5–8. This series of lessons will be a study of virtue and Christian character. All of this sounds quite positive, does it not? Maybe you are wondering what the problem is? After all, “the problem” is the title of lesson #1. Before we start on our journey through moral formation toward virtue, goodness, and integrity, we need to face the reality of the problem of human existence. It is the sinfulness of mankind. Our fallibility is a challenge to the more excellent way. In these lessons I will challenge you to live above the bare minimum, to strive for excellence.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Developing Expository Sermons

Word of God


C. Philip Slate

In response to my recent article about preachers’ giving their best, I have been asked to explain how to develop expository sermons. Since there is sufficient material on this subject to teach an entire semester course, as well as entire books, I must give only a small capsule.

The shape of an expository sermons should be governed significantly by the type of biblical material which one desires to preach. As one writer put it, “we need to preach sermons in the shape of Scripture.” The little book by Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth, has useful chapters on the different types of biblical material, whether narrative, parable, epistolary, and so forth. For the sake of simplicity, however, I will deal with a text that lends itself to clear divisions.

Suppose one wants to preach on 1 Corinthians 16:13-14, a loaded text that should be viewed in terms of the entire epistle: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (ESV). Though translated variously, here are five Greek imperatives—not suggestions or hints. The Corinthians were to take them seriously! Further, these are continuing requirements for followers of Jesus, though our situations might be somewhat different from that of the Corinthians. Here, to explain how one can develop a single expository sermon on these five points, I will use only one of the imperatives as an example of what to do with all of them.

A Basic Pattern

Think of a little boy who has developed an interest in baseball. Were you to teach him elementary principles of batting, what would you explain to him? You would tell him how to stand and how to hold a bat. That is basic. Over time, as the boy grows taller and stronger, he will develop his variations on standing and batting, depending on his strength, whether he wants to get base hits or strive for power hitting; but he begins with basic patterns.

The same variations on fundamentals can be found in preaching. As Phillips Brooks said in his 1898 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching, “Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men. It has in it two essential elements, truth and personality. Neither of those can it spare and still be preaching.”[1] We all know preachers who are naturally given to humor, while others may be pleasant but not funny, with both types being effective. Similarly, different levels of training and maturity, different personality types will bring variations in the basic pattern explained next.

It is helpful to think of good expository preaching as consisting of three components in each segment of Scripture treated. Take one of the imperatives in 1 Corinthians 16:13-24: “Be watchful.” That sermon segment on that phrase should have the components of exposition, application, and illustration. In one’s sermon outline one might simply use those three words as heading for grouping one’s material. The headings should not be mentioned, unless one wants to move from exegesis to application by saying something like, “Now, what does this matter? How is directive applied to our lives?” I want to elaborate lightly on each of these headings.

First, if one does not explain/expound the concept in the text (here, “be watchful”), then the sermon will not be expository. One should strive to understand, and then explain, what Paul meant in the context of 1 Corinthians. Consider the conditions in that church that required one to be watchful, to be on guard against some threat. Biblical texts are not to be used as mere jumping-off places to say what one wants to say on different grounds. The authority is to be found in the text itself. True, one might desire, and even need, to use parallel texts to fix the concept in the mind of the hearers, but the primary text must first be understood correctly. Thus, good exegesis, understanding of the text, is the absolute bedrock of expository preaching. A word of caution: most congregations are wearied by a lot of details of Greek or Hebrew grammar. Give them the benefit of your study without reporting all the intricacies of the process. To borrow a metaphor from Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The patient is not entitled to all the medicine in the doctor’s little black bag.”

Second, one should strive to make application of the textual truth to the needs of at least a segment of the congregation to which the sermon is addressed. Congregations have different needs and different levels of those needs. If one explains the text but does not apply it to people then one is giving a lecture, not a sermon. Obviously, one does not need to spend a lot of time applying a truth that is not sorely needed. That is a form of “scratching people where they don’t itch.” Remember, as Fosdick said, “people are not desperately interested in what happened to the Jebusites.” Good application depends on the preacher’s sensitivity to the positions of his auditors and his interaction with those positions.

Third, following the example of Jesus, paying attention to a vast amount of research, and responding to what we know in our bones, it is important to use illustrations. That is the generic word we normally use for what we ought to call “developmental materials.” An illustration is more or less a “case in point”, an actual example of someone’s being watchful. Making one’s sermons more hearable, vital, interesting, and helpful, however, might involve various types of material. Think of using metaphors, such as Jesus’ comparative metaphor of Herod, “go tell that fox . . .”; use similes, brief stories, short poems, statistics, and other “windows” into the point you are making. Not incidentally, one may—and perhaps should—use developmental materials in the exposition as well as the application. You need to make the text clear. Thus, follow this rule: use developmental materials anywhere you need to make things clear. Using colorful opposites can be helpful. The opposite of “being watchful” could be “dropping your guard” (as in boxing) or being careless and getting bitten by a snake, stung by a bee, bitten by a dog, or getting an infection.

Improvement your Efforts

If one will be attentive to these three elements when striving to make a biblical text come alive to and be helpful for people, it will improve one’s preaching effort. Some men are good at exegesis but poor at helping people to see themselves in the text; while others have a wealth of stories and colorful metaphors but are short on understanding and explaining the text. The point is to facilitate good text-hearer interaction. One does not need to “prose on” lest people “doze on.”

Claude Parrish once told me of the time Foy E. Wallace, Jr. spoke to the congregation where Claude worked. Wallace preached a long sermon on the Septuagint or Bible translation or something of the sort. Afterward a brother was leaving the building and said to Claude, “Wow! Wasn’t that a great sermon?” Claude asked, “Well, did you understand it?” “Oh, God forbid that I should understand a brilliant man like that!” Hmmm. It might have been a good sermon, but not for that man. Sermons are to be instrumental for people’s responding to the truth of God, or God Himself. It might produce thanksgiving or repentance, deep reflection and consideration, or encouragement. Grow in your ability to do that. With all prayer, do your homework and God will bless your efforts to help others with His Word.


[1] Brooks, Lectures on Preaching (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1898):5, as quoted in Batsell Barrett Baxter, The Heart of the Yale Lectures (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1954):3.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The Consequences of Disobeying God

The Consequences of Disobeying God

by Justin Imel

Every action has a consequence--whether it be a child who misbehaves and faces punishment from a parent or an adult who breaks the law and spends time behind bars. Adam and Eve were the first to learn about the consequences of doing wrong. When they disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the first man and woman faced serious consequences, consequences we still face today. This lesson examines the consequences the first couple faced for their disobedience to God.