UNDERSTANDING

Nehemiah 8

Two Important Rules for Messengers:
1) The messenger must understand that he is preaching or teaching God's Word. God's Word is truth. It is not man's message, methods or gifted speakers that convert sinners and change hearts, but God's Word and the working of the Holy Spirit! God's Word is dependable, reliable and trustworthy, and above all, it is powerful! The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it (Isaiah 55:11). For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). God's Word works and performs as it was intended by God. Q: Can you honestly say that about anyone or anything else?

2) The message must be properly understood. This is not just the duty of the hearer, but an important obligation of the messenger. I always told my ministerial students in our Bible Institute, "If you have selected a theme or text, developed an introduction, three or four main points and a conclusion, you are perhaps half finished with preparation. Now you need to illustrate." It is like driving nails. You first set the nail in place, but then you drive it home. There are some things the speaker may have no control over, but there are plenty of areas in which the speaker can affect the environment to create an atmosphere of learning. We can overcome obstacles and even transform disinterest into eager anticipation to learn.

Read Nehemiah 8:1-18
Consider all the words! Many have to do with the environment or packaging and in some way underscore or illustrate the message. Nothing was left to accident. Both the messenger and God himself (Ezra mentions the heavy rains) orchestrated this important occasion. God's Word was carefully packaged so that the hearers would never forget the occasion, the message, nor its meaning.

In this text from Nehemiah, the two rules I named above were kept in mind. We might find some of the text a little confusing or unclear, because we are not familiar with their situation. The last few verses reference the Feast of the Tabernacles. At this feast, people made themselves temporary dwellings, shelters of tree branches and grasses, providing a "camp meeting" type atmosphere that was ideally suited for such an occasion. Note how much emphasis was placed on conditions, environment, positioning of objects and persons etc. The primary objective was hearing God's Word, but everything was done to help the people UNDERSTAND and REMEMBER.

Imparting biblical knowledge is of utmost importance, but all too often in our churches, little effort is given to packaging, illustrating and clarification -- making the gospel message and God's Word understood and remembered. Our presentation of the most important message in the world must be clear, concise, convincing, convicting, memorable and capture the listener!

God created us with five senses. We can use them in delivery but we should also consider them as they affect the hearers. Monday night we had our Mission Committee meeting. Suddenly there was a loud explosion followed by a roar. Pastor and I rushed downstairs and saw tongues of fire, but it was not Pentecost Sunday! The door had blown off the furnace! In no way could we continue as if nothing had happened.

Many preachers view their ministry simply as putting food on the table. It is their job. They are happy to hear people say that they enjoyed the sermon and hope that no was offended.

It is frustrating when I hear a well-known speaker on the radio or TV say something that I strongly disagree with. They all have websites that sell books, tapes and CDs, and there is always an easy way to make online donations to the ministry. But seldom will you find any way to make personal contact with the preacher or evangelist. I have often listened to sermons in churches where something was not clear, but there was no opportunity given to ask questions or discuss the sermon. It is worse with books. Once they are published they are never corrected, which is why I like to keep my writings digital. And I always invite readers to critique or comment on what I write. 

If people refused to hear the gospel that the disciples preached, the latter were told to shake the dust off their feet as a testimony against them and move on to new territory. The consequences for those who reject God's message and his messenger are dramatic! Jesus said, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city (Mark 6:11). If we have not attempted to make the gospel message clear and understood, dare we shake the dust off our feet and leave the hearers to their fate?

Understanding God's Word is important, but there is much that we do not need to understand. I use electricity and technology nearly all the time, but don't understand it. Understanding is closely related to knowledge yet in some situations, the two can be almost entirely unrelated. When a child is sick, the mother may understand without knowing what is wrong. She understands the pain, the frustration and feelings of helplessness associated with sickness, but she takes her child to a doctor who knows what the problem is and can hopefully prescribe a cure.

Contextualization
And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? (Acts 8:30).

If you are around mission leaders for a while, you will hear this big word, but you still might not know what it means. Contextualization is the process of interpreting concepts in light of the times and environment of the listener so that he or she can understand. Unfortunately, some interpret scripture to fit their own personal worldview or philosophy of life and call it contextualization. It might better be called "situation ethics" or "political correctness."

Although sometimes controversial, contextualization remains a critical component of effective communication including preaching and teaching. The New Testament models the importance of proper contextualization in presenting the gospel. Foreign missionaries soon recognize the need for contextualization in other cultures and languages. Even in America there is need for a certain amount of this when sharing the gospel with the average person on the street.

We served 38 years as missionaries with Avant Ministries, formerly Gospel Missionary Union. Austrians were quite familiar with all three parts of our former mission name. "Gospel" was a style of music, "missionaries" went to uncivilized nations and "unions" were soccer teams. I was one of those who urged a name change.

One internet source states, "The gospel must be presented in terms that are easily understood, but truth must also remain distinct from untruth. So far, so good, but the statement then attempts to drag the reader into dangerous territory. This occurs in churches that understand the culture in which they function and adapt their methods to the preferences of that culture. Gospel truth is presented in a culturally relevant manner… In America, we sometimes see churches that refuse to adapt music or programs to the surrounding culture. Gospel truth remains, but it is set in a rigid framework that allows little room for creativity."

God says (1 Corinthians 1:18-25): For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Truth is sometimes presented with no regard for the background, experience or thinking of the hearer. Bible translators have long dealt with this problem. In some cultures, people have never seen snow, so some translators substitute words that the readers are familiar with. If a footnote is included giving the actual wording and explaining why a substitution was inserted, this may be legitimate, but I think the translators should rather add a footnote explaining what snow is like, using a locally familiar example. That is legitimate contextualization.

It is NOT always okay to "adapt music or programs to the surrounding culture!" I have written elsewhere on this subject and won't repeat it here other than to state the following. Culture is largely a product of a belief system. Animism produces fear, suspicion and violence. Islamic culture is vastly different from Christian, Jewish or even secularist cultures.

We have no idea what Jesus looked like, how his voice sounded or what gifts he possessed. We only know what he taught and what he did. God's Word needs merely to be shared verbally and demonstrated in the life of the messenger. Your life must effectively illustrate what you preach and teach. Jesus spent three years teaching his disciples and showing them how to live before he gave them the great commission.

Satan uses truth and good to accomplish his evil purposes, but the Bible says that he is the father of lies and master of deception. He referenced God's Word in tempting Adam and Eve and he quoted scripture when he tempted Jesus. He always paints pretty pictures of the "surrounding culture." Colossians 2:8 says, Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

Packaging the gospel is similar to making picture frames. I worked in an art gallery during my college years. My job was altering and making appropriate frames for valuable paintings. Some frames were hand carved with gold leaf application, but the frame had to be period-correct and not distract from the painting. I also made picture frames for a photo studio. At times, I had to explain these rules to parents who wanted a large, fancy frame for their child's simple crayon drawing.

The truth, God's Word, is never old fashioned or disposable, and we must be careful in choosing the appropriate packaging. So-called "educators" are now re-writing history books to make them politically correct and non-offensive. Ripping the gospel from its framework and placing it in a modern frame that appeals to the world is unacceptable. I have a problem with the popular children's video series called "Veggie Tales" for that reason. The gospel is presented as a fairy tale and kids accept it as such. When they get older, they leave Santa and Jesus for other "age-appropriate" interests.

The problem in "churches that refuse to adapt" is much like the situation with the Pharisees in New Testament times. It was their own traditions that were the problem. When we mix our own preferences and traditions with God's clear teaching, the truth is adulterated and becomes ineffective. The Pharisees even taught and practiced that which the Bible condemned! The primary reason why young people are leaving the church today is not because they reject the historical framework of the gospel, but rather because older Christians often insist on perpetrating their own cultural preferences and traditions as biblical truth.

Vernacular
A vernacular language is the native language dialect of a specific population. I first became aware of vernacular language after arriving in Europe and beginning to learn German in the University of Vienna. We learned high German but Austrians spoke local dialects. We had to learn and understand dialects, common idioms and slang expressions in everyday experience and conversation. There was no school that taught these things.

Decades later, Austrians, Germans and Swiss would frequently compliment me on my excellent command of the language, but my high German sounded much different from theirs. I was once the keynote speaker at a Bible Conference in Basel, Switzerland and had great difficulty understanding conversations of the Swiss believers in attendance. They all understood me perfectly, however, because "I spoke like radio announcers."

Christians also have developed a language of their own, and the meanings of many expressions or words that we use are often unknown or clouded to those outside Christian circles. Have you ever heard anyone use the words, "glorious," "righteous," "preach," "prayer" or "repentance" in a non-religious conversation? The difficulty of understanding is even greater when a word or expression is commonly used both secularly and "ecclesiastically" (add this word to the list) but with different meanings. If John is convicted of stealing savings from Grace, he may become a convict, but a thief under conviction may be close to saving grace.

Some "Christianese" is derived from New Testament Greek, but few Christians know the original meanings of these words. The word "ecclesiastical" presents a good example. The word is derived from the Greek (ekklésia) and refers to a gathering for some specific purpose. When the New Testament was written, the word had no religious connotation and could have referenced a political assembly, a theatre audience or any other gathering. In the New Testament, the word is generally translated, "church". Today, "church" may sometimes refer to church members, but it is more commonly thought of as a building used for religious meetings or a religious denomination.

Anything "ecumenical" is "anathema" to "born-again" Christians, but for "liberals" and "modernists," it has a positive "ecclesiastical" connotation. The word "ecumenical" is derived from the Greek (oikumene) and appears 19 times in the New Testament. The Greek oikumene is always a noun, most commonly translated "world": Ceasar Augustus decreed that the whole oikumene should be taxed; the gospel is to be preached to the oikumene; the oikumene worshipped the goddess Diana; the whole oikumene will be judged; Christians were accused of turning the oikumene upside down (Acts 17:6). Today, "Ecumenical" is always used as an adjective with little resemblance to its Greek origin. Modern usage denotes inter-faith relationships and cooperation.

You have perhaps noticed that people talk differently when they pray. We were once kneeling to pray with our little boys at bedtime and I suggested to our 4-year-old that he not bury his head in the pillow when praying because we couldn't understand what he was saying. He looked up with surprise and said, "I wasn't talking to you!"

Our early language blunders in German provided friends opportunities for laughter, but Austrian believers sometimes confounded us with certain expressions of their own. German-speaking Christians in the Baptist Church we attended always used reflexive pronouns when giving their testimonies. I will attempt to translate as best as I can. “Ich habe mich bekehrt" literally means, "I have converted myself." "Ich habe mich taufen lassen" means, I got myself baptized." "Ich habe mich der Gemeinde angeschlossen” means "I joined myself to the church." When I asked Christian friends why they used reflexive pronouns in describing these events, they admitted that they had never considered the matter. It was "just the way everyone said it."

I later discovered that there is a logical explanation for the above formulations. In pre-reformation Europe, people were almost universally Roman Catholic and never consciously experienced conversion, baptism or joining a church. The parents and priest took care of these matters while the baby slept, cried or attempted to grab the priest's "aspergillum" (see next paragraph). Even in Lutheran Churches, infants are immediately baptized and taken into membership. Only as "free churches" (non-State churches) became more common, did believers in these churches feel the need to show that conversion and Christian experience involved acts of personal volition; thus the introduction of reflexive pronouns.

The "aspergillum" is a liturgical implement used by a priest to sprinkle holy water. It is generally a perforated metal ball fastened to a wooden handle. Our daughter liked to go on trail rides with a local horse club. Once, a priest blessed all the horses by sprinkling them with what our 12-year-old daughter called a "honey dipper."

We once went to look at a rental apartment in Vienna and took our 3-year-old son along. He was fascinated with a crucifix on the wall and asked, "Who is that man?" We explained that it was Jesus, to which our son responded, "Oh, Jesus on an airplane!"

What people understand when they hear the gospel and Bible teaching is very important.

We now live in the USA and many young people are totally ignorant of the Christian vernacular. We take half a dozen neighborhood kids to our church's AWANA program on Wednesday evenings. They sometimes embarrass us with their language but it is the vocabulary they are familiar with. When they heard that the church was having a Thanksgiving service, four of the children talked their father into bringing them to the "feast." I had to explain to the kids and their father that Thanksgiving is a religious holiday for thanking God and not just a big meal.

I used the word "father" loosely in the last paragraph. Two children are his and two others belong to a woman he lives with. Only the baby belongs to both. They represent a "normal" family today. Ours is the abnormal one!

The Messenger
And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Matthew 7:28-29 KJV).

One summer, East Africa was facing its worst drought in 60 years, affecting millions of people. Thousands had already starved and weather reports gave no hope of relief. A missionary serving in that part of Africa called his church to special prayer meetings for the explicit purpose of asking God to send rain. When they arrived for the first prayer meeting, the pastor met them at the door and sent most of them home again. "Your hearts are not prepared. God will only hear the prayer of faith," he said. Some of them noted that the missionary had an umbrella and others who were allowed inside had brought their rain hats or other protection from the rain. Word spread, and before long, the church was filled with praying believers. After three nights of prayer meetings, God sent the much needed rain! It was a lesson the people would not soon forget!

The greatest hindrance to accepting the gospel is often the personal life and actions of the messenger. When our walk doesn't match our talk, we contradict or distort the gospel.

I have heard Christians declare that they cannot preach, teach or witness, yet they do it all the time! Our life broadcasts loudly and clearly to all who are within range. What many fail to recognize, is the fact that what we DON'T do or say is equally influential in both positive and negative ways.

Until I was 19, I had heard the gospel many times from hundreds of individuals, but I became skilled at finding fault with those who shared it with me. "Preachers and evangelists get paid well and only work a few hours per week," I told myself. I lived with Christian parents and knew their few faults well but I tried hard to ignore their otherwise faithful walk with God. They took me to prayer meetings when I was a child because they didn't want to miss and couldn't afford a baby sitter. As I grew older, they took me because they couldn't trust me at home alone. I came to view prayer meetings as opportunities for older members to show off their piety and spread the latest town gossip disguised as prayer requests. When Christians send a mixed message, listeners will mix it even more!

Someone in the military led a young soldier from our town to Christ and he began witnessing to me. I soon discovered that he was a chain smoker and countered his witness with that fact. I was smelling victory, but he quit smoking. His life began to underscore what he said.

Then I met a young man named Charlie Ashmen, who was trying to establish a Christian camp in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. I mentioned above that he was great at illustrating Bible truths. He was a hard worker, very gifted and showed genuine love and concern for young people. And he didn't get paid for it, nor was it his duty. He just cared. He not only cared for our souls and taught us scripture principles, but also took a genuine interest in our lives. He taught us how to use tools, helped us fix our cars, and asked questions about our future plans. He probably had faults, but I wasn't looking. In fact, I was probably hoping that I wouldn't find any.

From the time I was born, my parents took me to nearly every meeting of our church. It was not until I was a teenager, however, that someone witnessed to me. I was hitchhiking and a gentleman on his way to a Gideon Convention in Atlantic City picked me up. As he drove, he began asking me questions and sharing the gospel with me. I heard nothing new, but the fact that he cared about my relationship to God even though it was not his job, impressed me deeply.

Ralph V Harvey