“Unanswered Questions” (Matariki whakāro)

When my GP invited me to “join us for Matariki” at his family practice to give a “small scripture sharing”, I initially didn’t want to do it! In our cultural moment, it’s not always welcomed when Tāngata Tiriti (people here by right of the Treaty of Waitangi) speak for Māori about their customs and values. Nevertheless, the Lord rebuked me from 2 Timothy 4:5: “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” So I showed up at Meadowbank Medical yesterday without my community services card but rather, with a guitar and Bible in hand.

It turned out to be a beautiful time. The hangi was delicious, the chats were appreciative, and I was even roped in to sing “Tutira mai nga iwi” together! Significantly, one of the members of our church (Billy Davis, Ngāti Porou) kindly offered to join me in sharing about what Matariki means to Māori. For my part, I used my time as an opportunity to share from Job 38:31 to the dozen or so GPs, nurses, and healthcare professionals about the unanswered questions that confront us, the wisdom of pondering on Matariki like God challenges Job to do in this verse, and of the joy that stargazing brought to some wise men many years later. I’m still working on the art and craft of being gentle, respectful and persuasive among non-Christian audiences (especially as a novice learner of all things Māori). So feel free to let me know how this 8-minute whakāro (thought) from this whakatauki (saying) speaks to you!

“Unanswered Questions” (Job 38:31), 27.6.24, Meadowbank Medical Centre Matariki Celebration

Tēnā koutou e te whānau Ōrakei, (Greetings Meadowbank family)

ko Maungarei te maunga, (Mt Wellington is the mountain)…

ko Tāmaki te awa, (Tāmaki is the river)…

Kei te noho au ki Tāmaki Makaurau, ki Pakuranga, (I live in Auckland, in Pakuranga)…

nō Taina, Taiwana me Marēhia ōku tīpuna; (China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Aotearoa is my ancestry)

ko Wiremu tōku ingoa; (my name is William)

… and most times I’m here as Dr Choonwei’s patient, but today he’s asked me to give a short whakāro (thought) on Matariki. I do so as Tangati Tiriti (non-Māori), and a Christian minister from Te Hahi Iriiri, the Baptist Churches of Aotearoa. Billy and I are both part of Pakuranga Chinese Baptist Church not far from here – with a number of our members also enrolled at MMC, we are supporters of Manaaki Healthcare and your kaupapa.

(No one wants kai that’s cold, and it’ll be great to hear some of your thoughts on what Matariki means to you. So I promise to stay under single consult length!)

Whatever your faith background, all of us can embrace Matariki at some level. We all love a long weekend (though perhaps not the emails afterwards). Some of us will try out some stargazing, or spend time appreciating our country’s Māori heritage.

And as people who care deeply about health and wellbeing, we will resonate with some themes of Matariki: honouring those who have died, giving thanks for seasons past, asking questions about about the road ahead.

[Questions ahead]

Matariki may be our newest public holiday, but the questions around this season are as old as time itself. Granted, sometimes we Christians don’t do ourselves any favours by acting like we “always have the answers” from this 2000-year old book called the Bible. So I find it really interesting that one of the three times the Bible names Matariki itself, it comes not as an answer, but as a question.

Let me read out Job 38:31 with you, it says:

“E taea rānei e koe te here te huihui o Matariki, e wewete rānei ngā here o Tautoru?”

“Can you bind the chains of Matariki? Or loose the cords of Orion?”

It’s obviously not the typical question you’d hear in a consultation room! But it’s worse than you think. Some of us here get worried about consults going overtime, but be thankful Job’s not enrolled in your practice: his problems were too many to count! He lost his fortune, his children died in a storm – and he got an incurable rash! So yes, Job naturally had a lot of questions for God.

It’s always nice to give clients clarity, and patients good answers. (Dr Luke’s latest answer is caffeine for pain relief!) But when God finally shows up in chapter 38, He gives Job no answers – just a barrage of questions, including this one: Can you tie up Matariki’s chains? Or undo Orion’s belt?

Maybe we can relate to poor Job. Suffering can seem like a riddle. Perhaps this Matariki you have similar unanswered questions. In my line of work, there’s been many a time where I’ve driven home with unanswerable questions. Why did it have to be stage 4 cancer? Why this family and not that one?

[No easy answers]

One thing we learn from this whakatauki (saying) on Matariki is that it’s OK to not have answers straight away. It might seem odd to question the limits of our knowledge: I’m sure your patients don’t walk in thinking: “I need to see a doctor who doesn’t have all the answers!” But Matariki should humble us. Can you bind those stars? No! None of us are good at everything. I may be familiar with the Bible, but I can’t auscultate for chips. You’re some of the smartest people serving in Meadowbank, yet you still google for help during some of your cases! It’s OK not to have all the answers straight away. So this Matariki, I plan to fly kites with my kids and leave the messages unread. We can enjoy some rest this holiday, even if our to-do lists are unfinished. You can have a coffee with a struggling friend, leave their tough questions unanswered, and just be present.

Job’s whirlwind encounter with God didn’t turn him into an expert. Yet he was transformed. While Job never got all his questions answered (and nor do we), the next time he saw Matariki rising, he was wiser from his encounter with Te Ihōwa Atua, the LORD God who made the stars (Gen 1:17) and asks this simple question:

E taea rānei e koe te here te huihui o Matariki?
Can you bind the chains of Matariki?

[One stellar answer]

Every time I gaze into the stars on my morning run, I have many unanswered questions. Yet I see the fingerprints of a Maker who loves me and sent His Son to rescue me.

Because many generations after Job’s Matariki moment, a different star led some wise men to the town of Bethlehem. Some of you will know this story. But in this Middle Eastern town still surrounded by soldiers today, the night sky gave one answer to the many questions these magi had. “Where is the King?” they had asked. “For we have come to worship him” (Mt 2:2).

But instead of a god of their own imagining, they come face to face with the boy Jesus. Ihu Karaiti. Descended from kings. A “Bright Star” for dark times: born in Bethlehem, lived in Galilee, died in Jerusalem, rose again to give life everlasting. For Christians, this Jesus is the Bright Morning Star. Our Matariki. “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” (Mt 2:10) And if joy sounds too good to be true, talk to someone about it. Find a Wayfinder for your spiritual journey. Can we bind the chains of Matariki? No. But can they point us to the King of Kings? Can I encourage you, don’t leave that question unanswered. Ngā mihi o Matariki, te tau hou Māori. Tēnā koutou.

For Reflection:

  1. How will you enjoy this Matariki holiday? What will you leave unfinished and unanswered to do so?
  2. What hard questions are you facing in your practice / family / life? What will help you, like Job, be OK about not having all the answers?
  3. How can the stars (or who they point to) humble you or change your perspective?

Those worthy of double honour

This year marks 21 years since I first heard the good news about Jesus. (For reference, I’ve been celebrating / complaining about Arsenal for longer!)

Like many who come to find Jesus beautiful and believable out of a non-Christian upbringing, I’ve never fit completely into one “tribe”. I’m convinced the gospel is of first importance, that salvation is wholly God’s gracious gift, that the Baptist family of churches have much to offer our watching world, and that old and new confessions of faith beautifully articulate what the Christian life is to be rooted in. After reflecting and meditating on a passage from 1 Timothy 5:17-25 and preaching it recently at Carey Baptist College’s student chapel, I’ve realised that one constant kindness from the Lord throughout my Christian walk has been the presence of least one older couple who have willingly opened up to Cheryl and I their life and family to us in honest and hope-filled ways.

I think it’s significant that in the midst of a whole host of church planting problems, the Apostle Paul doesn’t exhort young Timothy: “Go find a tribe of _____ists to ally with.” Nor does he say “You need to join the _____ed bunch”. And not “Go look for some ______ian Christians to side with.” Rather, through 1 Timothy, Paul tells him to guard the gospel, identify and seek out godly leaders… and then to honour them. “Let the elders who lead beautifully be worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17).

These past few weeks, I’ve been challenged to keep seeking out older mentors to help me run the race well without bias, hurry, or fear of what others think. At the same time, I don’t often thank those who have laboured in the Word and teaching over the years, so that my soul is full of hope in the gospel for others to glean. Time would fail to tell of all the πρεσβύτεροι who have mentored me. But here are some of them.

Thank you John. From our first Sunday halfway through the book of Ephesians (still my favourite letter), I learned how to enjoy walking through the Word and the beauty of no nonsense expository preaching from you and walking us from “milk” to “meat” in the Bible. You baptised me as a baby Christian, and together with Mihyon helped to lift my eyes and trace the hidden hand of God after losing mum at 19. Nor were you afraid to rebuke me for my youthful immaturity and lack of patience in the tearful ministry of church planting. Grace Baptist Church may no longer be around, but your passion for the gospel and heart for the lost still echoes in me today. And thanks for teaching me to throw an American football the Philip Rivers way!

Thank you Peter. After our first visit to Howick Baptist in 2008, Cheryl and I peppered you with questions about what the church’s position was on a bunch of things as we “reviewed” different churches. Yet in reality, deep down I knew your unflinching exposition of 1 Corinthians that day couldn’t be the last sermon we sat under. We still miss the sermons you laboured to write each week (late into those Thursday nights!), and so appreciate the way you and Francelle still seek to magnify Jesus through the Word each week at Grace Church Nelson.

Thank you Calvyn for taking a young not-yet-married couple under your wing. Your Ephesians 2 sermon was a shock to the oldies but still reminds me not to trash God’s grace even today. Thanks for taking our wedding in 2010, even though it was your first (and last!) at HBC. We love seeing how you and Alice continue to bless others at Whanganui East Baptist. When Paul says overseers and deacons are to be “hospitable“, you’re the first family that come to mind (and not just because you now run a B&B as a “side hustle!”)

Thank you Joe. You and Mandy shared not only the gospel but your whole lives with us through our mid 20’s. You kept pointing us to Christ through every area of our lives. You willingly walked through one of the deepest valleys our family experienced. Hearing Psalm 130 from you that one Sunday still gives me hope today that in the depths of woe, I can still trust in the LORD’s plentiful redemption. What I didn’t realise at the time was that over the years, you kept conveniently “placing” godly people into our paths who would keep bringing up the “have you considered full-time ministry” question (not even conference speakers were off-limits to your schemes!). Yet it was a question that we mostly ignored (that one “dream” aside), until we saw you and your family take up your crosses and follow Jesus to join the Harvest in Rolleston, and finally realised that the labourers were few. It’s a wonderful providence that among the “Foundations” boys who met at your place Sunday afternoons, nearly all of us are now ministry leaders here and overseas. Rolleston Baptist is so, so blessed to have you as their pastor.

Thank you Richard. I learned from you how powerful old-fashioned visitation and prayer ministry was. Thanks for letting me shadow you as an “intern” even when it was mostly us shooting the breeze over a Muzza’s pie or two (contrary to our wives’ health advice). I won’t forget how freely you preached at your first Easter at HBC: “τετέλεσται! It is finished!” (John 19:30) Thank for you for sending us out for ministry, for being a living sacrifice to your wife, and for showing me that the sermon can wait when brothers and sisters need our care. You still never taught me to fish, but I’m glad you’ll have more time to do so now you’re second-in-charge. Enjoy semi-retirement and the granddad years.

Thank you Tim. Our aim was to survive three years in Sydney soaking up everything at seminary, but we left indelibly shaped by your wise and gentle pastoring at Petersham Baptist. You were willing to invest in Cheryl and my life deeply. Yet you were not afraid to call out the “Bible college” hubris that barged into the student pastor sermons you faithfully gave feedback for. The day you lovingly rebuked an error in the middle of community news with the gentleness of Christ I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I caught from you that in preaching, mastering the content AND being concise brings clarity that blesses the congregation. I also learned how crucial it is to think of our most vulnerable at church, and that tone matters just as much as theology when we preach to the weary wounded.

And of course, thank you Albert. You first met me as a troublemaking 17 year old causing cross-cultural havoc at your Cantonese-speaking youth group. Over 20 years of ministry later, you have not given up being faithful to your calling, and I now have the privilege of being a fellow shepherd in the same church family and labouring in preaching and teaching together. Thanks for your trust. To serve together is an honour.


“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching.” (1 Timothy 5:17)

How to speak in “tongues”: lessons from 1st century Corinth and the Chinese diaspora church

When translators of the Chinese Union Mandarin Version of the Bible first published the New Testament in 1907, they chose 方言 (fāngyán) to render the word γλῶσσα (glōssa) throughout 1 Corinthians 12-14. What does the word mean exactly? How can we encourage each other to “speak in tongues” more fruitfully, particularly in bilingual and multilingual church contexts?

Thanks to the team at MDPI, some long-form thoughts of mine on this topic have just been published in their Religions journal: https://mdpi.com/2691920.

The subject of this paper was inspired by our church’s cross-cultural journey through 1 Corinthians last year. (While I am pursuing postgraduate studies in New Testament theology, my PhD thesis will focus on delimitation criticism, a different area of Biblical studies). I’m grateful to the attendees at the 2023 Aotearoa New Zealand Association for Biblical Studies conference for the constructive feedback, my PhD supervisor for supporting this research tangent, and to friends, family and fellow scholars who critiqued and improved my (still imperfect) musings significantly.

If you’re interested, I’ve quoted the abstract of this paper, and summarised some practical applications below:

“…What did the Apostle Paul mean exactly when saying to Christians in Corinth: “I give thanks to God that I speak in fangyan (方言) more than you all” (1 Corinthians 14:18)?

Debates regarding Chinese Christian terminology are as old as the task of Bible translation in China, with no example more prominent than the “Term Question” (i.e., what Chinese term most suitably expressed “God”)… At stake when a Christian addressed “God” as shangdi (上帝) or shen (神) was not just a stylistic preference, but “whether Chinese were monotheists, polytheists or pantheists; whether there was the belief in Creation; whether the Chinese had the “idea of God”; what exactly was the nature and content of Chinese religion”, and more (Eber 1999, p. 135).

This paper presumes that exploring the fangyan question—what precisely should be meant by this biblical term—also has an important role to play in shaping Chinese Christianity today. By engaging with both the biblical text and its Chinese translation, I will argue that understanding Paul’s instructions regarding γλῶσσα/方言 within the context of a multilingual Christian worship culture strengthens the definition of γλῶσσα as languages used and understood among inhabitants of first century Corinth, and may offer more fruitful and relevant application to religious communities like it today…”

After arguing from a close reading of 1 Corinthians 12-14 in Biblical Greek, Mandarin and English, I try to point out the similarities between first-century Corinth’s cosmopolitan and multilingual setting and the many diaspora Chinese churches today. From there, I suggest three main areas of application when we read glōssa/fāngyán as human languages Paul and the Corinthian church knew and spoke:

  1. Translation and explanation during gathered worship. Diaspora churches with first- and second-generation members should recognise the problem of compartmentalisation between high and low varieties of language during their worship services. For example, in most Chinese churches it remains commonplace for the Mandarin CUV translation (now over 100 years old) to be preferred in readings, prayers, and liturgy, even if the preaching and singing are conducted in an entirely different vernacular such as Cantonese, present-day Mandarin, or English. However, without translating “formal” varieties of language into a “common tongue”, church members risk become engaged in prayer that is cognitively unfruitful as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:14. Multilingual and multigenerational Chinese churches in particular should prioritise and pray for Spirit-empowered wisdom, seeking ways to translate and retranslate for each other so that everyone is edified when meeting together.
  2. Global missions. Understanding glōssa/fāngyán with a multilingual Corinthian lens may also help to reshape the Chinese church’s global missions strategy. Despite ongoing opposition, today there are “myriads” of Chinese missionaries retracing either the ancient Silk Road or today’s Belt and Road in order to fulfil the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19–20). Could they benefit from praying for and seeking the grace gift of speaking in other known languages? Even within China, there remains a pressing need for Mandarin-speaking churches to consider the linguistic needs of the millions of “minority” people groups whose “dreams and visions” are shaped through myriads of fāngyán found throughout the country. Returning to a “missionary-expansion” understanding of the term fāngyán may serve the needs of these overlooked ethnolinguistic groups.
  3. “First nations” language and culture. Paul’s instructions aren’t limited to multilingual worship contexts in Chinese churches. In many Western countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA, there is a growing awareness and practice of incorporating the language and culture of indigenous or “first nations” people into the life of the church. While speaking in indigenous glōssa/fāngyán adds richness and diversity to Christian worship, Paul’s advice as a multilingual practitioner himself is to conduct it with sensitivity to those of different linguistic abilities and an attitude of love.

For those with the courage to wade through all 6000 words of the article, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback!


1 Corinthians 14:39-40

ὥστε, ἀδελφοί μου, ζηλοῦτε τὸ προφητεύειν καὶ τὸ λαλεῖν μὴ κωλύετε γλώσσαις· πάντα δὲ εὐσχημόνως καὶ κατὰ τάξιν γινέσθω. (“So then, my brothers and sisters, be zealous to prophesy and don’t forbid speaking in glōssa; and let all things be done with beauty and order.”)

Thoughts on preaching Ruth from the Hebrew text

The book of Ruth is a perennial favourite in women’s bible studies, retreats and devotional material. Much of it unfortunately preaches a gospel of prosperity though – “go find your Boaz” and other similar summaries abound. Is Ruth really about a harvest-time romance? Or is there more going on in this ancient tale?

Our immigrant church recently had the joy of preaching through Ruth’s story over 4 weeks. What we found was a timeless immigrant story that showed God’s redeeming love through the faith of courageous individuals. Naomi follows her family to the fields of Moab but experiences tragedy and bitterness. Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law, has never been to the “Promised Land” but by faith courageously cleaves to Naomi (1:14) as they return to Bethlehem (literally “the house of bread”). Back here, Ruth chances upon the field of Boaz while gleaning for food to survive. He invites her to “stick closely” or “cleave” to his workers in the harvest field for blessing and protection (2:8, 2:21). After the harvest, Naomi actively seeks for an opportunity to provide “rest” for her daughter-in-law (3:1), Ruth daringly proposes marriage to Boaz in the night, and he swiftly becomes their willing guardian-redeemer at great cost to himself. The author concludes with the women of Bethlehem praising God for providing Naomi with a grandson and not bringing her family line to “rest” (4:14). The rest is “His story”….

While Ruth is a great book that explores themes like suffering, faithfulness, love and the immigrant experience, reading it again reminded me how God’s redemptive plan for his people ultimately comes through Christ our “guardian-redeemer” – someone willing to cling to us with loyal love through his death and resurrection for our sins.

In preparation for the series, I appreciated reading Ruth in Biblical Hebrew alongside two gifted sisters (both starting / finishing their PhDs and very sharp thinkers when it comes to the world of Old Testament and Hebrew!) On the text itself, there are lots of helpful guides out there including fellow alumnus Peter Lau’s NICOT volume on Ruth published this year. I found the most practical for preachers was Teaching Ruth and Esther: From Text to Message by Christopher Ash (from the Proclamation Trust series).

For preachers, bible study leaders and keen readers, here’s a few thoughts on preaching Ruth from the Hebrew text in no particular order:

  • Firstly, you can do it! If you’ve completed an introductory Biblical Hebrew course (e.g. Daily Dose of Hebrew’s free lessons keyed to Mark Futato’s grammar), recently or in the distant past, Ruth is a very suitable book to see first-hand the value of translating and teaching from the Hebrew text. It’s a biblical narrative with lots of first-year Hebrew vocabulary, the story gives you lots of practice with feminine parts of speech and word forms, and there are plenty of exegetical payoffs. For the less-confident and rusty (like me!), there are plenty of language-related helps out there from the likes of Aleph with Beth (free), Lingua Deo Gloria (free) and GlossaHouse (paid) to help you enjoy Ruth in the brilliant colours of Biblical Hebrew.
  • While Christians typically assume Ruth to be one of the “historical books”, this is an unfortunate result of the canonical tradition inherited from the Latin Vulgate. The earliest Hebrew manuscripts placed Ruth not between history books like Judges and 1 Samuel, but alongside Lamentations, Esther, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (as the five Megillot or “scrolls”), and adjacent to other wisdom literature like the Psalms, Proverbs and Job. That’s good reason to preach Ruth as wisdom narrative (like Esther and Job).
  • Contrary to the stereotypical view of Ruth’s story, the only mention of “love” in the Hebrew text is in the final verses when the women praise Naomi for her daughter-in-law, “who loves you…” (4:15; the phrase “made love” in the NIV translation of 4:13 is better translated as “they came together”, e.g. NRSV). The greatest love story in the book of Ruth isn’t a romantic or sexual love between a man and a woman: it’s the loyal love between a mother and her daughter-in-law. This fact alone should reframe how we present this book to our sex and relationship-obsessed world. Ruth has much to offer to both married and unmarried, both young and old.
  • Needless to say, it’s therefore a wrong turn to present Ruth as a “how-to” on dating and romantic relationships. Despite the well-intentioned hopes of church members keen to set up “Ruths” in their church with guys like “Boaz”, unless you live in the time of the judges and live in a family clan that obligates you to ancient Near Eastern customs of levirate marriage (e.g. Genesis 38) and Israelite property redemption (e.g. Leviticus 25:25), what’s described in Ruth should not be prescribed without first considering what the text actually says. The fact is that Boaz (an older man based on how he describes everyone in his field as “young man” or “young women”) explicitly states his reason for marrying Ruth twice: “to maintain the name of the dead [Elimelek, Naomi’s former husband]… so that his name will not disappear…” (4:5, 4:10). Consider too that the climax of the story isn’t Ruth’s wedding: it’s King David’s family tree and the greater blessings that come from his royal line.
  • Rather, having spent a fair bit of time in the book of Job previously, I found it especially comforting personally and pastorally helpful to read the book as “Naomi’s story”, and to consider this book as the Bible’s feminine counterpart to the book of Job. No story of suffering is identical, yet I don’t think it’s a stretch to draw connections between Naomi and Job: both share stories of suffering and bitterness, and both end with restoration and redemption, and the main protagonist gaining a renewed vision of the LORD. The book of Ruth is far richer taught as a story of redeeming love amidst great suffering than a saccharine “boy meets girl” adventure.
  • On structuring a sermon series, the traditional chapters work well. I found it interesting how each chapter features a particular posture: there’s a lot of “walking” in chapter 1, lots of “coming” / “going” in chapter 2, lots of “lying” / “lying down” in chapter 3, and lots of “sitting” in chapter 4. The author seems to invite us to view Ruth’s story as poetry in motion, over four parts.
  • There’s a beautiful symmetry to the story that’s worth highlighting as you travel through the book. Ruth 1 and 4 bookend Naomi’s narrative arc, and emphasise her story arc from bitter and broken after a decade of loss in the “fields of Moab”, to full and satisfied after returning to the land of God’s promises. It’s also worth contrasting Ruth 2 and 3: in one chapter the scene describes immediate provision and loving-kindness out in the open field, the next scene shows the offer of permanent provision and loving-kindness in the more intimate space of the threshing floor.
  • While most of God’s activity is implicit, the author explicitly highlights the LORD’s sovereign hand twice: at the start, when He “visits his people” with food (1:6), and at the end when he brings a miraculous conception to a previously childless woman (4:13). Both are wonderful gospel themes fully expressed in the incarnation of Christ, who visits us in the flesh through a miraculous conception to the virgin Mary (Matthew 1:18-25).
  • The author repeats a number of Hebrew words that serve as key themes of this book. For example: 1) the word שׁוב (“turn”, “return”) punctuates the opening chapter 11 times as Naomi struggles with which way she and her daughters-in-law should “turn” in the opening episode; 2) the word חֵן (“favour”, “grace”) occurs 3 times and all in chapter 2 to emphasise that is exactly what Naomi and Ruth find when they return to the land of promise.
  • Other thematically significant words and ideas include דבק (“stick closely”, “cleave”; 1:14, 2:8, 2:21), חֶסֶד (“loving kindness” / “loyal love”; 2:20, 3:10), and the idea of rest (מָנ֖וֹחַ in Ruth 3:1, הִשְׁבִּ֥ית in 4:14). My favourite Hebrew language insight is that Boaz’s desire to “to raise up” descendants (לְהָקִ֥ים in Ruth 3:5 and 3:10) is the same root word Job uses to express his hope for a Redeemer who will “arise” or “stand” upon the earth (יָקֽוּם in Job 19:25). This “resurrection” hope becomes a reality when King Jesus walks the earth, goes to the cross, lies in the tomb, and finally sits at the right hand of God. The gospel, too, is poetry in motion from a Redeeming Love who was “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).
  • The variety of themes in the book of Ruth means it’s possible to preach Christ from the book of Ruth in a number of ways each time. Of course, the genealogy that closes the book can simply be extended further via Matthew 1 to show Jesus as the ultimate King that Ruth’s redemption leads to. But there is also: 1) the theme of immigrating physically (and spiritually) to God’s promised place in chapter 1, and the necessity for us to “turn” to God’s promises and cling to Him by faith; 2) the theme of finding a redeemer in God’s promised place in chapter 2, and the possibility of a greater redeemer than Boaz; 3) the intimacy of the marriage and redemptive proposal in chapter 3, and the greater union we that’s been promised to us through the new covenant that Christ proposes (and completes!) for His beloved Bride, the church (c.f. Eph. 5:31-32); 4) the costly sacrifice that Naomi and Ruth’s redemption requires (the loss of Boaz’s estate), which is a great opportunity to preach the infinitely costly sacrifice God the Son made on the cross for our sins.

Our church considered Ruth over 4 sermons. If you’re interested, you can also listen to and download them on Spotify, Apple and elsewhere.

Thoughts on preaching the book of 1 Corinthians

In some Christian circles, it’s popular to look up the advice of “experts” and “consultants” for help with church planting, worship, preaching and strategy. Yet imagine if you could overhear a conversation between a young church plant in a strategic city, and the pastor and preacher who helped found their church. How helpful would that be?

Our church had the privilege of exactly this as we recently completed a sermon series through the book of 1 Corinthians called “Christ Amid Chaos”. Over six months, we heard directly how similar the church in Corinth was to ours today: gifted, but worldly. Diverse, but divided. Yet despite their (and our!) numerous issues, Paul’s words of love and affection were so helpful in calling us to follow Jesus alone (not other preachers), and to live holy lives. After first hearing an expository sermon series from this book in 2008 as a young follower of Jesus, I found it a huge privilege 15 years on to help guide our young English-speaking congregation through the gospel-saturated wisdom from this part of God’s Word.

To prepare for this sermon series, I translated 1 Corinthians from the Greek NT text (with occasional peeks at the Chinese Union Version / 和合本 for the sake of our more Chinese brothers and sisters). On the text, among the many available commentaries on 1 Corinthians, I found Andrew Wilson’s “1 Corinthians for You” commentary the most helpful and accessible for busy pastors, with Gordon Fee’s magisterial commentary helpful on the details. Andrew Naselli’s contribution in the ESV Expository Commentary was also helpful (and supported by his diligently prepared recitation of the whole letter from memory!)

Around the area of spiritual gifts, I found Don Carson’s “Showing the Spirit” unmatched for depth and breadth on exegetical and pastoral issues (if a bit dated regarding recent trends among Pentecostal and Charismatic movements). On the perplexing and sometimes heated discussions around women in the church of Corinth, I was most grateful for the perspectives from Claire Smith (“God’s Good Design”), Kathy Keller, Michael Bird and Craig Keener (arranged here roughly along the complementarian-egalitarian spectrum). There’s definitely less scholarship out there on 1 Corinthians from non-Western perspectives, so I look forward to keep discovering and learning in future!

For preachers, bible study leaders and keen readers, here’s a few thoughts and tips in no particular order:

  • The questions in this book raise a lot of questions and difficult pastoral issues: interpersonal conflict, unrepentant sin, division, sexual immorality, singleness and marriage, eating and drinking, and worship culture. Be prepared to follow up your sermons or studies with time and willingness to chat with those who are struggling with personal or pastoral issues. The goal is not to condemn each other but to lift our collective gaze to our faithful God, who calls his holy people into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:9).
  • Paul saves his most important point to the end: it is the gospel that is of first importance (1 Cor 15:3-4), and the answer to our holiness amidst a messy church in a messy world. I made the most of this fact by preaching the gospel every time I could, and showing how the gospel is both the power and pattern for us to live as holy people in Christ. (A bonus was helping the kids in our church learn and recite this memory verse!)
  • One key insight for interpreting 1 Corinthians for me was to realise that the church in Corinth was young, cross-cultural, and multilingual — just like ours. This helped me to better connect Paul’s teachings to the actual issues and tensions faced by our immigrant church, situated in a cosmopolitan city like 1st-century Corinth.
  • 1 Corinthians is a fairly lengthy letter (after Romans, it’s the longest letter in the New Testament) – so introducing some variety into the preaching schedule and format may help your congregation make it through edified rather than exhausted. I was especially grateful that in the Lord’s providence, I could call on some fellow pastors also journeying through 1 Corinthians this year for advice on exegetical and pastoral issues, but also to guest preach some of the chapters in the series faithfully and reliably.
  • Another way to add variation to a 6-month sermon series is to employ different preaching styles and structures. As much as I treasure and prefer Jesus’s style of expositing the Scriptures (c.f. Luke 24:27) as the bread and butter of pastoral preaching, it can get wearisome without some creativity. Some ways I tried to vary my preaching style included a first-person narrative sermon (“Am I Not An Apostle?”, 1 Cor 9), a sermon structured around an extended Corinth x Barbie crossover to explain women in worship (1 Cor 14:26-40), and an 8-minute sermon preached mostly ex tempore to close off the series. Not everything worked perfectly, but perhaps that’s to help us see “foolishness” of the gospel in the world’s eyes, but the greater wisdom of Christ amidst this.
  • Concerning spiritual gifts, I found it helpful to flag to our leaders up front my own convictions on 1 Corinthians 12-14 regarding the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and why. Prior to starting a “mini-series” on these chapters (“Spectacular Church”), I prepared an internal Q&A outlining my stance on various questions, and our pastors gathered as a preaching team to discuss areas of agreement and difference (almost unheard of in a Chinese church!) Doing this helped us to preach through this very contested portion of God’s Word in a way that honoured Paul’s own approach: offering pastoral wisdom so as the church in Corinth was not uninformed (1 Cor 12:1), yet making the basis of our unity as a church the belief that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3) and in His gospel “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3-4), rather than a particular view of spiritual gifts.
  • Finally, because of the pastoral and conversational nature of this letter, we offered the church multiple opportunities to ask questions about what they were hearing, culminating in a 30-minute Q&A panel (PDF version here). In our church the questions mostly revolved around spiritual gifts, but our hope was not just that we answered people’s questions, but did so in a gracious way that edified everyone in our worship services (the heartbeat of Paul’s advice in 1 Cor 12-14).

We considered 1 Corinthians over 26 sermons (for 1 Corinthians 12-14, we looked at it over 5 sermons). If you’re interested, you can also listen to and download them on Spotify, Apple and elsewhere.