Craig Bartholomew on the Heart of Biblical Religion

The possibilities and challenge of application in preaching are summed up in the phrase, “Land the plane!” I owe this provocative metaphor comparing a sermon to flying a plane to my friend, colleague, and rector, Ray David Glenn. It is not unusual for us to discuss in the days leading up to a Sunday how to land the text we are preaching on at St. Georges the coming Sunday. Through prayer, reflection, and hard exegetical work, we may have arrived at an understanding of the text, but how do we deliver that on Sunday in our particular context so that, through the preaching, we will hear God’s address to us today? How do we land the plane whose cargo is the living Word of God so that it is present and received as such by our congregations?

When we read Scripture, certain passages are what I call “nodal texts.” They are rich, dense, concentrated passages that, if explored carefully and fully, open up large swaths of Scripture and enable us to see the connections running through the Bible. One such “node” is Exodus 19:3–6, a passage that also nicely fits in with our flying metaphor. However, while in this passage the cargo is the people of God, in our broader metaphor of preaching as flying a plane, the cargo is the Word of God. Yahweh has rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and brought them to Mount Sinai, where he is about to establish a legally binding, covenant relationship between them and him, whereby he will be their God and they will be his people. At this poignant moment in this nodal text, Yahweh reviews what he has done for them and his plans for their future. In Exodus 19:4 Yahweh compares his rescue of the Israelites from Egypt to an eagle flying with her young on her back: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” This is a wonderfully intimate and evocative description of the exodus. And what safer airline to fly than Air Yahweh? Indeed, Yahweh has his own airline, which since Pentecost departs from every destination on the globe, but it only flies to one destination! “I brought you to myself.” 

Here we are at the very heart of what biblical religion is about: being brought to God. He is, himself, the destination. Jesus expresses this wonderfully clearly in John 17:3: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” “Eternal life” is easily misunderstood as life that continues forever, a type of immortality. The life that flows from being brought to God does indeed continue forever, but “eternal life” means more than that, as I first learned years ago from Leon Morris’ fine commentary on John.8 Eternal life is the life of the age to come and will only be understood correctly when read against the background of biblical eschatology. “Eschatology” refers to the doctrine of the last things. In some circles it is used to refer to the signs of the second coming; I use it here to refer to the end times, but in the sense that with the coming of Christ the end time has already broken into history. In Jesus’ day the Jews eagerly looked forward to the breaking-in of the end time, the eschaton, when God would vanquish his enemies and remove evil from creation. The New Testament assumes such a view but with a vital difference: The age to come, the kingdom of God, has already come in Jesus and will be consummated when he returns in glory. Thus, from a New Testament perspective, we are already living in the end times! The Gospel of John uses the language of “the kingdom of God” sparingly, and one of John’s synonyms for it is “eternal life.” Thus eternal life is far more than life that goes on forever. It is life as God intended it to be, the life of the kingdom of God, which has already broken into history and is available freely in Jesus.

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Adapted from Excellent Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel in Its Context and Ours by Craig Bartholomew. This title is now available in all formats—get your copy today!