Exegesis and Mission
2011 revision of an article originally published in the January 3, 2003 issue of Clarion.
By the grace of God, missionaries are privileged men. They have the singular privilege of seeing lives changed by the power of God working through his Word and Spirit. “And such were some of you,” said Paul to former Corinthian fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals and thieves (1 Cor. 6:11). Ministers working in the regular ministry sometimes have the opportunity to see before their eyes that miracle of a new creation –outsiders or perhaps hypocrites converted to the Lord Jesus Christ. However, missionaries see this more often, maybe even as the norm of their ministry. This miracle of the new life is normally effected through the preaching of the Word.
Missionaries are in the first place preachers. Says the Form for Ordination for Missionaries, “…a missionary shall first of all preach the Word of God to those who are without Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise.” Having said that, it must be realized that not all missionaries approach their preaching task in the same way. Many missionaries give the same attention to their mission sermons that a minister in a regular congregation would. Others perhaps give less. They may reason that a missionary only preaches a simple message and thus less work is needed for the sermon. Moreover, the missionary life is very busy, especially in developing relationships and instructing or counselling people on an individual basis. The average missionary may not have the same amount of time available for study as would the regular minister. A different ministry means a different approach to preaching.
This is not simply an academic question. If it is true that the missionary requires less work for his sermon, then we could also lower the requirements for our missionaries. Why do they need over eight years of post-secondary training if they are not fully utilizing their education? And how many missionaries haven’t been told that they are wasting their gifts by working in their given field instead of in an established church? There is a popular view that anybody can be a missionary. It does not take a someone with an extensive theological education. Anybody can board a wide-body jet, fly several hours, and arrive at a mission field and begin working. They may even take the title of “missionary” for themselves.
This issue, therefore, revolves around two questions. First, how important is exegesis for preaching? Second, how important is the office of ‘missionary’? Are our past approaches to these questions simply part of a tradition we have outgrown? Or is there more at stake?
How important is exegesis?
Let’s first address the question of exegesis. What is exegesis? It’s something that all the regular ministers in our churches do in a regular work week. They sit down in front of the Scriptures and they wrestle with the text. They translate the Greek or Hebrew. They work to understand the grammar. They plot the structure of the text and analyze it carefully. They make careful study of the important words and phrases in the original text, comparing Scripture with Scripture. Nearly done, they formulate their own conclusions as to the meaning of the text. Then they consult commentaries to compare their exegesis with the conclusions that others have reached. It’s only at this point, after much labour, that a minister is ready to move on to preparing the sermon.
Is this whole process biblical? Is this necessary? Aren’t there many people in the congregation who could study a Bible passage and make a sermon just as well as the minister? Let’s consider what God says through Paul in 1 Timothy 4:13-15,
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.
Timothy, a pioneer minister, was encouraged by Paul to devote himself to the task of preaching and teaching. He wasn’t supposed to go and preach off the cuff. He was to prepare. A devoted teacher just doesn’t show up in the classroom. He prepares for class – so also preachers diligently prepare for preaching.
This is implied also in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” This means that Timothy was to be careful with the Word of God. He could not go and present his own opinion. He had to be absolutely certain that his words when he preached were the Word of God. This becomes even more crucial when it is realized that preachers are ambassadors of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). An ambassador or herald in the ancient world could not bring his own opinion – it had to be the message with which he was sent.
It should also be noted that Timothy’s task included an evangelistic component. According to 2 Timothy 4, his work included convincing and doing the work of an evangelist. Timothy was not exclusively a missionary, but his work did involve a missionary aspect. Nowhere did Paul make a distinction between preparing to preach to believers and preparing to preach to unbelievers. In both instances, Timothy had to be careful with the Word of God and he had to be devoted to the task of preaching. Therefore, all preaching today, whether to believers or unbelievers, must be based on sound, careful, and thorough exegesis. It only follows, then, that missionaries need to have the proper theological training to engage in this rigorous exegesis.
How important is office?
That leads us into our second question concerning the importance of the office of ‘missionary.’ Actually, here we have to make a distinction. In our churches, there is no office of missionary. There is an office of ministers of the Word. However, some of these ministers have been set apart as missionaries and some as professors. These are ministers with a special task.
What we find today is what some have called the “democratization of the church.” Everyone in the church is placed on an equal level in every respect. The broader Christian context in North America (“evangelicalism”) has always been loose on the idea of office and the contemporary scene has not witnessed any improvement. With thanks to God, we may state that confessional Reformed churches have not followed this path.
We maintain that God has given offices to the church. One of these offices is the ministry of the Word and sacraments. We do not allow just anybody to ascend the pulpit, preach the Word, and administer Holy Supper and Holy Baptism. There is a lengthy period of study followed by extensive examinations at the classical level. These are not just formal exercises. We take the concept of office very seriously.
So why are missionaries required to have the office of a minister? There is first and most importantly the matter of authority. An office bearer is sent out by Jesus Christ through a church. He comes with the office of an ambassador or herald. That means that he comes in the place of our Lord Jesus himself. The missionary therefore has the right and privilege of saying, “Thus says the Lord…” He may say that with boldness and confidence. Second, there is the education required. A missionary is constantly confronted with many issues for which a theological education is necessary to successfully navigate. This education includes training in exegesis. That in turn ties into the most important task a missionary has: preach the Word! To preach faithfully, a missionary needs to be well-trained. Besides, a missionary is also concerned with planting churches. That involves not only preaching, but also the administration of the sacraments and the training and ordination of office bearers.
Not because of our tradition, but because of the biblical norms we must maintain a strong connection between mission preaching and exegesis. The missionary has to be out in the field, going from home to home and reaching out to the lost. But he also has to be in his study, faithfully preparing sermons. Much thought and work has to go into preparing a sermon for congregants with a limited theological vocabulary or Bible knowledge. And then what about preaching in a foreign language? In many ways, the missionary’s work will be easier if he has a full exegesis of the passage upon which he can draw. He doesn’t necessarily have to preach every single angle of the text. But when he draws a full measure of exegesis, he can be confident that the message he brings is the very Word of God.
This approach to mission preaching and exegesis also results in a greater benefit for the missionary himself. Exegesis is not like plugging words into a machine and then a few hours later out pops a sermon. Exegesis, despite the technical description given above, is a spiritual activity. The biblical text speaks first of all to the exegete. The exegete in turn responds with prayer and devotion. To some, exegesis may sound like literary drudgery, but it is far from that. It is a joyous and beautiful work and the missionary who either does not or cannot exegete the Scriptures fully is not only robbing his listeners, but also his own spiritual walk with the Lord. To faithfully preach the Word, whether in an established church or on the mission field, there must be faithful, comprehensive exegesis.