When God tells us to be silent: A reflection on discernment for preachers

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When God tells us to be silent: A reflection on discernment for preachers

September 19, 2023 -

Hands folded in prayer on top of a Bible. By JavierArtPhotography/stock.adobe.com

Hands folded in prayer on top of a Bible. By JavierArtPhotography/stock.adobe.com

Hands folded in prayer on top of a Bible. By JavierArtPhotography/stock.adobe.com

Rescuers recently pulled an American out of a Turkish cave more than a week after he became seriously ill more than three thousand feet below its surface.

Teams from across Europe had rushed to the cave in southern Turkey’s Taurus Mountains to aid Mark Dickey, a forty-year-old experienced caver who had been on an expedition to map the country’s third-deepest cave. He developed stomach bleeding on September 2 and was too frail to climb out himself. Nearly two hundred experts collaborated in his rescue.

In other news, Chelsea Moles, a twenty-eight-year-old woman in Virginia, was apparently sleeping on top of a lifeguard stand when someone tied a hammock to it, causing it to topple over and fall on her. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

“Do not write it down”

You and I can see both stories as spiritual parables: every lost person we know is trapped in their sin and incapable of rescuing themselves. They are in imminent danger of spiritual death, with tomorrow promised to none of us.

In a culture that seems determined to reject biblical truth and morality with ever-increasing determination, it can feel obvious that we need to match fortitude with fortitude. We need to work as hard to help the lost as the Enemy is working to deceive them. We need to be as active and proactive in promoting our worldview as our cultural opponents are in promoting theirs.

I find myself in such an activistic mood and mode nearly every day. There is so much in the culture to which I feel compelled to respond. There are so many believers to equip, so many churches and ministries to resource, so much work to do.

I was in such a spirit the other day when this phrase in Scripture stopped me: “I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down’” (Revelation 10:4). The context: A “mighty angel” with “a little scroll in his hand . . . set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring” (vv. 1–3a). In response, “When he called out, the seven thunders sounded” (v. 3b).

It was their message that John wanted to write and share with the world, but God silenced him.

Precepts and principles

Unlike the seven “seals” (chapters 6–8), the seven trumpets (chapters 8–11), and the seven plagues and bowls (chapters 15–16), John never revealed what the seven thunders spoke. And yet, this experience is recorded in Scripture under the Spirit’s inspiration so that it would be preserved for generations to come.

Why?

In biblical hermeneutics we make a distinction between precepts and principles. The former are commands retaining the force of imperatives such as the Ten Commandments. The latter are truths taught in a less direct manner, including historical narrative, poetry, and parables.

Our text clearly falls into the second category, leading us to draw some inferences that we can measure by biblical revelation and apply to practical experience. I suggest the following:

One: Not everything God says to us is intended for others.

As I noted in “Is there a word from the Lord?” our Lord wants to speak to us and then to speak through us. Those we serve need a word from God far more than they need a word about him or a word from us. But we should not assume that every truth we find in Scripture or insight we sense from the Spirit is intended for others.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul encouraged them to read his letter to the Laodiceans (Colossians 4:16). We have the former but not the latter. John informs us that if everything Jesus did “were to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

Joel Gregory, the great preacher and teacher of preachers, used to tell his students that knowing what to leave out of the sermon is as important as knowing what to include—sometimes even more so. George Washington is quoted as suggesting, “What is not necessary to say, is necessary not to say.”

John Claypool helped to popularize confessional preaching in a day when conventional homiletical wisdom discouraged preachers from sharing personal insights lest they distract from biblical truth. Claypool’s eloquent and transparent storytelling convinced a generation of us that sharing our insights and challenges with those we serve can help them follow our Lord.

But he would agree that we need divine direction in this regard. The Lord knows what our hearers need to hear. He wants to guide us to share the truth he is preparing them to receive. Praying for discernment and wisdom to speak only what we are called to share is therefore vital to our preaching and pastoral ministries.

Two: It’s not about us.

One Sunday during my pastorate in Atlanta, we experienced a great movement of God’s Spirit in our contemporary service. The next day, our worship team met. I referenced what God had done and asked what we needed to learn so we could have a similar experience the next week. A very dear friend smiled at me and said, “Jim, it’s not about us.”

I’ve never forgotten that moment.

The great theologian J. I. Packer observed that it is impossible at one and the same time to convince you that I am a great preacher and that Jesus is a great Savior. Everything we say and do should point to Christ, not to us. Nothing should make it into the sermon that his Spirit does not inspire so as to lead people to Christ.

My home church pastor had engraved on his pulpit words that I placed on every pulpit in every church I pastored as well: “Sir, we would see Jesus” (John 12:21 KJV). When Spurgeon was asked the secret to great preaching, he replied: Take a text and make a bee-line for Jesus.

The great challenge of our calling is our great privilege as well: to seek and speak words from God that his Spirit then uses to save souls and change lives. We are a conduit of grace—nothing more and nothing less.

Let’s make David’s prayer ours today: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lᴏʀᴅ, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14 NLT).

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