J. V. Fesko

Public Pulpit Prayers

Written by J. V. Fesko |
Sunday, September 24, 2023
One way to learn how to pray well is to read the prayers of others. You can use these in the pulpit to great personal and congregational benefit. Can you pray extemporaneously? Of course! Yes. But you can also bring written prayers into the pulpit as well. In public prayers remember that as a minister, you are not praying for yourself but on behalf of your congregation. Remember, your congregation is praying with you through your prayer.

This may come as a surprise but one of my least favorite things to do is offer public prayer. I have, what I believe, are good reasons for my dislike of public prayer. I do like to pray—it is a very personal thing for me where I can lay myself bare and express my fears, concerns, joys, doubts, and many other emotions. The whole dynamic changes, however, when someone else is listening in on the conversation. If you knew, for example, that the NSA was listening to your phone conversations, how would this change what you say? When I’m praying from the pulpit, I have a whole lot of people listening to my prayer. Such a reality makes me second-guess myself as to what, specifically, I will pray.
Given that many extra ears tune in when I pray from the pulpit, I open myself to a totally different unrequested answer to prayer—criticism. Over the years, from time to time, I have poured out my heart in public prayer only to have someone approach me afterwards and criticize the content of my prayer. Maybe I forgot to mention something, or I prayed too long, or I didn’t use the right words, or people have even challenged my prayers on theological grounds. So when I step into the pulpit, I fear being criticized when I am at my most vulnerable.
Regardless of whatever fears I might have, as a minister, you don’t have an option. You will regularly offer public prayers, whether from the pulpit, or at other church functions and occasions. So what should you do to be ready to pray in public? Well, believe it or not, unlike private prayer, you should prepare, train, and even practice to pray in public. Public prayer is an acquired skill. In private prayer, so long as you follow biblical norms, you can say and do what you want. But public prayer has different parameters because of its public and open nature.
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Lectio Continua

Written by J. V. Fesko |
Friday, September 22, 2023
When pastors do topical series, I suspect they will not choose passages that they find theologically difficult or problematic. For example, how many pastors ignore passages that deal with the doctrine of election? If we preach lectio continua, we must deal with whatever doctrines the text presents. We don’t have time for hobbyhorses, unless of course we’re ignoring the text. By preaching the text, it keeps us balanced. Sure, who wouldn’t want to hear about the love of God, but sometimes the text speaks about God’s wrath and justice and we need to hear about it.

During the sixteenth-century Reformation one of the standard practices for pastors was to preach lectio continua, chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse, through books of the Bible. At Geneva, for example, John Calvin preached from the New Testament in the morning and the Old Testament in the evening. Despite its common use during the Reformation there are many Reformed ministers who don’t preach lectio continua—they preach small topical series on this or that, or perhaps sections of books, such as sermons on the life of David or Abraham.
On the one hand, it’s definitely good and important that ministers preach the word of God. As simple as it may seem, there are too many ministers who ascend the pulpit each Sunday morning and do not preach the word—a sad but true fact. On the other hand, I think that some pastors are afraid to preach lectio continua for various reasons. But over the years I found a number of benefits to this method of preaching that, I believe, commend its use over other practices.
First, by preaching through books of the Bible you teach yourself and your congregation about whole portions of Scripture. Far too many people in the church, pastors included, do not know their Bibles. They have favorite verses or chapters, perhaps, but seldom are they familiar with entire books. What better way can there be to learn about Scripture than to preach through Romans, verse-by-verse? A side benefit of this is that the more you preach through books of the Bible, the better you will know it. Like compounding interest, your familiarity with the Bible will accrue. You will be better equipped for ministry, counseling, teaching, and preaching.
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Prayer and Gossip?

Written by J. V. Fesko |
Thursday, August 24, 2023
All too often public prayers are not a genuine venue for offering up our desires and needs before our covenant Lord but a platform for gossip. A good rule of thumb is, if you’re praying for someone, how might your prayer change if they were sitting next to you?

As a pastor I always did my best to encourage my congregation to pray. Prayer is, I believe, one of the lesser-attended subjective means of grace. I suspect that when times get tough people pray, but I often wonder that when times are good do they pray as much? Therefore, I took every opportunity to have people pray. I was really excited when the women of the church wanted to gather on a regular basis for prayer on Saturday mornings, so I certainly encouraged this activity. But I quickly found out that sometimes prayer is really a thin disguise for gossip.
It’s one thing to pour our soul out privately in prayer before our heavenly Father. I can be freest when it’s just me in my “prayer closet.” I can complain, celebrate, wrestle, and lay my soul bare. But the moment that I pray in public, there are certain responsibilities I have. I may think and suspect a lot of things about many people and circumstances, but that is not license for me to voice them publicly, and especially in prayer.
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Pray the Directory

Written by J. V. Fesko |
Friday, August 18, 2023
As a minister of the gospel, you are many things—a preacher, teacher, and counselor. But you are also a shepherd, one who should regularly be on his knees before the throne of grace on behalf of your sheep. Grab your church directory and pray for your sheep. And if you don’t know how to pray for your sheep, sit down at the feet of the apostle Paul and learn from him and his prayers for his sheep.

I think one of the most underrated things a pastor can do is pray for his congregation. I think pastors, of course, should do all of the regular tasks we might expect, preach, study, counsel, meet with the elders, and perform the regular pastoral administrative responsibilities, which may vary from church to church. But I think pastors should invest regular time in praying for their church. I know most pray for the congregations from the pulpit, and this is a vital and important task. But often times pulpit prayers are filled with those in dire needs. But what about the people in your church who never have serious problems or illnesses? What about the other people in your church who don’t make the pulpit prayer list? Chances are they have needs as well but don’t get the attention that they might need.
One of the practical things you can do to ensure that you pray for all of the people in your church is to pray through your church directory. Depending on the size of your church, you might be able to pray for several households per day and get through your church in a month.
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3 Things a Christian Should Consider Before Serving in the Military

Written by J. V. Fesko |
Monday, June 26, 2023
I would want to tell a young person, yes, you can pursue a career in the military, but you need to be prepared to say no when everyone else is telling you to say yes. Would you cease to participate in war crimes at the risk of alienating your comrades, at the risk of your life, at the risk of your reputation? Would you be willing to stand for the truth and report the crimes, even if it meant the end of friendships and your career?

Among the many legitimate vocations that Christians can pursue, military service is certainly an acceptable choice. Serving in the military can be very beneficial. Many young people have testified to the fact that military service helped them grow up to be responsible adults. Many have taken advantage of financial assistance programs that help pay for college. Others have learned much about leadership, service, and honor by serving in the military. There are also many benefits—learning technical trades or even learning a unique skill, such as how to fly aircraft—that lead to long and profitable careers later in civilian life.
Even with all these advantages, as a pastor there are several areas in which I would want to provide counsel to a young person if he or she was considering military service as a vocation.
First, I would want to ensure that the person was very spiritually mature.
A regular part of military service is constant relocation and even deployment to foreign countries or war zones. With such an ambulatory life, being a member of a church and having regular access to the means of grace can be a great challenge.
If you’re on a year-long combat deployment to a war zone, you might not be able to hear the preaching of the word or take the sacrament consistently. And when you do, it might have to be a chaplain from another denomination or even religion who would perform a “religious service.” This means that a person has to be spiritually mature enough continually to seek through every means and avenue consistent spiritual nourishment.
Second, the Christian has to have a strong will—a dogged commitment to serve Christ and continually strive for greater sanctification.
The military is no different than the rest of the world, but it can have a strong group mentality, which is quite different from civilian organizations.
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4 Questions a Pastor Should Ask Himself Before and After Giving a Sermon

Written by J. V. Fesko |
Thursday, May 25, 2023
Preachers, therefore, have the responsibility to preach both indicatives and imperatives, but we must always be mindful of their logical order. Indicatives (what Christ has done for us) always serve as the foundation for the imperatives (our Christian conduct). We can never reverse this logical order. Christ, through the work of the Spirit, is the source of our capacity and ability for growth in sanctification. We do not offer our good works (imperative first) so we can then somehow secure the indicative of redemption.

There is a myriad of books about preaching on the market at present, and each of them presents useful information, tips, and methods for preaching a good sermon. Yet, when I’m evaluating a sermon or preparing my own messages, there are four simple questions that I ask myself:
1. Did I exegete the text?
Why should you ask whether the preacher exegeted the text? Believe it or not, there are many preachers who mount the pulpit, speak for thirty to forty minutes, and never really engage the biblical text in any significant way. I have personally sat under “preaching” where the message, at least in my mind, had no clearly discernable connection to the sermon text. The pastor spent more time offering personal observations, opinions, and commentary on recent news events than the biblical text.
Another type of “sermon” that I’ve heard is when a preacher reads a biblical text and then picks up a word, phrase, or concept that appears in the text and uses it as a springboard to a message that might be vaguely related to the passage at hand. I have heard some, for example, cite Deuteronomy 6:7, “You shall teach them [the words of Deuteronomy 6:4] diligently to your children…” as grounds for advocating home schooling as the only legitimate form of childhood educating. The text, I have been told, explicitly assigns education to parents, not to a public or Christian school.
Such an interpretation picks up on two elements in the verse—parents(implicit in the passage) and teach. But these two words have a greater context—the context is the law of God and the first greatest commandment:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5)

The context is not about education in general but rather instructing children to love the Lord with all their being. In Pauline terms, the passage addresses, among other things, raising children in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).
Hence, a fundamental question the preacher should always ask himself is, did I exegete the text? Did I examine the surrounding context? Did I historically locate the passage? Did I pay attention to specific or unique terminology? If I’m preaching from an Old Testament passage, did I examine how the New Testament appeals to, alludes to, or echoes the text? These are all vital questions that the preacher should ask to ensure that he properly handles the text and “draws out” (what the term exegesis means) from the passage the intended meaning, rather than inserting ideas that are foreign to the text.
In your sermon, you might not refer to all of your exegetical work. Preaching is akin to telling what time it is rather than disassembling the clock and showing how it’s made. Nevertheless, a good sermon still needs properly functioning inner gears and whirring wheels so that the preacher can accurately tell his congregation what time it is. But just because you don’t reveal the inner workings of the clock does not mean you don’t need those internal mechanisms. On the contrary, exegesis is the foundation of any good sermon. So always ask, did I exegete the text?
2. Did I explain the text?
When I evaluate a sermon or my own preaching, the second key question I ask is whether I adequately explained the biblical text. This is a distinct issue from the first question, namely, did I exegete the biblical text? Exegesis is foundational to a solid sermon—it ensures that you accurately represent the text in your sermon and don’t introduce foreign ideas to the Bible. In other words, in a sermon the preacher wants to open a window to the voice of God—in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), which is “the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture” (WCF 1.10). But as important as exegesis is to a solid sermon, another vital element is explanation.
In the post-exilic Israelite community, we find the principle of explanation recorded in the text:

They [the Levites] read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Neh. 8:8)

The priests did not merely read the word and leave the people floundering. Yes, as the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches, the Word of God is abundantly perspicuous (clear) in matters of salvation (WCF 1.7). Yet, it also acknowledges that there are some portions that are not “plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”
Hence, preachers need to exegete the Scriptures to ensure their message is text-driven, but they also need to explain the text to their congregation. Above I wrote that preachers need to tell their congregations what time it is rather than tell them how the clock was made, and now it might appear as though I’m giving contradictory counsel. How can you explain a text without showing all its parts in great detail?
There is a difference, I believe, in spouting off about Greek and Hebrew terms for which the congregation has no knowledge versus ensuring that the congregation understands what’s going on in the passage. I once preached from Isaiah 6 and told the congregation that the word for holy was the Hebrew term qadosh (queue the sound of a fighter jet screaming by at Mach 2 over the heads of the congregation).
While it was important for me to know the meaning of this term in my exegesis of the passage, it was unnecessary for me to quote the Hebrew. I only needed to say that holy means set apart and that the seraphim repeated the term three times to indicate the superlative to convey that God is the holiest of all beings.
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Recognizing Jesus in the Shadowlands of the Old Testament

Written by J. V. Fesko |
Thursday, February 23, 2023
As you consider the Old Testament, do not press the narratives into the service of application apart from Christ. First consider how Christ is organically connected to the text. How does the New Testament authoritatively explain the particular Old Testament text before you? Through the light of the revelation of the gospel of Christ, you are equipped to recognize clearly Jesus in the shadowlands of the Old Testament.

In the wake of the death and resurrection of Christ, a number of Jesus’ disciples failed to receive word that their Lord and Savior had risen from the dead. Under the impression that Jesus was dead in his tomb, the disciples walked on the road to Emmaus until a visitor joined them along the way:

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” (Luke 24:13-17)

This visitor eventually revealed himself as the risen Messiah, and Jesus began to teach them about his ministry from “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). In other words, Jesus taught his disciples exclusively from the Old Testament.
In fact, the phrase that Luke uses, the Law, Prophets, and Psalms, refers to the three major divisions of the Old Testament. Another way of stating Christ’s point is, “The whole Old Testament points to me—Jesus!” If the Old Testament is about Jesus, then how does this affect the way we read it?
The Old Testament isn’t merely about morals, ethics, or leadership.
All too often people read the Old Testament as if its narratives set forth principles merely about morals, ethics, or leadership. Moses is an example for leadership in how he led a rebellious people through the wilderness—these “life lessons” can then be applied to a host of workplace conflicts.
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The Light of Nature

Written by J.V. Fesko |
Tuesday, February 14, 2023
The light of nature denotes three things: (1) natural law, (2) human reason, and (3) God’s natural revelation in creation. In short, the light of nature denotes the book or order of nature written and designed by God—an important tool in defending the Christian faith, a tool forgotten by many in contemporary Reformed theology but regularly used by early modern Reformed theologians.

The Westminster Confession (1647) begins with the statement “Although the light of Nature, and the works of Creation and Providence do so farre manifest the Goodnesse, Wisdome, and Power of God, as to leave men unexcusable yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and of his Will, which is necessary unto salvation” (1.1). What precisely do the divines intend by the term light of nature? One recent commentary on the Confession claims that the opening statement refers to one of two categories, namely, general and special revelation, or the books of nature and Scripture, and only briefly touches on the issue of humanity’s natural understanding of the book of nature. Two other commentaries bypass the statement altogether and deal entirely with Scripture as special revelation. Older nineteenth-century commentaries, however, devote more attention to the issue of the light of nature and explain it by the claim “God may be discovered by the light of nature, we mean that the senses and the reasoning powers, which belong to the nature of man, are able to give him so much light as to manifest that there is a God.” In line with this older trend, the most recent commentary on the Confession, written by Chad Van Dixhoorn, rightly notes that it begins with the doctrine of Scripture, but the first sentence deals with a different subject: the light of nature. Moreover, this commentary also explains the character of this concept: “There is the ‘light of nature,’ by which is meant the divine imprint which is left on each of us by our Maker. That is, we are made in God’s image and even though we are fallen creatures, God’s image remains stamped upon us. And there are ‘the works of creation and providence.’ The world that we see and the world about which we read tell us of our Creator and Provider.”
But even though Van Dixhoorn’s analysis is correct, he only touches on the character of the light of nature. Namely, general revelation includes both the knowledge connected to the divine image and the works of creation and providence. He correctly acknowledges that the divines were following the apostle Paul’s arguments in Romans 1 and 2 and statements from the psalmist (Ps. 19). But Van Dixhoorn then concludes, “In those chapters the apostle both reminds us of this general revelation and tells us that it leaves every person without an excuse before God. For this reason, both in our evangelism and in our defence of the faith, we should always remember that Christians should never be trying to prove the existence of God to unbelievers. We are reminding unbelievers of what they already know.” Van Dixhoorn’s explanation of the Confession is generally true, but his analysis of its meaning and implication deserves deeper and more precise investigation.
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Reformed Confessionalism v. The Genius Theologian

Written by J. V. Fesko |
Friday, January 13, 2023
Through the work of the Spirit and Word of God, the theological spine holding the body of truth upright is the doctrine of the church. Apart from church and confession, people have nowhere to turn but to the biggest and brightest theological celebrities. If we make the theological genius’s unique distinctives the hallmark of what it means to be Reformed, we are swimming in the stream of Enlightenment Romanticism and individualism. Individually, we are free to hold distinct theological positions, but when it comes to defining the church’s corporate faith, our confessions define what it means to be truly Reformed. We must never allow, therefore, the genius theologian to displace the church and the role of its scripturally subordinated confession.  

Forces of culture influence and shape our thoughts. In turn, what forces shape evangelicalism and the Reformed faith? Two different forces have shaped each theological movement: the Romantic idea of the genius on one end of the spectrum and the doctrine of the church on the other.
The two forces produce very different outcomes—in evangelical churches, the genius theologian looms large as the one who molds a theological movement. Reformed churches, on the other hand, have a commitment to a scripturally subordinated confessional authority, or confessionalism, that shapes the church. Herein lies a significant difference between evangelicalism and the Reformed faith. When we understand these different shaping forces, we can seek to pursue the path of confessionalism rather than that of a genius theologian. In confessionalism, a person commits to a corporate confession of faith written by the church throughout the ages, whereas in the genius theologian approach, a lone individual creates a school of thought that people try to emulate and replicate. In what follows, I explain the origins and nature of the genius theologian and contrast it with the confessional approach of the Reformed churches. Realizing Reformed churches are liable to fall into genius theologian mode, I conclude by spelling out the dangers of this pitfall.
The Romantic Idea of the Genius
Noted historian of philosophy Isaiah Berlin observed that Romantic philosophers of the eighteenth century shaped modern culture in ways that many people forget or are unaware of. Were we able to transport ourselves back to the sixteenth century and ask a Roman Catholic, “Factoring your disagreement with your Protestant foes, don’t you admire Protestants for their zeal, skill, and intellectual rigor with which they have carried out their program of reformation?” The Roman Catholic would respond, “No! They’re schismatics!” Berlin makes the point that admiring the way someone does something while ignoring what they’re doing is from the influence of Romanticism. In other words, how you do something is more important than what you do, according to Romanticism. This illustrates its nature, a philosophical movement that encouraged people to prioritize feelings over intellect. One of the thrusts of Romantic philosophy was the creation of the idea of the genius. Under the sway of emotion, French philosophe Denis Diderot claimed that the genius was an artist, a rule breaker, one who transcends the bounds of civilized man to blaze his own path. In his nineteenth-century Essay on Original Genius, Scottish Presbyterian William Duff argued that the indispensable characteristic of genius is an unrestrained imagination because this is what makes the genius unique and creative. This sets the stage for the Romantic influence on evangelicalism and the genius theologian.
The multi-branched tree of evangelicalism has no root in a single theological confession but in a coterie of theologians. Evangelicals typically look to big names as the lodestars for their understanding of the Christian faith. People are drawn to the genius and creativity of a theologian or pastor based upon their own interests. Are you interested in Christian Hedonism? Then you turn to John Piper. Are you trying to live your best life now? Then Joel Osteen is your genius. Do you believe that all theology is eschatology?
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Run Your Own Race

Written by J. V. Fesko |
Sunday, November 27, 2022
Pray and seek contentment where the Lord has placed you in his holy providence. Put your nose to the grindstone, work hard, and leave the results up to him. Whether in plenty or in want, seek to praise Christ in all situations, and don’t compare yourself to others. Pray that you’re faithful to what Christ has called you to do. 

In my pre-parent life, I used to have time to run a few triathlons—sprints, mainly. One of the things that I found personally discouraging was the fact that the race event staff would write your age on your calf muscle with a large waterproof marker. At first, it didn’t bother me—I would be cycling or running and I’d see 56, 72, 40, and a host of other numbers higher than my own as I passed them by. As I progressed in the race, however, I quickly realized that for as many numbers higher than my own that I was passing, there were probably more numbers higher than mine passing me by! I saw one woman with 68 on her calf sail by me like I was standing still. It was a bit humbling to have someone double my age smoke me.
I felt a similar sentiment when I was in seminary and later graduate school. There I sat at my desk as my 27th birthday passed me by and I felt like I was standing still. I was still in school, hadn’t done anything significant in my life, and was feeling like many others were passing me. I was sitting in my windowless basement office, single, in a foreign country eating dry cereal for lunch because I couldn’t afford much more. It didn’t help that I knew that John Calvin wrote the first edition of the Institutes by the time he was 27.
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