How to listen to character study sermons

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Years ago my dad did a series of Bible studies which he called “An A-Z of Old Testament Characters.” I’m not sure if he managed to find someone for every letter, but there was certainly enough mileage to keep the series going for a good while. 

It’s no surprise that character studies have proved popular. We all love a good true life story, that’s why biographies and memoirs sell well. The Bible is packed full of fascinating characters, heroes and rogues, oppressors, victims and saviours, godly women and not so godly women, rich and poor, weak and strong, wise and foolish. The stories are fascinating to read or listen to and packed full of helpful lessons for life. And therein lies both the strength and the weakness of a character study.

Whilst the character study can provide those helpful life lessons, it can also set up some nasty traps for the preacher and for the congregation. First of all, the risk is that we simply end up being moralising. That’s why you get the Sunday School lessons about David that teach us to be good friends (with Jonathan), kind (to Mephibosheth) and brave in the face of life’s giants (Goliath). Secondly, if we are not careful, we turn some characters into monsters and others into saints (of the Catholic with an St prefix kind).  Character studies are particularly dangerous if they uproot the person out of his context  and draw the lessons we think are implied from their life rather than what the Bible is actually teaching us about them and what God did to, for, with and through them.

So when listening to a character study sermon, first of all listen out for the context. Where in the Bible do we find them, what is going on? What are the primary teaching points that this part of the Bible is teaching.

Secondly listen out for how they point us to Christ. They should do, because all Scripture does this. Now, this does not mean that the person will be perfect. However, there’s a sense in which both their strengths and weaknesses point us to Jesus. This approach to teaching is known as “Types” especially when looking at Old Testament events and characters. The Old Testmanet character is a type or model that highlights characteristics properly fulfilled in the New Testament anti-type.

For example, when we look at King David, then we see the following things that point us towards Jesus. He is the true, good King of Israel, a shepherd who protects, he loves God with his whole heart, at times he faces rejection, danger and exile, he defeats the enemies of God’s people. This means that when we read about him defeating Goliath, the first thing we are meant to learn is not to be brave and face our giants but rather that King Jesus has already defeated the giant, Sin. We identify not with David, the anointed ruler but with the army of God’s people who watch as their champion wins the day. This does not mean that we can’t learn all sorts of ethical lessons from David’s life but we have to learn the big Gospel lesson first.

But to say that David is a Type of Christ does not mean that he is to be equated with Christ. David sinned. David put others in danger like the priests of Nob, David failed to go out to battle with his army, committed adultery, tried to cover it up and had a good, loyal man murdered.  Yet even those things point us first to Christ.  They remind us that Jesus was the only one without sin. He was the perfect and greater King. They remind us that David needed a saviour too, so that when Paul (Romans 4:1-12) wants to teach us about Abraham and David, the main thing he wants us to learn is that they were justified by faith.

So, when you listen to a character study, resolve to learn from that person, to imitate their good points and learn from their mistakes so that you can avoid the, but more importantly, all learn from their faith, the one and only means to be justified and most of all learn from them as they point you to the central Biblical character.

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