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Can we preach bad news? Should we?

Receiving Bad NewsI have generally observed a striking divide between theological traditions in relation to whether the gospel is in fact ‘good news’ (as the word ‘gospel’ tells us—a ‘good spell’ or word), or whether we need to start with the ‘bad news’ of sin and judgement before we can say anything good. The NT gives a somewhat mixed picture; when Jesus proclaims that the ‘time has come and the kingdom of God is at hand’ then that could have been very bad news indeed—in the OT the ‘Day of the Lord’ is as likely to bring judgement as it is liberation (just glance at Is 13.6, 13.9, Joel 1.15, 1.22, Amos 5.18 and numerous mentions). Not surprising, then, that first summons is to ‘repent’ before it is to ‘believe’. And John’s message (which Matthew in particular links with Jesus’) elicits anxious questions about how to prepare for this day of reckoning (Matt 3.1–10, Luke 3.7–14).

But the giving of bad news is in fact an important part of life. If you have been given bad news in a bad way, you will remember it forever—as I am sure will the relatives of those who perished in the Malaysian Airlines flight two years ago, hearing from the government of their loss by text message. I have written elsewhere about how to give feedback well—but, whether it is a good friend giving us honest feedback, someone breaking news of bereavement, or a medical professional giving a diagnosis of disease, we need to know how to give and receive bad news well.


Map-of-Assyrian-ExpansionA while ago, I preached on Is 1.1–18 as part of a sermon series on ‘The gospel in Isaiah’. The fascinating thing is that this passage gives us a worked example of God’s delivery of bad news. The book is a key one for us to understand, since it is quoted more than any other prophet in the NT, and is one of four books (along with Genesis, Deuteronomy and Psalms) that were extensively drawn on by Jesus and his first followers to understand who Jesus was and the meaning of his ministry. The book falls into two main halves, and the chapter numbers (39 + 27 = 66) match the shape of the whole Bible (39 OT books + 27 NT books = 66). (Hence our sermon series is entitled ‘The Gospel in Isaiah’). The first half of the book (up to chapter 39) are set in a political period (Is 1.1) of looming threat; following 70 years or so of peace and prosperity, when the northern power of Assyria was in abeyance, a time is coming when the threat of war and conquest present the pressing question of who the nation should trust.

Of all the books in the OT, Isaiah is perhaps the richest. Its literary grandeur is unequalled. Its scope is unparalleled. The breadth of its view of God is unmatched. In so many ways it is a book of superlatives. It is no wonder that Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the NT and, along with Psalms and Deuteronomy, one of the most frequently cited of all the OT books. Study of it is an opportunity for unending inspiration and challenge. (John Oswalt, NICNT commentary)

Isaiah’s presentation of God’s bad news falls into four parts:

God’s Dilemma (Is 1.2–4)

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It is striking that the charge God has against his people is presented in the context of God as father to the nation who are his children. The dilemma God has is the same dilemma you can see on the faces of parents whose children have run off down another aisle of the supermarket: should I be cross they have run off, or pleased that I have found them again?

We have recently acquired a dog—an endearing ‘cavapoo’ called Barney. He is very trainable, and knows exactly who is in charge and who feeds him (answer: me)! God is amazed that the people he created don’t recognise the one who gave them life.

God’s Plea (Is 1.5–9)

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God’s earnest concern here is that the people are harming themselves by turning from him. Ever since I first read this passage as a teenager, I was taken with and intrigued by the idea of a ‘hut in a melon field.’ Since melons take a long time to ripen, you cannot stay with them the whole time. But for the last part of that process, you need to keep an eye on them to make sure they are not damaged or stolen. So people would build lean-to shacks to function as temporary shelters in the fields. God’s word here is that, if we do not take refuge in him, then we will not be protected when the tough times come.

God’s Charge (Is 1.10–17)

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Having rooted his speech in God’s concern as a parent, and made the plea to see sense, Isaiah does not hold back on the reality which God sees. He holds up a mirror to the reality of our easily exhausted compassion, our complacency in the face of injustice, and our hypocrisy in disconnecting worship from life. Like a master architect inspecting the house of our lives, he puts his spirit level next to us and shows how far out of true we have become. Like a just judge, he has put our lives in the dock and we are found wanting. It is so much easier to turn up at church and sing a few songs than it is to live a life of integrity and justice!

God’s Invitation (Is 1.18–20)

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Having putting us on trial and found us guilty, God then steps down from the bench and offers an out of court settlement. To dye something scarlet, you need to give time and energy to the process and immerse the garments not once but twice in the vat. The problem of sin and compromise we face is not just a splash of paint on our otherwise unblemished character—it stains every part of who we are. But the great good news is that Jesus immersed himself in all the reality of human sin on the cross, and through the power of his resurrection allows us to be immersed in his goodness. ‘Who are these, robed in white?’ ‘They have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb’ (Rev 7.14).

Isaiah’s message comes to us as a word from God, a revelation of the inevitable conflict between divine glory and human pride, of the self-destruction which that pride must bring, and of the grace of God is restoring that destroyed humanity to himself. To read the book with the open eyes of the spirit is to see oneself, at times all too clearly, but also to see a God whose holiness is made irresistible by his love. (John Oswalt)

We need to hear God’s bad news proclaimed. But this bad news is always rooted in his love for us as his children, his creation. It always comes with an appeal to discover what is best for us. And it is always wrapped in his invitation to be transformed by his costly, holy love.

(You can hear a recording of the full sermon here.)


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6 Responses to Can we preach bad news? Should we?

  1. Philip Almond January 7, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

    ‘Can we preach bad news? Should we?’

    Two good questions. Perhaps should be preceded by another – what is the bad news? Or, what is the objective truth, true for God and true for us, about the human condition and standing before God of us all, from birth onwards.
    The right answer to this prior question, from the Bible, is that because of the sin of Adam (and our own sins, if we have and develop the faculty to commit sin) we are all faced with the holy wrath and just condemnation of God.
    Can we preach this bad news? Yes we can.
    Should we preach this bad news? Yes we should. However alongside this true dreadful diagnosis we should also preach the equally true wonderful news that God and Christ sincerely and genuinely invite, exhort, command all men to submit to Christ in repentance, faith, love, obedience and fear, and so be delivered from that wrath and condemnation and be brought into a living relationship with God.
    Of course no one will take any notice of the warning and the exhortation unless, as Warfield put it, “there come a breath from heaven to breathe upon these slain that they may live”. But, faced with the solemn words of Ezekiel 3:18, all who believe these things have a responsibility to proclaim the warning and the exhortation while praying earnestly that God in his love, mercy and grace will send that breath.

    Phil Almond

    • Jamie Wood January 9, 2017 at 11:23 am #

      “What is the objective truth, true for God and true for us, about the human condition and standing before God of us all, from birth onwards? The right answer to this prior question…”

      Your answer, Phil, is one of the right answers. But there is also “… you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” – that was David, in addition to being Jesus Christ.

      So as often happens, an important question has more than one right answer – which many of us find tricky to live with.

      • Philip Almond January 9, 2017 at 11:53 am #

        Jamie
        Apologies for not making clear in my post that Jesus Christ (and Adam and Eve before the Fall) were not ‘faced with the holy wrath and just condemnation of God from birth onwards’. Also, God in his sovereign grace and love and mercy can regenerate and (in anticipation) apply the atoning blood of Christ to those who lack the faculties to repent and believe – like the mentally disabled and infants – and so deliver them from his wrath and condemnation. So as I see it, my right answer and your quote do not contradict each other. I am not clear whether you are saying that they do contradict one another.

        Phil Almond

        • Jamie Wood January 16, 2017 at 11:27 am #

          No, I don’t think they contradict each other. But what I’m saying is this. If someone (singular) asks me, “What is the objective truth, true for God and true for me, about my human condition and my standing before God?” – then I have to make a pastoral decision about which truth needs more emphasis. If I feel that the person asking is mostly an exploiter, then I will major on your answer. If the person asking is more a victim of the sins of others, then I will focus on the answer that was in my previous post.

          • Philip Almond January 17, 2017 at 10:11 am #

            Jamie
            I agree that these doctrines have to be handled and communicated in a wise and sensitive way. But the point I was trying to make in my opening post was that the ‘objective truth’ of which I wrote is true for all of us, whether we are ‘exploiters’ or a ‘victim of the sins of others’ – until, of course, whether we are exploiters or victims, we submit to Christ in repentance, faith, love, obedience and fear. This objective truth is just that – objective – and distinct from the vital question of how we speak of it wisely and sensitively to individuals in their concrete and subjective circumstances – individuals who may have other harrowing needs which seem far more pressing than the objective and paramount need (of which they may be ignorant) to flee to Christ from the wrath to come.

            Phil Almond

  2. Penelope Wallace January 8, 2017 at 2:58 pm #

    Barney leaves his facebook home, and leaps into psephizo with a slow-motion bound!

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