I was speaking to a friend last night. He called me to discuss a sermon he was preparing. I’m glad he did because I was wracking my brains as to what I should write about and this seemed like as good a thing as any. We’re good friends, I’m sure he won’t mind me writing about this.
He called me on an abstruse point of theology. Did I think Xerxes/Ahasuerus was a believer by the end of the book of Esther? It’s one of the less conventional openings to a phone call I’ve ever had, if I’m honest (I shan’t tell you my opening gambit – no doubt he’ll mention it on his social media platform of choice if he wants to identify himself).
I had to confess, it had been a while since I’d looked in any detail at Esther and I couldn’t recall all the details off the top of my head. I asked my friend what he thought (classic bluffer’s tactic). He said he thought it was speculative and there was evidence in both directions. Given the speculation, my first question was this: why did he think it mattered?
We batted things around a bit more. He was quite clear that the main point of the book is the sovereignty of God in the ordinary things. I agreed. If that is the point of the book, then why do we particularly need to worry about whether the king in the story belonged to the Lord or not? It just doesn’t seem all that relevant.
I was reminded of a similar discussion I brought up with another minister as I was preaching through the book of Judges. I wondered aloud, along with Daniel Block, whether Gideon wanted his role or not, whether he wanted to obey the Lord or not and broader questions about his standing (you can see some of those thoughts here). Given Shamgar is widely understood to be a non-Israelite unbeliever who ‘saved Israel’, it was clear the Lord could save Israel through whatever means he chose to use.
My minister friend wondered something similar to that which I said last night. Does it really matter? It depends on the ‘man-centricity’ of your theology, he averred. The point isn’t whether the guy was saved or not, the question is what the Lord was doing and how the episode points to Christ.
The point here isn’t the answer to the questions about Xerxes or Gideon. Frankly, the Bible doesn’t give enough detail to settle the question absolutely (regardless of which way we think the evidence points). The point is that our preaching needs to make the main thing the main thing. It doesn’t particularly matter whether the specific individuals in the narrative are saved or not. Or, at least, if that does matter the text would make that abundantly clear. What matters is what the episode reveals about God, how it points us to Christ (who fully reveals God) and how it applies to us through him.
It was a helpful reminder to me, as a preacher, that we must work hard to make the key point of the text the main issue. Side questions may be interesting, sometimes even helpful to pursue when systematising Biblical teaching on a particular topic. But if they are not the main point of a passage, they are not the points to land on hard. Perhaps, even especially, if they are somewhat speculative and not entirely clear.