Archives For preaching

When the Christmas season comes each year, it provides an opportunity for pastors to study, ponder, pray over and preach about the greatest truth of the Christian faith: the incarnation, God becoming a man. It is an inestimable privilege.

And yet, for those who have done this annually for many years, rather than considering it in that way, it is sort of dreaded. How many different ways can the incarnation be taught, they may think. Or another aspect of this concern, after preaching this for so many years, how can one come up with anything fresh?

Part of the problem with this thinking is that this truth never grows old and we ought never to grow tired of it. In our lifetimes we will not even scratch the surface of the depth of meaning in the incarnation.

One of the issues is that we think we have to become creative to teach the biblical story. There are times when it is necessary and important to communicate the familiar, to be reminded of the incredible truth of the incarnation. This does not call for creativity as much as it does faithfulness. I am not against or opposed to creativity. Not at all. But if the focus is on the creatively of the presentation, I wonder where the emphasis is being placed.

Another issue is to remember that many have not grown up knowing the story of the promised and fulfilled birth of Jesus, the Messiah. For many, it is not being reminded of the old story, but rather hearing it for the first time. And for pastors, even though they have told this to many for many years, they must remember that for some/many, since they have not heard this story, we ought to preach and teach it bearing in mind there are those who have not yet heard it.

Steve Mathewson, senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, Illinois, addresses the privilege of preaching during this time of Advent and Christmas. He also addresses a challenge: “Jesus’ birth have been overlaid with centuries of exegetical misunderstandings and legendary elaborations.” Without careful exegetical and theological study these misunderstandings can lead to a misconstruing or misunderstanding of the Gospel and the writer’s emphases. For the pastor who has preached for many years, and who is looking for something new or fresh or creative, those I identified above, the temptation is to preach a novel interpretation that can also misconstrue or misunderstand the Gospel.

In response, as a seasoned pastor who has preached these sermons many times over many years, Mathewson provides guidance in 6 Ways Not to Preach the Birth of Jesus. He writes, “let me offer six mistakes to avoid when preaching the story of Jesus’s birth. My concern is to help you proclaim, in the power of the Spirit, the birth narratives in a way that raises your listeners’ love and affection (and yours) for our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here are, in heading only (I encourage you to read the whole article), the six mistakes to avoid.

  1. Skipping the genealogy in Matthew 1.
  2. Declaring Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn.
  3. Overemphasizing the questionable character of the shepherds.
  4. Referring to the magi as the three wise men.
  5. Avoiding the story of the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2:16–18.
  6. Assuming there’s nothing “Christmas-worthy” in Mark’s prologue.

Mathewson concludes, “Avoiding these six mistakes isn’t about intellectual snobbery. Correcting them may help people hear the story of Christ’s birth in a way that heightens their wonder at the gospel story. Our goal is to preach accurate, clear, compelling expositions of the text that re-reveal the living God and the glory of his gospel as centered in his Son” (emphasis mine).

And as you preach the biblical text in this way, may your whole life also “preach” this same truth.

If you approach this season of preaching and teaching with dread or tiredness, the problem is not with the biblical truth. It may be with your heart. The sermons you are preparing to preach to others may need to be preached to yourself. Ask the Lord to give you a renewed desire to study, live and preach the reality of this truth in a renewed way.

O Come Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Christopher Ash, director of the Cornhill Training Course, London, has recently published a new commentary on Job in the Preaching the Word series: Job: the Wisdom of the Cross (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014). I encourage you to use this excellent commentary in your devotional reading (when you reach Job as you read through the Bible) and also for your preparation for preaching and/or teaching through Job.

Ash was recently interviewed about this work. I include a few key questions and responses from this exchange.

Ash was initially asked about the contemporary heresies of the prosperity gospel, which promises that coming to faith in Christ means riches, health and wealth, and the therapeutic gospel, which promises that that being a disciple of Christ means the Lord will give me subjective benefits of happiness and making me feel better about myself. In response Ash concludes, “Job pulls the rug out from under both these gospel distortions. It sets before us a conspicuously righteous man (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3) who suffers prolonged and intense loss and grief, the very opposite of what these gospel distortions would lead us to expect.”

When reading and interpreting Job, Ash concludes that he could not be like any one of us, a representative man. The interviewer, noting Ash’s conclusion, states that Job’s “suffering and trials are in a class by themselves. What role does Job play in the drama of the human story?”

Yes, indeed, it seems to me that Job cannot be “everyman” for several reasons. He is exceptionally righteous (1:1,8; 2:3), exceedingly great and successful (1:3), and his sufferings are intensely deep (1:6-2:10). Far from being a picture of human suffering in general, the book tells the story of a unique man suffering with unmatched intensity. In the big sweep of the bible story it is very natural therefore to see him as foreshadowing Jesus Christ, the one absolutely righteous man on earth, the greatest human being who has lived, and the one whose sufferings were uniquely deep and grievous. Job in his extremity helps us understand Jesus in his uniqueness. Only then may we legitimately see Job as prefiguring our experience in any way, as those indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus and experiencing in our lives some measure of suffering with him (e.g. Rom.8:17; Col.1:24).

Ash’s thesis statement throughout the commentary is as follows: “the glory of God is more important than your or my comfort.” He was asked why this is and why this is actually good news.

Yes, I was greatly helped by 1 Peter 1:7 as I grappled with Job. Writing to suffering Christians, Peter says that the “various trials” they are enduring will show the “tested genuineness” of their faith. That is to say, the trials will prove that they really trust God; it is easy to say we trust God when things are going well; it is when blessings are taken away that it is seen whether we really worship God simply because He is God. When we do and our faith is seen to be tested and genuine then, when Jesus returns, there will be “praise and glory and honour” to God. It is good news to know that your and my Christian sufferings have such an exalted purpose; that our sufferings will prove that in our hearts we honour God as God. Only when we suffer can this be publicly and convincingly seen to the watching world.

One of the challenges in Job is understanding how to read, interpret and apply the messages of Job’s (so-called) friends and comforters. Ash gives some helpful guidance.

The comforters say many true things – true things about God, true things about justice, true things about sin and judgment. But they are not true of Job. The critical thing they deny is the possibility of unjust suffering, and therefore the flip-side of this, which is the possibility of undeserved blessing, or grace. I have included an introductory chapter about the comforters’ theology, and in the various speeches have suggested what we can learn from them. One of the main things I have learned is to be warned, because it is so easy for our Christian culture to slip into a Job’s comforters culture, and for grace to slip out of the window.

Anyone who reads Job knows the book ends with God never answered Job’s questions. In fact, God is the one who asks questions of Job. God never answered Job and he never explained to Job why he suffered. How is this to be understood?

Job has spoken as if he could run God’s world better than God. God’s speeches focus first on the wild parts of the universe, the parts that are clearly outside Job’s control. And then finally on this strange and terrifying monster, serpent, beast called Leviathan (Job 41), who is a vivid storybook way of speaking of the devil or Satan. The central message is that God alone may be trusted to be sovereign even over supernatural forces of evil in the universe. This is a huge claim, that there truly is one Sovereign God who rules the universe and is so great and wise that he can even use supernatural evil as one of his agents in governing the world. The devil is, in Luther’s vivid phrase, “God’s Satan”.



Steps of Preaching

Greg Strand – February 10, 2014 Leave a comment

W.H. Griffith Thomas recommended to young preachers the following counsel regarding preaching: “Think yourself empty; read yourself full; write yourself clear; pray yourself keen; then into the pulpit, and let yourself go!”

Of course, all of this was undergirded by the ministry of the Holy Spirit and grounded in the Scriptures.

What are the steps you follow as you prepare to preach?

In “Directions How To Hear Sermons” I made mention of Calvin’s exhortation to pastors to first preach (apply) the Word to themselves personally before seeking to apply it to the lives of those to whom you preach. And if the preacher did not first apply it to himself, it would be better for him to fall and break his neck before preaching that sermon to others. Someone asked about Calvin’s statement, which I answered in the comment but believe it is worthwhile to include here as well.

T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1992), quotes Calvin’s own writing on this issue. The pastor/preacher must be obedient, he must apply the biblical truths to himself in his own life before he attempts to do so to those to whom he is preaching. “It would be better for [the preacher] to break his neck going up into the pulpit if he does not take pains to be the first to follow God” (40).

In a sermon Calvin acknowledges a similar truth about the importance of being under the authority of the Word like the others to whom he is preaching, that he was preaching to himself as well as to others: “When I go up into the pulpit it is not only to teach others. I do not withdraw apart; for I must be a scholar and the word proceeding out of my mouth should be of service to me as well as to you; or woe to me!” (40).

These are powerful and convicting reminders that we are all under the authority of God and His Word. No one is exempt, including pastors/preachers!

Encouraging Good Preaching

Greg Strand – January 16, 2014 Leave a comment

The people of God gather around the Word of God. Preaching is the most important element of the corporate gathering of the people of God.

God spoke to Moses who recorded these revealed words with a purpose and a direction: “Assemble the people before to me, to hear my words, so that they may learn to revere me” (Dt. 4:10). To this we respond, “Let the assembled peoples gather round you, while you sit enthroned over them on high” (Ps. 7:7). This purpose and direction carries over into the New Testament to the people of God who when gathered are to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1Tim. 4:13).

It is God’s Word that births the people of God, and it is God’s Word that nourishes these people. The Word is central in the gathering and the living, the purpose and the direction. This is true as it is revealed in the Bible. It also reflects some of the important changes brought about during the Reformation in which the Bible was the authority, the sola Scriptura, not the Pope or the Church, and the preaching of the Word was the prominent focus whenever the people of God gathered. The Reformers and churches of the Reformation added to this importance by the way they built and where they placed the pulpit, which served the Word of God and gave prominence to this Word as preached.

This was not about the pastor as preacher. Rather it was about the Word of God as revealed/spoken, for the Bible not only consists of what God spoke in the past, it is the way God speaks today in the present tense. This is why the gathered church would often read Psalm 95, quoted by the preacher in Hebrews 3: “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:7b-11; Heb. 3:7-11, 15; cf. Ex. 17).

Though it is true that with the coming of Christ and the ushering in of the new covenant place and space have been transformed. And yet, we remain embodied in time and place so it means something. As you ponder this, what is the central focus of the church gathering where you meet? What role does the pulpit have? With or without it being the centerpiece of the “furniture,” does preaching remain preeminent. We will pick this up again at some future point.

With this foundation, we now build on yesterday’s post. We learned from Christopher Ash of the “seven ingredients for healthy sermon listening.” Today we hear again from Ash on “7 suggestions for encouraging good preaching.” 

  1. Pray for the preachers. Pray specifically that they will work hard at the Bible passages (I Timothy 5:17) and preach them faithfully, passionately and in a way that engages with us.
  2. From time to time, tell the preachers you are praying for them and looking forward with expectancy to the sermon. That will be a great encouragement and incentive to them to prepare well.
  3. Be there. You may be surprised what an encouragement it is just to have you there, and what a discouragement to have you absent.
  4. Thank them afterwards for things you learned. Don’t flatter or just give them very vague comments about how good it was (if it was). Try to be specific and focus on the biblical content of the sermon rather than just stories, anecdotes or illustrations. Tell them if there was something in particular that you found helpful.
  5. Be prepared to be constructively and supportively critical. Ask the preachers to help you see where they got a particular point from the passage, or indeed the Bible. It will encourage them to stick to the Bible more next time. Be humble and respectful in the way you do this; remember, it is much harder to preach than it is to criticize preaching.
  6. Relate to your preachers as one human being to other human beings. Remember that the best sermon by a remote preaching hero, heard on an MP3 recording, is no substitute for the word of God preached by a human being face to face with other human beings in the context of trust and love.
  7. Be on the lookout for gifts of preaching and teaching in the church, and be ready to tap someone on the shoulder and suggest they develop these gifts and get further training. Mention these ideas to the pastoral leadership team in your church.

Tomorrow we will hear a word from Ash on how to hear “bad” sermons.