Archive for the ‘Expository 101’ Category

What makes a great preacher?

Preacher types, like us, predictably toss around the phrase “he’s a great preacher” like hippies throwing a frisbee on the quad. It just sort of goes with the territory. The frequency of such statements seems to increase when Bible conferences are in session. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase but it seems to mask the emphasis of Scripture.

Depending on how you understand the Greek construction at the end of Ephesians 4:11, Paul seems to be calling us “pastor-teachers.” It might even be worth meditating on the order of that. Also joining the chorus is Peter who says elders are to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Pet 5:2). In sum I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that the dirty work of the sermon is forged not only in the study but in giving your life to the sheep. If we carry-out Peter’s flock analogy, do we honestly think the sheep are comforted and corrected merely by our words? The presence and detailed care of a shepherd(s) is what bolsters the weight of the various admonitions.

Think of the last time you tossed out the “great preacher” phrase. Is your favorite preacher a great pastor to his sheep? Do you even know how he treats his congregation? Do you know if his fellow leaders respect his work amongst the sheep? I realize that if you stare long enough at a Rembrandt you will discern flaws in the work no matter how excellent the piece appears. The more I have reflected on this in my own life and ministry, it seems that the men who are exemplary in shepherding and preaching are rarely on tour. They’re not out building ministries their doing ministry.Your more likely to find them sweating it out every week in their own pulpits and with their own congregations. We need to avoid a critical spirit when we think about this but wouldn’t it be great if all the “great preachers” of our generation were even greater pastors?

Luther on sermon length

In September of 1532, Luther said in his Table Talks (2643a):

I hate a long sermon, because the desire on the part of the congregation to listen is destroyed by them, and the preachers hurt themselves.

A few months before in June he said (3137):

I cannot bring things together short and to the point like Philip and Amsdorf.

In the fall of 1533 he said (3422):

The sign of a good speaker is that he stops just when people are most interested in hearing him and feel that he has just begun. But when he is boring and people wait for the end of the speech, that is a bad sign. The same is true of preachers. When someone says: “I would have liked to listen longer,” that is good. When someone says, however, “He was prattling on and could no longer stop,” that is a bad sign.

In August of 1540 (5171a):

A preacher climbs up to the pulpit, opens his mouth, and then stops. That means a preacher must be called before he advances to the pulpit. He should preach carefully and be understood by all, and not burden his listeners with too much verbosity.

That same month it is reported (in 5171b) that Conrad Cordatus asked Luther: “Reverend Father, tell me in a brief way how to preach.” Luther replied:

First, you must learn to go up to the pulpit. Second, you must know that you should stay there for a time. Third, you must learn to get down again.

It is reported that this infuriated Cordatus.

We’ve got Spirit, yes we do!

Doug Wilson can turn a phrase better than most. His preaching style is probably not your style and his theology is probably not your theology in all points but here he provides a few thoughts on the role of the Holy Spirit and sermon preparation. Even if you don’t tuck in your shirt when you preach you can probably learn something here.

Money quote: “Prepare the man before you prepare the message. The first issue relates to character — confess sin, grow in grace, resist temptation, feed your soul something other than spiritual Doritos.”

The gist: The Spirit is with you as a minister of Christ. There is no reason that the Holy Spirit cannot bless you in the study as well as in the pulpit, if you are rightly seeking that blessing. You are His servant in both the preparation and the delivery. Why would He be with you in one place and not in the other?

Advice on writing (preaching?)

Russian playwrite, Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on a broken glass.”

Sermon Illustrations and the Gospel of John

Nearly three years ago, I began preaching through the Gospel of John. Along the way, something interesting happened—I found myself using far less sermon illustrations than I had in the past when preaching other genres of Scripture. It wasn’t by design—at least not as part of a purposeful plan that I had going into John—it just sort of happened. More often than not, I simply found myself preaching passages in John which just didn’t seem to “need” an illustration.

In retrospect, I realize there is probably an underlying reason for this. If one of the purposes of sermon illustrations is to turn that which is abstract into something concrete—to turn your listeners’ ears into eyes and help them see what you’re saying—it simply makes sense that illustrations would be needed less frequently when preaching narrative material. After all, most passages in the Gospels and other narrative books are already concrete, and the best way to help your listeners see what you’re saying is to simply preach what is there.

2 Essentials to a God-honoring Pulpit Ministry

As a pastor’s kid growing up in a Christian home I have listened to more sermons than many believers twice my age.  In addition to this privilege/stewardship I spent close to 13 years at the Grace Community Church (to borrow a humorous expression from Dr. Mohler).  Besides sitting under the regular preaching ministries of John MacArthur, Rick Holland, Ken Ramey, Phil Johnson, Carey Hardy, and Jerry Wragg I also was exposed to the likes of W.A. Criswell, Al Mohler, John Piper, and Jim Boice.  I have listened to far more sermons in my life than I have ever preached.  As I’ve matured in my faith I realize that if the Word of God is faithfully taught (regardless of the preacher) the Spirit of God will use that Word in the life of all true believers (Col. 1:28-29).  For those of us “Joe the plumber” preachers that is an encouraging thought!

It is my opinion that in biblical preaching God is most interested in two things: faithfulness and humility.   Allow me to make a case for that assertion.

God does not give every saint (or preacher for that matter) the same measure of talent/spiritual giftedness.  If I can borrow a principle or two from the Parable of the Talents I may be able to make this point more clearly.  In Matthew 25 the text says, For it is just like a man about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves, and entrusted his possessions to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey.  When I was in seminary it was obvious to me that all of us “pastors in training” had a lot in common.  It was also obvious that not all of us were given the same measure of giftedness.  Some of the men had photographic memories and crazy high IQ’s while others had golden tongues.  One of the lessons God was trying to teach me during this time of ministry preparation was my personal need to grow in humility.  Instead of being envious of the way God gifted a few of these exceptionally bright students I needed to be grateful.  If biblical ministry is all about the glories of Christ then how God chooses to bless a man is His prerogative.

It is my opinion that God does not gift every preacher with the exact same spiritual gifts/talents nor does He give every pastor the same measure of gifts/talents.  That is how I explain the difference between “Joe the plumber/preachers” and those unique preachers like Jim Boice.  To some God has given one talent, to others two, and to a select few, five talents. 

What encourages my heart is that God is most concerned about faithfulness not giftedness (that He alone controls, 1 Peter 4:10-11).  Consider Luke 12:48 And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.  Or take Matthew 25:23,  “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 

This is where I see Paul’s previous post coming in: “Are you growing in your preaching?”  What are you doing to become a more faithful steward of God’s infallible Word?  Take this common principle of sanctification and apply it to your preaching ministry.  Philippians 2:12-13, So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

All of us have witnessed this principle fleshed out in the sports world.  Not all athletes are created equal.  I remember one guy in college who had so much athletic talent it made many of us wannabes green with envy.  Yet this particular basketball player never applied himself and after four seasons never amounted to anything significant.  Their were other players I remember who had a quarter of the talent this player had yet because of their hard work ethic, their ability to receive instruction, and their tremendous commitment took their ‘one talent’ of basketball skill to amazing levels.  Of course then there are those players like Michael Jordan who receive ‘5 talents of athleticism’ and who discipline themselves as much or more than everyone else around them.  The rest as they say is history.  R.C. Sproul and Al Mohler are those type of Christians.

It is not profitable to sit around contemplating why God’s made me the way He’s made me or why He has chosen not to gift me as much as Pastor X or Christian Y.  What is profitable is to discipline myself for the purpose of godliness.  To strive to be a faithful prophet like Jeremiah.  To preach the Word in season and out.  To be a faithful workman who cuts the word straight each and every Sunday (2 Tim. 2:15).  To understand and apply the weakness of power and the power of weakness paradox (2 Cor. 12)

I should not conclude this post without talking about the importance of humility.  God will not share His glory with another.  That is probably why in His plan of salvation He has chosen not to save many wise or mighty men (1 Cor  1-2).  Consider the words of God from Isaiah 66:2, “But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”

In biblical preaching God is most interested in two things: faithfulness and humility.   

Are you growing in your preaching?

My fellow contributor asked some great questions in regard to my previous post. Since what I wanted to say was longer than a comment I have provided it hear as a follow-up. Thanks Caleb for the great questions. In short, the issue is how can a young preacher maintain pulpit cred and grow in his skills and calling. I think we should be careful to avoid a one-size-addresses-all problems approach. As I think Caleb indicated in his comment there are a number of solutions to the pastor getting help with his preaching. Here are a few bullet thoughts:

1. Study preaching. Read a few books on preaching every year and take away a few things to work on from each resource. Read and listen to good preachers. Challenge yourself to preach different genres of Scripture. I am biased toward preaching narrative at the moment but OT and NT narrative will open up a world of study and color.

2. Find one or two reliable/trustworthy sources of feedback in your congregation. I know there are exceptions but most churches will have at least a couple of men who know good preaching and can provide loving feedback. This can also double as a discipleship opportunity so that they are trained to sharpen their hearing as well. I have many that I discuss my preaching with but I have two men that I know will tell me I was terrible and at the same time help me.

3. If #2 is not a possibility then form a work group with a couple of local pastors. Exchange sermon audio or video and provide feedback to each other. If there is no one in your area then look to fellow preachers in your seminary network or like-minded pastors in another state.

4. Continue your education. Go to conferences with break-out sessions on preaching (Shepherd’s Conference, Simeon Trust, etc.). If you are able and you have an M.Div pursue a D.Min in preaching (Master’s and Southern Seminary both have excellent D.Min in expository preaching). These programs will help to refine your skills and expose you to various nuances of preaching that are easily forgotten or missed.

5. Self-evaluation. Watch yourself on video tape. Watch three sermons in a row so that you are not only watching a “favorite.” Watch them multiple times and focus your critique on something different each time. For extra measure, have someone you trust watch them and provide feedback then take the person to lunch for sitting through your sermons and helping you.

6. Read the Bible a lot! Read and read and read your Bible, wear it out, and sit for lengthy periods of time reading chapter after chapter. I’m convinced that the deeper your well becomes the more compelling your preaching. This is why solid preachers who have been at it for twenty years or more who have also established good habits of Bible reading are likely to be excellent expositors. If you are too busy as a full-time pastor to read your Bible for even hours at a time then you are too busy and you are headed for trouble. Turn back now and establish good habits. Do whatever you have to do to deepen your knowledge of Scripture.

7. Turn off Facebook, your phone, Twitter, email, and every other electro-disturbance that hampers your preparation. Train yourself to focus without feeling the need to check some frivolous “update” that adds nothing to the process.

8. If you do have time to read blogs, etc. then explore Expository Thoughts. There are hundreds of essays and ideas here that are given to motivate, challenge, and inspire expositors. Also see Peter Mead’s Biblical Preaching blog which is an excellent blog on the nuts and bolts of preaching.

9. Worship Jesus. If you are daily spending time reading about, praying to, fellowshipping around, meditating on, and striving to be holy like Jesus then your preaching will reflect your walk with Him. It will not be necessary to embrace a form of preaching that works Jesus into your message but the fingerprint of the Messiah will be evident on everything you say.

“That’s a beautiful picture son” and other lies you’ve heard

So you’re fresh out of seminary or you’re about to finish and soon you will find yourself preaching week in and week out. Your first series may take off because after all you’ve already taught it to a small group Bible study with the youth or something like that. Maybe your first series is the “fruit” of an exegetical project you were proud of so now all you have to do is polish the apples and that series will fly . . . right? Listen to the advice of Russell Moore:

Young preachers, your first few sermons are always terrible, no matter who you are. If you think your first few sermons are great, you’re probably self-deceived. If the folks in your home church think your first few sermons are great, it’s probably because they love you and they’re proud of you. If it’s a good, supportive church there’s as much objectivity there as a grandparent evaluating the “I Love You Grandma” artwork handed to them by the five year-old in their family. So your first set of sermons, unless you’re very atypical, are probably really, really bad. So what?

Read the rest of his “Two Cheers for Bad Preaching” here.

Would Paul recognize your “Paul”?

Michael Bird recently delivered a paper at a conference on New Perspectives on Paul and the Jews in Leuven. In his report he made an excellent point:

We have to remember that Paul’s message of the cross was a stumbling block to Jews (1 Cor. 1.18-19) and Paul got himself flogged by synagogue officials he says five times (2 Cor. 11.24). If in our quest to find a Paul congenial to promoting good Jewish-Christian relations we end up with a Paul who is neither offensive nor whippable, then that is proof that we have made Paul in our own image.

For expositors, this is an important reminder that we get the text right. Meaning still matters. Don’t put words in the Apostle’s mouth, don’t take liberties with God’s Word, and make sure that Paul, Peter, and the rest would actually recognize your message. The message is a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others but we keep preaching Christ.

The Minister and his Greek NT

Rod Decker has provided a PDF version of A. T. Robertson’s classic booklet/essay on The Minister and his Greek NT (here). Here’s an excerpt:

Every preacher wishes to be original. That is a proper desire, within limits. One does not care to be bizarre or grotesque. He cannot, if loyal to Christ, be original in his creed. But he can be individual in his grasp of truth and in his presentation of his mes- sage. Originality is relative after all. The ancients have stolen all our best ideas from us. But one can be himself. That is precisely what people like most about us.

Now, the Greek New Testament has a message for each mind. Some of the truth in it has never yet been seen by anyone else. It is waiting like a virgin forest to be explored. It is fresh for every mind that explores it, for those who have passed this way before have left it all here. It still has on it the dew of the morning and is ready to refresh the newcomer. Sermons lie hidden in Greek roots, in prepositions, in tenses, in the article, in particles, in cases. One can sympathize with the delight of Erasmus as he expressed it in the Preface of his Greek Testament four hundred years ago: “These holy pages will summon up the living image of His mind. They will give you Christ Himself, talking, healing, dying, rising, the whole Christ in a word; they will give Him to you in an intimacy so close that He would be less visible to you if He stood before your eyes.”

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