By John Wright
Nehemiah 8:7-8 “Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (ESV)
1 Timothy 4:13 “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” (ESV)
2 Timothy 4:1-2 “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (ESV)
In this post from the series on worship we will be exploring the role of preaching within worship. This connects very well to our last post on the public reading of Scripture. However, preaching has for most of the last century been a disliked element of worship by many Christians. There are likely two reasons behind this. The first is that preaching for most of the last century has been dull and shallow. In an effort to be more relevant to the age in which the preaching occurs, the actual relevance of the preaching has been missed. The second reason is that for most of the last century many professing Christians were either stunted or false converts. To the heart of God’s children, preaching of the Word of God should produce a great stirring.
Why does preaching occupy a place in worship? What purpose does it serve? In this post, we will explore the purpose of preaching in the church and the hallmarks of good preaching.
1. Preaching Unveils the Eternal Truths in Scripture
In our passage above from Nehemiah 8, the returned exiles had already heard Ezra read from the Book of the Law. An explanation was necessary for them to understand the full truth of what they heard. The Levites fulfilled this role. Often the meaning of a text may run deeper than appears. Some passages are just by nature difficult to understand. Others are simple, but our distance from the original historical, geographic, cultural, and linguistic setting of the text makes its full meaning less accessible. This is one of the chief functions of a preacher. He should explore the deeper meaning of the text by careful methodology and discernment.
The Second London Confession of 1689 rightly says that the meaning of Scripture “is not manifold, but one.” John Calvin said, “Scripture has one meaning or it has no meaning at all.” This is in response to the traditional Medieval approach to biblical interpretation in which each passage was believed to have multiple layers of meaning. A preacher must make the singular meaning of a text known to his congregation. If a passage is difficult to understand, search elsewhere in Scripture for sound interpretation. Is there an aspect that is foreign to modern ears? It must be explained. If a passage is to be interpreted figuratively or literally, make it clear which it is and what justification there is for the interpretation choice. All of this is the role of preaching. By this, the Holy Spirit illumines the congregation to a sound understanding of God’s Holy Word.
2. Preaching Illustrates Right Application
While discussions of the particulars of theology are enjoyable in their own right, knowing biblical truth and not applying it is foolish. James 1:22-25 exhorts us to be doers of the Word of God and not merely hearers only. This is the second key aspect of preaching. It encourages application of a passage of Scripture. That being said, good preaching links the application directly to the sound interpretation, or as I sometimes say, “Hermeneutics proceed homiletics.”
An example of bad application could be a case like the narrative of David and Goliath. Often, the exhortation is for hearers to be like David and stand up to their giants. The text can be overly spiritualized to make the five smooth stones be five specific actions or spiritual disciplines. The error is to turn a descriptive text into a prescriptive text. We are not called to stand up to a giant. We are called to follow Christ. A better application would be to point to David as a foreshadowing of Christ. David defeats an enemy of the living God just as Christ defeats the enemies of the living God. If we are to be inserted into the story, we are the bystanders of Israel. Our champion has already one the battle. We enjoy the victory.
3. Preaching Points Us to the Kingdom
Preaching is in many ways the heralding of the coming of the Kingdom of God. It should proclaim the sinfulness of man and the judgment that follows that rebellion. It should proclaim the holiness of God and His intolerance for sin. It should proclaim the excellencies of the Incarnation, the cross, and the empty tomb. It should proclaim the return of the Lord. It should proclaim the offer of Christ that we may have peace with God and come under His reign. This is duty of a herald. As such, the Gospel becomes essential to the heart of the sermon.
In light of this, it is important to know that not every element of the Gospel may be proclaimed in every sermon. However, every sermon should contain an element of the Gospel. This is easier than it sounds because of the role of the Gospel as the central thread of Scripture. Every book points to Christ whether in a prophecy, typology, or appearance.
Some sermons may point to a life lived in light of Gospel. The Epistles and the Law are both useful to show how to live a life of holiness in thanksgiving to the work of Christ and obedience to His lordship. Also, while narrative passages can be used incorrectly, they can still give insight into how a life should be lived. Abraham’s use of deceit in Egypt and Gerar are still good illustrations of the consequences of being untruthful. On the other hand, David’s repentance after the exposure of his sin with Bathsheba is a potent example of how we should respond to the conviction of sin.
4. Preaching Reveals What Matters to a Church
If you really want to know what is important in a church, look at the placement of the sermon and the content of the sermon. In most mainline denominations, the sermon is put in a place of minimal importance within the liturgy. It may be at most 20 minutes in length, and it will often deal far more with the feelings and experiences of the preacher and the congregation than it will on the text of the Bible. What matters to a church in this mold is the opinion of culture rather than the truth of God. Emphasis is placed on compassion to the exclusion of holiness.
On the other hand in the large stage of American Evangelicalism, preaching is often seen as secondary in worship to the singing. When the sermon finally does come, it is all application without any interpretation. You can easily learn how to better parent your children or manage your money. However, this will no doubt draw from examples from the latest book rather than from Scripture. A whole sermon may focus on one verse taken out of context or perhaps even a popular song or movie. The difference between this approach to Christianity and the previous is actually very small. The first wanted to win the approval of culture. The second uses the tools of the culture to pursue the idol of church growth.
While the commitment to biblical preaching is small, it does appear to be growing. In a church that legitimately cares about what God says more than culture’s whims, the preaching will be central to the service. The sermon will take as long as it needs to completely understand the point of the text. The focus will be the truth of Scripture and living a life in light of what God says rather than what culture dictates. At times it will bring joy, anger, sorrow, and conviction. It will draw on the whole counsel of God and unapologetically point to Jesus Christ as the exclusive Savior.
5. What If My Church Doesn’t Do These Things?
The quality and philosophy of preaching should rank really high in deciding on a church home. That being said, different qualities of bad preaching exist and should raise different degrees of warning. If the preaching in your church does not reference the Bible at all, contradicts sound biblical teaching, or routinely preaches on verses taken out of context, you probably want to consider finding a new church home. These are what I would call red flags. If the preaching is biblical but not necessarily expository, it might merit a conversation with the pastor. You could give a book on the topic to your pastor for pastor appreciation month. This is what I would call a yellow flag. I will avoid using the slippery slope argument, but I can tell from experience that this kind of preaching can lead to red flag preaching pretty easily.
Lastly, encourage whoever preaches at your church. If they are preaching expository sermons, they are most likely laboring in the Word every week for the good of your soul. Too often, pastors and elders only hear criticism. They need to hear encouragement as well. Pray for them often. Make sure that they get rest.
Hopefully, this has illustrated how preaching is a central part of worship. Remember, when you listen to a sermon you are worshiping God. Let your attitude reflect that truth. As we continue through our series on worship, we will next encounter the role of prayer within the worship service.
John Wright is a professor of Math and Biology at Mineral Area College and is an elder candidate at First Baptist Church in Park Hills, MO. He is also a guest blogger for the Founders Midwest website. If you would like to attend the Southern Baptist Founders Conference Midwest, be sure to check out our Facebook page or visit our website for more information.