7 Steps to the Pulpit

Many times I’ve sat on the front pew just prior to the sermon time looking at the steps to the pulpit. In these moments each Sunday morning I’m reminded of the great task with which I have been entrusted and my own weakness to perform it. 

After hours of painstaking study and prayerful preparation, I still stare at those steps and feel under qualified, knowing I’ve only scratched the surface of the message. There is a certain holy trembling a preacher feels before climbing those steps to proclaim God’s eternal Word. In centuries past, preachers like Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones had to climb winding staircases to reach the “sacred desk”, but many pulpits today are just a few steps above the floor. Whether you have many steps or none at all, it is an other-worldly task we have been given. The following are a few practical steps preachers can take before climbing the real ones on Sunday morning…

Get in the Word

We must immerse ourselves in the text at the outset of all sermon prep, otherwise we will start with our own flawed opinions instead of the rock solid truth of God’s Word. 

Read the text multiple times, letting its arguments and warnings and promises inform and shape your thinking. Know the context of the passage and how it fits in the chapter, the book of the Bible it is in, and the grand scope of redemptive history. Beware of relying on your own history with the text, but don’t forget how it has affected you in the past. Familiarity with famous passages often requires we do a lot of un-learning before we can really understand it. This is the step in which to consult the original languages and discover the many nuances and word plays happening. Its also a good time to ask lots of questions of the text and consult commentaries to iron out the logic. Get the tone of the text in your head as well, so that you don’t carry the wrong tone into the pulpit. Since the tone of Psalm 23 is much different than that of Psalm 10, our preaching tone ought to reflect this. Breaking the text down into truths for the Christian life is best at this stage as well.

Let the Word get in you

This second step follows closely behind the first. You may know the Word well and have consulted the Greek and several scholarly commentaries, but you are not yet ready to preach it until you have let it get into you. 

Have you been humbled or encouraged or corrected by its teaching yet? What about it are you disobeying right now? Spend time thinking over these questions. I give myself an entire day for this stage. Before we preach the gospel from this text to others, we must first preach it to our own hearts. This is the step where study Bibles and devotional commentaries can be helpful. Such tools as the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible help to take the text and apply it with gospel force to our lives. It is also helpful at this stage to open oneself up to the scalpel of the Puritans, as their applications are heart-searching. A work like Banner of Truth’s Voices from the Past can assist you here as it has texts listed in the back to easily look up.

Pray the Word back to God…a lot

We ought to be praying at all times anyway, but especially over the text we’re to preach on Sunday. I have found that the more time I spend praying the text back to God, the more He reveals about it. 

If I’m preaching on the Great Commission this Sunday, I’ll be much more likely to share the gospel that week if I’ve been praying it to God multiple times. This also gives us a deeper conviction about its necessity before preaching it to others. After reading Tim Keller’s book entitled Prayer, I have since followed Martin Luther’s prayer method, which involves thanksgiving, confession, and supplication (p. 90). I first thank God for the text at hand and how it relates to the gospel. I then confess my failure to obey that particular text. Lastly, I pray for God’s grace to obey the text this week.

Get with the people to see how they need the Word

Your sermon will always need tweaking and will never be fully complete, but the people God has entrusted under your charge need you. One secret to preach better sermons is to get to know the people to which you’ll preach it. Sometimes I’ll realize a powerful application of a text only after visiting a family undergoing some turmoil. Trust me on this: getting to know your members will be some of your best sermon prep in the week.

Illustrate the Word in a fresh way to engage their minds

This stage takes the most effort from me personally, yet can cost me dearly if I skip it.

Sermon illustrations serve a number of uses: mental break, artful explanation, real-life scenario, and many more. The best sermon illustrations, however, are those which take the congregation on a two minute journey outside of the building and four walls to help bring home the message of the text in real life. You can even use church history here to bring a truth home. Jesus was the master teacher because he used current events, everyday objects, and simple stories to add further weight to the message. Beware of using too many illustrations, but have some on hand when the need arises.

Apply the Word to the people

You can’t personally apply the text to every scenario in the life of the congregation, but you should give more application than, “Just do this”.

We can tell others the gospel is amazing all day long, but if we don’t show them it matters for their work attitude or their family relationships or how they run their errands this weekend, we’re doing a disservice to God’s Word. If you struggle with application, Mark Dever has a helpful idea known as the application grid. He basically asks questions of how the text relates to various groups in the church body (age groups, believer/unbeliever, married/single, father/mother to children and vice versa, work, etc.) and then address a few of those in your message each week.

Preach the Word from the heart

The final step in sermon prep is the preaching of it.

Familiarity with the text and your sermon manuscript/outline is vital. I try to look over my sermon manuscript at least four times before preaching it. I want to make sure I know the points and how to transition to them in a way that does justice to the text. But make sure you always leave some on the cutting room floor. If you try to say every single thing you prepared, you’ll only sound wooden, distant, and possibly rushed. Sometimes pausing for a few seconds after a truth has been communicated conveys you care more about bringing the message home than regurgitating a manuscript.

There are multiple other aspects to sermon prep which I didn’t even cover, but these are just a few to help my fellow pastors deliver the Word.

God’s grace to you as you ascend the steps of the pulpit this week to proclaim His Word.

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Why Sola Scriptura? Because of Misplaced Authority

The date was October 31, 1517. The man was the Augustinian monk Martin Luther. In one hand he held a copy of his 95 theses, a treatise he had written to address the various abuses present in the Catholic Church. In the other hand he held a mallet. He desired a conversation to occur about these abuses, he desired repentance, and ultimately longed for a return to the gospel. In an effort to get this conversation started he nailed his theses to the church door in the small town of Wittenberg, Germany.

What happened changed the world.

500 years later, here we are today. Does the reformation still matter? Do the writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other reformers still apply today? Is there still a need to reform the Church? Are we as Protestants, still protesting? The answer to these questions is a resounding yes. Jonathan Leeman is right when he says there is truly a danger in idolizing the past, there is a greater danger in forgetting the past altogether. So in looking to the past to gain wisdom for today, why did the foundational principle of Sola Scriptura matter so greatly during then and why does it still matter today?

The issue at stake during the reformation was authority.

The Roman Catholic church believed final authority was not in the Scripture but elsewhere. The tradition of the church was believed to be a second source of revelation, and the Pope was viewed as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. Standing against this belief the Reformers believed the Bible to be the sole source of divine revelation, the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative rule for faith and practice. The reformers boldly proclaimed that when Scripture speaks, God speaks. And though Scripture is certainly to be interpreted by the Church, and though tradition is certainly helpful, the Church and its traditions only have authority insofar as they are in line with and underneath the authority the Word of God.

Why again did this matter? The Catholic church, the popes, the cardinals, and councils prohibited the Bible from being translated into the common language. Because the Scripture was kept it in Latin, and because they reserved interpretation only for themselves they were in effect saying this, “We’ll interpret the Bible for you, trust us.” And people did. For years and years people never read the Bible for themselves and simply trusted the Catholic church’s interpretation of Scripture and attended mass even though they couldn’t understand the Latin being used by the priests. Then a few scholars rose up from their own study of Scripture after seeing how wide the gulf really was between the church’s interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself. John Wycliffe saw this, translated the Bible into English and the Catholic church banned and burned his books. Some years later Jan Hus, a Czech theologian saw similar things, translated the Bible into Czech and was burned at the stake by the Catholic church. Then, in 1483 a little boy was born who would grow up and see the same things. This little boy was Martin Luther. What began as a call to reform the Catholic church in his 95 theses soon developed into a full scale fight against the Catholic church’s wild interpretations of Scripture, the pope’s immoral and luxurious living, and the pressing need to put the Scripture into the hands of the common man. Thus, with pen in hand Luther fought back. Writing hundred’s of books, letters, and treatises on the clear and plain meaning of Scripture…all while translating the Bible into German. For this they excommunicated Luther, labeled him a heretic, and put a price on his head.

Why did Luther do this? Why was he and so many others willing to die for the truth they saw in Scripture? Because the gospel of a long awaited Messiah revealed in the Word of God was hidden from sight, and they labored to reveal it. Pope after Pope had said it’s our own works that gets you into heaven or cast you to hell, yet the reformers saw standing forth in brilliant clarity the Christ, who was born of a virgin, who lived in perfect righteousness, who bore our curse on the cross, who rose and defeated death with His life, who ascended to reign over all things interceded for us. Gospel grace given by God to guilty sinners who then go free! They saw Christ in all of Scripture, and gave their all to preach Christ in all the world.

Now, why does Sola Scriptura still matter today?

Though we’re no longer held captive by the Vatican, and though we say we believe in the inspiration of Scripture, we do not go to Scripture to see how the Church should run, to see what kind of music we should sing, or to see what kind of preaching we need today, or to see what kind of lives we ought to live. Where do we look to find direction in all these things and more? We look to the world around us and employ modern cultural methods within the Church in an effort to grow the Church and remain relevant in the eyes of our culture. Bottom line? We have placed authority in the wrong place, just like the medieval church. The brilliant clarity of Christ in the gospel saturated Scripture doesn’t seem to be enough for the Church today. Instead, we resort to culturally hip strategies seeking to tickle the eyes and ears of churchgoers because deep down we don’t think the God of Scripture cannot compete with the world, so we make our churches look like the world to win the world and what happens? We…lose…the gospel. And so, as the Cambridge Declaration says, “the faithfulness of the reformers in the past contrasts sharply with the unfaithfulness of the Church in the present.”

Clearly, we need reformation still.

Where does reformation begin?

It begins with a return to Sacred Scripture.

Every Book of the Bible in One Word

I ran across this post a while back and found it extremely helpful. It’s from Garrett Kell over on the The Gospel Coalition.

I’ve reposted the whole below, enjoy!

 

God reveals himself through his Word. When he speaks, he teaches us what he is like, how he acts, and how he desires us to respond. As a whole, the Bible is about God. It’s about God the Father displaying his glory through God the Son by the power of God the Holy Spirit.

The Bible is one book made up of 66 books. Each book has a major theme that emphasizes an aspect of God’s character or a way he is working to carry out his perfect plan. What follows is an attempt to capture these themes. These themes are certainly reductionistic and required me to make a few tough choices, but I hope you’ll be helped by considering them.

Bible: God of Jesus

Old Testament: Anticipation

Gospels: Manifestation

Acts: Proclamation

Epistles: Explanation

Revelation: Consummation


Law
Genesis: God of Promise

Exodus: God of Power

Leviticus: God of Purity

Numbers: God of Perseverance

Deuteronomy: God of Preparation


History

Joshua: God of the Land

Judges: God of the Rebels

Ruth: God of Redemption

1 Samuel: God of the Heart

2 Samuel: God of the Throne

1 and 2 Kings: God of Israel

1 and 2 Chronicles: God of Judah

Ezra: God of the Temple

Esther: God of the Gallows

Nehemiah: God of the Wall


Wisdom

Job: God of Pain

Psalms: God of Praise

Proverbs: God of Prudence

Ecclesiastes: God of Purpose

Song of Solomon: God of Passion


Major Prophets

Isaiah: God of Glory

Jeremiah: God of Weeping

Lamentations: God of Faithfulness

Ezekiel: God of Visions

Daniel: God of History


Minor Prophets

Hosea: God of the Unfaithful

Joel: God of the Locusts

Amos: God of the Oppressed

Obadiah: God of the Mountain

Jonah: God of Compassion

Micah: God of Justice

Nahum: God of Wrath

Habakkuk: God of Sovereignty

Zephaniah: God of Judgment

Haggai: God of Renewal

Zechariah: God of Restoration

Malachi: God of Worship


History

Matthew: God of the Jews

Mark: God of the Romans

Luke: God of the Outcast

John: God of the World

Acts: God of Power


Pauline Epistles

Romans: God of Righteousness

1 Corinthians: God of Holiness

2 Corinthians: God of Weakness

Galatians: God of Justification

Ephesians: God of Unity

Philippians: God of Joy

Colossians: God of Preeminence

1 Thessalonians: God of Encouragement

2 Thessalonians: God of Admonishment

1 Timothy: God of Godliness

2 Timothy: God of Endurance

Titus: God of Works

Philemon: God of Reconciliation


General Epistles

Hebrews: God of Fulfillment

James: God of Trials

1 Peter: God of the Persecuted

2 Peter: God of Patience

1 John: God of Love

2 John: God of Truth

3 John: God of Discernment

Jude: God of Protection


Prophecy

Revelation: God of Eternity

I found the process of reflecting on God’s message in each book deeply edifying, and I would enjoy hearing any ways you can improve this list.

Garrett Kell is married to Carrie, and together they have five children. He serves as pastor of Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

The Bible, The Constitution, & Neil Gorsuch

We’ve all been in those Bible studies where a Scripture is read, then everyone takes their turn giving it’s interpretation in their own opinion. The only interpretation outlawed in these settings is one that says someone else’s interpretation is wrong and theirs is right. The idea is that the Bible comes to each of us differently, therefore there is any myriad of possibilities for each text (within reason). The only problem is that Scripture presents itself to us as a meta-narrative (one big story), not as a series of small stories or good little promises. It is the story of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation, and the central figure of it all is Christ. As Sally Lloyd-Jones puts it in The Jesus Storybook Bible, “Every story whispers His name.”

Textual criticism and interpretation sounds like an art form reserved for ivory tower theologians, but it has shown up in recent news in a most unlikely place: the supreme court nomination hearings of Judge Neil Gorsuch. The question has been posed whether or not this supreme court justice will interpret the text of the U.S. Constitution as a “living document” and it has caught the attention of millions of Americans. News flash for you pastors and teachers out there: even people in the 21st Century are still concerned with the manner in which ancient texts are interpreted. Why the sudden interest from the public in something as seemingly dull as this? Because people want to be in authority.

To interpret the text of the U.S. Constitution as a “living document” is to place oneself in judgment over the text. It is to embrace the freedom to interpret words and phrases in light of one’s own personal opinion. Textual interpretation like this has a total disregard for the original intent of its authors. No attempt is made to discern what the words or phrases could have possibly meant to the founding fathers, those who crafted the very sentences themselves. In those who hold to such an interpretive theory of the text, there seems to be a fear of authorial intent which does not appease everyone’s wishes. So why worry with the original intentions of the authors when you can twist the text to say whatever the current cultural trends are saying?

As frightening as it sounds to stand in judgment over a text one didn’t write because one doesn’t like the obvious intention of its author, this is precisely what people do with the Bible. People say that there are various interpretations that people take on Scripture, but I think this is an over-generalization. As Mark Twain once put it: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” The task of every Christian is to discern the author’s intent in the writing of any biblical text and to then apply that to their lives. The task of every pastor and teacher is to communicate the author’s original intent to the original recipients in such a way that the 21st Century hearers are comforted, corrected, and edified.

While the Bible does refer to itself as “living” we ought not to consider it to be a living document in the sense that we can interpret it how we wish. It is only living in the sense that its words are the very words of God Himself, which have the power to bring life to the spiritually dead. The first Bible twister was Satan in the Garden of Eden, who sat in judgment on God’s Word when he asked, “Did God really say?” and then, “You will not surely die!” We must always strive to let God’s Word be our judge and never attempt to be its judge.

I heard the story once of a preacher who was asked if he stands on the Word of God and his response was basically, “No. I let the Word of God stand in authority over me.” May we all do the same.

Don’t Sleep On Sunday’s Sermon

“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose…And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also…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” (Nehemiah 8:1-8).

In this passage we are told that the Word of God was read to the assembly from morning until midday and then it was explained so that the people could understand what was being read to them. There were several hours spent on the reading and explaining of God’s Word. Several hours!

Can you imagine if we spent several hours reading and explaining God’s Word to each other in our church services today? We would probably sit restlessly in our seats, anxiously looking at our watches, and murmuring under our breath, “When will this end; I have things to do?” But why are we this way? You will notice in the passage above that the people “…told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses…And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.”

So not only were these people attentively listening to the instruction of Scripture, but they were the very ones who demanded to hear it. And even more than that, we can see here in verses 5 and 6, that in response to the Word being opened and read that the people worshiped God. They asked to hear the reading of the Bible, they listened attentively while it was being read, and their response was praise and worship toward God.

When we open up God’s Word, whether we are alone at home or in a worship service surrounded by other believers, our response should always be praise and thankfulness to God. When we examine the words written in Scripture and see who God is and what He has done on our behalf, how could our response be anything but worship? 

Let us not be a people who drag ourselves to church and restlessly sit through the teaching and preaching of God’s Word, but rather let us be a people who hunger for God’s Word and desire to learn it.