As a pastor, every week I'm tempted to cheat. I'm tempted to disregard either the Bible or the principles of rightly interpreting God's Word. Or both. I'm tempted, as all pastors are, to bypass the Bible and biblical exegesis in an effort to wow the congregation with anything and everything but the Bible.
In this series of four articles, I want to challenge you to prepare sermons based on the conviction that no sermon is God-glorifying if it ignores or mishandles God's Word. I will do so by briefly walking us through four temptations we preachers face on a weekly basis. For each temptation, I will offer a truth that we can use to uphold us when enticed to leave aside or compromise our fundamental convictions and practices of sound Bible preaching. I will conclude with a summary word from that rightfully famous preacher's text, 2 Timothy 2:15.
In the first article in this series, we saw that our first temptation is to preach something other than the Bible as the source and essential substance of our sermon. The conviction to ward off this temptation is that when the Bible is preached God's voice is heard.
In the second article, we saw our second temptation is sermon-prep procrastination. The corrective measure is learning the discipline of Spirit-filled sitzfleisch, the ability to stay glued to a chair until the task at hand is complete.
In the third article, we saw our third temptation is to forget or neglect basic hermeneutical principles, and I listed ten hermeneutical/homiletical questions that should be in your mind when your Bible is open before your eyes.
The fourth temptation
Our fourth temptation is to cower under cultural pressures. I have a pastor friend who the three Sundays before he left one church for another preached a series entitled something like, "The Three Things I Always Wanted to Say to You, but I Was Too Afraid to Say." Now, we might chuckle at that, but we all know that the twin pressures not to offend and easily to appease are no laughing matter. We all know the counter-cultural contents of our Bibles—those texts on Christ's exclusivity, Christian cross-bearing, the sinfulness of our sin, and the justice of God's judgment. It takes courage to preach the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Expository Bible preaching is the right thing to do.
Last year, my three-year old church plant merged with an established church (technically the oldest in the county). The established church generously gave us their land and building and invited me to lead the united congregations as the senior pastor. What an honor. What a generous blessing! However, after I preached some initial sermons on the vision of the church, all based on texts from Luke's Gospel (don't worry, I didn't succumb to temptation one and preach topical sermons on "How to Make Our Church the Biggest in the State in Six Sure Steps"), I was met with the temptation to stop preaching through the Gospel of Matthew, for the next text on the pre-merger preaching schedule was Matthew 23. Yikes. The thought came to me: Should I preach on Jesus's seven woes to this newly united congregation? How well will that go over? Will people think poorly of me, Jesus, or the both of us together?
I have a conviction about preaching in sequential exposition through books of the Bible, which I'm committed to, and for me to break from this pattern at this point would have been a compromise. Well, trusting that those hard words from Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees were indeed God's word to his church today in some way (in more ways than I at first imagined), I walked us through the woes. Moving on in Matthew, we came next to that hermeneutical mountain we call the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25). Together we journeyed through the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world as we know it, and there were no casualties. Rather, by means of his Word preached, God graciously matured us in ways we never could have imagined. That's the beauty of God's Word! Sometimes the hard texts (Matthew 23) are used to soften hard hearts, and the most complex ones (Matthew 24-25) are used to teach the simplest truths of the gospel.
The temptation to cower under cultural pressures can be met by our assurance that expository Bible preaching is right, real, and relevant. Like Moses on Mount Sinai, we are called to herald the Lord's decrees; like Ezra at the Water Gate, we are to read and help the people to understand the Book; and like Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue, we are to open the Scriptures and preach Christ. Expository Bible preaching is the right thing to do.
It is also the most authentic message to give. In a culture that is appealing for authenticity, the Bible proves itself to be real because it meets our real needs. What is our greater need: Physical healing or the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 9:2)? Food and clothing and shelter or seeking first the kingdom of God (6:33)? Bread to eat or the Word of God to know and obey (4:4)? Only the Bible provides the right answers.
Finally, the Bible is relevant. Themes in the Sermon on the Mount or the Double-Love Command of Matthew 22:34-40 are obviously relevant. The beautiful thing, however, is how every inspired text ("All Scripture") is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). Put differently, every part of the Bible is relevant. How true I have found this truth to be! Matthew's Gospel, for example, starts with a seemingly irrelevant Jewish genealogy. Yet study it, dive into it, see it for what it is, and the powerful themes of God's plan, providence, and timing emerge, and the glorious theme of Jesus as Savior of sinners, Gentile sinners, Gentile women sinners, sparkles like a thousand ten-carat diamonds in a deep but clear stream.
In 2 Timothy 2:15, the apostle Paul enjoins Timothy to "do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." This verse serves well to highlight the four convictions discussed above. Instead of preaching something other than the Bible, we are to preach "the word of truth"—the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Instead of being time-wasting sloths, we are called to be "workers," working hard throughout the week. Instead of forgetting or neglecting basic hermeneutical principles, we are to "rightly handle" God's Word. Instead of falling prey to the pressure of popularity, we give it straight because we will stand before God either "as one approved" or disapproved.
Douglas Sean O'Donnell is the Senior Pastor at the New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois and the author of God's Lyrics.