What Preachers Need Today

Throughout the Book of Acts there is an ever-occurring term that stands out. Indeed, this descriptive term is so characteristic of the apostles’ preaching of the Gospel that Luke is careful to use it even up to and including the very last verse of his book!

“What is it?”

Let me quote that verse an see if you can pick it out.

“OK. Go ahead.”

Speaking of Paul’s house arrest, here is what he writes:

He stayed two whole years in his own rented house . . . proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with full boldness and without hindrance (HCSB).

Do you see the word that I have in mind?

“Not sure… is it ‘proclaiming?’”

A great word—shows us how he never stopped preaching. But that’s not the word I had in mind.

“How about ‘teaching?’”

Another good choice— but not what I had in mind.

“Then it must be ‘boldness.”‘

Bingo! You got it.

“Thought I never would. Why do you point this out? Isn’t boldness a bit careless? You know what the word means—’he boldly jumped over the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle’—and so on?”

No! No! No!

“What do you mean, ‘NO?’”

I mean NO!

“Why say NO?  Everyone knows that boldness can lead to carelessness—why would Luke characterize Paul’s teaching that way?”

Glad you raised that question. You see, this isn’t the ordinary word for boldness—it is a special word.

“How does it differ?”

This word means “to speak the truth without fear of consequences.  How we need that sort of preaching today!

“You’re right.  Thanks for clearing that up.”

You’re welcome.

Preaching to the Elderly

There is not much concern shown for the elderly in the preaching that I have heard in the last few years. At one time the elderly in our midst were considered valuable and important members whose wisdom was sought, cherished and followed and whose presence was an honor. Now, all too often, in our society which glorifies youth, they are looked upon as a burden. Frequently, that same attitude, unconsciously adopted, is extended to preaching.

Concerns of all of the members of the congregation should be mentioned in preaching. Just as Paul frequently speaks in categories of young men, young women, old men and old women, addressing those belonging to each according to their peculiar circumstances, so too should we be aware of the particular needs, problems and responsibilities of each (in his first letter John also makes such distinctions.) And we should be sure that what we preach is adapted just as regularly to the old as to the young.

What are some of the concerns of older persons to which we ought to direct our attention in preaching? Here is a list with which you may begin:

  • Death—the fear of it, the biblical facts about it, the certainty of eternal life and eternal damnation, etc.
  • Grief—proper and improper ways of grieving.
  • Work—how to be useful in doing non-remunerative things for Christ.
  • Pain and suffering—its meaning, how to endure it, etc.
  • Sickness—why it comes, what can be done about it, the relationship of attitudes to sickness, etc.
  • Wisdom—how it may be shared with others, especially the young.
  • Grandchildren—what can be done to become a powerful influence for good in their lives.
  • Time—how to use it wisely rather than frittering it away before the TV.
  • Attitude—the importance of this, especially in relationship to children, in-laws and others.
  • Weariness—how to avoid and how to handle it when it comes.
  • Growth—how to keep from drying up in old age.

These are simply a few suggestions about the sorts of things that concern older persons and ought to concern others who must care for them. You may wish to preach some entire sermons on the biblical teaching concerning one or more of these areas, and in considering other topics, you might touch on any one of these areas illustratively. You do not always have to single out the elderly by name, but you must deal with their interests (obviously, their interests also are interests to others.) Yet, it is wise at times to speak to them directly. That is true especially when they are likely to plead age as an excuse to call what you have said generally, “not applicable to older persons.” Should you suspect the possibility of such a response, you might anticipate it and cut it off at the gate by saying something like this:

Now I know that there may be some of you more elderly folk out there who are saying to yourselves ‘Well, that’s fine for the young folk, but I’ve served my time. I just don’t have the gumption to get up and do things that I once did …’ Let me tell you that there is a place for every person in this congregation to serve Christ. We’re not planning to wear you out—we need you older members for a lot of projects around here—no, you’re too valuable to us for that. But, we do have some tasks that are suited to you and that I am certain you will be excited to do for Christ. Let me tell you about some of them . . .

You see, preaching like that holds the elderly in respect. They are noted as persons of value to the congregation (they are so long as Christ gives them life); they are considered when allocating tasks for congregational projects; their tasks are suited to their age and they are not allowed to use age as an excuse for not serving Christ. All of these factors—but especially the last—are of importance in conserving and utilizing the wisdom and energy of older Christians in the church.

But while there is also need to preach to them directly about their ills and ailments, etc., perhaps it is even more powerful to use exemplary and illustrative material about older persons incidentally. Pleasant incidents about the joy that an aged saint gave to those who were with her on a hospital ward might be mentioned illustratively. The witness of an older person that led a youth to Christ may be held up as an example. How an older person adapted to a very difficult change with Christian flexibility might be used powerfully for the benefit of all. (“If he, at his age, in his circumstances could do that, what of some of the rest of you younger members who are complaining that your lives are too routinized to alter? Once again it seems that it is our older people who are setting the pace for the rest of us.”)

And, it certainly wouldn’t do any harm when preaching about Abraham to point out incidentally how much God expected of a very old man, and how—by the grace of God—Abraham was enabled to do everything that was expected of him. That God expects much of older persons today ought to be emphasized.

When preaching to older persons there is wisdom in using illustrative material from the days when they were young. You will capture their attention and hold it raptly if you do. You don’t have to preach it as “the good old days,” but you certainly should learn something from such an expression about the interest that older persons have in times past.

One final suggestion: you ought always to be concerned about the hearing of the older members of your congregation and you should be sure that they can hear what you say. Don’t assume that they can hear because they don’t complain; they maybe too embarrassed by their hearing impairments to do so. Ask them. There is no excuse for people failing to hear because of poor acoustics, faulty sound systems, etc. Today, all such problems can be solved easily. Be sure they are. And, when you have something in a sermon that is especially for them, it is good to speak loudly, slowly, distinctly and in a low pitch. I stress the latter because the ability to hear sound at a high pitch usually disappears first in the elderly.

So, what am I saying? Simply this: keep older persons in mind as you prepare your sermons. It is all too easy to focus on the young as the rest of our worldly society has been doing. But the church, and (especially) its minister, ought to know better.

Did Jesus Suffer in Hell?

Some teach that he did.  They refer to the quotation of the Psalm that the apostle Peter quotes (Acts 2:27):

You will not leave My soul in Hades.

“There you have it” they say. “His soul went to hell (Hades) at death—why else would this be true?”

Well, let’s think about it for a moment.

When after three hours of darkness suffering on the cross Jesus said, “It is finished,” what did he mean? Certainly, that was not a cry of relief! He was saying “I have completed the suffering for sinners that the Father sent me to accomplish.” That is to say, redemption is finished. Well, that statement seems to contradict the idea that Jesus has to suffer additionally in hell, doesn’t it?

In addition, consider this: The word Hades doesn’t mean what we (today) mean when we speak of “hell.” It comes from the Greek root id which means “seen.” In Greek, if you want to negate something, you add an alpha (a) privative to the word. Do that with this term and you get “Unseen.”[1]

Hades is the “unseen world.” In it is both paradise and the place of suffering. Remember, Jesus said to the thief: “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.” That’s where His soul was: in the third heaven (see 2 Cor. 12:2-4), which is part of the unseen world.

Be careful not to fall for the heresy that teaches the work on the cross was incomplete and needed to be supplemented by further suffering.


[1] There is also the fact that it has a rough breathing ( h-sound ) at the beginning.

What We Look Forward To . . .

Is the resurrection of the body!  Too often we speak of waiting to go to heaven. True, upon death genuine believers will in their spirit be “with Christ” in paradise (as he told the thief on the cross).  But as much as that is fine and wonderful, it isn’t our ultimate hope.

No, we “eagerly wait for a Savior the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body . . .” (Philippians 3: 20, 21: HBSC). That is more than heaven—indeed, we will live in a new body in a new heavens and new earth (2 Peter 3:13) in which righteousness is at home. Think of it—believer, some day, you will have a new body like His!

It was a body that rose from the dead, walked through doors, ascended into heaven and sat on the right hand of God (where it is today).

On that resurrection day, your body will rise to meet Him in the air, in order to escort Him to earth.  You will then enjoy all the privileges of living in a perfect body in a perfect world! That is heaven, all right: heaven on earth!

Substance in Preaching

In speaking to a promising young man recently about his preaching, we both arrived at the conclusion that his difficulty was not in style, organization or delivery. What he was facing was simply a problem of communicating something substantive to his congregation each week. The problem is not uncommon, even among those who hold to the inerrancy of the Scriptures.

In order to preach effectively, you must have something to say, not merely have to say something! From reading and hearing sermons, all too frequently it seems as though that elemental truth has escaped many.

Are your sermons thin soup? Does your congregation get fed sawdust or the wholesome food of the Scriptures each week? Lean, scrawny Christians are indicative of lean victuals. Are your members healthy and robust? Or are they suffering from spiritual rickets?

It is not as though there is not enough “healthy teaching” (one of Paul’s favorite phrases in speaking to pastors like Titus and Timothy) to go around; the Word of the Lord is filled with all of the ingredients necessary to spread a balanced, nourishing meal before the congregation every time that you rise to preach. There is no end of supplies on the shelves of this well-stocked grocery store.

Well, if that is true, there are only two possibilities for the failure to serve your congregation more than you do: either you don’t know how to shop or you don’t bother to go shopping very often. Either way, you must solve the problem.

I do not want to judge you, determining for you why it is that your congregation has to exist on such slim pickins; I’ll let you determine that for yourself. But to help you do so, consider what follows.

First, your problem may be that you don’t know how to shop. If you are like some shoppers, you have no system at all. You are attracted to whatever strikes your eye, and you purchase it, with little or no regard to what to go after when you select your passage, or the book from which you will be preaching for X number of weeks, and how to get it. It is not a balanced meal to preach from Revelation in the morning, from Ezekiel at night and from Daniel at prayer meeting. That is like buying all desserts, or all meat or all vegetables.

On the other hand, if you don’t know how to shop, your problem may be even more basic; you may not know where to go for what you need or how to get it off the shelf if you locate it. Your own growth as an exegete may be so small that you cannot reach very high and must content yourself with the things that are placed lower on the shelf to attract children. Perhaps you ought to enroll in a course on exegesis, buy some substantive book on the subject, ask another pastor in the community who knows how to do exegesis to give you a crash course, or whatever. You are embarrassed to do so? Then consider this: which is more important—your ego or the undernourished congregation over which Christ has made you a shepherd? What does the great Shepherd of the sheep think about your pride? There is no question about it, if you don’t know how to get out of the Scriptures those healthy teachings that your congregation must have for their growth, if you do not know which commentaries are the best to use or even how to use them effectively, then you must find out. Either find out or quiet the ministry. Let someone else feed the Word to your congregation or learn to do so yourself; there is no other option.

Perhaps, your problem, however, is that you don’t go shopping often enough; i.e., you just don’t spend the time necessary to get up a good meal or two each Sunday. There is no excuse for this either. You are either too busy at other things to which you have wrongly given a higher priority or you are lazy. Either way, changes must be made. Your people, rather, God’s people, must have nourishment. It is a crime to horde up for yourself all of the food from God’s Word and refuse to dispense it to your congregation—for whatever reason.

So, pastor, ask yourself, “How well are my people fed from week to week? What are my shopping practices? How healthy is my congregation, anyway? If you conclude that they are severely undernourished, then it may very well be that the fault is largely yours. Why not prepare a juicy, appetizing, healthy meal or two for them or take the first step toward learning how to do so this week?

Hating Preachers

Is it surprising that some preachers are hated? Well, it shouldn’t be. For people to hate them is nothing new. Listen to this passage:

Jehoshaphat asked, “Isn’t there a prophet of Yahweh here any more?  Let’s ask him.” The king of Israel said . . . “There is one man . . . but I hate him because he never prophesies good about me, but only disaster” ( 1 Kings 22:8, HCSB).

The king of Judah was right in seeking God’s will through a prophet; the king pf Israel was wrong in hating the prophet.  What a contrast!

Why did the latter hate the prophet? Because he did his job—he told the truth about the sins of the king and his people, and predicted God’s judgment upon them apart from repentance.

Today, we have no prophets (contrary to the views of a popular theological writer), but we have preachers who are as close to being prophets as anyone.  When they do their job (fulfill their calling from God) they will frequently have to warn about the consequences of sin against God. When they do, they are often disliked (or possibly even hated) by those who listen. But they are as foolish for doing so as king Ahab, who lost his life as a result (v. 37).

Fools don’t listen. Will you listen—or will you too prove yourself a fool? There are still some preachers who will preach the truth, even though not appreciated for it. If you are fortunate enough to have one in your congregation, listen to him; don’t hate him for telling you the truth. Obey the Word of God as he proclaims it from the Scriptures!

Preaching Rhythms

One of the principal unrecognized problems in contemporary preaching is sleep-inducing rhythm patterns. These pulpit lullabies, which stroke and soothe already sleepy parishioners, are of much more frequent occurrence and contribute far more toward the ineffectiveness of preaching than most realize.

Pulpit sirens, who fall into such rhythmic patterns, bill and coo at congregations unwittingly. It is almost impossible to convince them that their Sunday lyrics may be responsible for the small results obtained, because of the difficulty of recognizing the problem in one’s own preaching. If you are guilty of orchestrating weekly performances of this nature, you will never know it unless you are willing to listen analytically to tapes of your preaching in a critical and businesslike manner. Because so few are, I predict that this article will go largely unheeded. Pastoral nightingales, perched in pulpits, chirruping and warbling away, often are too entranced with the sound of their own voices to do the critical evaluation necessary. But for the few rare birds who will listen, who discover that the problem is theirs and who wish to do something about it, I offer the following suggestions.

I. Recognize What Your Pattern Is

While these preaching rhapsodies differ according to the pulpit musician, there are four major variables that appear in all patterns. They are:

  1. Sentences of relatively the same length.
  2. Repetition of standardized pitch patterns.
  3. Repetition of standardized accent (or beat) patterns.
  4. Pattern in control of content rather than growing out of content

Sentences of the same length form the basis for sing-song and other melody patterns. The only way to break this habit is to consciously replace it with sentences that are chopped off and sentences that are extended. Verbal exclamation points and semicolons would help.

Repetition of standardized pitch patterns, combined with sentences of similar length, produce a sing-song tune, as well as other lilting airs that may be attractive enough at points but begin to cuddle, coddle, and caress when in regular profusion. Beginning or ending sentences repeatedly on the same pitch level, rising to heights at the end or trailing off into plains after descending from the heights, sentence after sentence, may sound mellow and poetic but does not grip.

Repetition of standardized accent patterns add a jerky monotonous element that sounds like bad poetry:

da da’da da’da da’da da’, da da’da da’da da’;
da da’da da’da da’da da’, da da’da da’da da’.

Break them up. Varying the length of your sentences will have a salutary effect; you cannot slide into the pattern unless the length of sentences allows it. This problem, then, is a complication of the first problem and dependent on it.

Pattern in control of content. Content, at all points, should control whatever else takes place in a sermon. Not all patterns are wrong, but one pattern throughout always is. Patterns, when appropriate, appear and disappear. They shift with content. An obvious example is the pattern that I have named question clusters. In great preaching, at emotional heights in the sermon, there often appear a cluster of questions—one after another. This pattern can be very effective, if used appropriately and not overdone. But to use this pattern where there is no height to which to rise, or to use it again and again, is to destroy a good thing. Much more might be said about every one of these elements, but my concern here is to identify them, not to discuss them in depth.

II. Practice Alternative Patterns

Until you identify (from sermon tapes) exactly what patterns (or combinations of the four factors mentioned above) happen to be yours, you can do nothing about them. But assuming that you have isolated one or two patterns (we tend to have several and overwork one or the other for a while), you are now ready to do something about them. On the basis of the biblical put off/put on principle, you must recognize that it is not enough to attempt to “break” (put off) a habit: you must replace it with its biblical alternative.

Notice that in elements 1 to 3 meaningless repetition is the basic problem. Repetitive length, repetitive pitch patterns, and a repetitive cadence are the culprits that we have been uncovering. Therefore, the alternative is variety: variety in sentence length, in pitch patterns, and in accent patterns. How can it best be effected?

Variety must not be used merely for variety’s sake. Largely, variety will come when content controls speech patterns. This is true because as content varies, patterns that grow out of content and seek to serve it will follow. The content and its mood itself, if carefully followed, will bring about variety.

The problem, then, is to practice (outside of actual preaching contexts), wedding melody and rhythm patterns to content. Exciting content usually calls for extremes in length—staccato sentences or lengthy, periodic ones. More measured, relaxed, background or other factual materials call for more moderated lengths (though there is to be variety in this too). Pitch tends to rise with strong emotion, and drops with less emotional content. There will be a lot more high notes in the former and less in the latter.

Knowing what factors to work with will make the difference. However, don’t think you can make the change all at once. Have patience. Work, regularly, for six weeks or more (every day), and you will discover the new patterns beginning to take hold. So will your congregation.—J.E.A

What Is the “Blessed Hope?”

It’s our being caught up into the air to meet Jesus at His coming, of course.”

WRONG!

“Wrong? Why I read about this in Titus 2:13. How can you say that?”

Easily: by reading the passage; and not reading anything into it.

“Explain—”

I’ll let the passage do so:

We wait for the blessed hope and (better, “even”[1]) the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Do you get it? What we wait for isn’t what happens to us—it’s what happens to Jesus: the important thing isn’t our going; it’s His coming.

And it’s not just His coming—but how He will come. He will appear in a glory that makes it clear to all who He is: God as well as Savior.

In that day we who know Him won’t focus on ourselves—we’ll focus on Him! It would seem wise to do so now, as the Great God and Savior, as well as then, wouldn’t it?



[1] He Greek word “KAI” can mean either and or even.

Looking for Idols in Ezekiel 14

idolSon of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces.   (Ezekiel 14:3, ESV)

Ezekiel 14 has (wrongly) been used to support the “idols of the heart” doctrine.

However, the passage says nothing about looking for idols in counseling or for any other purpose.  What, then, was going on?

Here was a people just about to be exiled for idolatry (physical idolatry—worshiping man-made objects of wood and metal). Ezekiel speaks throughout his book of such, and condemns the people for it.

Here, he describes how bad the problem had become: these same people, going out to Babylon, were about to carry images of the idols they were supposed to leave behind in their hearts!

They were “setting up” these idols upon their hearts so that, even when not physically present, they would be able to put them “before their faces.” What a tragedy! What an attachment to the idolatry they had become so accustomed to!

That’s what the passage is referring to. The idols (now in imagery) would accompany them was they went off in exile. There is nothing about their hearts manufacturing idols; nothing about seeking such imaginary idols in order to deal with counseling problems (biblical counseling was the farthest thing from Ezekiel’s mind).

It is important not to confuse things that differ. Never are these idols (now, literally, ON their hearts) said to be the products of their hearts.  Rather, they have been placed on them (in their minds[1]) in order to carry them (in mind) with them.


[1] The Hebrews had no word for mind—when thinking of it, they used the word “heart.””

Preach! Don’t Construct Sermons

images4Sometimes preachers fail to distinguish between preaching a sermon and preaching to a congregation. For some, the two may be identical (preaching a sermon to a congregation) but, on the other hand, they may not be (and usually are not). What is the difference to which I allude, what are its consequences, and what can be done about it?

The difference between preaching a sermon and preaching to a congregation is enormous. In the first, all, or nearly all, of the preacher’s effort has gone into preparing what he hopes will be THE SERMON. It is a masterpiece of style and artistry. People come just to hear and admire the sermon itself. Usually, such sermons are read or memorized. Almost always they are written out in full. In such preaching, the focus is on the sermon as such; it is a thing in-and-of-itself, and whether the particular congregation before whom (not to whom) it was performed (not preached) were to hear it, or another, is irrelevant. It can stand alone on its own two feet as a literary work. There are actually no such sermons in the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount might be thought to be so. But although it is a fine piece of literature, Christ’s sermon was not designed to be wondered at or appraised for its artistic merits. And, as you read it, you soon recognize that it will not allow such treatment. With its second person approach, it constantly prods and pokes at you, by its direct simplicity it unmasks and convicts. The literary critic can find what he seeks only at the cost of hardening his heart to the message while attempting to concentrate solely on form. Even that is difficult: the form itself is testy and terse rather than smooth and elegant; critics, who know their stuff, cannot for long feel at home with it. It cannot be subjected to good criticism; it demands subjection instead. The so-called Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is not an instance of THE SERMON. Rather, it is a supreme example of preaching.

Preaching is an activity; sermon-making is an activity. But the product of the latter is a sermon (or, in some extraordinary cases, THE SERMON) while the product of the former is changed lives. The end or goal of sermon construction is literary; the end of preaching is moral and spiritual. In preaching, the focus is not on the sermon but on God and what He has to say to the congregation. When biblical preaching takes place, people do not think about the sermon or about the preacher; they think about Christ and in some way about their relationship to Him.

In the Scriptures we are commanded “Preach the Word”; nowhere are we told to prepare sermons. Too often, homileticians in seminaries have focused on the art and craft of sermon construction or the preparation and delivery of sermons. While there is need for instruction about how to gather, order and deliver the elements of the message one preaches, nevertheless, the difference in emphasis can make all the difference in outcome. We should talk more about the activity of preaching and less about the production of sermons. The two activities along with their goals and products differ substantially as we have seen already.

Congregations know the difference. Many members of a congregation may not be able to articulate that difference, but they know. “Our former pastor preached to us; I went out of the service every week knowing that I had received a message from God. Our present pastor works hard on his sermons—you can tell that—they are smooth, polished, but.…” Notice where the focus is in each instance: in the first comment it is on God, His message and my responsibility. In the second, on the pastor and his sermon. Under the former pastor’s preaching there will be life in the congregation, challenge to young people, conversions, breakthroughs, growth. Under the second man there will be dullness, deadness, stultification, dry professionalism and a growing churchianity.

“What can I do, if I have developed the bad practice of preparing sermons rather than preparing to preach? How can I change?” In some cases, the answer may be complex, in others more simple. But it will probably consist of at least the following changes:

  1. Stop writing out sermons. That means, of course, that you will neither read nor memorize them. Instead, prepare full preaching outlines, designed to be used as a help in preaching.
  2. Focus your thinking in preparation on God, on the message, and on the congregation—not on the sermon. Ask continually “how can I best bring this message from God to this congregation?” not “how can I best prepare a fine sermon?”
  3. Think about the congregation: Who will be there, what knowledge, prejudices, beliefs, etc., that they will have. Concern yourself with preparing to convey God’s message to this congregation, not with preparing a universal literary masterpiece that can stand apart on its own. Instead, particularize. Prepare to preach to one specific congregation on one occasion, not a sermon for the whole church for all time. When you preach, preach for results in this congregation, not as though you were addressing the entire world, or perhaps the church universal!
  4. Care about your people and adapt every story (or illustration, if you prefer) specifically to them. Prepare to preach to their needs, weaknesses, etc.; don’t address the ills of the planet. The planet isn’t there to hear!

Other solutions to the problem might be suggested but, frankly, I am convinced that the basic need is to become fully aware of the problem with its various ramifications. Once an earnest preacher recognizes that his concern has been about sermons rather than about God and His flock, he will repent and find a way to change. Those pulpit prima donnas who can see no problem will go on destroying congregations with abandon, and nothing short of dismissing them before it is too late will do. But for those who have unwittingly fallen into the trap, or who have been led into it by seminary academies, and who want to change, let me suggest one final solution to the problem. If for a period of three months you will prayerfully burn your sermon outlines, together with any and all preparatory notes, so that nothing remains, and allow no tape recordings to be made, and concentrate on the activity of preaching, you should be able to make the transition from writing sermons to preaching to people. During that period you will discover what it means to prepare to preach for the blessing of one congregation, on one occasion, instead of preparing to play to the grandstands of all time.

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