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Old Testament Preaching


I remember when I was a kid that I always assumed that everything we did in church came from the Bible.  But to my surprise, whenever I would pick up and read the Bible, I would find all kinds of stories of wars, poetry, and strange oracles that I couldn’t understand.  To be honest, it wasn’t much like what we talked about in church at all.  At one point, I really wanted to know if at least the things that we were taught about Jesus and the Gospel were actually in there, and so I just started reading - for about four hours a day - until I finally finished it.  To make a long story short, it is all in there, but the Bible is not some simple pamphlet giving easy instructions.  It is an ancient library, which for most will require something of a tour guide.

And thus we come back around again to that kid sitting in church listening to a preacher.  Why do we structure our worship around a sermon?  It is because we need the tour guide’s instruction, and that is his chief job while he stands in the pulpit.  He is to read the Scriptures and then give the sense of what he has read.  In so doing, he will pass along the teachings that God has left for us in His Word, but he should also be showing us that those instructions arise clearly from the text itself.

I find it fascinating that this idea is not a concept that comes only from the New Testament.  It goes way back into the Old Testament as well.  We see it with Moses proclaiming the words that he has heard from the Lord to the assembled people; we see it when the priests read the Law in front of the young King Josiah; and we see it very clearly detailed in the days of Ezra, as recorded in the book of Nehemiah.

“And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up...Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:5,7-8)

There are a couple of things that I note about this passage.  The first is that the people needed someone to help them understand what was read, even though the Book of the Law was written in their own language.  The Scriptures are concentrated - like frozen grape juice or dishwashing detergent.  Often what is needed is for the concepts to be opened up, explored, and applied in understandable ways.  This is the job of the preacher, and in Ezra’s day, it was the job of the Levites and Jeshua and Bani and Sherebiah and so on.

Haddon Robinson has articulated the absolute best definition of the word ‘preaching’ that I have ever heard.  In his book, Biblical Peaching, he defines his subject thusly:

Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.

The last statement of that definition - about the Holy Spirit first applying the concept to the personality and experience of the preacher, and then on to the hearers - is the most important part of the definition to me.  I can imagine that is how God was using those Levites and others on the day that Ezra read the Book of the Law.  They knew how to explain God’s instructions to the people, because they had already been wrestling with those commands themselves, and had no doubt been trying to live by them.  And when you think about it, anything other than this would be foolish - the blind leading the blind.  A preacher can’t adequately teach others to obey something that he himself ignores.

So people don’t just need a preacher to explain the historical, grammatical, and literary context of a passage to them.  That will not produce true understanding.  Unfortunately, this is where a lot of the preachers that I have heard park the bus.  They stand before their people and sound like they are reciting a commentary about the passage.  We don’t need that!  What we need is for the preacher to give the sense of what has been read through showing us how the Word of God has impacted his own life.  We need a model to follow.

The second thing I note about the passage above from Nehemiah is that the primary content of what was being explained is nothing other than the Law of God.  This is significant to me for a number of reasons.  First, the Law of God actually requires more explaining than many other parts of the Bible.  Second, the Law of God is one of the most neglected parts of the Scripture in today’s church.  And third, a good explanation of the Law of God is one of the most needed antidotes to the moral chaos running rampant in the world and in the church today.

Why has the world been so effective in pushing the homosexual agenda?  Why have so many ‘churches’ capitulated to the demands of this agenda?  I submit that it is because the Law has been long neglected in the church.  We have taught generations of people that it is just not important.  What about the flippancy of the world toward things like fornication and adultery, or how about the institutionalization of covetousness, theft, and the frequent dishonest use of weights and measures?  All of these things also stem from preachers not taking the time to explain the Law of God to their people.

The church is the great restraint of evil that God has graciously placed within the world.  So if we look around and see that evil has slipped its bonds and is running amok, then we have no one else to blame but ourselves.  And I believe what we desperately need in order to cram the evil back inside the box are people like Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites to stand before us and give the sense and cause us to understand the Law of the Lord.

The Real Preacher's Task

It's hard do try to do the right thing.  There's always an easier way that calls to us like a siren's song causing us to want to justify a different course of action than the one that we know to be the right one.  This is true in all instances where people are given the choice to do the "right" thing or the "easy" thing - no matter what kind of situation or career a person finds himself in - but it is especially true of preachers. Preachers get a weird reputation.  In some places, they are highly respected for their office, serving as a sort of de-facto leader for the community (although not really anyone's friend).  In some places they are treated almost like medicine men from some jungle tribe; as soon as someone finds out she's talking to a preacher, she starts telling him all of her ailments, what kinds of medications she's on, what x-rays have shown - all as if the poor minister went to med school instead of seminary.  But in nearly every place, preachers are thought of as those guys who don't do very much work.  Most people think that their job is a social one, made up of house-calls, hospital visits, and golf with the rich folks in the church.  And, for the most part, there are a lot of preachers who fit that description pretty well.

In fact, that's a pretty successful way to grow a church in today's culture.  If a preacher just spends his time coddling the people in his church who would gripe and complain if he didn't, he can avoid a lot of stress.  If he takes a lot of time out to hobnob with the elites in his church, he can make sure they're always on his side and that they will continue giving to the church's budget.  If he spends all his time with his social calls, he won't have very much time left to prepare a deep and thoughtful message from God's Word, and his people will like him better for it.  "Our preacher isn't very good, but he's short" reads one church sign in our county this week.  "Sermons are like biscuits, they are better with shortening" read another one near my old house in Louisville, Kentucky.  Folks who don't care much for the Bible don't want to hear about it for very long, and therefore, the preacher who takes the easy way out can actually be encouraged by a positive response from his work.

The problem is that this wasn't what Christ's ministers were commanded to do.  When you look at what God expects out of those who are His spokesmen, you see that He commands them to "Feed my sheep" (John 21:17).  He tells them to "Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:2).  In Acts 6, the apostles couldn't even bother serving tables for a few minutes each day because they were so busy in "prayer and the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4).  This is far different from what many preachers are spending their time on today.  And for good reason: preaching the Word gets a preacher in trouble.

A pastor will never hear as many complaints from his congregation as when he really tries to feed them from the Word.  "I don't want to be taught!" says one.  "We want to hear salvation sermons!" say some others.  "This is too far over our heads!  You're not preaching with enough passion!"  This whole attitude, which is just a part of the fallen human nature, has been further agitated by sometimes years of preaching from those who have taken the easy (read: disobedient) way out.  And so, the preacher who tries to do as he has been commanded will often experience a lack of success.  He gets complaints from every side.  He sees the attendence numbers drop as some run off to seek entertainment elsewhere.  It can be quite depressing.

But the Bible is on the side of the faithful preacher.  Everywhere you turn in Scripture you find the same song sung about the woes of the faithful spokesman of God.  Nowhere do you find the tales of the glittering social butterfly who is welcomed by all his hearers except in the stories about false prophets.  So for those who might sometimes feel like the negative pressure is a sign that they are doing something wrong, I will leave us with the words of God, spoken to the prophet Jeremiah:

If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth.  They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them.  And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you to save and deliver you, declares Yahweh. (Jeremiah 15:19-20)