Which comes first: the text or the theme?


I’ve been spending a lot of time in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic book, Preaching and Preachers, which is simply one of the most helpful books I’ve read on preaching, even while affirming Warren Wiersbe’s encouragement to read it “at least twice: once to disagree and once to be helped.”1 Lloyd-Jones stresses that the text should almost always come before a theme, for a simple reason: the theme should come from the text, lest a theme be forced upon it.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this. Too often, especially when we play Bible roulette, we come up to a verse or a passage and attach personal significance that has little or nothing to do with the text’s actual meaning. When you see Jeremiah 29:11 used as a verse on a coffee cup, or on a beautiful landscape painting, this is what I mean. You also see it in most—nearly all—uses of Isaiah 58 in poverty alleviation circles, overlooking the context of the rebuke.

I was talking over this very thing with a good friend last night, since I’m preparing to once again to preach to a small congregation a few hours from where I live. And as I pray and think on the needs of this congregation, I keep coming back to a key theme, rather than being drawn to a specific text.

But during our conversation, as my friend and I talked through this, it was easy to see where the theme aligned with Scripture, with texts where it is clearly visible.

This was just a helpful reminder for me that there isn’t always a hard and fast rule about such things. Sometimes you’ll have a clear idea for a text—you’ll want to preach Obadiah, and then you’ll realize you’re preaching on (among other things) eschatology. Sometimes you’ll feel compelled to speak on contentment in sacrifice for the sake of Christ, and you’ll easily find yourself in Philippians.

Which comes first: the theme or the text?

The short answer? Yes.

Photo credit: A.D. Wheeler Photography via photopin cc

5 words on extemporaneous preaching


“Not for faint of heart.”

There’s your five words. (Just kidding.)

Extemporaneous preaching isn’t for everyone, but it is for me. I cannot manuscript. I mean, obviously I can, I write a lot and I love to do so. But I don’t like to write out sermons. My writing voice is far too different from my speaking voice. My one attempt at using a manuscripted sermon in a dozen years of preaching was an intolerably, uncomfortable preaching experience. So, you don’t want to come to me for advise about manuscripting a sermon. However, if you want to take a stab at preaching extemporaneously, then listen up. Here are five words of advice:

1. Preach your sermon to yourself during the week

For whatever reason, I don’t preach a dry run of my sermon in front of a mirror, in an empty auditorium, or in front of my family filled couch. No. Instead I preach it in my car, on my face, in the shower, on my bed, and in coffee shops. I do it in clips and in sections. I don’t do it out loud; it’s all in my head. Most of it is prayer. Sometimes you may catch me pacing my study trying to smooth out certain ideas, but I won’t preach the sermon from beginning to end until I’m in front of my congregation.

And it’s likely that what I preach to myself will sound and be different than what I preach to my congregation. Why? I’m preaching to myself, so I need to hear more, less, or different than what my congregation needs.

If you’re not preaching to yourself first, then you won’t preach to your congregation well. The Word of God has to lay ruin to the miserable ways of your soul and refresh you with the grace of God first before it will effectively do so for others. I want the Word of God to strike me between the eyes before I admonish God’s flock with it.

2. Let the text guide your outline

Quite honestly, I think that extemporaneous preachers are going to be twice as likely to be expository preachers. Allowing the text to guide your sermon outline makes it so much easier to preach without a manuscript. You read the text; then you expound on that text. You read the next text; then you expound on that one. This makes the preaching task fairly straightforward. Its less likely you’ll get lost in your outline.

3. Make a legible, coded outline

If you’re going to preach extemporaneously, you’re going to need a concise outline. I use the perforated pages in the back of my moleskin where I’ve been jotting down notes throughout the week to construct my outline.

Typically, on Thursday afternoon I coalesce all of my notes into an ordered two column homiletical outline that fits on the front of one page. It’s made up of nothing more than single-word signals, transitional statements, verse references, markers for anecdotes, and crucial textual observations. I’ll use a highlighter to code different elements of the outline.

I actually tape this outline into my bible on the opposite page of my passage with special Scotch Magic 811 removable tape. I’ve used this tape in my Bible for some time and have never ripped a page when removing it. This is handy because then I don’t have to necessarily be tied to a pulpit. I can pace and preach with Bible in hand.

So what if I’m going to quote something? Any quotes I use I put in my phone. I just pull it out and open the note I made for the sermon. That note has a quote or two – I don’t think I’ve ever used more than two – and a benediction. Sometimes, I just memorize the quote, which is an effective way to do it. This lets your congregation know that the quote is valuable to you.

4. Record quotable thoughts

Here I’ll add that extemporaneous preachers run the risk of not being quotable. Manuscripted preachers are more likely to include really quotable statements in their manuscript. To overcome this challenge, during my study and prayer throughout the week, if a real quotable, pithy statement forms in my brain, I write it down in my notebook in a special section I’ve created. I go over that section daily to allow those quotes to settle into my mind. That way they will come to me naturally when I preach. Quotability is crucial; quotable becomes memorable; memorable becomes shareable.

5. Fill in your thoughts with other’s

Scripture guides most of my sermon preparation. My personal study of the text is where I lean in most heavy. After I draft my outline on Thursday, I usually read commentaries through the weekend to fill out my knowledge of the text.

This doesn’t mean that I avoid commentaries altogether Monday through Wednesday. I go to them when I have specific questions of the text that I am unable to answer. It could have to do with a word study, interpretive issue, or complex theological idea. I then permit commentaries to help me sort out the matter. I also allow all my other peripheral reading, study, and conversation to fill in and add thickness to what I’m going to say.


Like I introed, extemporaneous preaching is not for the faint of heart. It takes a long time to develop a rhythm and pull it off with a polished delivery. You almost have to begin your preaching ministry as an extemporaneous preacher in order to pull through the learning curve. But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can do it!

Both styles, manuscripting and extemporaneous, have pros and cons. In Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones provides sound balance here on preaching regardless of which method you use, so I’ll close it with what he says:

What I regard as being always important is that you should preserve freedom. This element can never be exaggerated. Yet, at the same time you must have order and coherence. As is so often true in this matter of preaching you are always in the position of being between two extremes, you are always on a kind of knife-edge. (Kindle location 3788)

Regardless of what model you use, preserve freedom while maintaining order and coherence.

Joey Cochran, a graduate of Dallas Seminary, is a church planting intern at Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, Illinois under the supervision of Pastor Joe Thorn. Follow him at jtcochran.com or @joeycochran.

photo credit: A.D. Wheeler Photography via photopin cc

How do you know when God is using you in your preaching?


The worst, powerless, exhausting, futile sermons I’ve ever preached have been the ones where I’ve preached it once before. There are no rules against this, certainly, and it’s definitely not sinful to do (if it were, conference speakers would be up a creek without a paddle).While some do this quite skillfully, when I do it, I fall flat on my face, confident I will never preach again.




Why is this so? Because, as Martin Lloyd-Jones put it so eloquently, “True preaching…is God acting. It is not just a man uttering words; it is God using him.”1

So, how do you know when God’s using you in your preaching? Lloyd-Jones suggests you tend to see it when He’s not:

You are in your own church preaching on a Sunday. You preach a sermon, and for some reason this sermon seems to go easily, smoothly, and with a degree of power. You are moved yourself; you have what is called ‘a good service’, and the people are as aware of this as you are. Very well; you are due to preach somewhere else, either the next Sunday or on a week-night, and you say to yourself, ‘I will preach that sermon which I preached last Sunday. We had a wonderful service with it.’ So you go into this other pulpit and you take that same text, and you start preaching. But you suddenly find that you have got virtually nothing; it all seems to collapse in your hands. What is the explanation? One explanation is this. What happened on the previous Sunday when you preached that sermon in your own pulpit was that the Spirit came upon you, or perhaps upon the people…and your little sermon was taken up, and you were given that exceptional service. But you are in different circumstances with a different congregation, and you yourself may be feeling different. So you now have to rely upon your sermon, and you suddenly find that you haven’t much of a sermon.2

This is a helpful reminder for me, simply because it is so reflective of my own experience. Preaching is not simply faithfully preparing a sermon, it is also God acting in and through preaching. We may not always realize Lord is working through us, but we definitely know when we’re on our own in the pulpit. And it is a dreadful.

3 passages I want to preach (but have been afraid to)


I’m going to let you in on a not-so-secret secret: preaching is really hard. It’s a task that can (or should) make even the most confident man a little weak in the knees. One of the things that’s always freaked me out has been trying to choose the right passage to preach… What if it’s the “wrong” message for the church, or what if I do injustice to the text? And let’s face it, some texts are significantly harder to teach than others.

Here’s a look at three books I want to preach, but have been afraid to:

Obadiah. How many sermons on this book have you heard? Thanks to The Gospel Project, I think my kids have now heard more messages on it than I have (that being, one). But this book, despite being the shortest book of the Old Testament, is rich with gospel goodness, with its powerful reminder that the Lord is sovereign over all nations and that He judges all and He has made a way to escape His wrath.

Genesis. Specifically, Genesis 1. It’s not because I’m afraid to wade into the origins debate, but because I don’t want that to be a distraction from a larger point in the text: this passage is primarily about Jesus—His power, His wisdom, His character and His redemptive work. And too often the origins debate overlooks this important truth. (This, incidentally, I’ve been thinking about coupling with Romans 1.)

2 John. This one is challenging in some ways simply because it’s so short (13 verses!). But again, it’s packed with richness that we can overlook due to the letter’s length. But just think about 2 John 9-11:

Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.

This is such a strong warning from the apostle John—if you don’t believe what He said and do what He commands, you’re not Christian. Worse, if you allow false teachers to be among you, you’re indicted along with them. That’s heavy stuff, isn’t it?

So, those are a few of the passages I’ve wanted to preach, but have been afraid to—at least up until now. I’m working on my summer preaching itinerary now (and if you’re interested in having me come to your church, drop me a line!), and now I’m praying about the texts to preach—and specifically whether or not to teach some of these. It’ll be interesting to see where He leads.

What are some books you’ve never heard preached? Pastors, what are some books you’ve wanted to preach but have shied away from?

TV screens make lousy pastors


You want to get a good conversation going in a crowd of church folk? Talk about preaching—specifically methodology. This is what Owen Strachan did Thursday night on Twitter:

Mike Cosper (pastor at Sojourn) provided a really helpful response: his take is we’re less okay with video’d in music and the like because they’re not part of our everyday life. They break the illusion in a way that a video sermon doesn’t.

And that, at least to me, is part of my concern about video preaching.

While I know a number of guys who’ve gone the video venue route, it really troubles me. We’ve got a problem in North America with consumerism—we take and take and take… and we’re all guilty of this. Some of us just want to take and others want to make it really easy.

As much as we hate this behavior (even when we’re guilty of it ourselves), video preaching can encourage this more than we realize. It risks setting us up to be consumers of information, rather than worshippers of God. And because of that, because it “feels” natural—because we’re so used to life with screens—it allows us to ignore conviction more easily.

A TV show might make me feel something, be it happy, sad or encouraged, but that feeling fades. Usually before the end of the credits. This should never be our response to the preached Word of God. God’s Word is meant to cut us to the core, to search the darkest corners of our hearts, and to reveal the hope of Christ to us. And while there are certainly times and places where video preaching is effective and even necessary, it rarely has the same impact as when someone we know cares for our souls is telling us the truth while in the same room with us.

Imagine you’ve done something really wrong and a friend is compelled to confront you on it. He can do one of two things: he can send you an email, or he can approach you in person. Which is easier? Email. Which is harder to ignore?

The person standing in front of you. 

My point is simply this: how you choose to communicate says how much you care. Being in the room says something that a video screen simply can’t.

You’re always being fed—it’s sometimes just cotton candy


I’ve always been impressed by people who can spend a lot of time saying very little. Not too long ago I was listening to a pastor speak for about thirty minutes and aside from an amusing story, there really wasn’t much that was actually said. Just a key point emphasized numerous times that didn’t really connect to the rest of what he was saying or a clear biblical concept.

What impresses me about this kind of speaking is it’s usually always followed by lots of head nodding and mm-hmms and various other kinds of acknowledging actions that make me wonder if I’m crazy pills or too faux-mature in my faith to appreciate simple truths.

But these kinds of speakers also tend to be those who complain whenever people say, “I’m not being fed.” It really frustrates them to hear that, and I get why. They work hard on the messages they put together, trying to motivate and inspire. And the people are being fed—it’s just sometimes they’re being fed cotton candy.

And cotton candy is a nice treat every so often, but what happens when you eat too much of it? You get fat, lazy and your teeth rot.

Cotton candy preaching works against itself. Whatever methodology a pastor works from, his goal is the same: to see people grow in their faith. The problem is, this kind of preaching doesn’t do that. It tickles the ears, maybe gives a warm fuzzy, but it doesn’t lead to heart change. And so the good religious advice that might be dispensed goes ignore and unapplied. This kind of preaching just won’t do. Jared Wilson makes this point well in The Pastor’s Justification: “The Scriptures preached with conviction… do what good religious advice cannot, ensuring ‘that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim. 3:17)”.

The trouble with the “being fed/not being fed” thing is it lacks clarity. What’s going on behind the question? For some people, it might be that they, like I can be at times, are a bit too “faux-mature.” Guys like me need to chill out sometimes and appreciate truth communicated simply, but precisely (which, FYI, is way harder than it seems). But more often than not, the question is coming from people whose Dentist is warning them about cavities that are forming in their teeth. They’re spending a bit too much time at the desert table when what they really need is a balanced meal.

Good, biblical preaching builds up God’s people. Let’s have more of that and a little less cotton candy.

Loving that which condemns us

Preaching the psalms can be tricky business. On the one hand, there are few better ways to help people see the “human” side of Scripture. So many psalms are almost shockingly emotional. They’re full of beauty and drama and imaginative poetic language…

And that’s also why they’re tricky.

While they’re incredibly human, beautiful and emotional, they’re also easy to misinterpret. If you don’t read them appropriately—as poetry, songs and prayers—you can wind up developing some pretty whack theology, thinking God the Father has a physical body (He doesn’t) or thinking God approves of dashing babies heads against rocks (ditto).

Worst of all, it’s really easy to miss an important truth:

The psalms are all about Jesus. 

In Psalm 19, for example, we see David exclaim the amazing reality of creation proclaiming God’s existence and work. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork,” he writes (Psalm 19:1). When we see amazing images from super-powered telescopes, we can’t help but be in awe of God’s creative power.

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

Even more down to earth, we have the consistent routine of the sun’s rising and setting, and can recognize that God is precise. He doesn’t do things willy-nilly. He abhors chaos.

And then the scene shifts to David extolling the virtues of the Law. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple…” (19:7). David loves the Law. He loves God’s Word, as should we all. He loves it because it brings life. He loves it because it reveals God’s commands and HIs promises.

He loves it even as it condemns him in his sin.

This is where we can get into trouble, if we’re not careful. Remember, the Law itself cannot save—it’s not intended to do such a thing. The Law reveals our sin, but has not the power to free us from bondage to sin.

And yet, when we get to the end of the psalm, we see David throwing himself upon the mercy of his Redeemer. He pleads that God would declare him innocent of hidden faults and keep him away from overt, arrogant rebellion. He prays that he would be blameless before God.

So how did he get there?

Because he sees Jesus in the Law. David sees there’s no way for him to keep the perfect Law of God, nor can he possibly meet its standards. He is condemned under the Law—and yet it brings life. It “revives the soul.”

Why? Because from beginning to end, Jesus is there:

  • Jesus is the promised seed of the woman in Genesis 3.
  • Jesus is the true offspring of Abraham who would be a blessing to all nations
  • Jesus is the true Lamb, offered in place of Abraham’s son.
  • Jesus is the perfect sacrifice the imperfect sacrifices of the Law point to.
  • Jesus is the better priest in whose shadow the Levites stand.
  • Jesus is the greater prophet Moses promised would come.
  • Jesus is the faithful king to whom even Israel’s greatest king pledges allegiance.

And David, reading the Law, sees his Rescuer and Redeemer there. He knows this faithful King, this better Priest and greater Prophet is also the perfect sacrifice. Even in the midst of the Law’s righteous condemnation of David does he see his redemption. David loves that which condemns him because it holds out the hope of his salvation. When we read, preach or teach the psalms, we need to do the same.

How do your favorite preachers do sermon prep?


Kevin Halloran is a blogger at KevinHalloran.net and for Unlocking the Bible and loves baseball, coffee, and Spanish. You can follow Kevin on Twitter@KP_Halloran.

One practical way to improve a skill is to study the methods and practices of the skillful and see what they did to become great.
Although preaching is so much more than knowing technique, learning about the sermon writing process from today’s great preachers can be a great help and example for preachers.

Below are videos of some of today’s great preachers explaining their process in writing a sermon:

Tim Keller:

John Piper:

Mark Driscoll:

Alistair Begg:

Bonus: Josh Harris shares how John Stott prepared his sermons.

Applying the Word


In my review of How Sermons Work, I shared that a place I struggle in developing my sermons is in regard to specific, helpful application. But application isn’t about giving a list of “to-dos,” it’s an instrument by which the Holy Spirit uses faithful preaching to bring about conviction, repentance and a greater desire for holiness, an idea captured well in this quote from Francis Wayland, as published in Living For God’s Glory:

From the manner in which our ministers entered upon the work, it is evident that it must have been the prominent object of their lives to convert men to God. They were remarkable for what was called experimental preaching. They told much of the exercises of the human soul under the influence of the truth of the gospel. The feeling of a sinner while under the convicting power of the truth; the various subterfuges to which he resorted when aware of his danger; the successive applications of truth by which he was driven out of all of them; the despair of the soul when it found itself wholly without a refuge; its final submission to God, and simple reliance on Christ; the joys of the new birth and the earnestness of the soul to introduce others to the happiness which it has now for the first time experienced; the trials of the soul when it found itself an object of reproach and persecution among those whom it loved best; the process of sanctification; the devices of Satan to lead us into sin; the mode in which the attacks of the adversary may be resisted; the danger of backsliding, with its evidences, and the means of recovery from it…. These remarks show the tendency of the class of preachers which seem now to be passing away.

3 Quotes on Expository Preaching


There are few subject related to public ministry more critical than preaching. Here are three quotes I’ve found from some of my favorite theologians on the subject:

The size of the text is immaterial, so long as it is biblical. What matters is what we do with it. Whether it is long or short, our responsibility as expositors is to open it up in such a way that it speaks its message clearly, plainly, accurately, relevantly without addition, subtraction or falsification. In expository preaching preaching the biblical text is neither a conventional introduction to a sermon on a largely different theme, nor a convenient peg on which to hang a ragbag of miscellaneous thoughts, but a master which dictates and controls what is said.

John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today

Whatever the reason, however, the results are unhealthy. In a topical sermon the text is reduced to a peg on which the speaker hangs his line of thought; the shape and thrust of the message reflect his own best notions of what is good for people rather than being determined by the text itself. . . In my view topical discourses of this kind, no matter how biblical their component parts, cannot but fall short of being preaching in the full sense of that word, just because their biblical content is made to appear as part of the speaker’s own wisdom. . . That destroys the very idea of Christian preaching, which excludes the thought of speaking for the Bible and insists that the Bible must be allowed to speak for itself in and through the speaker’s words. Granted, topical discourses may become real preaching if the speaker settles down to letting this happen, but many topical preachers never discipline themselves to become mouthpiece for messages from biblical texts at all.

J.I. Packer, The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art

To me still, I must confess, my text selection is a very great embarrassment. . . . I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study; much hard labor have I spent in manipulating topics, ruminating upon points of doctrine, making skeletons out of verses and then burying every bone of them in the catacombs of oblivion, sailing on and on over leagues of broken water, till I see the red lights and make sail direct to the desired haven. I believe that almost any Saturday in my life I make enough outlines of sermons, if I felt the liberty to preach them, to last me for a month, but I no more dare to use them than an honest mariner would run to shore a cargo of contraband goods.

C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students

Podcasts, Pastors and People

Recently my friend Trevin Wax shared his concerns about people treating their podcasts as their pastors. There is great reason to be concerned about this. He explains:

But just because we cannot and should not point fingers at each other regarding the problem of celebrity does not mean that we shouldn’t carefully consider the ramifications of pastoral influence being mediated through technology instead of the local church. I offer these thoughts not as a point of criticism but as one of concern. And I’m open to suggestions as to how to lift up local church pastors and celebrate their influence and mentoring.

John Piper was right to remind us that we are not pastored by “professionals.” Perhaps it’s time we remembered that we are not pastored by podcasts either.

In reading his concerns, I kept coming back to the question of why? Why are people turning to podcasts and perhaps too frequently looking to them as their source of biblical nourishment. Where Trevin suggests that this might be, in part, because of a “drought caused by the fatherlessness of our society” along with “the heavy rain of pastoral resources available through technological advance,” I have to wonder if, perhaps, there are at least two other reasons:

1. An inability of church members to submit to the leaders placed over them. The reasons for this are twofold: First, we lack a proper understanding of that there is even such a thing as objective truth. This is fundamentally a worldview issue—if truth is relative, then I am the arbiter of truth, so I’m ultimately my own authority. At best, everyone else has an opinion, but it’s not something I need to listen to. The current generation’s attitudes toward leadership is fruit of decades of mistrust and skepticism. We expect politicians to lie to us. We assume our bosses are going to throw us under the bus in order to save their own skin. And we have wrongly projected that onto our church leaders. The drought Trevin refers to is inextricably connected to this unhealthy attitude, and it is something that must be countered and corrected.

2. Pastors are failing to preach. This is a subject I’ve written on before, but it bears repeating—if pastors are not preaching the Word, they are failing their congregations. And as Jared Wilson said so well recently, “Putting some Bible verses in your message is not the same thing as preaching the Scriptures.” Christians who are starving for the nourishment that only comes from the preached Word will inevitably begin seeking it out, and if they aren’t getting it from their own pastors, they’ll find it somewhere else. It’s not terribly kind to say, but here’s the thing all of us who have been given the privilege to serve the Church through preaching need to remember—Christians need to hear what God says, not what any of us have to say. My message might be cute, maybe even helpful sometimes, but it has no power. The Holy Spirit doesn’t transform lives through a clever turn of phrase; He does so whenever and wherever the Word is faithfully proclaimed.

This is something I’ve had far too much personal experience with. Once upon a time, I was an incredible consumer of podcasts—I was famished, desperate to hear the Word proclaimed and I wasn’t getting that in my local church. Eventually, for various reasons that I’ve shared previously, my family and I left and joined another congregation here in London. And a funny thing happened. As I sat under biblical instruction, I found my “need” to listen to podcasts diminish to the point that I rarely listen to them on a consistent basis today. And within a very short period of time, my pastor actually became my pastor. Because he cares enough to share the full counsel of God—to preach the Scriptures and proclaim the gospel—I want to submit to his leadership. I want to submit to his authority.

So perhaps that’s the place we need to start as we look at our concerns over unhealthy relationships with podcasts and “celebrity” pastors. If you’re pastor isn’t your pastor, then you need to look at why. Examine your own heart and attitudes first and repent of any genuine sinful mistrust of authority, appealing to Christ for his empowerment in putting that sin to death. Don’t automatically assume that your problem is your pastor, because the problem could likely be you. But if the problem truly is that your pastor is failing to preach, humbly approach him in love. Voice your concerns. Pray for him. And as a last resort, part company.

The Gift Before the Demand

On November 20, 2011, I had the opportunity to preach at Tree of Life Church in Smithville, Ontario. The message was preached from Matthew 5:1-12. The audio is forthcoming—I hope you find my sermon notes below helpful.

When you’re reading your Bible, have you ever just stopped and wondered what it would have been like to be at the event being described? What would it have been like to see the Red Sea part? What would it have been like to see the sun stand still so the Israelites could defeat their enemies?

And what would it have been like to see Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount?

This message, which begins in Matthew chapter five and continues through to the end of chapter seven, is without a doubt the most comprehensive collection of Jesus’ teaching that we have.

And it’s absolutely devastating, isn’t it? This teaching wrecked its hearers in Jesus’ day and continues to do so in our own. It flipped their world upside down as Jesus described what life in the kingdom of God is like. Why? Because the sermon’s powerful ethical teaching offers us a clear understanding of what is expected of God’s people—perfection.

In your love, in your actions, in all you say, think and do, “you therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus says in Matt. 5:48.

Be perfect.

Can you imagine being part of that crowd and hearing Jesus say that God’s standard is perfection? How do you measure up?

You can’t. Read the whole thing and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be left in a little ball on the floor thinking, man, I suck! But here’s the good news: Jesus didn’t start with the demands of citizenship. He started with grace! And that’s what I want you to see today—Jesus, before He ever makes demands, gives grace.

Something we need to consider as we read the Sermon on the Mount—and particularly the Beatitudes, which we’ll look today—and the content of the sermon almost give the impression that perhaps he was standing with his hand outstretched as he preached with passion and thousands marveled as he taught.

But that’s not what we read in verse one. While some of Jesus’ listeners were present merely out of curiosity, he delivered this sermon to and for the benefit of his disciples. He was not talking to neutral observers, people on the fence. He was talking to the committed. Verse one tells us that, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.” So this is not a massive open-air preaching type event—this is not Paul at the Areopagus, it’s more like a fireside chat. “And,” the text says, “He opened His mouth and taught them, saying”,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:1-12 ESV)

So, what does Jesus tell His disciples in the Beatitudes? [Read more…]

Preaching Goofs

Last year I was preaching through Genesis 18 in Gladstone, I was reading the text and lost my place for a second. Then I completely blanked out. For what felt like 30 seconds. I don’t even know what was going on there, but it was a pretty humbling experience. It’s nice to see that even guys who are considered “great” preachers punt every once in a while, too:

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A Humble Mind

Yesterday John Stott died surrounded by his loved ones and listening to Handel’s Messiah. He was 90 years old. Stott’s ministry has been a great blessing to many, myself included. Stott’s The Living Church was one of the first books on pastoral ministry that I’d ever read (although I’m not certain why I even picked it up initially). Looking back, it was one of the books God used to send me along the path I currently travel in terms of ministry.

One of the things I love about Stott is the importance he places on humility in the life of the preacher and his preaching. Between Two Worlds, his classic work on preaching, offers this wonderful insight. At this point, I am going to take the advice given and “get out of the way” to let his words speak for themselves:

Humility of mind is to be accompanied by humility of motive. Why do we preach? What do we hope to accomplish by our preaching? What incentive impels us to persevere? I fear that too often our motives are selfish. We desire the praise and the congratulations of men. We stand at the door after the Sunday services and feast our ears on the commendatory remarks which some church members seem to have been schooled to make, ‘Fine sermon, pastor!’ ‘You really blessed my heart today!’ To be sure, genuine words of appreciation can do much to boost a discouraged preacher’s morale. But idle flattery, and the hypocritical repetition of stock phrases . . . are damaging to the preacher and repugnant to God. . .

The true preacher is a witness; he is incessantly testifying to Christ. But without humility he neither can nor wants to do so. . . . ‘No man can bear witness to Christ and to himself at the same time. No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and Christ is mighty to save.’ . . .

The most privileged and moving experience a preacher can ever has is when, in the middle of the sermon, a strange hush descends upon the congregation. The sleepers have woken up, the coughers have stopped coughing, and the fidgeters are sitting still. No eyes or minds are wandering. Everybody is attending, though not to the preacher. For the preacher is forgotten, and the people are face to face with the living God, listening to his still, small voice. Dr. Billy Graham has often described this experience. I remember hearing him address about 2,400 ministers in the Central Hall, Westminster, on 20 May 1954, at the conclusion of the Greater London Crusade. The third of his twelve points emphasized the power of the Holy Spirit, and the liberty in preaching which he had felt as a result. ‘I have often felt like a spectator,’ he said, ‘standing on the side, watching God at work. I have felt detached from it. I wanted to get our of the way as much as I could, and let the Holy Spirit take over . . .’ It is precisely here that humility of motive comes in. ‘I wanted to get out of the way.’ For it is all to easy to get in the way, to intrude ourselves between the people and their Lord.

John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today, pp. 324- 326