When you're on a trip, it can be fun to take a scenic ride. Some of you are high-fi enthusiasts. You're sitting there having an experience, all of your own, that has to do with tweeters and woofers and so on. And you said, did you hear that there, that woofer? And the average person said, no, I have no clue what you're talking about. Well, that was not the woofer.
That was the tweeter, you know? And so the person says, okay, fine. I'm just trying to listen to the melody line here.
You sit over in a corner and do as you choose. All right? Now, theologians, biblical teachers are in grave danger. We are in grave danger of becoming the tweeters and the woofer guys.
Okay? And our congregations are trying to find the melody line. What is all this about, they're saying? What is the melody line of the book of Romans? Romans chapter 1?
No, I don't think so. Romans chapter 1? It's the gospel, isn't it?
I'm not ashamed of the gospel because it's the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. First for the Jew, and then for the Gentile. For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last. Just as it is written, the righteous will live by faith.
And so what does he do? He spends the first three chapters explaining that all have sinned. He then goes on to explain that all may believe. He then explains that the nations are going to be gathered in in 9, 10, and 11 on the basis of the gospel. And then he says there are some practical implications of living out this gospel. It is a gospel to be believed, and it is a gospel which will manifest itself in our behavior. So the book of Romans is an apologia for world evangelization. It's not a wonderful cupboard of great doctrines.
And I think you'd be a little surprised at the way in which we disentangle it and make it all those things. I said, fellas, you've missed the melody line. Don't you remember what I said right at the beginning when I wrote it?
That's why I said it at the beginning. I thought it would dawn on you. It's the salvation for everyone who believes. It's the nature of the gospel.
Now sure, all those things are in it. And I overmake the point for effect. How do we get to Chicago with the material that's in 1 Corinthians? Well, first by going to Corinth. 1 Corinthians chapter 2, I determined to know nothing among you, he says, save Jesus Christ and him crucified. Within four years of Paul's work there in Corinth, the Corinthians had turned from the cross and from the resurrection. And so he calls them back to the cross and to what he resolved—the cross and how it had been used to see them changed. And so it is important for us not to belabor the issue, not in an unhelpful way, but to constantly make sure that we recognize that in the preaching of 1 Corinthians, it was given in a historical context to a certain moment in time.
And therefore, it has to be applied in that way. You take, for example, the people—they'll go to 2 Timothy chapter 3. Timothy, in the last days there will be perilous times. And that's all they need to see is the phrase, the last days, and off they go.
We can go anywhere now on the strength of this. No, because our congregation is going, what does it mean, the last days? Are these opening verses totally irrelevant to Timothy? Is he writing about a period in time that is so far removed that really we would wonder why he even wrote it to Timothy at all?
Because if he really wanted it for the church at the beginning of the twenty-first century, maybe he should have just put it in a section that said, keep this for the twenty-first century. No, it was clearly for Timothy, wasn't it? Because he says these are the kind of people who will be there, and in verse 5 he says, have nothing to do with them. That sounds like immediately applicable to Timothy, doesn't it?
Of course, it was immediately applicable to Timothy. And we want to let our people know that in the past and in various ways, God spoke of old by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us in his Son. These are not drunk with wine, as you assume, but this is nothing other than that which was prophesied by the prophet that in the last days I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. So we want to say to our congregation, you need to understand that the last days were ushered in by the appearing of Jesus and will be brought to their finality by the return of Jesus. Clearly, there will be last days to the last days with the arrival of the Son of lawlessness and all that is there. We understand that, but we do not go immediately there just because we come to a phrase like that. We need to say, Who was Timothy? What was going on in Ephesus?
What did it mean that all these people were bailing out? And so on. And we will open up the eyes of our congregation quite dramatically and wonderfully as we get diligent about doing that. And it is the great corrective to what this means to me. What this means to me.
Now, let me give you just a couple more. Stay on the line. What is the line? Scripture.
Early, late nineteenth century, early twentieth century in Britain, they're under the line in liberalism. The Bible doesn't mean that. It doesn't say that. The miracles aren't true.
Jesus isn't alive. And so on. What's happened is, they've all gone down underneath the line. The line of Scripture runs all the way through. Don't go down underneath the line.
Don't go above the line. Don't claim for the Bible more than the Bible claims for itself. I don't want to upset any, but one of the challenges that I face with some of my brethren is that they are constantly offering to their congregations things that are so clearly going to be our own in heaven.
They keep suggesting to them that actually they can have this heaven now. I understand the motivation in it. I understand the sense of optimism in it.
I understand the desire to believe God in it. But it actually takes everything above the line. And therefore, it is absolutely crucial that we stay on the line. And one of the questions people always have, especially young guys, is, how do you do illustration? How do you do application? Do you do all the teaching up front and then have a closing section? How do you use an illustration and all that kind of stuff?
And they're all good questions, and I'm not sure there's any brilliant answer to it, except that my approach to it has always been in the interweaving of all three elements, rather than having the thing in a truncated fashion where you have information section, you know, followed by illustration section, followed by application section. Now, here's the little thing. People say, how do you approach your study of the Bible and your preparation?
How do you get to it? And this is not unique to me. You've found this all over the place, but for those of you who have never come across it, let me just tell you what my approach is. This was given to me by a man called Leith Samuel, who's now in heaven. I think he stole it from somebody called Griffith.
Who Mr. Griffith got it from, I don't know, but probably a member of your congregation you're about to inform us. Anyway, you go to your texts, and you read them, and you then think yourself empty. This morning, we're going to be dealing with the first five verses of Joel, and you have now read them, and you're going to think yourself empty.
For most of you, that has already happened. Which is actually quite good news, because we've already completed the first part of the exercise. So you think yourself empty, and then you read yourself full. Read yourself full. Incidentally, in the thinking of yourself empty, what I do is I write down anything that comes to mind.
A lot of that I have to throw immediately away, because I shouldn't be thinking things like that. Anything. Songs, notes, references, quotes, anecdotes, anything at all I put down.
Anything that might be remotely helpful. In some cases, immediately some structure may come, a form of scaffolding to get at the text. And that begins to form up just immediately, and you're able to jot that down, and it actually proves, even a couple of days later, to be the very framework that you use. Sometimes that happens, and it's quite wonderful when it does, because you've got a line into the text, which is what I'm always looking for. I'm not looking for an outline.
I'm looking for the key that swings the door open into the text. And in thinking myself empty, that's what I'm doing. I was a little facetious with that.
I don't mean to be. It is an important exercise. We should have background information that we're able to bring to it. Then when we read ourselves full, essentially we're going to read around the text and about the text to the extent that we're able, given the time frame. Once we have begun to put together material, once I've begun to get some semblance of understanding of the text, realizing where it fits within the framework of the unfolding of God's purposes, isolating from it any discoveries that would need to be dealt with very purposefully, whatever else it is, when I begin to get all of that material together—and I have it on sheets and sheets and sheets of paper, they're all scribbles all over the place—I then move from that to my next process, which is to write myself clear. To write myself clear. Now, in the olden days, this was a two-part process in writing myself clear. Today it tends to be a one-part process, but I would be better served if I still kept it as a two-part process, in the sense that I think, as in most works, the more we're able to work and rework the material, the better clarity we will have and the better clarity our listeners will then enjoy. And it's partly experience that allows us to cut out one of the steps, but it may also be simply the tyranny of time, and we may be fooling ourselves that we're able to cut out the steps, when in point of fact we may be doing a disservice both to the text and to the listeners.
So we have to be ruthless with ourselves in that. But what I mean by this is that in the first writing of clarity, I may still not have a scaffolding for the structure of my sermon. But I would still want to proceed through the broad sweep of all of the material. Then I would come back to it again, and by this time I'd be crying out to God, help me to break this up so that I'm not throwing slabs of meat at these people and making them try and chew it down.
Help me to arrange this on the plate in a way that does not do a disservice to the text that I'm seeking to be the servant of. Because, let's face it, anybody can come up with an outline. And that's what happens. When you tend to have the same kind of outline for every sermon, it erodes the thinking processes of your congregation. Because they're not really thinking now.
They just know that it's one main heading, two subheadings, one main heading, two subheadings. And when I speak at seminaries now, as I do every so often, I get myself in dreadful trouble over this, because I only find after they've asked the question—and I've answered it wrongly—that the guy who invited me in, who is the head of the department of homiletics, has just spent five weeks explaining to his students how it is they're supposed to begin a sermon. And then some bright spark, knowing what he's doing, asks me a question and gets me to overturn what his professor has just said for five weeks. But probably it's good for him and good for all concerned. Because what he's doing is, he's telling these young people, this is the way you start a sermon.
No, I'm sorry, you can't say that. Because there are times when you may want to start in a very different way. You could start like this.
I'm not at all surprised that that lady was surprised that a man and a Jew would speak to her, let alone ask for a drink of water. And all of a sudden, you're into John 4. But you've arrested the attention of the people by simply entering the text partway down. Now, you're going to come back, and you're going to start off in a fairly legitimate framework from there. But it's not illegitimate to do that.
We're not trying to do it for effect. But it may just be that as we think of the genre of the story, as you think about narrative and the way you deal with narrative, as you think about all of these things, that when you write yourself clear, I think it's very important for us to be prepared to lean back on the text, to trust the text. Let it establish the framework and the outline. So what it doesn't have three words that begin with P, you know? Or five words that all have the prefix ab, you know? Where you're forced on the fourth point to introduce the concept of an ab roller, you know?
Just to keep the thing going, you know? When young men ask me what the key is to fluidity and lucidity in the pulpit, under the anointing of the Spirit of God, it is write yourself clear. I cannot say that and emphasize it more.
I'd emphasize that more than any other thing. You are being less than honest with yourself if you think that because you've got it relatively clear in your mind, you can go from a relatively clear understanding in your mind to verbalizing it with perfect syntax, with the appropriate use of words, with the right use of phraseology, and so on. There may be one in five thousand that can do that, but the journeyman amongst us, we cannot do that.
Therefore, we must do the hard work. And the way in which you find out whether it makes any sense at all is by writing it down and reading it. And when you go away, you write a paragraph down, you go to the toilet, you come back, you read it, you go, oh, for goodness sake.
That's absolutely pathetic. But you see, if you hadn't written it down, you would be now verbalizing it to your congregation. It's now 945 on a Sunday, and you just said your paragraph. And then a bell went off in your head, and it said, oh, that's ridiculous.
So now you're thinking at all these multiple levels. Now you come back around. Oh, I didn't manage to land the plane. Sorry. Sorry, we're going around. We're going around. All right.
Pull it back. We'll come around. Congregation has to wait for you to come around again.
Okay, wait a minute now. What I'm trying to say is, not that I was trying to, but it's, whoa, we're going around again. The average guy in the congregation is going, does this guy prepare at all? I mean, if I did a sales presentation like this, they'd throw me out the door in five seconds flat. What does he think he's doing?
You ever come in here and practice on me? If you don't understand it, don't show up. If you haven't got it clear, don't do as the disservice of standing up and performing your ignorance for all to enjoy or endure. You got to write your sermons out for the first five years of your ministry. Write your sermons out for the first five years of your ministry. I started doing that in 1975, and I'm still doing it.
I write a complete manuscript for every sermon that I preach. Now, why do I do it? Because I have to?
No, just because it's become an ingrained discipline with me. Because again, I'm afraid of what we just said last evening. The time to be most afraid is when you can get up and say things without having anything to say. And if you have any natural capacity for language, with a modicum of spiritual gift, you can get by for a very long time, provided you have an undiscerning congregation. Therefore, you have to make rods for your own back that says to you, no matter who thinks you're finished in your preparation, you're not finished in your preparation.
Because you have not written yourself clear, and you have not done the business. Think yourself empty, read yourself full, write yourself clear, pray yourself keen. Pray yourself keen. This means not only praying while I'm thinking and while I'm reading and while I'm writing, but also praying when I've finished it all. Isn't it in Preaching Between Two Worlds that John Stott says he always does the final moments of his preparation on his knees? He does it as a deliberate posture. Either when he has finished all of his notes and he's doing his underlining, he takes his book, he lays it down on his chair, he gets down on his knees before his chair, and then he does his underlining in that way.
I think that's a good discipline, provided it is an expression of the posture of our hearts. Because when you read that stuff through and you say to yourself, unless God comes and blows by his Spirit, I really don't know. I've done my best, Lord Jesus, but frankly, I read it through just again for the fifth time this morning, and there were a couple of points at which it really stirred me. The pizza was stirring, and I thought I had about the monkey, but some of the rest of it—you know what I'm saying? You know you're in difficulty when you look at your sermon material and you're thinking the high spots are probably going to be your illustrations. You're looking at your notes, and you're looking at the congregation. You're going, well, okay, we only got two pages to go till we get to that great one that I have about the dead dog on the railway. I know that always makes them cry.
Oh, you got that story as well, do you? Think yourself empty, read yourself full, write yourself clear, pray yourself keen, get in the pulpit, and let yourself go. Let yourself go.
Prepare yourself and forget yourself. The worst times are when we can hear ourselves talking. The best times is when we can't hear ourselves talking. You think about riding a bicycle. I said, you hear the bicycle, go ride it, you just get on and you ride it, don't you? It's a long, long time since you ever went on a bicycle for the first time. You say, well, which foot do I put on the pedal first? Do I start off with it up here and push down, or do I start off with it down?
What do I do? And would you hold that? That's all in the past. Now you just jump on the bike and you cycle.
You don't think about it. That's how you're able to go. That's why a golfer who's ingrained a golf swing just sets up and he lets himself go.
For the rest of us, rigor mortis sets in. The practice swing looks like a cross between Ben Hogan and anyone you want it to be. Ernie Els. Practice swing. Oh, good.
So you got one of the best practice swings in the country. Fine. You want to try it with a ball for me for just a moment? And all of a sudden, because the brain sends messages. It says, number one, the ball's just showing up.
That's an immediate problem. Because without the ball, I can convince myself that that shot, if it had been a ball in front of me, but of course I've gone 285 yards with a slight draw and just dropped in perfect position for nothing more than an eight or a nine iron into the green. Yeah, we understand.
But there's a ball. And we have to ask the Lord Jesus to help us to let ourselves go in the pulpit. Be yourself and forget yourself. You are you. You got your own DNA. God made you exactly the way he wants you. Configured your life, providentially ordered your steps, brought you through all of the experiences that your experiences, put you down in a place for this time. He doesn't want you to be anybody else.
Nobody else. We can learn from one another, in the same way that we would look at somebody doing something excellently and say, Now what are the principles that I can learn from that? Sure, we can learn those principles.
But we don't mimic one another. Alistair Begg has been sharing with us today some practical pointers on preaching on Truth for Life. One of the things we're committed to as a ministry is encouraging pastors and congregations.
In fact, one of our primary goals is to help strengthen local churches. That's why Alistair holds a conference each year at Parkside Church specifically for pastors and leaders in ministry. The conference is called Basics. You can listen to or watch all of this year's presentations for free at basicsconference.org. You can also enjoy messages from the Basics Conferences from all the way back to 2002.
Just visit basicsconference.org slash archives. And it's our truth partners that are largely to thank for all of this. Listeners like you who come alongside Truth for Life with prayer and with regular monthly giving. If you are someone who has benefited from the resources or the teaching you hear on Truth for Life, will you join this incredible team?
You can find out more or sign up at truthforlife.org slash truthpartner or call us at 888-588-7884. Each month we recommend two books that our truth partners are welcome to request. The book we're talking about today is called The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks. This is a book that will help you redirect your outlook on life so you can see God's hand in everything, even when circumstances are tempting you to grumble. Request your copy of The Grumbler's Guide when you sign up to become a truth partner or when you give a donation at truthforlife.org slash donate. I'm Bob Lapine. There are wonderful privileges that accompany pastoral ministry, but there are also responsibilities that can create pressure. Tomorrow we'll explore these challenges and learn how to prepare for them. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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