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I grew up in a supposedly evangelical, mystical movement that hardly prioritized sermon preparation. How confusing and depressing my early years were as a new believer due to preachers and pastors not valuing sermon preparation! The preacher perhaps searched for a text on Saturday night. Sometimes they would even admit that they intended to preach another text, but God gave them a new message that very morning before preaching. They would read the text and launch off into their own moral agenda. They would also throw in a few verses and use the failure of OT people as prosecution material for us. We would yet again be convicted of how sinful we were and our need to cry more and work harder, in order to maintain our relationship with God.
There was hardly ever any overall coherence that held the sermon together. There was no turning to the person and work of Christ as God’s provision for us. There was no reminder of what God has done for us in Christ. Nor how He wants to give us His power by His Spirit to live the Christian life. A lot of convicting words, shouting and frightening examples of people who had “fallen” were proclaimed, but there was no true Biblical expositional preaching of the Word of God.
It was no surprise that I, being under conviction of sin was formulating my own doctrines in my head. I was in search of salvation through my own efforts. I experienced no assurance, joy, or hope which led to more desperation. I share this story to remind us of what can happen on the other side of the pulpit when men of God fail to take pains in faithfully proclaiming the Word of grace. What a reason for pastors to carry out our main responsibility of feeding Christ’s sheep with the Word of God!
In God’s great mercy, I came across the cassettes of Dr John MacArthur’s sermons from the library of Grace to India. Wow! What a contrast this was to what I had been hearing all my life. The title of the sermon was based on the passage being preached! There were one-word points and the words began with the same letter, these points actually helped me to understand the passage! I began to understand the Word of God! It stayed in my mind for the next few days!
The Word began to fill my mind. I began to learn and see how biblical truths relate to my practical life. My thinking changed because of the truth, so did my life! I began to see the power of expository preaching. The best part was I could see the glory of Christ. The Father wants to give the Son preeminence in all things. It was mind changing, empowering, life-changing and discernment building to hear the word expounded in such a fashion. Just after a few months of being under expository preaching, I began to have small opportunities to share the truth with others. My life had gone from confused, guilt-ridden, and useless to growing in grace and being useful to the Master. We need pastors who can preach the word of God. We need pastors who will labour in the Word, in doctrine and take pains in sermon preparation to preach the whole counsel of God.
Sermon Preparation Requires Hard Work
When I say sermon preparation, I believe expository preaching is the best way. A devotional sermon may require less preparation as people are only required to share a few inspiring thoughts about a passage. A cross-reference style sermon may require a little more time as a pastor has to spend more time looking for verses that match with the subject at hand. Dr Mark Dever says that expository preaching has been done when “the point of the passage is the point of the sermon.” In other words, it is not preaching or studying your own opinions and topics into the passage, but drawing out what the passage is trying to say to God’s people. Sometimes the faithful pastor is tempted to wonder if he has bought into this heady, western, traditional and old school methodology called expository preaching. But this is not so. The Bible itself in 1 Timothy 4:13 and 2 Timothy 4:1-4 gives us a clear idea that in the church the Word must be read out publicly, that teaching the passage must be brought out faithfully and that the passage must be used to exhort people to think and live differently.
In the remainder of this article we will dwell on one of the reasons for a pastor to work hard in sermon preparation. The next article will look at two further reasons, followed by the third article which will cover some hindrances and help for pastors.
1. A Pastor Is Directed To Do The Hard Work Of Rightly Handling The Word Of Truth
“Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:14-15)
In this personal letter to Timothy, Paul is calling him to endurance and faithfulness. Endurance through all the discouragements under Roman rule and false teachers who opposed the truth. Timothy had a gift and calling, but an amazing treasure of truth had been committed to his keeping. He was to guard this treasure of truth and invest it into the hands of faithful men who were able to teach others also. The letter of 2 Timothy also calls upon the young man to preach the truth in season and out of season. Along with all this work with the truth, Timothy is called to yield himself to the truth in practical sanctification. This is the overall message of the book.
As we look at the context of the above-mentioned verses, we see that the false teachers are getting sidetracked into debates and empty chatter which does not help the church grow in godliness. In fact, Paul gives a negative consequence that the hearers will be ruined. That is a strong word. But sadly, it is true in various churches. They can begin well, but over the years the life-changing truth about Jesus Christ is laid aside and many social and political issues become central. Slowly, but surely the truth which feeds and builds up is compromised. Eventually, in a few generations, visible spiritual ruin is seen. In this sobering context, Paul reminds Timothy about his primary responsibility as a pastor. Literally, the command given to Timothy in verse 15 is, “do your best,” in the ESV and the NASB says, “be diligent,” to present yourself approved to God. The context makes it clear that the spiritual ruin of people is at stake. In the midst of that, the pastor cannot lack diligence and zeal. This same word is used in 2 Timothy 4:9 where Paul says, “Do your best to come to me soon.” It does not mean to waste a few days on your way to see me. It means to strive with eagerness. Timothy was expected to catch the earliest ship and not give in to the temptation to spend a few days with a family or church. That is the sense we get in 2 Timothy 4:9. In a similar way, we are to do our best in showing ourselves tested and genuine in how we minister the word and live our lives as pastors. God is the one who called us by His grace and there is a sense, in this verse, that He is the one observing how we do ministry.
Then, Paul uses the word “workman” for a pastor. We are reminded again that ministry is labour. You are called and set apart by God to be nourished in the words of faith which in turn provides food and care for God’s sheep. You cannot think about this word “workman” and think of an easy life of 1-hour sermon preparation, a lot of food, sleep and television. But the picture here is of someone completing his assigned tasks in a vineyard, someone who is expected to plant and nurture the vineyard in a particular way and who skilfully works away all day. If he does not faithfully do his work, he will be found with reason to be ashamed when the owner returns.
In this context of false teachers who are missing the focus and arguing about things that do not matter, Paul says a genuine servant of God ought to “rightly divide the word of God.” There are people who moralize the Bible and make it only about self-help. They have strayed from the right usage of the Bible which is to show us our need for Christ and the great grace of God towards us in Him. Some are wrongly handling the word by making the Bible about prosperity and how we can get our best life now by following certain investment principles. Some are wrongly handling the Bible by keeping many people in bondage by preaching only selective parts which bring fear of judgement. Some are using it to show how everyone else is wrong and how they are only right and their ministry kingdom should be built here on earth. But Paul reminds us that the 66 books in our hand are nothing but the truth from God.
More importantly, this word of truth is the gospel for unsaved people and saved people. It is the truth that reminds us of God’s great love to us and the glorious Person and work of Christ. And it reminds us that Christ transforms us and keeps transforming us to walk in His ways by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, a genuine pastor in the midst of all the deviation that is happening around him is called to accurately handle the word. He is to tell the message of the Bible faithfully and consistently stay on the gospel highway. The man of God must rightly handle passages and show how these passages fit into the larger message of the Bible. This cannot happen without studying the passage both in the context of the book and the larger redemptive storyline of the Bible. This involves a lot of hard work and spiritual discipline in sermon preparation.