What an honor! You have been asked to preach. After the initial excitement wears off, you start to think, “What have I gotten myself into.” How do I prepare a sermon? There are about as many ways to do this as there are preachers, so what I am about to present should not be taken as dogma. It is simply an example from which you may benefit. I also realize that many full-time pastors already have their routine, so I am presenting this as a layman, for laymen.
Sermon preparation is as important to preaching as the act of preaching itself, if not more so. As the preacher, we not only need to prepare our message, but we need to prepare our hearts as well. Accomplishing both should be our goal of our preparation.
The plan below assumes that you already know the passage of scripture from which you will be preaching. Please note, if you are currently writing a sermon and you do not know what your main text is (or texts), what you are preparing is a talk, not a sermon: even if you give your talk with passion and emotion. The word of God is what we are called to proclaim, not our own ideas. If you have not been assigned a text, find a passage of scripture and that ministers to you and stick with it; preferably something with which you are already familiar.
Step 1: Pray Without Ceasing (All 7 Days)
If you are being asked to preach, you are most likely a man of prayer already, but this week you will need to be more so. There is no specific time you should be praying as you prepare. You should be praying continually all week. Pray first for your own spiritual condition. Ask for forgiveness for all your sins. You are not entering the pulpit as the perfect spiritual specimen. Repent and guard your heart. You are weak and vulnerable to all kinds of temptations, especially pride.
The only fit condition for you to enter the pulpit is in recognizing your utter weakness to accomplish anything for the Lord if he does not move. If the Spirit of God is not at work in your heart, and the heart of your hearers, this will simply be another act of a man speaking and people hearing without spiritual benefit. This can happen even if you moved them to tears, and they loved every minute of it. If the Spirit of God is not involved, you might as well read the dictionary to the congregation. Ask the Lord to move in you and your hearers.
Step 2. Read. Study. Listen. (3-6 hours)
This is where you feed yourself full. Your goal is to understand the text. Read the larger context of the passage (preferably the entire book of scripture), study commentaries, and listen to other sermons on the passage you will be covering. For myself, I tend to do this Monday through Wednesday. I work full-time, so my prep time is limited. I typically put in a total of three to six hours over the course of the three days. This includes listening to sermons as I drive to work or walk the dog.
As you are going through this process, the goal, once you understand the passage, is to ask yourself, how these truths speak to our spiritual lives. Why is this passage of scripture important? If you are in the right frame spiritually, the Lord will begin to minister to you through His word. Once you have been warned, comforted, and encouraged by His truth, you are ready to preach it to others and not until then.
Remember, if you are not excited about the passage you are preaching, neither will your hearers, and I am not talking about artificial hype. Too many churches try to cover their lack of interest in the word of God with entertainment. Pastors often do this in their sermons as well. Do not do that. Whether or not the church where you will be preaching has all of these trappings is not the point. You need to ask, do I believe the passage of scripture I am about to preach is important enough that I am comfortable walking into a situation that will be boring if God does not show up? Has God ministered to you through the process of studying so much that the message is beginning to burn within you, and will you not be satisfied until you are able to share it with others? That is when you know you are ready to preach.
Step 3: Write (2 hours)
At this point, you are ready to sit down and write, and by write, I mean either manuscript, manuscript notes, or outline. Whatever it is that you want to bring into the pulpit, that is what you want to prepare. I tend to write manuscript notes. This means I write in an outline form, but the outline is so complete, that if you read it out loud, it would almost sound like you are reading a manuscript.
Whatever format you choose, it is important that you realize that you are not to fit everything you studied into your sermon. As that Lord was ministering to you in your studies, you most likely landed on one to three points from the text you are longing to make. Only use the material from your studies that help you make those points.
You are not called to exhaust the text or your hearers. Remember, this is the Word of God. Thousands of sermons could be preached from this passage, and you are only called to preach one for now. Don’t try to preach them all. Knowing what to leave out is crucial to sermon preparation, and this is where many preachers err.
For myself, I usually sit down for two hours on Thursday night and write the sermon. Avoid the temptation to make it perfect. Your goal at this point is to get something down on paper which resembles a sermon. You still have two days to refine it.
Step 4: Review, Edit, Rehearse (2-3 hours)
Yes, I said rehearse. There is something, probably pride, that wells up within us and says, “If I have to rehearse, it is not from the heart or led by the Holy Spirit.” That is a lie. Rehearsal does not cancel out the work of the Holy Spirit. It is often the means he uses to hone the message.
As you begin to talk your way through your sermon, you will notice phrases in your notes that do not quite work. You may even realize you need to rearrange your points. By practicing your sermon, you get to hear it in its allotted time span. By doing this, you will get a better feel for the flow and the connectivity of the points and illustrations. This is something you were unable to experience during the slower writing process.
As you run through it, make edits in the margin, and then go update your notes. You will be amazed by the things the Lord brings to your mind to enhance the sermon as you do this. You will find yourself recalling other relevant verses, biblical illustrations, and examples from life that you did not think of as you studied and wrote. In the end, I usually try to preach the sermon twice before I enter the pulpit. Once on Friday, and once on Saturday.
When I walk to the pulpit. My notes are typically 95% typed and 5% handwritten notes in the margin. I am usually making notes up to the point I enter the pulpit.
Step 5: Preach
You have now done your due diligence. You have been praying for yourself, the congregation, and the message. Now it is time to put it all in God’s hands and deliver it. In the delivery, remember, you are not preaching at the congregation. You are preaching to yourself as much as anyone. Preach as if your life is dependent upon the Gospel you preach because it is.
As you preach, you may stumble over your words, nerves may cloud your thinking, or you may feel absolute freedom. None of that proves the success or the failure of the sermon. You will never know who the Lord will minister to secretly. Your job is to simply present the truth. If you have done that, you have done your job whether the people like it or not. It is now up to the Lord to produce the results.
Now that you are done, listen to the godly men and women in the congregation who give you feedback. They are often God’s voice to you to help you improve if you are asked to preach again. Accept criticism with humility, and remember any praise you receive belongs to the Lord because you went into the pulpit weak and helpless entirely dependent upon Him.
May our Lord, Jesus Christ, be glorified by your efforts.
Then he returned to Bethany, where he stayed overnight. In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs on it, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the fig tree withered up. – Matthew 21:17-19
Following the chronological sequence of the Evangelical narrative, an Olivet ‘memory’ of a different kind, now claims our attention. The incident has the one remarkable peculiarity, that it stands alone in the ministry of Christ as a miracle of punishment. At other times, as we follow the footsteps of our blessed Lord, and are the spectators of His mighty works, He scatters mercy on His path. By miracle and parable, by word and deed, He countersigns and endorses His own declaration, “The Son of man came not to destroy, but to save.” Here, however, though it be but on an inanimate object in outer nature, we are arrested with a strange, solitary exception.
As He is crossing from Bethany on the Monday of the Passion-week, early in the morning, before the great influx of worshipers at this festive season would throng the Temple, a fig plantation, near to the beaten pathway, attracted His eye. “The time of figs was not yet.” As a general rule, it was not yet the fig-season, except perhaps in the earlier and more favoring climate of Jericho and Gennesaret. It was therefore altogether premature and precocious at this period of the year (the end of March) for a fig-tree to be in full foliage, and especially on the comparatively elevated region of the Mount of Olives. While, however, the fig-orchard, now visible, was still destitute of leaves–or, at all events, these were only in embryo–one abnormal and exceptional member of the group is covered with foliage, giving reason to infer that the figs also were ripe and ready for gathering.
You may be aware of the peculiarity in the fig-tree, that the fruit, contrary to the ordinary order of development in the vegetable kingdom, appears before the leaves; so that the spectacle of a tree in full leaf, afforded ground to believe that fruit would be found thereon. Our blessed Lord approaches it, as if He had a right thus to expect, from its leafy appearance, that it should be covered with figs. He finds it to be a mass of pretentious foliage–nothing else; and He utters against it a withering curse. On returning by the same road, that afternoon, to His mountain home, the shades of eventide prevented the disciples noting how literally the blighting word had taken effect. But the next morning, as they are again wending their way to the city, the withered, blasted stem and drooping leaves arrest their attention–“Master,” said Peter, “behold, the fig-tree which you cursed has withered away,” (Mark 11:21.)
Undoubtedly for this strange exception to the customary tenderness of Christ’s miracles, there must be some special reason–a loving Redeemer punishing, and that, also, not a moral, responsible agent, but a dumb unconscious tree. Some peculiar reason indeed there must have been for the miracle at all. Jesus, we may be well assured, did not work it merely to give farther proof and exhibition of His omnipotence. The withering of a tree would, in itself, be comparatively a small attestation to His power, after the grandeur of Lazarus’s resurrection. What, then, meant He? We must go to Himself in the lowly spirit of the disciples, saying, ‘Declare unto us the parable and miracle of the fig-tree.’
The preceding day had been an illustrious one. In the week, it corresponded with our Sabbath, and, as we have found, was signalized by what was outwardly the most brilliant Olivet memory, the Triumphal entrance of the Redeemer into Jerusalem. It closed with an act of sovereign power–the cleansing of the Temple, and the dispersion of the traders, who, with their usurious traffic, were desecrating its sacred precincts. The blighting of the fig-tree forms the completion and complement of this series of expressive symbolic actions, relative to the doom of Jerusalem. And mark the order–the gradation rising to a terrible climax. First, The tender tears–the last pleadings of rejected love. Second, The righteous anger at the desecrated Temple courts, and the figurative dispersion of the Jewish people. Finally, and last of all, the impenitent nation, under the type and symbol of a blighted fig-tree, pining and withering away. These together, formed three acted parables–three illustrations in deed, of the dirge He had spoken in words–“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent unto you; how often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen does gather her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate,” (Luke 13:34, 35.)
Here, then, is the key to this (in some respects, perplexing and enigmatical) incident, in the closing scenes of the Savior’s ministry. That fig-tree is the kingdom of Israel. One thought, next to the great redemption of His Church, seemed, at that time, to occupy the mind of Jesus–it was the nation’s downfall and ruin. It drew tears from His eyes. He who wept not for Himself, wept for the despisers of His mercy and patience forbearance. The tears on the brow of Olivet passed into holy indignation and anger at the sight of the Temple sacrilege; and this again, led these lips, which loved to utter nothing but tenderness, to frame a final, irrevocable, sentence of doom. In order to teach and impress the great lesson, He invests, for the time, that dumb fig-tree with moral qualities–He makes it the expositor of a moral truth.
And observe how specially and singularly applicable the mute symbol was. The Jewish nation stood forth amid its compeers–the empires of the earth–a proud claimant to goodness and righteousness. The other Gentile kingdoms were in darkness and error. These latter had no fruit on their branches; but then, there was this distinction–they made no boastful pretension of having any. They were empty, poverty-stricken, as the Jew himself; no, a deeper blindness sealed their eyes. But, unlike the Jew, they made no vaunting boast of spiritual superiority. They felt that, in moral development, it might figuratively be said of them, “The time of figs was not yet,” they were waiting with longing earnestness for the dawning of some better day, which would give life and light to the world. The nation of Israel, on the other hand, sought to stand out in proud, self-confident pre-eminence. It was a fig-tree clothed with leaves. It had its imposing outward religion–its hallowed traditions–its boasted Temple–its mitred priests–its phylacteried Pharisees–its morning and evening sacrifices–its aromas of incense–its prophets’ sepulchers–its synagogues, and oratories, and mountain-altars–the land was studded with these outward signs and symbols of religious life.
Yes, when we think of all these, there were “leaves” enough. But beneath this ostentatious foliage, what was there? Pride–formalism–vain glory–selfishness–oppression. “How striking the image of that theocracy of solemn form, proudly displaying its ceremonials of worship, while the very heart of the nation was become dry and dead as sapless wood.” (Pressense’s Life of Christ.) This ought to have been the confession of that privileged people in the day of their merciful visitation–‘We, like that fig-tree on our sacred mountain, have had every fostering natural advantage. In a spiritual sense, ours has been the favoring climate, the congenial sunshine, the rains and dews of heaven. But we feel and acknowledge that we have perverted and abused these sacred influences. We are naked, leafless, fruitless, unproductive cumberers. All true and acceptable righteousness in us is lacking. Our ancestral law, which should have produced holiness, proclaims our deficiency–utters our condemnation. We participate in the longings of humanity, and of the holiest and best of our nation, for a better righteousness than our own. We feel our need of such a Savior as that of whom our prophets have thus spoken, This is the name whereby He shall be called, The Lord our Righteousness.’
And was not that Savior in their midst? Had not all the ardent aspirations of the sainted fathers and worthies of Israel met and been fulfilled in the person of “God manifest in the flesh?” Yet, in blinded unbelief, they closed their eyes to irresistible attestations of His divine majesty and power. Though disease fled at His touch, and winds and waves were lulled at His bidding, and devils crouched at His word, and death, at His summons, gave up its reluctant prey, yet ‘He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.’ In defiant pride, the fruitless fig-tree shook its vaunting branches and foliage before the eye of the heart-searching God, and urged its boastful claim to that of which it was utterly devoid. The Incarnate Redeemer approached in divine-human majesty. He unmasked the pretentious hypocrite, and left it with a blighting doom. Like the earth, which, despite of all genial influences, brought forth only briars and thorns, it was ‘rejected–near unto cursing, whose end was to be burned.’ And as we come at this day, like the disciples of old on Mount Olivet, to gaze on this tree once planted by God’s right hand, what do we see? It is a nation scattered and stripped. The Jewish race, for eighteen hundred years, like withered leaves–carrying the tidings of their curse to the kingdoms of their dispersion.
We can understand, then, the primary meaning and intention of the Savior in this strange exceptional act among His miracles of mercy–mutilating and destroying a work of His own hands–it was, that that blighted tree of the fig-forest might take up a parable to the house of Israel. Nothing could be more impressive. There, on one of the heights or undulations of that holy Mount, like the solitary calcined pillar which once overlooked the Valley of Siddim–stood a withered thing, all the more conspicuous by contrast with the rich carpet of spring-flowers and verdure which doubtless then, as now, spread around; on its scarred stem the doom written, “O Israel, you have destroyed yourself.”
But we have not exhausted the divine purpose and meaning in this symbolic action. That stern deed was a prophecy and sermon to EVERY AGE–a solemn sermon preached for all time, alike for the Church collectively and for believers individually. The Savior’s dooming sentence on the fig-tree, is a searching word to all formalists–boasting hypocrites–who stand forth before the world in pretentious leaves, but who are utterly devoid of that which the great Seeker alone values–fruit to His glory.
Churches are involved in that doom. Since the introduction of Christianity, down to our own days, have there not been too many examples of leaf-covered, but fruitless fig-trees–churches with imposing worldly splendor; decorated aisles–splendid liturgies–venerable relics–dim religious light–gorgeous festivals–priestly and hierarchal orders boasting apostolic succession and sacramental efficacy–and yet, within all this pomp of show, this imposing ecclesiastical organization–an utter dearth and destitution of spiritual energy and life? What have all such been, and proved? deceptive leaves–outer foliage, screening and masking utter barrenness, the outward work of man attempted to be put in the place of the inner work of God–the pomp of ritual and sensuousness of ritual, having the precedence over repentance and faith–the external of the casket looked to, more than the enclosed jewel of holiness.
Is it not this ostentatious outward profession (clustering foliage without corresponding fruit) which is delineated by an inspired pen, as the attribute of the Church in its latter day of lukewarmness and apostasy? Hear the words of the apostle, “But mark this–there will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good,” and then, mark how the mournful catalogue is summed up–it is by telling us, that this accursed, cumbering tree–not one branch of which has a redeeming cluster of fruit–is nevertheless clothed with pretentious leaves; for it is added, “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”
Nor does the searching lesson terminate here. The doom of the withered fig-tree has a personal application to individual professors. Who has not seen the living counterpart in the ostentatious Christian, the flaming orthodoxy of whose creed is sadly belied by the daily life–by the manifestation of selfishness, peevishness, fretfulness, pride, frivolity, discontent, uncharitableness, censoriousness–no inward crucifixion of sin, no molding of the heart in conformity with the will of God? These are the poor, withered, scarred stems, which the leaves of profession overlap and conceal.
How Christ again and again, by word and deed, shows how He hates all facade, pretense, display, unreality. He ever dealt with tenderness to the very chief of sinners. He never spurned true penitence, however great the guilt, from His feet. But with what burning invective does He hurl His denunciations against Pharisees, “HYPOCRITES!” Fruitless professor, sad and mournful indeed is your state. There is more hope for the open sinner than for you. Yours is the mimic life of the dumb insensate mummy in the Egyptian sarcophagus. It is the hectic flush in the maiden’s cheek–the appearance of loveliness, the deceitful sign of beauty–but, in reality, the ominous symbol of inner waste and decay and death. The blight of God’s curse is upon you. “How soon is the fig-tree withered away!”
The great practical deduction from this solemn passage, may be expressed in the words which the old Preacher of the desert addressed to the thronging crowds around him–“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees–therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.” This whole passage, indeed, seems to bring out “the goodness and severity” of Jesus. His goodness and tenderness towards all–but that goodness when insulted, injured, despised–passing into needful severity and doom!
We may mark, also, in these chapters, the same gradation in the case of individuals, we have already noted with reference to the Jewish nation collectively. First, There are the tears of divine human emotion; the unutterable sorrow over His rejected overtures of love, as the Redeemer still strives and pleads with the impenitent, saying, “How shall I give you up?” The next step, is when He enters the soul-temple, and sees it degraded and desecrated with works of darkness and sin–that soul, with its Godlike chambers converted into a robber-haunt of Satan, a den of thieves. Then comes the sad climax of all. The soul He has loved, wept over, borne with, entreated, becomes a doomed, blighted, withered thing, a dreadful monument of His righteous judgment and avenging wrath!
In these different ways He may be dealing with those whose eyes trace these pages. With some, it may be, in the way of tears and tenderness. Seated on the brow of the Heavenly mount, He may be bending over you in pitying love, and addressing you in words of affectionate admonition. In the case of others, He may be using sterner means, He may be entering the Temple with the whip of small cords, “driving,” with affliction’s scourge, these robber spoilers from what He would still reclaim and purify for Himself, saying, “Except you repent you shall all likewise perish.” In the case of others (may there be none such) it is the last, sad, utterance of all. Warning, and admonition, and forbearance, and patience, are terminated. The tears have wept themselves away; compassion has exhausted its treasures; and the thunder-cloud rises in its stead. He must (dreadful alternative!) curse those who will not receive His blessing–“Henceforth let no fruit grow upon you forever.” Oh what a terrible state is this, into which the doomed soul then passes! The tree–the moral, thinking, living agent, is dead. Yes, living on, a conscious existence, and yet dead while he lives!
There are two ways by which God deals with incorrigible sinners, corresponding to the two ways He dealt with the two fig-trees of the Gospels. Both were cumberers. Both were doomed. But by different methods was their doom consummated. The one was ‘cut down.’ After a three years’ patient bearing with it, (continuing to resist all efforts to make it fruitful,) the insulted Husbandman clears the grass around the stem; the axe descends; it lies prone on the ground, stripped, bared, plucked up by the roots; the place which once knew it knows it no more!
The dealing with the other is different. It still keeps its place in the plantation. But it is a naked, lonely, blighted stem, bearing upon it the curse of permanent unfruitfulness. It needs not a judgment to come. It is judged, ‘condemned already’–“I the Lord have dried up the green tree,” (Ezek. 17:24.) The dreadful doom is consummated in silence. There is no audible voice to record its fulfillment; no avenging angel descends to pour his vial on the stem of the fig-tree; no horde of devouring locusts to strip its leaves; no tempest to wrestle with its branches. Unlike the symbolical vine of Egypt, no boar out of the wood desolates it, no wild beast of the field devours it. God simply withdraws the agencies which have been so long repelled and resisted–the moistening rains and the reviving sunshine, which, in the case of others, have quickened life and fruitfulness.
Like Gilboa, on whose arid top, amid its sisterhood of mountains, the refreshing dew seems, to this day, to fall in vain–the barren tree stands in its life of death, given up by God–“Ephraim is joined to his idols, let him alone”–“Let no fruit henceforth grow upon you forever!” Yes! I repeat, dreadful indeed such a case as this. Abandoned! Like that picture of the abandoned vessel, so truthfully delineated by the pencil of a great modern painter, a hulk on the wide sea, abandoned to its fate, the sport of winds and waves and ruffian elements, an unwieldy log on the great waters, without mast, or sail, or helm, or crew–drifting, drifting onwards along the ocean, amid the bleak howling winds and wastes of a dark and cheerless eternity!
‘Forever,’ ‘irreversible,’ did I say? No, not so! God speaks of those who are ‘near unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.’ “But the end is not yet”–while there is life there is hope. In the middle acted parable to which we have adverted, (the driving from the Temple,) there is an incident of blessed significance introduced. Jesus healed the diseased ones–“And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them,” (Matt. 21:14.) It was an evidence interjected in the midst of righteous retribution, that ‘in wrath He remembers mercy;’ that even now, that heart of Divine power and human love is a hoarded garner of pity and compassion, open to all who will avail themselves of its treasures.
We dare never, to one lost soul on this side the grave, shut the door of pardon. “Forever” is the fearful word for the dungeons of despair. Mercy, pardon, forgiveness, are still words for the living. There is a summer-time of grace ever near, even in the dreariest winter of spiritual desolation. God is giving us a reprieve. Every new day is such–another chance of salvation, another offer of mercy, before the knell of the soul be rung forever! Prisoners–but “Prisoners of hope.”
Yes, go stand by that stripped, speechless, silent fig-tree, on the crest of Olivet, and while you behold there a dreadful witness to the Redeemer’s wrath, look at the same time at that sister fig-tree to which He pointed, at an earlier date of His ministry, in the regions of Galilee. He came to it, as He comes to each one of us, expecting “fruit;” “I looked that it should bring forth fruit.” There was none. Is it doomed at once?–No; an all-prevailing Intercessor pleads for one other year of respite and mercy–one other year to fertilize and dig about its roots, one other blessed chance of hope and forgiveness; and then, if there be no fruit, “after that,” to cut it down.
‘After that’–who can tell how brief the duration? ‘After that’–it may be a measured, meted out, perhaps nearly-exhausted season, for some one of us! Reader, self-convicted and self-condemned, are you led in prayerful penitence to exclaim–‘Lord, I am that fig-tree; the message of this ‘memory’ is for me. That one year of gracious respite and reprieve, oh let me improve it! There may be but some weeks of it, some days of it, yet to run. A few more swings of the pendulum, and the time so graciously included in “after that,” will have fled forever, beyond the possibility of recall. Oh spare me that I may recover strength before I go hence and be no more!’
And if we would add one word more, it is a closing gospel thought, suggested by the fig foliage of this parable-miracle. It was with the pretentious leaves of this same tree, that Adam and Eve, in Paradise, sought to cover their nakedness. God stripped away the leafy garments, and provided them instead, with the hides–the skins of the animals slain on the sacrificial altar. That was the earliest of the Bible’s acted parables. It was a Gospel Parable uttered in Eden, but one full of gracious comfort to the Church in every age. The fig-tree clothing of self-righteousness is utterly unavailing; the Lord who walks amid the trees of the garden strips it away–it cannot abide His righteous glance, His avenging scrutiny. But He has a blessed substitute at hand. He has woven, into a divine texture, the leaves of the Tree of life for the healing of the nations. “I will bring near,” says He, “my righteousness”–the covering, the glorious vesture provided by the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world. He reveals “the righteousness of Christ, which is unto all and upon all those who believe.” Oh! dead, barren fig-tree, lift up your drooping withered leaves and live. “For whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life!”
No preacher worth his weight enters the pulpit without some distress. There is a heaviness to delivering the word of God that is unlike anything else. Even if the preacher is one who is naturally jovial and brings humor into the pulpit, the man moved by the Spirit of God will tremble under the gravity of what he is doing.
I do not hold the office of pastor, but I do preach occasionally, and I teach the Bible regularly. Though I do not know the full burden these pastors carry, I do know, in part, that preaching is often accompanied by a sense of dread that weakens them to their very core.
What is it that causes this? It is the holiness of God. To stand in the pulpit as a representative of God to His people is a weight and responsibility that can only properly be done in the power of the Holy Spirit. To stand there in the power of the flesh, or to trust in our own oratory skills is a sin.
Preaching, when done correctly, almost always begins with anguish. The greatest preachers will always ask, “Who am I to stand and proclaim Your word?” They know they meet the qualifications of pastor or elder as laid out in the scriptures, and they know God has called them to this, but they also know they need to be fed the word of God as much as any person in the congregation. Due to their sinfulness, their lives depend upon the gospel they declare just as much as anyone to whom they will preach.
This acknowledgment of need is the only foundation for a great sermon. The pastor will often find himself studying the word of God until the passage he is covering begins to feed his soul. He studies the text to make sure he faithfully understands the intent of the biblical writers: the intent of God Himself who inspired those writers. From there he begins to see the treasure that lies within and how it speaks to the heart of the believer. If the word of God has not fed the soul of the preacher, the preacher will not be able to feed those to whom God has called him to minister.
Oh, but once his soul has been illuminated to the power of the word, and once God has strengthened his soul, the message begins to burn in his breast until it is able burst forth in proclamation. Once the message ignites the heart, this is when the preacher knows he is ready to preach.
Though the trembling remains, once the Lord brings the preacher to this point, there is a change in the distress. Instead of cautioning him, it now compels him. The fear of the Lord not only causes dread but as Proverbs tells us, “In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence (Proverbs 14:30).”
This confidence in God is one of the places the preacher finds great delight. He now has full confidence, not in himself, but in the God who laid him prostrate before His holiness, then brought him to his feet by the power of His word. It is here that he can stand liberated from the fear of man, and in full freedom proclaim the message the Lord has given him. There is no better place to be, and there is no higher calling.
Many of you reading this may never preach a sermon in front of a church congregation, but a similar distress and delight experienced by a preacher can be experienced by you as well. Christ has called us all to minister to those around us. Our sinfulness has broken us before our holy God, He has strengthened us with His word, and He has called us to comfort others where we have been comforted (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). This distress and delight can take place in a Christian’s writing, music, art, and a variety of other acts of service.
With contrition, spend time with Jesus, and He will speak to you through His word, and once that message begins to burn within you, He will put someone in your path, or send you to someone who needs to hear His truth. A voice that trembles before the Lord because of His holiness and has found full confidence in His word is a voice the Lord often uses to resonate into the heart of the hearers. In this God is glorified which is our greatest delight.
Perhaps we rely on entertainment in the church to keep things interesting because we do not rely enough on God to keep our gatherings compelling. Entertainment is easy compared to waiting on God because waiting on God requires we come to church with hearts prepared, undistracted by the world, and with a desire to commune with God corporately.
Though it is true that God can and does move in places where entertainment happens, have we begun to rely on artificial hype to fill the void when He is missing? Has entertainment become a cover for our spiritual emptiness?
The thing about amusement is that it is easy to manufacture. Think of all the amazing secular productions that have grabbed your attention and not let you go. They were produced without long hours in prayer seeking the Lord, and the creators created them without hearts aflame with the holiness of God. Do not get me wrong. It was hard work, but it took no spiritual effort. It may be an amazing testament to the natural man made in the image of God, but that is not what the church is to represent. The world and the people of God can get that anywhere.
If the lights, recording quality praise bands, drama teams, and preachers with magnetic personalities were all gone, would we be close enough to God to see him move? Would we still gather?
I do not have the answers to all these questions because I do not know the context of your church. Your church may not have any of these trappings and still be far from God. Nor am I saying that God will not use anything that looks like entertainment. I pray your church leaders have amazing musical skill and that the Lord has gifted pastor with oratory ability, but I also pray, when you gather together what truly impresses your heart is much more than that. If not we might as well go to a movie or a theater performance.
Maybe if we rely a little less on these things in our services, we will rely a little more on God. If we do that and our gatherings become dull, maybe we should examine our hearts, get down on our knees, and ask the Lord to move and sanctify us. Though it may not be appealing to the world, that would be a corporate gathering worth attending.
Aiden W. Tozer once said, “Christians don’t tell lies–they just go to church and sing them!” This is one of those quotes that jolts us to the core once it is properly understood. Without context, however, many people misunderstand what he is saying because they immediately begin to think of hymns and worship songs with bad theology, and there are plenty of song lyrics we sing that should cause us to scratch our heads, such as:
“Like a rose, trampled on the ground, you took the fall and THOUGHT OF ME ABOVE ALL.”
“So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss.”
“And in His presence, our problems disappear.”
These types of lyrics certainly deserve closer scrutiny, but what Tozer was really getting at is the fact that we often sing songs that do not coincide with our true spiritual state. We often sing:
“I am a tree bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy”.
When, in fact, our hearts are hard and unmoved by the cross as we sing. Or we will sing:
“Where You go, I’ll go Where You stay, I’ll stay When You move, I’ll move I will follow… “
when we plan on going out to live like the world on Monday. We could go on and on exposing lyrics we regularly sing, that we often have no intention of living out in our actual lives or are contrary to the state of our hearts.
This is no small matter in the eyes of the Lord. He desires truth in the inward parts (Psalm 51:6). There should be integrity and sincerity in all that we do and say, especially when it comes to worshipping the King of Kings. Jesus pointed this out when he said:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. -Matthew 23:27-27.
If you read this article and think, “I’m glad I don’t do that,” as if you somehow escape unscathed, you have completely missed the point. We are all guilty of this. We all fall short, and none us can worship God properly in our own strength.
It is important that the Christian life be one of constant repentance. This should also remind us that it is usually better, in our worship, to sing about God and what he has done instead of singing about ourselves, but that alone would portray a truncated picture, for as Michael Horton says,
“The Gospel is not about you, but it is for you.”
Our songs should exhibit this fact as well. The Gospel does impact us and changes our hearts, but we should never forget the fact that even our worship is tinged with sinfulness. This recognition of our sinfulness should direct us even more resolutely to praise Jesus, who offers us forgiveness and continues to beckon our sinful selves to approach the throne of grace with confidence. However, as we approach Him, we must always remember that the “throne of grace,” leads us to three important truths.
It is a throne, so we should not approach it flippantly or without sincerity.
It is a throne of grace in the sense that we do not deserve to approach it at all. None of us are worthy and we must approach it in repentance.
It is a throne of grace in the sense that, though we are unworthy to approach His throne, that is the very reason we need to draw near. It is here we find the forgiveness we need and the underserved favor we so desperately desire.
If we would prepare our hearts by remembering each of these points before we begin to sing to the Lord, it may just help us all to sing fewer lies in our times of worship.
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up as you are already doing.” – 1 Thess 5:11
Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul wrote this passage for believers living in a land where they were at odds with the sinful culture around them. He implored with them that, at all times and in all places, Christians are to help one another with their burdens and cares as they navigate through the trials of life.
Well before Paul wrote any of his letters, before the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, and even before the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament, God demonstrated his grace in the life of Moses. After leading the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, Moses was overwhelmed with the quarreling and day-to-day disputes among the people and his expected role as the one who would resolve all conflicts. He was in desperate need of wise and godly counsel.
For Moses, wisdom was given by his father-in-law Jethro, who offered insight to help decrease the burdens Moses was experiencing. And notice that in Exodus 18:21, Jethro mentioned the qualifications of those who were to share in carrying these burdens:
• Haters of dishonest profit
We should be people who exhibit these qualifications, and these qualities should also be applied to the people with whom we share our own burdens in today’s world.
Now the question is, how do we go about sharing our concerns?
Many self-described Christians stay away from church, saying there are too many hypocrites inside. But God’s Word tells us that we should not neglect “to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” Church fellowship is more than just a service we attend once a week on Sunday morning. It is a group of people from the larger body of Christ that God has, in His divine providence and mercy, placed directly in our lives to rejoice with, share with, pray with and be encouraged by. This is a gift of fellowship that we need to take advantage of every day as we seek to build one another up in the faith in which we are also being sanctified.
May God encourage all of us to continue in fellowship with our brothers and sisters as we seek Him while being co-laborers in all of our struggles.
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. – Gal 6:9-10
-Written by Dan Seager – Dan is a good friend of mine with a great grasp on Christian truth. He is starting a new blog called Barnabas Brothers. Be sure to check it out. Content coming soon!
Both men had a fire in their eyes with Jesus at the center, but their flames were different. Have you ever noticed that you can listen to someone talk about Jesus, but as they are saying all of the right things, there still seems to be a disconnect? While others you run into always seem to be able to focus you like a laser beam on what truly matters.
When I see it in churches, I sometimes call it the programmatic versus the spiritual, but I doubt that is the best way to describe it. It is hard to put a fine point on it because the programmatic is not wrong in itself. Even spiritual churches have programmatic elements. I think I use the word programmatic because it sometimes feels that way. The leaders appear to be doing what they know they should be doing, but they do not seem to be doing it in a way that tells me that they believe their very lives depend upon the Gospel they are preaching. So what makes the difference? I suppose it all comes down to the hearts of those involved.
The first man, a church leader, had a fire in his eyes and Christ was at the center, but Jesus seemed to be a means to an end. Everything surrounding the ministry where he labored was orthodox. People came, heard the word, and were often even blessed by his preaching, but in his heart, he was building his own kingdom. A place where the people would revere his name; a place where he could leave his legacy. His faith was real, but he still seemed to have one foot planted in the world, and it showed. Well, not to everyone. There were many in the congregation with hearts split between heaven and earth as well, and they did not seem to notice.
They did not notice, at least, until they got a chance to hear the second man begin to speak because the fire in his eyes was pure. Where the first man had the tendency to view knowing Jesus as a means to building his ministry, the second man saw knowing Jesus as the goal. He had found the Pearl of Great Price and was willing to sell all he had to have it (Matt. 13:45-46). Christ was beautiful to him so that is what he pursued. His ministry was something he did to show the world the beauty of Christ so others could know Him too. There was a love for his Lord in his eyes that made believers want to know their Savior the way he did.
Two things seemed to separate these men and their ministries. The first had to do with their reliance. The first one worked with a high degree of self-reliance, where the second one knew his weakness so well that he dared only to rely on Christ. The second aspect had to do with their focus. The first, to some degree, still had his mind set on the things of the world. Even when he preached on setting your mind on things above, he did it with a heart that hoped he was establishing his own glory. The second man had been broken. His heart had been set free from this world. He knew it could no longer satisfy, so he had given up pursuing its glory a long time ago. One seemed to be walking home and calling others to go with him while the other appeared to be fairly content in this strange land.
Here is what I noticed in their preaching, to take a thought from Jayber Crow, one of them was troubled enough to have something worthwhile to say. The first one was unable to show us the emptiness of even the glorious things of this life in comparison to Christ because he had yet to see their vanity. The second one felt a shuddering within him, that knew that the things of this world were trembling all around us. No matter what the topic, his words, and actions shone like a spotlight on our glorious Savior and our true homeland.
So what about you? Where is your heart? Is Jesus the end you seek, or a means to an end? Are you awake enough to feel the frailty of this world convulse beneath you to such a degree that you dare not place your hope in it? We aspire to be like what we find beautiful. May your love for Jesus compel you to grow into His likeness, because if we have no desire to be conformed to His image or make his name known, we may not truly find Him beautiful like we say we do. We may still have our hearts set on this world. May God show us its vanity compared to Himself and turn our eyes heavenward. May we be troubled enough by this world to have something worth saying, and if we are too comfortable, may the Lord shake us from our slumber. May we be able to acknowledge that we are strangers and exiles on the earth.
For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. – Hebrews 11:14
The video below goes back almost 10 years to when I used to spend a lot of time on YouTube. It is still one of the most popular videos on my channel. Though the term “Emergent Church” has been abandoned due to the bad press it received from its logical inconsistencies, the postmodern philosophies it embraced still have a firm hold on many Christians and churches.
These 10 signs still point out the self-refuting nature of the postmodern-zone.
Their website has a statement of what they believe, and one of their statements is that they don’t hold to statements of belief.
They constantly teach against churches and Christians who engage in polemics.
They reject the commercialism of the modern church, by making their church feel more like a coffee shop.
They have a strong desire to be relevant for the sole purpose of being relevant.
The term “living incarnationally” means living less like Jesus and more like the world.
They argue that there are no metanarratives that control all other stories besides their metanarrative that there are no metanarratives.
They encourage using metaphor because propositional teaching does not work, unless, of course, they are propositionally teaching about metaphors.
They argue that the church should be more relational and less theological, and then attempt to give theological arguments why this is the case.
They use language to tell us that language is incapable of communicating truth.
To argue against a propositional understanding of scripture, they quote Jesus’ proposition from scripture where Jesus says, “I am the Truth.”
It has been said that there are no inactive members in any church. They are either actively building it up or actively hindering it. I’m not sure where this came from, but there is a lot of truth in that statement. With that in mind, here are 10 ways to work against your church.
1. Show up only when it is convenient.
2. When you do attend, show up late and leave as soon as possible.
3. Find something to grumble about (music, preaching, people).
4. Whenever your pastor or teacher makes a mistake in his theology, make sure everyone realizes it, but be sure not to talk about it with him.
5. Never appear interested.
6. Refuse to accept any responsibility.
7. Do not spend time in prayer for your church and pastor.
8. Realize that you know more than the leaders in your church, but do not be willing to use that knowledge to teach others.
9. Be more concerned with position and privilege than the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.
10. Above all else, realize that Church is about you and what you get out of it.
May we all work diligently in our churches in whatever capacity we can.