Good Preaching

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The Duke of Wellington was introduced to the new minister of the church on his estate. And the minister said, 'I'm giving my first sermon this Sunday – what would you like it to be about?' And the duke thought for a moment and then said, 'About five minutes.'

Now Wellington obviously didn't have time to spare – with Napoleon to beat and a footwear brand to launch. But I guess he said that more because he'd mainly heard bad preaching.

And if you'd lived in the 1500s, you'd have heard lots of bad preaching in England – because the Church had lost its way and lost the Bible. And instead it was full of unbiblical beliefs and traditions. That is, until reformers like Thomas Cramner put the Bible back at the centre of the Church of England.

Cramner also wrote the Church a superb Prayer Book. The language is too 'ye olde' to use today. But everything in it is saturated with Bible references. And every service has two or three Bible readings. And Cramner also wanted to get Bible teaching back as the heart of every service. His problem was: there weren't any good preachers, because for years hardly anyone had been trying to preach.

Now I sometimes preach badly – despite good training (which means I can even preach badly from the original Greek). So just think what a disaster it would have been if Cramner had encouraged his ministers – who didn't know their Bibles or the first thing about teaching it – to start preaching next Sunday. So instead, as a long-term strategy, he started training them. And as a short-term tactic, he wrote a book of sermons called 'The Homilies' for them to read to their churches.

Now if the Duke of Wellington were here, he would by now be shouting, 'Why on earth are you telling us all this?' And the answer is: we're in a series on the things a Church of England church like ours is meant to stand for. There's a list of 39 things. And today we're on number 35, which is about the Homilies. And this is what it says:

Article 35. On The Homilies
The second Book of Homilies contains godly and wholesome teaching which is necessary for these times, as does the first book of Homilies published during the reign of Edward VI. We therefore judge that they ought to be read diligently and distinctly in the churches by the ministers so that they may be understood by the people.

Now our situation is different today – so we don't keep the letter of that Article and actually read you the Homilies. Instead, we keep the spirit of it – by working at 'godly and wholesome' Bible teaching, which is well-applied 'for these times'.

So now let's turn now to where the Bible talks about what Bible teaching should be like. It's our New Testament reading, where the apostle Paul was telling his assistant Timothy to stick at the work of Bible teaching and not give up on it.

And before we get into it, can I say: this doesn't just apply to Sunday preachers. It applies to all of us who teach the Bible upfront anywhere in our church. And it applies to all of us as listeners. Because it tells us the kind of Bible teaching we should want and pray for, and the kind of listeners we should be.

So, 2 Timothy – and first the end of chapter 3, where Paul tells us…

1. The Convictions We Need About the Bible If We're Going to Want and Work at Bible Teaching (3.14-16)

Look down to chapter 3, verse 14. Paul has just been talking about ministers who'd turned away from the Jesus of the Bible (we'd say they'd gone theologically liberal). And verse 14, Paul tells Timothy:

"But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing [certain things he's about to remind him of]…"

Ie, 'Stick at it because of your convictions about the Bible.' And he goes on to list four convictions we need if we're going to want and work at Bible teaching.

Conviction no.1 is that the Bible is convincing. Look down to verse 14 again:

"But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing [first on the list] those from whom you learned it."

And they were the apostle Paul, and the other apostles that Timothy had met through Paul. So Paul is saying, 'You know those of us who were eye-witnesses of Jesus and his life, death and resurrection – and you're convinced we're telling the truth.'

Now, we don't have the eye-witnesses in the flesh, to quiz, like Timothy did. But we do have them on paper in the New Testament. And if you're a Christian today, it's because the New Testament is convincing, isn't it? It's not knock-down proof – there's no such thing when it comes to God. But it is convincing evidence that God has actually been here and made himself known in Jesus.

But then there's the Old Testament as well. Look on to verse 15 where Paul says, 'And you also know...'

"how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings [ie, the Old Testament, which Timothy grew up with, thanks to his Jewish Mum]."

So Paul is saying to him, 'And I know you're also convinced because of the amazing tie-up between the Old Testament promises and how they've come true in Jesus. So Micah 5 said he'd be born in Bethlehem – and he was. Isaiah 7 said he'd be born of a virgin – and he was. Isaiah 53 said he'd die for our sins and then rise from the dead – and he did.

The Bible is convincing, isn't it? Which is one reason why we teach it.

The preacher Charles Spurgeon was once asked, 'How would you defend the Bible?' And he said, 'Defend the Bible? I'd just as soon defend a lion!' In other words, let's not be defensive about it. Let's teach it and let it do its convincing work.

So if you're not yet trusting in Jesus, but would like to – then keep coming to hear the Bible taught, and see how it fits together and what it claims about Jesus, and give it time to convince you. And it does take time. It's a process.

And if you are a Christian, but working through doubts and questions (which we all have to) – then don't drop out of church while trying to do that; but, again, keep coming to hear the Bible taught, and give it time to convince you more where you need that.

Conviction no.2 is that we need the Bible because we need Jesus. Look at verse 15 again:

"from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus."

In other words, the Bible is all about Jesus and our need of him to put us right with God.

Now the Bible is a big book and can seem like it's about 1,000 different, unrelated things – just like chemistry at school. At least, that's how it was for me. But I remember the Aussie preacher John Chapman once saying, 'Is the Bible about 1,000 different things? Or is it about one thing from 1,000 different angles?' And the answer is: one thing – namely, being put right with God through Jesus.

Which is another reason why we teach the Bible. It's because we need Jesus – and we need the Bible to know him.

So if you're still sorting out what Christianity is all about, this says it's all about Jesus and our need of him. Because the Bible says: we were made to live in relationship with God; but instead we've all said to him, 'I don't want you to be God of my life.' Which is an enormous offence to him – and brings us under his judgement. And yet the Bible also says that, in his love, he's given his Son in the person of Jesus, to take that judgement we deserve, when he died on the cross – so we can be forgiven. And Jesus then rose from the dead, and is back in heaven, and is asking us, 'Will you come to me, and admit you've been out of order; and will you ask my forgiveness, and have me as your Lord from now on?'

That's what it's all about. Jesus and our need of him to put us right with God.

And if we're already believers, we'll never grow out of our need for him. So we'll always need the kind of Bible teaching that brings us back, from 1,000 different angles, to him and his cross and his forgiveness and the work of his Spirit in us until we reach heaven. We should want Bible teaching that goes beyond just that. But we should never want Bible teaching which leaves that behind.

Conviction no.3 is that the Bible is God's Word through human words. Look down to verse 16:

"All Scripture [which for us means all the completed Bible] is breathed out by God."

So think of breathing out through the air onto a mirror to create a mist exactly where you want it. That's Paul's word-picture of how God used the human Bible writers. The picture is that God 'breathed out' through the writers onto the page exactly what he wanted written. In other words, in different ways, he guided them and gave them what to say – so that the Bible is the one place where human words are also 100% the Word of God. Which means: the Bible is what God is saying to us today.

A friend of mine who's a very good Bible teacher spoke at a university CU which was heavily influenced by charismatic teaching. And he opened up a Bible passage like I'm doing now. And then the CU President got up and said, 'Well, I'd like to thank David for his talk. But now we're going to have an open mic time for anyone who has a word from the Lord, so that in the second half of the meeting we can hear God speaking.' Which showed he hadn't understood 2 Timothy 3.16, which says: the Bible is God speaking.

And that's another reason why we teach it, and take it with total seriousness, and put it at the centre of our church. That's why we ask you, tired, over-worked workers and under-slept parents and so on, to give this kind of time and effort to hearing the Bible taught. Because every day, from the moment we turn on the radio to the moment we last check our phones, we're being bombarded with what fallen humanity has to say. And we need this (pretty modest) discipline of twenty to twenty-five minutes of hearing together what God has to say – to draw us back to truth, and restore our perspective after another week out there in this corrosive, fallen world. Isn't that the point of verse 16?

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and [therefore] profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,"

So 'teaching and training in righteousness' are the positives – that's God in the Bible saying, 'This is what's true to believe, this is what's right to live.' But then 'reproof and correction' are the negatives – that's God in the Bible saying, 'Here's how you've fallen for what the world believes and how it's living. So here's how you need calling out.'

And because we'll always be sinful this side of heaven, we'll always need the negatives. We'll always need to come to the Bible saying, 'I'm wrong, your Word is right. I need correcting, your Word doesn't.' Is that how you come to it?

But conviction number 3 isn't just that the Bible is God's Word – but that it's God's Word through human words – written in different books at different times with different styles and different backgrounds. And that means: all of us who teach it need to interpet and apply it carefully. And all of us who listen need to weigh what's being said against the Bible. And that's why we ask you to follow in the Bible as we speak. Because all the time you need to be asking, 'Is this a right understanding and application of the Bible?' And only if you're convinced it is should you believe it and act on it.

And then conviction number 4 is that the Bible is all we need (for coming into relationship with God and then growing in it). Look at verse 16 again:

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."

So Paul is saying to Timothy, the leader and teacher of a church, 'With the Bible in your hands, you're fully equipped to meet the needs of your church – the Bible is all they need to know.'

Now just to clarify: this isn't saying: the Bible is all we need to know for the whole of life. It's not all you need to know for being a French teacher or designing a new bridge or a million other things. If you're a doctor, I don't want you to operate on me if the only book you've read is the Bible. But it is all we need for coming into relationship with God and then growing in it.

So for example, if I'd been preaching on marriage today, I wouldn't have thought, 'Gosh, I better read all the books out there on marriage, to work out what to say.' Instead, I'd have opened up the Bible, trusting that even if there is wisdom in the best of what's out there, all we really need to know about marriage according to Jesus is in here.

So, those are the convictions we need about the Bible if we're going to want and work at Bible teaching. And where those convictions are lacking – maybe in liberal churches, maybe in charismatic churches, you'll either find the Bible taken lightly and / or not well handled; or you'll find it sidelined completely.

OK, more briefly, let's think about:

2. What Godly Bible Teaching Looks Like in Both the Preacher and the Listeners (4.1-5)

Now I could have said, 'What good Bible teaching looks like…' But I've deliberately said 'godly' – in other words, God-pleasing – because there are dangers in talking about 'good preaching'. For example, 'Was Ian good this morning?' How are you going to answer that? How do you measure that?

Well, maybe in terms of whether I kept your attention. But if I didn't, maybe that was your responsibility, not mine. It's certainly not all mine.

So maybe in terms of whether I was funny enough or illustrated enough. But some of the preaching God has most used in my life has been pretty un-funny and un-illustrated.

So maybe in terms of whether it was well-crafted – good structure, good introduction, good headings, good ending – good Powerpoint, even. But we've all heard sermons that ticked all those boxes and yet left us spiritually cold.

That's why I'd rather talk about what godly Bible teaching looks like in both the preacher and the listeners – to remind us that we want Bible-teaching that pleases God, and that's useful to him; and to remind us that preaching is a corporate activity involving all of us. So look down to 2 Timothy 4, verse 1, where Paul says to Timothy:

"I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word"

So for godly Bible teaching, you need teachers who've spent preparation time 'in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead.' In other words, teachers who've met with God through his Word, and dealt with God, and responded to him themselves before they dare get up to speak to others about God. And also teachers who know that the Lord Jesus will judge them for their faithfulness to his Word; and that he'll one day judge everyone they'll be speaking to. So it better count for their spiritual good – even if it doesn't make them laugh.

So although I've done my work on 2 Timothy in the Greek, and thought about interpretation issues, and so on, the most important thing I've tried to do is to meet with God through this passage, in the hope that I could then help you meet with him through it this morning. Because you can't take people where you haven't been yourself.

And verse 1 doesn't just apply to my preparation. It applies to what we're doing right now:

"I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: [not just to prepare, but to] preach the word"

So can I ask you to cultivate that frame of mind as you listen to Bible teaching? Will you forget who's preaching, and whether you'd prefer someone else, and how good or otherwise a job you think they're doing? And will you remember that in the presence of the Bible, you're in the presence of God; and will you try to listen and take in what you think God is especially saying to you through whatever part of his Word is being preached on?

And can I say: this is one of the big reasons why it's crucial to meet for Bible teaching like this, and not just to listen to stuff at home online or in podcasts driving to work. I'm all for that. But the time you're most spiritually prepared and least distracted to deal with God through his Word is here. There may be exceptions to that – like the time a friend of mine drove into the back of a lorry because he was so gripped by a Don Carson sermon on CD. But as he said to me afterwards, 'It shows that either you have to have just half your mind on a sermon in the car – which isn't ideal. Or you have to have your whole mind on it – which is potentially fatal.'

So verse 2 again:

"preach the word; [and next:] be ready in season and out of season"

Where Paul probably had Timothy, the Bible teacher, mainly in mind, because in verse 3 he says:

"For the time [literally 'season'] is coming when people will not endure sound teaching"

In other words, 'They won't want to hear what you're saying, Timothy. But you've got to stick at it 'in season and out of season' – you've got to say the hard and unpopular things from the Bible, as well as the wonderful and welcome things.'

But that also speaks to all of us as listeners, doesn't it? Because we need to hear the things we don't want to hear – even if it's a long process to come to terms with them.

So, verse 2:

"preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke [that's the Bible's corrective role, which we met in chapter 3], and exhort, with complete patience and teaching."

And 'exhort' means 'call people to respond'. And when we feel dissatisfied by preaching, it's often because we've not been clearly called on to respond in specific ways. It may have been great explanation, but it's all left hanging 'up there'. – so that we're left thinking, 'So what? What are we supposed to do about this?' And if you're a Bible teacher upfront anywhere in our church, answering that question when you teach is the make or break thing.

But let's end by hearing one more thing this part of God's Word says to all of us as listeners. Verse 3:

"For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths."

Which is a caution that we all hear what we want to hear, don't we? If you have children, you see that every day. 'It's tea time!' you say. And why didn't they hear? Was it lack of voume? No, it's because, in the middle of a game or whatever, they didn't want to. And these last verses remind us that the sinfulness that's still in us doesn't want to hear what God is saying to us. So we might pick and choose who we listen to on certain issues. We might filter out what we don't like in the Bible. We might stay away when we know it's going to be taught. We might even move to a church where we find the teaching more comfortable.

But if it's true that, 'All Scripture is breathed out by God', then all of it needs teaching, and all of it needs hearing.

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