If I were to start again, what would I do differently in the task of preaching? This question is typical of many that I am asked by young pastors and teachers. One answer would certainly be that I would spend more of my time in the four gospels than I did.
If, as I have done, you have kept all your sermon notes, it would be helpful to see where you have spent most time with God’s people. What balance have you kept between the Old and New Testaments? How often have you explored the biblical biographies of individuals like Abraham, Joseph and Moses in the Old Testament or John the Baptist, or one of the apostles such as Peter and Paul in the New?
One conviction has grown over recent days: the priority the gospels should have in the instruction of God’s people and preaching that never forgets the unconverted people who may be present.
We cannot take for granted that people in our contemporary society know the essential truths about our Saviour and His teaching that once used to be the case because of the emphasis upon Christian religious education in schools and the useful instrument of Sunday Schools so that parents who did not go to church themselves would often send their children for instruction. (Christianity Explored has been a remarkable instrument as it has directed people to Mark’s Gospel.)
Let me suggest a number of reasons for careful and regular preaching from the gospels.
- They show the direction and emphasis that should characterise all Christ-honouring teaching. Although their introductions are different, all four lead to the Cross and devote more attention to that than to anything else.
- They illustrate how the apostles and early Christians themselves proclaimed the good news to their contemporaries.
- They ensure that our teaching is Christ-centred and that we are dealing with the subjects our Saviour demonstrated to be the most important – that is to say, the Sermon on the Mount and much else.
- They demonstrate the variety of emphases that there should be in our preaching .Mark loves the word ‘immediately’ and shows how active our Saviour was in His ministry. Matthew wants us to realise how anchored our Saviour’s ministry was in the promises God had made over the centuries about His Son the Messiah. Luke wants to emphasise how anchored and verifiable the record of our Saviour’s ministry is in history something every generation needs to know. John shows from the beginning the identity of Jesus as the Word made flesh, demonstrated by His miracles that were signs and proofs of His identity that are intended us to bring us to faith, salvation and eternal life.
- Narrative and parables hold people’s attention – both young and old – and help to make truths memorable.
A voice from the past: Charles Simeon
‘My mind being but ill-informed, my topics were necessarily few; and the great subjects of death, judgment, heaven, and hell, were prominent in every discourse, particularly as motives to enforce the points on which I had occasion to insist.’ But later he reflected, ‘Were I now to enter on a new sphere, especially if it were in a town and not in a village, I would, in the Morning Services especially, unfold the parables, and endeavour rather to take the citadel by sap and mine, than by assault and battery. I would endeavour to ‘win souls,’ and ‘speak to them the truth in love;’ not considering so much what I was able to say, as what they were able to receive. But this requires more extensive knowledge, and a more chastised mind than falls in general to the lot of young ministers, especially of such as have never had one letter of instruction given them on the subject.’
We should not forget the place the gospels should have in every Christian’s life. General Gordon, a prominent Christian of the same period of history as Florence Nightingale, lived an extremely busy and demanding life. Like us all, he was not without his faults but his commitment to his Saviour was clear. A military contemporary, Field Marshall Wolseley, wrote, ‘Between actions and duties Gordon would study his Bible and especially the Gospels. The character of Christ as therein depicted was always uppermost in Gordon’s mind. When in any difficulty his first thought was, “What would my Master do were He now in my place?” It was this constant reliance upon his Maker, this spiritual communing with his Saviour upon every daily occurrence in life, that enabled him absolutely to ignore self and take no heed for what the morrow might bring forth…His absolute simple-mindedness of purpose startled me at times, for it made me feel how inferior I was to him in all my aims in life to his.’
A word of caution lest we lose balance in our preaching.
We should not be all the time in the gospels. We must explore the whole of Scripture. Go at the pace of the gospel, that is to say, do not deal with several sections at a time if a section clearly stands alone. If I were planning my year in which a gospel was to feature, I would be inclined to devote a third of the year to it, making it plain to people that we would return to where we left off after another eight months. Hearers benefit – as do we – from studying different parts of the Bible
If I had to choose an order, I would probably begin with Mark and end with John, although I would not be dogmatic about that order. Having completed one gospel I would reckon on considering expounding another in say two years time.
After serving churches in the UK as a pastor for a total of thirty years—first at Lansdowne Evangelical Free Church, West Norwood, in London and then at Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh— Derek Prime has devoted himself since 1987 to an itinerant ministry and to writing. He is author of several other books, including The Lord’s prayer for today, Travel with M’Cheyne and On Being a Pastor.Tweet