About John Percival

John Percival is the pastor of Ambassador International Church in Hong Kong (www.ambassador.org.hk). He was previously the associate pastor of St Peter's Barge in Canary Wharf, London. He is married to Rachel, and they have three children.

How about preaching a Bible Overview?

This post comes from John Percival, pastor of Ambassador International Church in Hong Kong.

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Many of us are used to a Bible Overview being taught through reading books, seminars, or Christian education classes. However, how about preaching a Bible Overview from the pulpit? We decided to do this recently. Here are some tips and reflections from our experience:

  1. We used an idea that originated with Andrew Reid (currently principal of the Evangelical Theological College of Asia) of eleven “Big Moments in God’s Story.” We preached one per week, looking at: creation, fall, promise, exodus, conquest, kingship, exile, return, cross, gospel and new creation. Of course, you could choose your own. However, this felt like enough of an overview without sacrificing too much detail. You can find the sermons and passages here.
  1. This was hard work. Sermon preparation time was more than normal. The main challenge was the amount of material to grasp before formulating an outline. I found it helpful to read as much of the Bible as I could for the relevant sections – easy for creation or the fall – less possible for the prophets!
  1. We wrote small group material to accompany the series. This gave our people an extra opportunity to interact with the sermons and gave the whole church a feeling of learning together. To ensure continuity, we cancelled two of our monthly prayer meetings to make sure all our small groups got a clear run at the material. Uploading the sermons promptly meant that anyone who missed the sermon could listen online before their group met.
  1. One challenge was the constant need to look both backwards and forwards in each sermon – i.e. backwards towards God’s promises to Abraham, and also forwards towards their fulfillment. This was even true for the life of Christ – which not only fulfills the Old Testament promises but also, of course, anticipates the new creation. Keeping the overview in view is important, especially for those who are visitors or might have missed the preceding week.
  1. This series was a good opportunity to hit “big picture” applications. These included:
  • See your little story as part of God’s big story
  • Learn to view God’s story as one story focused on Christ
  • Grow in reading your Bible in context – especially the Old Testament
  • Redefine your priorities now in the light of the future new creation
  • Remember that an application can be a “knowledge” application that changes our thinking – it doesn’t have to focus on our actions.
  1. We needed to make some tough choices in order to keep the story side of things moving. In the end, wisdom literature, much of the prophets, and in-depth teaching on the application of the Law were all casualties.
  1. There are some great resources available: Vaughan Roberts’ “God’s Big Picture” and Graham Goldsworthy’s “Gospel and Kingdom” are standard issue. Less well-known are Tim Chester’s “From Creation to New Creation” and Michael Lawrence’s “Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church.” We also encouraged families to engage with the series through “The Jesus Storybook Bible” by Sally Lloyd-Jones.
  1. We prayed for “light bulb moments” among our people as they saw how the Bible fitted together. For some, it helped them to get the main events of salvation history in the right order. For others, they came to realize that the Bible is fundamentally a book about God.

I was nervous about preaching this series, especially as I couldn’t find many examples of others tackling a Bible Overview on a Sunday morning. However, I’m really glad we did. I saw many connections I had never seen before, and believe it enriched the spiritual lives of many. At the moment, many of us will be planning our preaching schedule for next year. If so, how about including a Bible Overview?

Lessons from an Olympic hero

I have recently been reading David McCasland’s excellent new biography of Eric Liddell, which I heartily recommend.  Liddell is well-known to many for his convictions that led him not to run on a Sunday in the 1924 Olympics and his subsequent gold medal in the 400 metres that inspired the film Chariots of Fire.  Less well-known is his later career as a missionary in to China where he recently became the first Protestant missionary to be honoured with a memorial.  But not many people know about him as a preacher.  So, what lessons can we learn from Liddell?

Let me propose ten:

1. Some people have to be asked

It was miraculous to Liddell that he was a preacher at all.  He was naturally shy and reserved and it was only when he was directly asked to speak at an evangelistic meeting in Scotland that he accepted.  Even then it took a verse of Scripture quoted by a friend to give him confidence that God would be with him.  Sometimes people have to be asked.

2. You don’t have to be a great preacher to have an impact

It is true that Liddell’s celebrity status helped draw crowds to his message, but he was never a great preacher.  His style was to be rooted to the pulpit, he rarely gestured with his arms or hands, and his enthusiasm was quiet and steady rather than demonstrative.  Even when he arranged Bible studies for his students as a missionary, or preached in the Japanese internment camp where he died, people did not flock to hear him in spite of his Olympic win; rather it was his character that seemed to impress them.

3. Celebrate Christian teachers

When Eric Liddell turned his back on the fame and fortune of an Olympic gold medallist to become a missionary in China, he did so to become a maths and science teacher at the Anglo-Christian College in Tientsin (now Tianjin).  Liddell’s philosophy was to integrate evangelism with education, and he took every opportunity to influence those around him whether that was through participating in the religious life of the school by taking assemblies or playing sport.  He organised a voluntary club for some of his students to study the Bible and taught them the life of Christ and the Old Testament.  Conversions were few but solid and Liddell said that a slow reasoned acceptance of Christ was better than a sudden conversion which was based on little understanding.  If we are pastors we should remember to pray publicly for Christian teachers in our congregations.

4. Sacrifice

The whole Liddell family was involved in missionary work.  Eric was born to missionary parents in China (with the result that some have tried to claim him as the first Chinese Olympic gold medallist!).  Eric’s brother, Rob, was a missionary doctor and Eric himself became a missionary and evangelist to China – all at a time when it was very dangerous and politically unstable.  And yet the sacrifices were willingly undertaken.  These were the days when children were left sobbing at boarding school while their parents went to serve on the mission field.  Accordingly, Liddell’s parents sent Eric and Rob to school in England when they were only 6 and 8 knowing that they wouldn’t see them again for another five years.  Times have changed, and probably rightly so, but the willingness of families like that of Liddell’s to sacrifice for the gospel is striking.

5. Have a sense of humour

This doesn’t come naturally to all of us, and given what we have just said you might be surprised to hear that it came naturally to Eric Liddell.  His contemporaries consistently said that he was serious about God but not about himself, and this helped people to relax quickly around him.  After getting married, when his new mother-in-law started calling round every day for tea, Eric is said to have quipped that his favourite hymn was rapidly becoming “Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away!”  I am not sure that is a good model to emulate, but I do remember a conversation with one well-known preacher (who shall remain nameless!) who told me that he had to learn how to use humour in order to connect with people better.  Let’s remember that the gospel is serious, but sometimes humour can be a good ally.

6. The fuel of the Christian life is the devotional life

This is the lesson that stands out most prominently from Liddell’s life.  As a preacher he may have been unremarkable but there was the unmistakable sense that he knew Christ and sought to follow him wholeheartedly.  Liddell always emphasized the importance of morning devotions and made it his practice to have an hour with God at the start of every day – a practice he continued in a Japanese internment camp, often with a pen and paper ready to seek God’s guidance about the many issues before him.  When he met with his students he sought to encourage them in two things: 1) the habit of morning prayers, and 2) the expectation that the Bible had a message for them every day.  Those who knew Liddell were often amazed at the resources that he had to give to so many people and were left in no doubt that it came from the time he spent with God.  Later on, Liddell produced a daily Bible reading plan for a year to give to others and also a short book of daily prayers.  The latter contains the challenge: “One word stands out from all others as the key to knowing God, to having his peace and assurance in your heart; it is obedience.” (McCasland, p237).  His approach to the Bible was summed up as, “Read accurately, interpret honestly, apply drastically.”

7. Watch what you wear

In 1933 Liddell appeared in the Union Church pulpit in Tientsin wearing shorts – something that definitely wasn’t done back then – and earned a swift reprimand from many in the very traditional British church community.  Liddell respected tradition but probably had little time for unnecessary discomfort in the heat.  However, he never wore his shorts again, not wanting his dress to cause more of a stir than his sermon.

8. Focus on the future

In one interview recorded by McCasland (p167) Liddell was asked, “Do you ever preach on the text, ‘So run that you may obtain?’”  “Actually,” Eric replied, “I’d rather preach on ‘The race is not to the swift.’”  The interviewer continued to ask, “Are you glad you gave your life to missionary work?  Don’t you miss the limelight, the rush, the frenzy, the cheers, the rich red wine of victory?”  Eric answered, “Oh well, of course it’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m at the work I’m engaged in now.  A fellow’s life counts for more at this than the other.  Not a corruptible crown, but an incorruptible, you know.”

9. Love your enemies

In the last few years of his life, Liddell meditated much on the Sermon on the Mount – no doubt partly as a response to what he saw going on around him in the Japanese occupation of China.  He saw in the beatitudes an ‘offensive of love’ and a way to know God’s peace amidst the frustrations of separation from his wife and daughters and constant delays and searches by Japanese soldiers.  In his internment camp he preached on Matthew 5:43 “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.”  He asked whether it was possible to love the Japanese guards, and then said, “When we start to pray, we become God-centred.  When we hate, we’re self-centred.  We spend a lot of time praying for people we like, but don’t spend much time praying for people we don’t like… But Jesus told us to pray for our enemies.  I’ve begun to pray for the guards and it’s changed my whole attitude towards them.  Maybe you’d like to try it too.” (McCasland, p267)

10. It’s all about complete surrender

Eric often said that the secret of the Christian life was to be found in complete surrender of one’s life to God.  He was even speaking about this topic to a teenager in the internment camp when he had a massive seizure and died just before the end of the Second World War.  It was later discovered that he had a brain tumour and that even the greatest medical care in the world would have been unable to save him.  Tributes poured in and perhaps the most famous has become that delivered by one of his London Missionary Society colleagues:

“What was the secret of his consecrated life and far-reaching influence?  Absolute surrender to God’s Will as revealed in Jesus Christ.  His was a God-controlled life and he followed his Master and Lord with a devotion that never flagged and with an intensity of purpose that made men see the reality and power of true religion.”

Rather less famous was the tribute offered by one of his old room-mates who said, “He lived a far better life than his preaching.”  May that be true of all of us.


C. J. Mahaney on criticism

Following Tim Bridges’ excellent article on responding to criticism after preaching here is a free ebook concerning criticism in general from C. J. Mahaney:


Some great advice I was once given on responding to criticism was rarely to say anything immediately.  Sometimes we will have the words to say and the heart to receive it rightly.  Often we won’t.   Therefore, the most helpful thing can be a “Thanks, I’ll think about it and get back to you.”  If the criticism is valid I need time to reflect on its truth and respond appropriately.  If it is not valid then my off-the-cuff response is rarely going to be wise or godly!


What shall I preach on next?

Those of us committed to verse by verse exposition will know that one of its practical advantages is that it takes away the weekly stress of deciding what to preach on.  If we preached from Ephesians 1 last week we know that we will speak from Ephesians 2 this week.  But what about the macro level?  How do we decide what books our people need to hear?

Some pastors arrange their teaching programmes for a whole year or even longer; others work 4-6 months ahead.  Our church tends to arrange its rotas three months at a time which means I am beginning to think about July to September at the moment.

Here are seven questions I ask myself during this process:

1. Am I cultivating the sorts of habits out of which a good sermon series can grow?

There are certain habits that can lay the foundation for deciding what to preach on.  Along with cultivating our own walk with God through prayer, one piece of advice that I was given is to read through the whole Bible every year.  This will help to ensure that when we come to select material for sermons that our eyes are open to all the possibilities.

The tendency exists among all of us to preach on what we know.  Therefore, if we have not read 1 Kings recently then we are very unlikely to preach on 1 Kings.

Another habit recommended by Derek Prime is to write down the ‘seeds of sermons’ when they occur so we can retrieve them at a later date.  These days, the ability to make notes easily on an iPad should mean that the annoying feeling of writing something down only to lose it is a thing of the past.

2. Have I prayed?

A series must be chosen prayerfully and carefully.  Peter Grainger adds, “Considerable thought and prayer is needed before deciding on a series and its relevance to a particular congregation.  There is nothing worse than wondering in week four of a two year series on 1 John, whether you have made the wrong choice.” (Firm Foundations, p10)

Similarly, Mark Driscoll recommends the practice of taking a few days in solitude and silence before God.  In Vintage Church he writes, “During that time with God I am refreshed and encouraged as I prayer-walk, canoe, read my Bible, repent of sin, journal thoughts that come to mind as I spend the day with God, and ask God to give me direction regarding my Bible study, out of which comes my preaching and teaching… Once I believe God has burdened me with a specific book of the Bible, text, or topic, I then spend time prayerfully considering why and how God would have me study it.” (p96-97)

Not all of us can go into the wild, but most of us can manage to find somewhere to pray and a quiet coffee shop in order to journal, reflect on the church and jot down some thoughts.  Ideas for my most recent series have come as I have walked and prayed and thought about our needs and challenges as a church.

3. What have we preached on recently?

We aim to give a balanced diet to the sheep and therefore a consideration of what has been taught previously will affect what we teach next.

Since arriving at Ambassador almost two years ago I have taught the book of Joel, Mark 1-11, Philippians, the book of Joshua, 1 Corinthians 6-7 and we are part way through Ephesians.  Henry, an elder who shares some of the preaching with me, has been teaching a thematic series on prayer.  Before I arrived, the church had a series on the life of Joseph, Colossians and the Apostles’ Creed.  Furthermore, some of our home-groups have recently covered Acts, Romans and Proverbs.

What are we in danger of neglecting?  This list pushes me in the direction of the Old Testament for the summer.  When did we last do something from the Psalms or wisdom literature?  Equally I would like to finish off Mark’s gospel at some point.  Long term, when was the last time we did any apocalyptic?  What about a short topical or doctrinal series?

4. What does the church need?

When considering a preaching series we need to take into account the needs of the congregations where God has placed us.  Haddon Robinson comments that expositors “must be as familiar with the needs of their churches as they are with the content of their Bibles.” (Biblical Preaching, p54)

When you are new at a church it can be hard to know the issues that affect it, but this is something that should grow over time.  Again, we could ask: How is the congregation composed?  Are there a lot of new Christians?  Is there a lot of transfer growth?  Has the church been confused by a split at another church in town?  Are people unsettled after the fall of a prominent local Christian leader?  Is there confusion over a particular lifestyle or issue?  Do we need to a renewed emphasis on evangelism?  Any number of these factors might affect our choice of series.

In a recent interview Tim Keller says that his practice is to develop certain themes during the year.  Following a scheme originally developed by Young Life he aims to emphasise God’s character and apologetics in the autumn, Christ and his work in the winter and then Christian living and building one another up in the spring.  This corresponds to when most new people arrive at the church in the autumn, and fits well with an emphasis on Christ’s life, death and resurrection in the period between Christmas and Easter.  The aim is to hit similar themes regularly but from different books of the Bible thereby exposing people to the breadth of Scripture and introducing them to parts that they might otherwise never reach.

At Ambassador about 40% of our current membership list has started attending the church since August 2010, and this has meant that we have taught on Philippians (unity and partnership in the gospel) and Ephesians (the nature of the church).

A long term goal for every church pastor should be to take church members into territory that they might not otherwise explore.  In Hong Kong this would mean not just sticking with the New Testament but also preaching from the Old as well.  Derek Prime says, “To bring our people into fresh pastures we must continually break new ground.” (Pastors and Teachers, p127)

5. Are there seasons in the life of the church which require a particular emphasis?

This might be a particular time of year (e.g. Christmas or Easter) or it may be a national event (e.g. the Olympics).  It could also be something happening in the life of the church (e.g. a week of outreach coming up) that requires special preparation or training.  It might be a local event.  In a previous church where I worked, the local museum across the road was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and we were able to tie in a preaching series accordingly.

6. How long should the series last?

This one is debatable!  The received wisdom seems to be that the more transient the church, the shorter the preaching series ought to be in order to give people exposure to a wider range of Biblical genre.  This will especially be the case when the congregation is comprised of a large number of young Christians who are less familiar with the Bible.  In Hong Kong, which is very transient, I preach through books of the Bible, but do so in blocks of 4-5 sermons at a time and in this way hope to give people a balanced diet over a period of 2-3 years.

7. What do others think?

I find that conversing with others is invaluable.  I try to speak to a range of people about what I am thinking to get their initial thoughts on it.  They range from the elder who I share some of the preaching with, to people who I meet up with one-to-one, other pastors, or even those who aren’t yet believers.  In theory this would also be something for us to discuss as an eldership but so far I have not been as good at this as I would like.

Throughout this decision-making process I will start collecting commentaries and articles on the book that I am thinking of preaching on.  This is especially true in Hong Kong where it takes longer for good resources to arrive!  I will also work through it during my quiet times (often using the excellent “Daily Reading Bible” series by the Good Book Company).  I will continue to pray and try to apply it to my own life and start to think about any difficult issues that the book raises (obvious examples for Joshua would be Rahab’s lie, the apologetic issue of the Canaanite genocide or the sun standing still in ch10).  I find that reflection ahead of time on potentially tricky issues relieves the pressure on the week before the sermon is due.

These questions are in no way exhaustive; they do however help me in what can sometimes be a difficult decision to make.

After all this, I can relax, put my feet up and get on with the job of actually working on the text…