Something You Could Pray For Preachers

Heavenly Father,

I pray for those who preach your Word regularly. Thank you for calling them to yourself and by your mercy giving them this ministry.

Enable them to live with Christ-like integrity, so that their conduct doesn’t make a mockery of the things they preach. Help them set an example in every respect: in the words they say, the actions they choose, the love the show, the purity they display.

Grant them the sure conviction that all of the Scriptures are God-breathed and useful. Guard them from pride on the one hand and complacency on the other. May they fan their gift into flame, diligently using it and not neglecting it.

In the study, inspire them to labour. Open their eyes to see those very wonderful things that are in your Word. Give them clarity of thought that will help them understand both the burden of the message and how to convey it.

When they come to preach, give them boldness. May they not cower before men but be as fearless as untamed lions. Help them not to rely on eloquence but to lean on your Word and Spirit as their true wisdom and power.

Would all their speech in the pulpit be seasoned with salt. May they be like Christ and his apostles that followed: feeding the flock, building up the church and doing the work of the evangelist.

May they preach the Word, nothing else! May they exalt Christ, not themselves!

I ask all these things for the glory of your name and the extension of your kingdom.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

The Eleven Commandments For Long Winded Preachers

Eleven… because these are not divinely inspired, but I hope they point in the general direction of wisdom.

  1. Thou shalt not be uncertain about the burden of your message. Sermons run over when the preacher doesn’t know what the sermon is about. What is the thrust of the message? Can you summarise the message in 15 words or less? If not, then you’ve probably got a commentary not a sermon.
  2. Thou shalt not be overly long in your introductions. This is a frequent flaw in many preachers: we take too long to really get started. I agree with the wisdom that suggests most intros should be a paragraph or two, tops. So cut down the details of that opening illustration. Don’t spend too long in recapping the book. If you’re taking 15 minutes on sermon-intros, don’t wonder where all your time is going!
  3. Thou shalt not be overly repetitive. Since preaching is oral communication, it demands a degree of repetition. The congregation aren’t reading a book. They cannot return to that previous paragraph and revisit what was just said. Clear, compelling preaching will often re-iterate key ideas and phrases. The danger is in overdoing it. At some point repetition becomes tedious and starts to insult the intelligence of the congregation.
  4. Thou shalt not go off piste (and if you do… factor that in). Some preacher’s manuscripts hardly resemble the sermon they preach. The glasses come off, the pulpit is departed and off they go. If this is part of our preaching DNA, then fair enough; but it is not conducive to timeliness. So if you are ‘prone to wander’ factor that extra 20 percent into your word count.
  5. Thou shalt not ignore the clock. This can be all too easy, especially if (as in my church) the clock is on the side wall! If time is of the essence, consider putting your watch on the pulpit. Recently when I was under particular time-pressure I actually had a stop watch running in front of me. It helped.
  6. Thou shalt not become besotted with one particular idea. This is a slightly controversial one, but a Bible teachers’ excitement about a textual discovery can cause them to camp on a particular idea. We especially need to be wary that it isn’t just a hobby horse we’re riding. Ten minutes of a sermon gallops away when we’re on the back of one of those!
  7. Thou shalt not give all the detail (but a few “deep dives” are actually helpful). Some preachers love to say everything about everything. Worse, they feel they are not properly teaching the text unless they discuss, quite exhaustively, every phrase and word. But let’s be clear about this. Even if we preached for an hour, we would only scratch the surface of any text. That being said, I would personally recommend a few “deep dives” here and there in every sermon. Why not pick two or three things in the sermon that you’ll go into more detail about? Detail makes a sermon engaging.
  8. Thou shalt not do subpoints.
  9. Thou shalt not neglect the practice of summarising. This is the key to preaching more briefly. Learn the art of summing up and speaking in broader strokes.
  10. Thou shalt not be overly wordy. This is similar to the previous point but here I am emphasising the discipline of reducing the number of words we use in sentences. I’m reminded of the counsel of JC Ryle who said “preach as though you have asthma.” Ie. keep the sentences short.
  11. Thou shalt not fail to land the sermon on the first attempt. This is not an encouragement to rush the ending. Not a few sermons suffer from the jolt of an unexpected landing. When we ‘bring the sermon in’, there should be a moderately paced descent, followed by a definitive landing. If knowing how we’ll begin is vital, perhaps as important is knowing how we’ll conclude. Be it with a poigniant question, a powerful story, or a penetrating last line, know where you’re setting things down.

Deciding The Diet

Devising a church’s yearly preaching schedule is deceptively tricky and invariably daunting. I have learned, by painful experience I’ll add, that I must start cogitating by the start of September at least. The process of pondering continues, on and off, till early December; at which point the hard thinking, long-praying and mutual conversing will hopefully have given birth to like a plan.

Most of this creative process happens somewhat intuitively. But if I sit down to think about it, the procedure isn’t nearly as random as it first may seem. A handful of important factors carry great weight in the ‘calls’ that are made.

History. I start with the obvious question: ‘what has been preached recently’? In fact, we are even more forensic than this in our church. Thanks to the record keeping of an assiduous elder, we have kept accurate sermon records for the last twenty years. There is also another spreadsheet that is constantly updated: where we tick off, systematically, all 66 books of Holy writ. Quite recently we finished a ’round’ of the New Testament, and are down to a handful of books in the Old. We then simply restart the cycle over again. What has ‘yet to be preached’ doesn’t always dictate our choices, but we take seriously a commitment to teaching Scripture from cover to cover.

Genre. Something I nabbed from Mark Dever (about a decade ago) was the idea of ‘rotating’ through biblical genres. Though we don’t adhere to a strict order, we are cognisant of the need to balance the literature types we are covering. In 2020, for example, we are covering the genres of narrative, gospel, wisdom and apocalyptic.

Old and New. By conviction and experience I am committed to the joyful task of preaching the Old Testament. We have one Bible, not two. The Old is as full of Christ as the New, even if there is a certain subtlety at times to the pre-incarnate revelation. We will almost always try to balance our diet of Old and New throughout the year.

Desire. Needless to say, this is subjective… but there is the matter of what I want to preach. In the face of competing options I will often just opt for the book that most interests me. It might be a book I’ve never preached on before, a book I feel I don’t much understand, or it may be something that has piqued my interest in the regular round of Bible readings.

Relevance. Though I don’t put a great amount of stock in this, there is at least some thought given to the timeliness of a book. I won’t go overboard with this consideration, since I’m convinced that all Scripture is relevant all the time. Sometimes the things we think are relevant cause us to neglect other truths that we need just as much. I’ve also discovered that God by his Spirit is quite able to create a certain “timeliness” as to when a certain passage “happens” to be preached.

Space. There is sometimes the sheer practical issue of how many sermon slots are available in the calendar. If I’m sitting with 8 slots, I can’t preach that 20 week series that I’m desperate to unfold. It will need to wait till another year.

2020 Foresight

One of my admittedly few goals for 2020 (I’m not a big resolutions guy, but that’s another story) is to blog a fair bit more. Over the past three months, in a number of unsolicited conversations with pastors, I have been reminded of the blog and urged strongly to get myself writing more frequently.

Feeling suitably chastised, here I am.

A quirky problem I have is that I prefer to produce more substantial posts. But in the busyness of life and ministry, this can lead, unsurprisingly, to an inevitable outcome: not much blogging. So my thought this year is to produce briefer, less well crafted pieces, that will nonetheless seek to get the point across.

Some topics of interest to me just now include :

  • the practicalities of preaching Christ in every sermon
  • improving my interpretation and application of narratives
  • how to address controversial matters in sermons
  • the place of passion and how to cultivate it authentically
  • moving our sermons from Sunday only events to pervading the church week
  • dealing with distractions in the moment of preaching.

I’d love to hear (either in the comments or by personal dm) what topics you’d like to see me blog about in 2020?

What are we all wrestling with in our preaching at the moment?

That Might Preach, But…

I once preached a sermon on the Magi where I dazzled the congregation. I walked them through the Magi’s gifts and explained their deeper meaning. Gold, of course, represented Jesus’ royalty. Incense his deity; and myrrh the looming spectre of his death.

It ‘preached’ pretty well but I remember feeling uneasy. Was this really what I should have been preaching from that text?

Many Christmas puddings later I now have an inkling why I felt that way. The message was exegetically unstable. Or put another way: I am now far less certain that Matthew or the Holy Spirit intended us to see these deeper meanings.

In his writings on Matthew, Don Carson expressed the same view with more dogmatism:

Commentators old and modern have found symbolic value in the three gifts… This interpretation demands too much insight from the Magi. The three gifts were simply expensive and not uncommon presents and may have helped finance the trip to Egypt.

Oh well, then.

(cue sound of sermon notes being scrumpled)

I strongly suspect that Carson is right, but what I’m really interested in is a wider problem. In our desire to make Scripture ‘preachable’ we import uncertain meanings into the text, while ignoring glorious truths that are actually there.

Take the Magi and Matthew 2 for instance. In this famous Christmas passage there are least six emphases nearer to the forefront of Matthew’s mind.

1.Promises of the coming Davidic King are now being fulfilled. Note the significance of Jesus’ birthplace and the allusion to a messianic prophecy (Numbers 24).

2. The contrast between Jewish and pagan responses to Christ’s birth. There is hostility and apathy on the one hand; fascination and worship on the other.

3. Gentile inclusion in the promises of God. This is also suggested in the genealogy of chapter 1 and is a concluding emphasis in Matthew’s gospel (go make disciples of all nations).

4. The Messiah is worshiped. The pagans were unlikely to have viewed Jesus as divine, but they “worshiped better than they knew.” (Carson)

5. There is an echo of Pharaoh’s attempt in Exodus to destroy Hebrew male children and the line of promise. There is, like that occasion, divine preservation. But the Bethlehem persecution anticipates the later plot to kill Jesus as a man.

6. A new exodus is underway. The star goes before the Magi like the cloud went before the Israelites. Jesus will be taken to Egypt like Joseph was in the book of Genesis. He will come out of Egypt, go through water, endure a wilderness before coming to a mountain (Matthew 5).

We’ve only scratched the surface of the Magi and Matthew 2. But the point I wanted to make has hopefully been demonstrated. In stressing ideas that are tenuous at best, we are in danger of missing out on meanings that are there.

We must preach the Word, not conjecture. And there’s no holiday from that, even at Christmas.

So What? A Seminar On Application (MP3)

Here is the recent seminar I ran on application with some of the guys at church. Listen or download here.

Some of what we covered:

  • 1:07 – Few helps in application
  • 3:20 – No conscious method
  • 5:39 – Application is a ‘confrontational act’
  • 7:33 – Why application is essential (a reflection on 2 Timothy 3:15-17 – what has God designed the Bible to do?)
  • 12:42 – A brief analysis of Jonty Allcock’s introduction to Luke 5:1-11 (EMA 2016).
  • 15:02 – The “explanation focused” sermon vs the “application focused” sermon.
  • 21:23 – Principle 1: The better the interpretation, the better the application
  • 27:11 – Principle 2: Apply to the whole person.
  • 29:32 – Principle 3: Apply to a wide range of people and situations (Application grid/ don’t just preach to yourself).
  • 32:30 – Principle 4: Know the difference between a clear principle and a general ideal.
  • 35:35 – Principle 5: Preach against your natural tendency.
  • 37: 15 – Quick fire suggestions (Put application into your sermon headings / Frontload the application / Consider ‘minor aps’/ Illustrations can be the application/ Questions are powerful / Leave your notes / Listen to those who apply well).

Questions to the Preacher #1 – Did the Trinity Rupture At The Cross? :


Let’s start with the basic answer: no, the Trinity did not rupture at the cross. While the Bible makes astonishing claims about Calvary, it never goes so far as to state that there was a fundamental breach within the Trinity. If we think about it – metaphysically and logically – it is impossible for the Father and Son to be divided in their ‘being’. There is only one God, which means you cannot split the Godhead apart, any more than you could divide up your body and still have one unified entity. A fundamental breach of the eternal union between Father and Son would mean the discombobulation of the universe!


Another way we might err is in imagining that the Father and Son are at war on the cross. Yet the cross is not – if I might use a pop-culture reference – “The Trinity: Civil War.”  Scripture is clear that to redeem a lost world, the Father and Son were united in loving purpose  (Luke 22:42, John 5:19, John 10:18, John 17:20-23). To quote the erudite John Calvin: “There is no suspicion anywhere in the New Testament of discord between the Father and the Son, whether by the Son wresting forgiveness from the Father or by the Father demanding a sacrifice from unwilling Son…On the contrary, their wills coincided in the perfect self-sacrifice of love.” ¹


Notwithstanding all the above, we affirm that Jesus did however experience a genuine sense of God-forsakenness. The word experience here is important, for some will argue that the unbreakable eternal union between Father and Son excludes the idea that Jesus experienced God-forsakeness. But to the contrary, the sheer strength of biblical language suggests a true degree of anguish. To be “smitten by God” (Is 53:4), to be “crushed” (Is 53:11), to “become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13) and “made sin” (2 Cor 5:21), all imply an experience of anguish and horror that is not just a legal fiction. Furthermore, Jesus’ reaction when he contemplated drinking the cup of wrath  (Mat 26:36-46) should tell us all we need to know about the genuineness of his anguish.


A final thing that will help us is if we can gain a better understanding of Christ’s person and role. Thoughtful bible-readers have long spoken of Christ as being one person, having two distinct natures (divine and human).² These natures cannot be divided, but they can be distinguished. Applied to the cross, we could argue that the forsakeness pertains primarily to the human nature of Christ. Of course, Christ’s divinity and humanity cannot be divided – so it would not necessarily be wrong to say that “God [in Jesus] was forsaken on the cross.” However, the point I’m making is that Jesus is being forsaken as he suffers in our place as a human representative. God for sakes Christ Jesus, the man who represents us as the mediator between God and sinners.³ This is not to say that Christ’s divinity wasn’t crucial for redemption’s accomplishment; only that Christ’s rejection by God was due to him adopting our human nature.


So in summary, the eternal Trinity did not rupture on the cross. That would be metaphysically impossible and theologically incoherent.  At the same time the forsakenness Jesus experienced on the cross was real. God the Son took on human flesh, and for a hellish moment in history, the Father turned his face away from the sinner’s representative.


¹ Quote in John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p151).

² ” So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.” (Westminster Confession, Ch 8.2)

³ Notice that Psalm 22 is not cast in the form “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me”, but “My God, my God”, since it is Jesus in his position as human representative who is experiencing the God-forsakeness. Similarly in Isaiah 53 there is an emphasis on the humanity of the servant (Is 53:2-4).














Unwrapping Revelation

I’m having a rather strange afternoon and an even stranger Christmas. While Christmas lights twinkle in the corner of my eye, my head is stuck in commentaries on Revelation.


It’s not normally what I do in the month when Christmas jingles hum away in the background. It’s just that we’re planning to preach Revelation in the first half of 2019.

Given the magnitude of the material, I’m doing a ‘tad’  more than usual in forward prep.

So for those who might be interested (and hopefully that’s every Bible reader!) let’s see if we can ‘unwrap’ Revelation just a little. This book is one of God’s greatest gifts to the church!

Reading Revelation Well

1. Our conviction should be that Revelation is just that – a revelation (or disclosure) from God. Thus while some things are hard to interpret, Revelation does not present itself as an impenetrable book. God is not trying to bamboozle us. 

2. Allied to the first point,  the major themes of Revelation are mainstream. Its big ideas aren’t novel. Or quirky. One could could even argue that Revelation is a summary and climax of  Biblical story and  doctrine. Creation; divine sovereignty; Christ’s death, resurrection and return; the overcoming of evil; the victory of the church; the final judgement and new creation – these are not exactly new themes! It’s true they are presented in an unusual and climactic form. But behind the strange imagery is glorious old Bible and gospel. 

3. The overall purpose of Revelation (to present suffering believers with a vision of God’s purposes that will sustain them to remain faithful to the Lamb) must constantly be borne in mind. Without this purpose anchoring us Revelation quickly becomes academic and speculative. Worse still,  a little knowledge of Revelation can translate (and inflate!) into a big head. So we read Revelation for kudos, to impress our friends with our ‘eschatology’ (see how I wowed you with that big word?).

Yet Revelation isn’t designed to grow our ego. It is meant to enliven our faith, strengthen our perseverance and enrich our worship. 

4. Revelation combines three ‘genres’ from a literature standpoint, and each of these genres is significant.

Remembering that Revelation is a letter will keep us from de-historicizing it. 

Remembering that Revelation is an apocalypse will keep us from over-literalising it (it is highly symbolic, though the symbols do have reference reality).

Remembering that Revelation is prophecy will keep us from de-supernaturalising it (it is God’s word spoken into the present and future).


5. Whatever interpretation approach we lean to (there are at least four main ones), there is probably some truth in each of them.

Clearly, parts of Revelation need to be seen in light of their first century background (Preterist). There are undoubtedly many predictions about the future (Futurist). Revelation does have applications to every age of church history (Historicist – though I do not think Revelation is prophesying the entire church age). And yes,, there are certainly big ideas that are meant to instruct the church (Idealist).

This is not to suggest that we should minimise  differences between interpretations. It is only to say that they shouldn’t be presented as entirely separate options. For myself, I am probably a blend of Preterist, Idealist and Futurist perspectives. Yet I think that any of these approaches, taken to an extreme, can restrict and skew the correct interpretation of certain passages. We must let the text lead us to whatever it leads. 

6. The structure of the book is difficult to discern, but we can certainly note the letter’s opening and closing, the introductory vision and letters (ch 1-3), the opening vision of God’s throne (ch 4-5), the visions that focus largely on God’s purposes being worked out in destruction (6-20) and in a new heaven and new earth (21-22).

There is a growing consensus that chapters 4-5 are something of an introduction to the following visions. They establish the hidden spiritual reality of God’s sovereignty in creation, redemption and judgement. In the rest of Revelation, we see God through Christ bringing to pass his sovereign purposes. It is also often argued that the number 7 is significant in the book’s structure. It may be that the book has seven or even eight sections (among others, Revelation scholar Greg Beale argues this). 

7. The order of the book is not entirely chronological. As is true in other apocalyptic writings, Revelation seems at times to ‘spiral’. There is a cyclical nature to it. The ‘end’ seems to come more than once in the book! Rev 11:15-20 seems a particularly clear example of the final end of history. Yet the visions and the book continue! 

8. The Old Testament is an interpretive key to Revelation. There are more than 400 Old Testament ‘allusions’ (not quotes) in the book. It is important that we don’t simply guess at what the images in Revelation may mean. We should ask: where have we seen this image before in the Bible? (eg. The vision of Christ in Revelation 1 uses images largely drawn from the book of Daniel). 

9. We should interpret the text symbolically (not literally) unless shown otherwise. This is a highly significant choice in terms of interpretation. Some readers take the opposite approach: they assume a literal interpretation unless they are forced to interpret symbolically. 

Everyone accepts that there is at least some symbolism in Revelation. For example, everyone recognises that the slain lamb is symbolic of Christ, and not an actual lamb. Yet more literal interpreters refuse to recognise that most of the book is symbol-laden. 

In my opinion, this literal approach fails to recognise the genre. We wouldn’t read poetry in a rigidly literal way. Nor should we do so with apocalypic/prophetic material. 

Note: Recognising symbolism is not the same as saying that there is no literal meaning beneath the symbol. Christ isn’t a physical lamb, yet the image has real meaning (he was slain as our perfect substitute sacrifice).


10. There will inevitably be some points of disagreement when it comes to understanding Revelation. Some see much of Revelation as being fulfilled in a coming tribulation at the time of Christ’s return. Some discern a future millennium period when Christ will return on earth. Others see none of these things.

We need to lay out alternative views respectfully. We need to argue our own position, and recognise the points of agreement where we can.

This is where the Idealist approach can prove helpful. People of different end times convictions can still rejoice in the overarching thought of Christ’s reign (Revelation 20), or speak of the need to persevere through trials and tribulations, or agree that (however it will happen) Christ is coming again. 

I heard of a seminary professor who totally disagreed with the Left Behind books. Despite his reservations, he wasn’t that bothered that his kids were reading them. He would share his different views if they asked, but was happy that they were growing in their longing for Christ’s return.

11. At the end of the day, this is difficult stuff. We’re not going to get all of it right. We need to be humble about the conclusions we reach.

But we also need to see that much (even most?) of Revelation isn’t controversial.

The Lamb wins.

Surely we can all agree on that and be encouraged! 


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?