Blessings of the Old Testament

In yesterday’s Easter sermon, Genesis 22:1-4 A Father’s Love, I discussed the primary purpose of the Old Testament: leading us to Christ. Paul said, “The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ” (Gal 3:24). After we’ve come to Christ, the New Testament contains a number of verses discussing the new relationship believers have to the Law. We are “free from the Law” (Rom 7:3), “dead to the Law” (Rom 7:4 & Gal 2:19), “delivered from the Law” (Rom 7:6) and “no longer under the Law” (Gal 3:25 & 5:18). In Romans 10:4 Paul said, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” and in Galatians 3:19 he said the Law was only “until the Seed (Jesus) should come.

The Old Testament primarily accomplishes this two ways. First, there were prophecies of Christ. Second, there are clear pictures and types of Him.

You could read all these verses and wonder what this means for us as believers: “What should we think of the Old Testament? What should be our relationship to it as New Testament believers? Is the Old Testament as beneficial as the New Testament?”

Considering how much I’ve taught from the Old Testament, I’d like to hope it’s obvious to my congregation how much I love it, value it, and recognize its equality with the New Testament. The fact is, Scripture nowhere presents any books or verses – say nothing about Testaments – as being superior to another. The blessings God’s Word afford are afforded from anywhere in Scripture. Every verse accomplishes the following blessings…

  • Equips: All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16, 17).
  • Cleanses: Christ…cleanses [the church] with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5:26, 27).
  • Convicts: For the Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb 4:12).
  • Sanctifies: Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth (John 17:17).
  • Imparts faith: Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom 10:17).

One of the other blessings of the Old Testament is it provides examples for us to learn from:

  • Romans 15:4—For whatever things were written before [referring to the Old Testament] were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:11—Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

The Old Testament provides a backdrop for New Testament instruction. Certain accounts and individuals in the Old Testament help us make practical application of New Testament commands. Sometimes the individuals will serve as positive examples through their obedience, while other times they will serve as negative examples through their disobedience.

The 7 Steps I Follow to Develop a Sermon

As I develop a sermon, it takes up much of my week. I’ve often wondered what other pastors do and how much time it takes them. This led me to some articles discussing the preparation of well-known pastors. John MacArthur and Mark Dever said they require 30 to 35 hours of preparation per week, while at the other end of the spectrum Mark Driscoll said he only needs 1 to 2 hours. It’s worth adding no other preachers even come close to approaching the minimal amount of time Driscoll said he requires. Most other prominent pastors – Matt Chandler, John Piper and Tim Keller – said they require around 14 to 16 hours per week.

This looks to one of the interesting realities associated with preaching: pastors prepare in vastly different ways. While I’m sure there are some similarities between great preachers (their familiarity with Scripture, diligence in studying, time committed to prayer, etc.), their actual sermon development looks very different.

Even though I’ve only been preaching consistently for the 4 years I’ve been at WCC (when I was at Grace Baptist I preached occasionally, approximately once every 6 to 8 weeks), the way I prepare has changed slightly and perhaps it will change even more in the future, but for the most part it has remained the same. I thought I might provide some posts discussing how I prepare a sermon. First I’d like to be clear though that I don’t think there’s necessarily a right or wrong way to develop a sermon and I don’t think what I do is better than what others do. With that said…

First, I develop a sermon by reading over the passage a number of times

I want to make sure I’m very familiar with the passage. Since it usually takes months to preach through a chapter, most passages have been read numerous times.

Second, I develop a sermon by copying the verses to Word with spaces between them for the notes I’ll add

Whether it’s for a sermon, Sunday School message, devotional or any other teaching, my notes always keep the same format: I put the verses in bold, my notes in normal font, and quotes in italics. This provides visual clues for me as I’m teaching. If you’d like to see the notes for any of my sermons as examples, you can click on any of my messages and the notes are attached.

Third, I develop a sermon by looking at commentaries

This is where I add the most to my notes, not just because of what I learn from commentaries, but because what I learn from commentaries leads me to think of other things to share/teach as well. As far as the length of time looking at commentaries, it usually takes one full day and sometimes runs into a second day. At this point my notes still look fairly unorganized and will later require a significant amount of organizing and editing.

Fourth, I develop a sermon by determining the number of verses to cover

I take two factors into consideration:

  1. The context of the verses: I want to keep appropriate verses together, conclude with verses that tie up a section well, hopefully not introduce another topic that can’t be exposited (explained) thoroughly, etc. Basically, I want to leave people with closure on a certain passage or topic and be prepared to introduce a new point or topic in the next sermon.
    One of the real challenges is a chapter, a section within a chapter, or a few verses might have their own theme or point. Deciding what to elaborate on can be challenging. For example in the last sermon on the old and young prophet in 1 Kings 13, the young prophet committed the “sin leading to death” (1 John 5:16-17). Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10) and some partaking in the Lord’s Supper in “an unworthy manner” (1 Cor 11:27-30) did the same. I had quite a bit of notes on all this, but I took them out for two reasons: they didn’t relate to the theme of the sermon and I didn’t have room for them
  2. The second factor in determining how many verses to cover is the number of words in my notes. As I add to my notes the number of verses I’m able to cover decreases. Since I add to my notes throughout the week, the number of verses I’m able to cover also decreases throughout the week; therefore, this step doesn’t take place on a certain day or at a certain point in the process; it’s really an ongoing “step” as I develop the sermon.

As those people who have attended WCC for any amount of time know, the number of verses I expect to cover usually ends up being much less than I actually end up covering. As a result, the passage I copy to Word in Step 2 usually lasts a number of weeks. For example, when I recently preached through Ephesians 5, I copied verses 25 to 33 to Word, but those verses were split up over six sermons, therefore lasting six weeks. When I copied 1 Peter 3:1-6 to Word (the verses discussing wives), the passage became three sermons lasting three weeks.

My notes are a manuscript

While some pastors’ notes contains statements or phrases reminding them what to say, I write out everything I want to say.  Manuscripts typically average about 4,500 words, which results in 50-55 minutes sermons.

While it’s great to be “led by the Spirit” – and there’s definitely the occasional addition to a sermon that wasn’t in my notes – I think it’s much better to have invested the time studying and use the material that’s been meticulously prepared, prayed over, thought about during the week, etc. than information preached off the cuff

Fifth, I develop a sermon by adding lessons

This step takes place throughout the week as opposed to one point in the process. There might be times during Step I when I’m reading over the passage and something strikes me as significant and worth emphasizing, so I’ll make a lesson for it. Then I put the lessons on an insert for the congregation to fill out while I’m preaching. I decided to try this for one of my earliest sermons at WCC and I’ve been doing it since. Here’s the interesting – and somewhat ironic – background…

My previous church, Grace Baptist in Lemoore, CA, is where I began paid ministry (first part-time, and when the church grew they hired me full-time). The senior pastor, Joe Gruchacz, who was also my mentor, used inserts with lessons, but I thought it was unnecessary – and honestly – somewhat silly. Why? Because I spent my Christian life in Calvary Chapels where I hadn’t seen that done, and I was convinced what CC did I should do, and what CC didn’t do, I shouldn’t do. My suspicion is Pastor Joe probably got tired of hearing me say, “That’s not what Calvary Chapel does!”

Try to avoid “a running commentary”

I also thought the best approach to preaching looked like reading a verse, explaining it, reading a verse, explaining it, etc. with very little organization or structure to the message. Early on Pastor Joe shared a quote with me from Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

“A sermon is not a running commentary on a passage. I emphasize this because there are many today who have become interested in what they regard is expository preaching, but who show very clearly that they do not know what is meant by expository preaching. They think it means making a series of comments, or running commentary, on a passage. They take a passage verse-by-verse and they make their comments on the first, then they go onto the next, and when they have gone through the passage in this way they imagine they have preached a sermon. But they have not; all they have done is make a series of comments on the passage. I would suggest far from having preached a sermon such preachers have only preached the introduction to a sermon.”

Occasionally I preached for Pastor Joe and these words were meant as a criticism of what I was doing. I have to say this quote was perfectly fitting, it has really affected my preaching, and I’m very thankful Pastor Joe cared enough about me (and those I’d be preaching to over the years) to share it with me. Even though I still generally preach verse-by-verse and probably always will, this motivated me to ensure the material in my sermons was arranged in such a way that it wasn’t simply a “running commentary.” Part of that has been the addition of lessons that I try to relate to an overall theme.

One of my weaknesses when I started preaching was my sermons were largely teaching with a lot of technical information, but little application. Katie has really helped me in this area as a result of our different preferences. I could listen to a sermon with little-to-no application and if the verses are clearly explained I’ll enjoy it, but Katie will be bored: “How is that going to help me be a better mother or wife?” And if a sermon is filled with application, but contains little exposition, she’ll be thrilled and I’ll be disappointed: “He read over those verses and hardly explained them?!?!”

This led to some interesting conversations between us when we first started going over my sermons together. At times I would consider the application from verses to be obvious to the congregation asking Katie, “Don’t you think everyone will take away that application from the explanation?” Katie would say, “No, you need to make it clear. Spell it out for us.” Over time I put more application in my sermons, trying to provide a balance with exposition/teaching. I want to make sure people have a thorough understanding of the verses, while also receiving application for their lives.

Sixth, I develop a sermon by “shaving” down my notes

I’m almost always hundreds of words over a reasonable length for my sermons. This requires cutting out parts of my sermon: a painful, but beneficial process because it forces me to make every word count. There are times at the very end of my sermon when I’m looking back-and-forth between paragraphs struggling with what to remove or keep.

Here’s a quote by Mark Twain that really sums up what it feels like: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one.” He meant – and it’s what everyone has experienced when they’ve had  to be careful with their words – it takes more time and focus when we’re limited by space; when we have to be concise.

Seventh, I develop a sermon by going over my notes with my wife

This takes place two times per week, about two-to-three hours each time. My parents usually come over to watch the kids, but sometimes Katie’s brother Boyd or sister Molly (who moved to the area) help; it really is a family affair! We normally do this Thursday morning, and then I make changes the rest of Thursday and Friday, before going over it again on Saturday. If a third time is required (because perhaps it was a little rougher than expected on Thursday), we’ll try at some point on Friday. Going over my sermon with Katie serves a number of beneficial purposes.

Since we don’t speak the way we write (usually our writing is more formal), when I go over my sermon with Katie it allows me to change my notes from the way I write to the way I want to speak from the pulpit. I’ll add visual cues and arrange the information in such a way that it’s easier to preach: bullets, capitals, ellipses, spaces between lines or thoughts, etc.

One of the difficulties associated with preaching is it involves presenting information I’ve studied, become familiar with, etc. and as I explain it I’ll believe I’m doing so in a clear, understandable way…but maybe I’m not! One of the blessings of going over my sermon with Katie is she’s able to say, “Ummm…that doesn’t make sense.” Maybe I’ll say, “Okay, this is what I was trying to say” and she’ll say, “Well that’s not what it sounded like you said. What you just said is what you should say instead.”

Also, Katie might have verses or thoughts that she’ll share with me. The funny thing is when we start my sermon I’ll say, “I’m X hundred words over a reasonable length” and Katie will say, “Oh, I’ll help you with that” implying she’ll ruthlessly tell me parts of my notes that can be taken out – which she does – but she usually offsets that by the verses, stories, ideas, etc. she thinks I should add.

Discussion Questions

  • If you prepare messages, whether in the church or secular world, what approach do you take?
  • Do you have some advice for preparing sermons or other types of messages?

Pastors are Prophets???

Pastors are prophets

If someone asked me what verse I believe most accurately describes what it feels like when I’m studying the Bible (as opposed to simply reading it) I would say 1 Peter 1:10, which says regarding the Scriptures “the prophets have inquired (or investigated) and searched carefully (or intently or diligently) to understand the truth in them. The prophets are pictured as straining to see the truth contained in God’s Word; they’re striving to understand what God has written so they can proclaim it to the people. I’ve always thought of the prophets almost like individuals standing in a dark room with very little light trying to clearly see what’s on the other side.

I don’t consider myself a prophet (as it’s listed as a separate office in Ephesians 4:11); however, prophecy is still part of the preaching of God’s Word according to 1 Corinthians 14:3, which lists three things prophecy does: He who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. The Amplified adds, The one who prophesies [who interprets the divine will and purpose in inspired PREACHING AND TEACHING] speaks edification…” Unfortunately, we tend to think of prophecy as only predicting (foretelling) the future, but it’s much better to think of prophecy as proclaiming (forth telling) the Word of God.

This looks to one of the biggest changes to my preaching since coming to WCC almost four years ago: instead of focusing on simply explaining what verses mean (basically providing a running commentary), it wouldn’t be too much to say my greatest desire now is for people to feel like God is speaking to them through His Word during my sermons. Simply put, it’s my desire prophecy would be taking place. My prayer throughout the week is for people to hear from God through the Scriptures. Of all the feedback I could receive regarding sermons, nothing is more encouraging than, “I felt like God was speaking to me while you were preaching.”

My home fellowship and Sunday School messages will continue to be mostly verse-by-verse exposition, hoping to stir up discussion over what we’re covering, but for sermons my prayer throughout the week is always the same and it could be summarized as: “Father what do You want to say to Your people?”

Traditions are terrible…right?

Marriage God's Way - traditions
This was taken at Burney Falls, CA, near McArthur, CA, where Katie and I grew up. It’s a tradition to take a trip back to our hometown most years.

The religious leaders added rules or “fences” to God’s Law. In Mark 7:1-13 they’re called “the traditions of the elders” five times by Jesus. They receive such a scathing critique it’s tempting to think, “Traditions are terrible!” But Paul said, “Brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and he told the Corinthians,I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you(1 Corinthians 11:2).

That’s a pretty big deal to be praised by Paul, and they were being praised for the traditions they were following! In the sermon I talked more about what made the “traditions of the elders” bad, as well as what makes other traditions bad, but clearly all traditions aren’t bad!

Most of us had traditions in our families growing up. If you’re a parent maybe you still follow some of those traditions having passed them down to your children, and you’ve probably also started some traditions of your own. Cities have traditions: Woodland recently celebrated Planters’ Day. Countries have traditions. Schools have traditions. Businesses have traditions. Organizations have traditions. And of course churches have traditions…

Last week we returned from Family Camp. Before that we had the 4th of July party at the Donalds’. The first Sunday of every month we share a meal together in the fellowship hall. Baby dedications are a tradition (they’re drawn from Samuel and Jesus’ dedications, but they’re not commanded). The only commanded traditions are baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Some traditions aren’t commanded, but they help us obey other commands. For example, fellowship is commanded (Heb 10:25), and home groups will hopefully become a tradition that allows WCC to obey God’s command regarding being in fellowship with each other. We’re commanded to know God’s Word (Matt 4:4; Col 3:16) and Sunday School is a tradition that helps us accomplish that in our lives.

What makes traditions bad? First, and most importantly when they’re given too much weight; when they’re treated like commands instead of traditions. Second, when they’re followed simply for tradition’s sake: it might not be what’s best, but it’s what’s been…a tradition.

Just Enough Light

We had a wonderful week at Family Camp. Each year Dave Zumstein plans a hike that involves passing through a cave and it always makes me think of Psalm 119:105 [God’s] Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. When you’re in a cave you see what a perfect metaphor this is: your light really is a light to your feet. You can only see a few steps ahead. Fittingly this is how God seems to direct us only revealing the next step when we’ve taken the previous step. Consider the way God directed Philip in Acts 8 first telling him to go to Gaza (v.26) and then telling him to approach the Ethiopian’s chariot (v.29).

If you shine your light too far ahead you start stumbling, and that’s exactly what happened with the Israelites in the wilderness. They sent spies into the land, saw all the enemies they would end up facing and said, Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” (Num 14:3). The sad part is it was never God’s plan for them to see so far ahead: Deuteronomy 7:22 The Lord your God will drive out those nations before you little by little; you will be unable to destroy them at once. It wasn’t good for the Israelites to shine their flashlights so far in front of them.

Thinking about the future is an interesting balance in Scripture. The ant is applauded for its planning (Pro 6:6-8, 30:25), and Jesus said if we want to build we should first figure out if we’ll be able to finish and if we’re going to battle we should first determine if we have enough troops (Luke 14:28-32). Then there are other verses making it clear that even if we plan we should never speak too confidently about what the future holds: Jesus said not to worry about tomorrow (Matt 6:34) and James 4:13-16 condemns people who says they know what will happen the next day: Proverbs 27:1 Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. It seems God’s desire is for us to constantly trust Him for guidance.

Maybe most obviously and importantly, without lights we would’ve been completely lost and unable to find our way. We would’ve been scrambling around in the dark with no idea where we were going, a fitting picture of how we look without the light of God’s Word. Fortunately though “we have the prophetic word [which] shines as a light in a dark place” (2 Pet 1:19).

Physical consequences of obedience or disobedience

Tuesday night I was at the young men’s study and Brendan covered Proverbs 3:8 which discusses obedience bringing “health to your body and nourishment to your bones.” I thought this was interesting because we don’t normally think of the physical benefits of obedience; usually we just think of obeying God affecting us spiritually, and perhaps mentally or emotionally. If we do think of the physical consequences of sin our minds immediately go to struggles with drugs or alcohol, but sin in general takes a physical toll on us. Listen to these words from David following his sin: “My bones wasted and I groaned all day long…my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer” (Psa 32:3-4), “My strength fails because of my iniquity, and my body wastes away” (Psa 31:10), and, “There is no health in my bones because of my sin” (Psa 38:3).

This past week I was watching a health lecture on YouTube. The doctor was talking about ways to avoid disease, keep a strong immune system, stay young, etc. He went through the normal recommendations regarding nutrition, exercise, sleep, etc. Then he started talking about avoiding things like bitterness, anger, and even unforgiveness. He described what happens in our bodies when we get angry: capillaries restrict, the heart has to work much harder, hormone levels are negatively affected, we become less reasonable, and our bodies become slower to heal, and experience poorer pulmonary function. One study showed individuals with the highest levels of anger had twice the risk of coronary artery disease and three times the risk of heart attack.

It was pretty hard to believe, but some scientists claimed chronic anger may be more dangerous than smoking and obesity as factors contributing to early death. The bible also tells us not to worry, and there’s plenty of evidence to show the physical harm in worrying. God’s Word is filled with tremendous spiritual, mental, emotional and physical ways to be blessed. Instead of milk it should say, “Obeying God does a body good.”

Early Days Reading the Bible

When I became a Christian I immediately started reading the Bible…or maybe I became a Christian immediately after I started reading the Bible…I’m not sure which came first. Anyway, I was very ignorant and a number of the questions I remember asking back then remind me how little I knew.

Fortunately, the Word is tremendously powerful and I still took a lot away from what I read and it changed my life. Those early days (I’m writing like I’ve been a Christian for decades) were exciting. I still love reading and studying the Word – in many ways even more than I did back then – (you can read about it in a recent blog I wrote entitled “Overwhelmed”) but I’ll never be able to read Genesis or Matthew again for the first time if that makes sense. I still love listening to sermons, and reading and studying, but I’ll never be able to hear a sermon on the Prodigal Son again for the first time. I knew the story, but hearing that the father in the story was supposed to be our Heavenly Father, and his love for his son pictured the love our Heavenly Father has for us – not when we’re obedient, but when we’re rebelling – was a special, unique time in my life. I could write weeks of bulletin letters just recounting amazing passages I read and sermons I heard in that season. Some of the sermons I’ve even gone back and listened to years later just to try to capture the feeling I had at the time. I think when Jesus mentioned leaving our first love (Rev 2:4) He’s encouraging us to keep the passion in our relationships with Him that characterized our lives soon after conversion. Obviously it’s reminiscent of our relationships with our spouses and how we want to make sure that love is there years and decades later.

I mentioned all this for one reason: there were three passages of Scripture I vividly remember thinking, “I can’t believe everyone doesn’t know this”: the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 to 7, the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37 looking forward to Israel becoming a nation again, and finally – and probably even most dramatically – there was Daniel’s Seventy Weeks. It used to depress me (and still does) that there are Christians unfamiliar with this amazing prophecy. BUT GUESS WHAT? After these next two Sundays we’re not going to have any Christians like that at WCC!

Overwhelmed With God's Word

I spend twenty or thirty hours per week on my sermon for Sunday. I spend a lot of Wednesday studying for our midweek Bible study in the evening. If I’m covering Sunday School I’ll spend more time studying for that and if I have time during the week I might also study for our Sunday evening service. If I don’t have time during the week, I’ll study for Sunday evening after the morning service. My message for the evening service is usually much simpler and doesn’t require near the amount of work Sunday morning requires.

My point in sharing all that is I spend a lot of time studying God’s Word and as a pastor it should be that way. It’s not something to be patted on the back for doing; it’s what I get paid to do and it’s what God expects me to do; hopefully it’s also what my congregation expects from me. In my studying there are times, and I wouldn’t say they happen every day or even every week, but they happen often enough, where I almost feel overwhelmed at the things God’s teaching me from His Word. I’ll be studying and I’ll just have to stop and lean back in my chair to soak in and meditate on what I’m learning.

I’m convinced that the only people who aren’t excited about God’s Word, are people who aren’t investing it, because if you’re studying it, prayerfully, diligently, perhaps with commentaries and/or sermons, there’s no way for it not to take hold of your heart.

I know most people don’t have the luxury I do to study God’s Word as a profession. I am very, very blessed. It’s a tremendous blessing, privilege and responsibility to be a pastor. Now that I’ve been able to do this for a living, I don’t know what else I could do. Another profession would be terribly unsatisfying. It’s the feeling I started having toward the end of my teaching career.

You don’t have to be a pastor though to feel overwhelmed by God’s Word. Find a church that faithfully, systematically teaches God’s Word. It’s a travesty all churches don’t. Matthew 9:36 says, “When Jesus saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.” This verse perfectly describes people in churches that don’t faithfully teach God’s Word: they’re scattered sheep without a shepherd.

So first, find a solid, Bible teaching church. And find a good study Bible. Get a journal, or do what I did for the first 7 years of my Christian life and write your notes in your Bible. Before you read, pray for God to speak to you through the Scriptures. That’s why it’s called God’s Word. It’s what He wants to say to you. Look forward to the times when you can be overwhelmed by God’s greatness, the greatness of His Word and His great love for you.