Where to Begin?
In most contemporary translations, the Bible runs to over one thousand pages of relatively small print—all of it God’s special revelation to his world and his people. Pastors of God’s people, therefore, face a somewhat daunting, if not overwhelming, task. How can they approach teaching the whole word of God to the people of God?
We live in a world where we have more access to the word of God in Scripture than any generation before us; and yet, biblical illiteracy is rampant. Moreover, many congregations are often only exposed to Paul’s letters, select portions of the Gospels, and a relatively small smattering of the rest of the scriptures. God gave the scriptures to his church so that they might know his purpose in his Son—as revealed in all of those writings—and also be taught, reproved, corrected, and equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:14–17).
Where do we preachers even begin when facing the task of expounding the entire word of God to the people of God? How do we expose them to as much of the Bible as practically possible? How do pastors in today’s world press on from what is the basic diet of many congregations? Surely, we must recognize that meager diets cannot help but produce under-discipled believers because they are restricted from hearing the whole counsel of God. Pastors with a vision of leading the people that God has given to them into the fullness of Christ will surely focus on how they might expose them to the fullness of the scriptures that testify of him (John 5:39–40).
We recognize that such bald and strong statements may easily overwhelm the well-intentioned pastor. However, we believe that it is not an impossible or unreachable goal when considering a lifetime of expository ministry. Even if you are already well down the track of a lifetime of ministry, the task is still a noble one that is worth pursuing in the remaining time that the Lord gives you. Therefore, we suggest seven tips that will help pastors with such a goal to get underway.
1. Plan Your Preaching
The first step is to proactively plan your preaching schedule for months, if not years, in advance. This is really the only way that you can approach the entire Bible with balance and map out a program that includes even the longer and less-well-known books. From the Old Testament, you will want to include sermons on the books of the Pentateuch, the Old Testament histories, the major and minor prophets, wisdom literature, and the entire gamut of Old Testament literature. In the New Testament, you might seek to map out sermon series from the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles (not just Paul’s letters!), and Revelation. Avoid re-preaching favorite passages of Scripture many times over at the expense of never making a plan to preach lesser known passages. God saw fit to give the entire Bible for the good of his people—who are we to decide that we only need to focus on certain parts of it and neglect other parts?
Having said this, it is inevitable that the complex realities of weekly church life might mean that your plan will need to be changed from time to time. That’s okay and realistic. However, it is far better to make a late change to a well-thought-through plan than to have no plan at all and just stumble on without forethought.
2. Plan Your Planning!
Because this level of planning will require so much time and focused attention, it is really worth planning the time to plan. Moreover, this level of planning is not something that you can cobble together in a spare hour when some meeting is fortuitously cancelled. Rather, set aside significant, focused days each year to lay out church calendars, preaching records, and the like. Then turn concentrated attention to scheduling sermons and sermon series. Perhaps even take a short break away from the regular routine and treat it as a macro-planning exercise where you chart out the entire course of the church’s life for the next season. If you have others who share the preaching load with you, perhaps invite them to withdraw with you. Good planning takes good time, and good time needs good planning.
3. Preach in Expository Series
We are convinced that if you plan nothing else, you should commit to expository preaching that goes through complete books of the Bible. Why? First and foremost, this honors the form of the Bible as God handed it down to his people. It is not by accident that the Scriptures are made up of elements like long narratives, prophetic works, poetry, proverbs, and letters rather than systematically formulated doctrines or topics of interest. It is the way that it is because that is how God wanted us to have it, and we would do well to honor and reflect that as we pass it on to the people of God.
Second, we cannot preserve all the content of the Bible if we disregard its form. For example, we will not really comprehend and deliver all that God has for us in Matthew 22:23–33 if we sever that text from its place within the flow and structure of Matthew’s Gospel. To think that we can do this is akin to thinking we can explain the significance of a home run in the bottom of the ninth without having any awareness of the scores at the start of the innings, or of the importance of this particular game to the whole season, or of the league in which the teams are playing. We can always understand that a home run is good, but the fullness of its significance is lost when it is taken out of its context.
The third reason is far more practical. We will find that it is far, far easier to preach through a series than to devise a new standalone sermon each week. When we preach in expository series, we get great economies out of our preparation time because our study of one book of the Bible can serve us for many, many weeks of preaching. We will also find that we are not left trying to jam in every piece of context or background for every sermon. In a series, all of this can be spread out over several sermons. Alternatively, we might set up a series by front-loading this information into an opening sermon. Most beneficial of all, we do not need to invent themes or topics that we think will engage our congregations. Instead, we can simply trust that the texts that God has given us have enough in themselves to speak deeply to our minds, hearts, and wills.
4. Ponder Your Series
Long term planning of series has some enormous benefits. If you are planning long term, then you give yourself plenty of time to ponder upcoming sermons and series of sermons. This means that you can gather up lots of information, ideas, and illustrations over time rather than in a mad rush. Not only this, but you can also turn the sermons over in your head many times before you preach them. Such planning will give your subconscious lots of time to ponder and reflect on those more meaty or problematic aspects of the text. The cumulative benefits can be quite significant. Like a good, slow-cooked meal, the flavors of the book will have much more time to infuse, combine, and come together for the preacher in rich and rewarding ways. This will excite you and will, in turn, enthuse and excite those who hear.
We can simply trust that the texts that God has given us have enough in themselves to speak deeply to our minds, hearts, and wills.
5. Prepare to Learn as Well as Teach
If we choose to preach parts of the Bible that we have not preached in the past and that we do not know as well as other parts of the Bible, we must be ready for God to address us—and not just our congregations—in new ways. Of course, this should be an incredibly exciting prospect; to hear new things from God is to receive more of his amazing grace. However, it can also be a daunting thing. This is because, as much as we strive to be open, honest, and humble before the Lord, if we have not habitually been soaking in all of the Bible, we may have inadvertently managed to carve ourselves out a comfortable place before him—perhaps a little too comfortable. So, just as we hope and pray that God will use the preaching of his word to appropriately stretch and challenge our congregations in their faithfulness, we too need to be ready and open to being freshly stretched and challenged.
6. Pastor Your People with Your Preaching
As you plan to preach from more and more of the Bible, you need to be prepared to bring different messages from God right into the lives and wills of your people. You are not just embarking on a long-term program of teaching and education (although that is one key part of what you are doing). You are also serving as a channel for the Lord to engage the hearts of his people in new and fuller ways. Such will require that you are spiritually, emotionally, and mentally healthy, and also prepared to proactively apply the text to your congregation and reactively care for those who are processing the different messages you bring. This might mean that you need to maintain your own good patterns of work and rest, and that you take the time to be regularly refreshed and sharpened in your pastoral capacities.
Many things that go without saying should still probably be said—prayer is one of them. Pray as you plan. Pray as you prepare. Pray as you prepare yourself to preach and pastor from the pulpit the people that God has given you to care for. Pray that God would use you as an effective channel to bring more of his life-giving word to his people for his glory.
Tim Patrick and Andrew Reid are the authors of The Whole Counsel of God: Why and How to Preach the Entire Bible.
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