I preach through books of the Bible not because that method is mandated or modeled in the Bible, but instead because of what the Bible is. Because the Bible is the Word of God without error and inspired throughout, it requires us to treat the words, phrases, and sentences accordingly. Thus, the Bible is best taught using an approach to preaching that explains what God has inspired, looking at the words and phrases in the process.
Because the Bible’s inspiration is word-for-word, the words of the Bible should set the agenda for the message taught or preached in a gathered worship service. In other words, this message should largely be the explanation of the inspired Word of God in the order and in the format that the Holy Spirit inspired the authors to write.
Thus, the preferred form of preaching is that which is driven by the text and where the text sets the agenda.
This provides for several benefits.
First, it brings you to passages you normally would not want to preach.
I’m preaching through the book of Matthew right now, and we recently came to chapter 19. Jesus has very strong words about marriage and adultery being the allowable exception for divorce. It is a hard passage to preach, as Jesus is quite forthright; His commands are countercultural for our day. Thus, as I preach through Matthew, I am forced to stand before my congregation with conviction, raising a view of marriage that Jesus said the world would not be able to handle. I do that because the text brings me there, just as the text might bring me to racism, consumerism, or other issues that challenge modern listeners.
Second, the authors of the Bible, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, actually have themes or purposes to what they communicate.
As I preach through Matthew, Jesus is making his path to the cross and the writer is reminding us of the countercultural values of the Kingdom. In other words, Matthew did not just haphazardly collect and write down these passages.
I am being more faithful and helpful as a preacher if I communicate to my people what Matthew said. This does not mean it has to be a boring, running commentary. But I would be ignoring part of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration if I did not preach the text as the author—and Author—delivered it.
Next, it teaches people how to read the Bible.
The Bible is not best read as a series of unrelated passages. Our preaching should encourage a better way to look at Scripture. By preaching through books of the Bible, I show people they can open books of the Bible, read them, and trace the thoughts and the arguments presented. In other words, by preaching expositionally I can actually teach people to read the Bible well and better.
As I often remind the people at my church, the Bible is not written to you, nor is it about you.
If we solely read the Bible devotionally, we can end up under that impression. Instead, the Bible is written for you.
It’s written for you to follow the point, trace the ideas, and apply the truth. Thus, preaching through books of the Bible teaches you to receive the message in that way.
Fourth, it teaches how we value the Bible.
When I preached on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, I explained that he did so in the midst of an elaborate situation where mourners were there, where the highway from Bethany to Jericho was in a place that can’t be missed, where the Pharisees would see this as the moment to turn against Jesus. (You can watch that here.) In discussing these details, listeners learn that when Jesus heals, the details often point to other realities. It reminds people the details of the Bible are to be valued because of the very nature of the Bible.
Finally, it cautions my congregation and I against making the Bible mean what we think it should mean.
When we come to the Bible with a preconceived notion then apply scripture out-of-context to evidence our point ("proof texting"), we undermine our credibility. You may feel you've scored major points; that is until your people go back to their own Bibles and say to themselves, “That’s really not what it said.”
Never preach in such a way that if your people dig deeper they would find you took a verse out of context. Or, let me say it this way: Never preach in such a way that when you get to heaven and meet the apostle Paul he says, “That’s not what I meant, and it was obvious from the context.”
I find my approach to preaching aligns with Tim Keller’s approach, and he probably explains it better than I do. At Christianity Today he recently said that the majority of preaching in the church should be verse-by-verse, and should be expositional. In my view, it should be specifically verse-by-verse exposition working through books of the Bible, as that's the best way to teach and shape a congregation.
However, verse-by-verse exposition is not the only way to preach God’s word and be faithful.
More on that next time...