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Famine in the Land
A Passionate Call for Expository Preaching
By Steven J. Lawson, Jim Vincent
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2003 Steven J. Lawson
All rights reserved.
FEAST OR FAMINE?
THE PRIORITY OF BIBLICAL PREACHING
As the church advances into the twenty-first century, the stress to produce booming ministries has never been greater. Influenced by corporate mergers, towering skyscrapers, and expanding economies, bigger is perceived as better, and nowhere is this "Wall Street" mentality more evident than in the church. Sad to say, pressure to produce bottom-line results has led many ministries to sacrifice the centrality of biblical preaching on the altar of man-centered pragmatism.
A new way of "doing" church is emerging. In this radical paradigm shift, exposition is being replaced with entertainment, preaching with performances, doctrine with drama, and theology with theatrics. The pulpit, once the focal point of the church, is now being overshadowed by a variety of church-growth techniques, everything from trendy worship styles to glitzy presentations and vaudeville-like pageantries. In seeking to capture the upper hand in church growth, a new wave of pastors is reinventing church and repackaging the gospel into a product to be sold to "consumers."
Whatever reportedly works in one church is being franchised out to various "markets" abroad. As when gold was discovered in the foothills of northern California, so ministers are beating a path to the doorsteps of exploding churches and super-hyped conferences where the latest "strike" has been reported. Unfortunately, the newly panned gold often turns out to be "fool's gold." Not all that glitters is actually gold.
GOD'S WORK, GOD'S WAY
Admittedly, pastors can learn from growing churches and successful ministries. Yet God's work must be done God's way if it is to know God's blessing. He provides the power and He alone should receive the glory, but this will happen only when His divinely prescribed plan for ministry is followed. When people-centered schemes are followed, often imitating the world's shtick, the flesh provides the energy, and people—not God—receive the glory.
Throughout church history, preachers who have left a lasting impact on the church have known that, in the words of Michael Horton, "the regular proclamation of Christ through the close exposition of Scripture [is] more relevant in creating a worshipping and serving community than political causes, moral crusades, and entertaining services." In many evangelical churches, however, the centrality of biblical exposition is being demoted to second-class status. In a strange twist, the preaching of the Cross is now foolishness, not only to the world, but also to the contemporary church. The result has been a famine of biblical preaching in our land.
This famine in pulpits across the nation reveals a loss of confidence in God's Word to perform its sacred work. While evangelicals affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, many have apparently abandoned their belief in its sufficiency to save and to sanctify. Rather than expounding the Word with growing vigor, many are turning to lesser strategies in an effort to resurrect dead ministries. But with each newly added novelty, the straightforward expounding of the Bible is being relegated to a secondary role, further starving the church. Doing God's work God's way requires an unwavering commitment to feeding people God's Word through relentless biblical preaching and teaching.
A PARADIGM FOR MINISTRY
With many ministries forsaking a steady diet of biblical exposition, where is an effective model to be found in which preaching and teaching God's Word is the main entree? What does it look like when a church is being served the meat of God's Word? One need look no further than to the first church in Jerusalem, born on the Day of Pentecost and firmly planted in the soil of newly converted hearts. Today's church leaders would do well to revisit this congregation and rediscover the strategy of its earliest leaders, the apostles.
After the apostle Peter boldly preached to the gathered crowd at Pentecost, three thousand souls were pierced to the heart, saved, and then baptized. In condensed form, Acts 2:42–47 portrays the potent life of this newly formed congregation. These verses contain the major components of the dynamic life of this first congregation—the apostles' teaching, fellowship, worship, prayer, service, and evangelism. Here are the six channels through which God's Spirit pulsated through believers and dramatically impacted the world around them. Each of these spiritual disciplines is critical for the health of any church that seeks to wholly honor God.
Purposefully listed first in this passage, the apostles' teaching will be the focus of this chapter, which examines the strategic place, specific pattern, and supernatural power that such teaching occupied in this first church. This study is a call to the contemporary church to make biblical preaching central, just as the apostles did two thousand years ago—to move from the present famine to a future feast. The early church experienced spiritual vitality, not because of gimmicky techniques, but because it focused on the priority of biblical teaching. Along this line, Acts 2:42–47 demonstrates the God-assigned role of the apostles' doctrine.
THE PRIMACY OF THE APOSTLES' TEACHING
Listed first in this cluster of ministries, the apostles' teaching was the chief ministry of these first church leaders. First and foremost, the apostles taught. More specifically, they taught doctrine. Their teaching ministry brought life to all the other aspects of the first church. It is no accident that teaching came first. It must always come first. In the Christian life, precept comes before practice, doctrine before duty, and exposition before experience. As John Phillips has well stated, "Experience must always be tested by doctrine, not doctrine by experience."
John Stott observed that these "new converts were not enjoying a mystical experience which led them to despise their mind or disdain theology.... Anti-intellectualism and the fullness of the Spirit are mutually incompatible, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth." That is to say, the Holy Spirit worked mightily in this first church by leading the apostles to be prolific in their teaching ministry. Sound doctrine enriched every aspect of this church's life. Every strategy and ministry flowed from the pure fountain of biblical truth. As the chief activity of the apostles, their teaching was primary and powerfully effective, a timeless pattern that was modeled in Jesus' ministry, commanded in the Great Commission, practiced in the early church, and reinforced in the Pastoral Epistles.
Modeled in Jesus' Ministry
As the apostles taught this first flock, they were following what they had seen Jesus Christ do. For more than three years they had been directly taught by Christ Himself and had witnessed His public ministry. They understood the central importance He placed on teaching. From the time Christ first called them to follow Him until His ascension, teaching was His chief occupation. No doubt His disciples-in-training noted this priority in His ministry. So central was His teaching ministry that the Twelve called Him "Teacher" (John 13:13), and He called each of them His "disciple" (Matt. 10:24–25; Luke 6:40), a word used of any learner who sat under a teacher and absorbed his teaching. Such terms clearly indicate the primary place of teaching in Christ's ministry.
As Jesus launched His public ministry, He came "preaching the gospel of God" (Mark 1:14). Soon after that, He entered a synagogue in Nazareth and read from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives" (Luke 4:18). He thus claimed that His preaching fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy. When large numbers came to Him to be healed, He withdrew from them, stating, "Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, in order that I may preach there also" (Mark 1:38).
Nothing would deter Him from His primary ministry of preaching and teaching, not even the compassionate healing of the sick. When the multitudes came, "He began to teach them" (Matt. 5:2). Throughout His public ministry, the proclamation of God's truth remained paramount. Even the night before He was crucified, Jesus gathered His disciples in a cloistered upper room and taught them (John 13–16).
After His resurrection, the focus of Jesus' ministry remained the same. While walking on the road to Emmaus, He appeared to two disciples and "explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures" (Luke 24:27). When the disciples met in the Upper Room, Jesus appeared in their midst and "opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" (v. 45) regarding "all things which are written" about Him "in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms" (v. 44). And just before Jesus was taken up into heaven, He was instructing His disciples (Acts 1:1–9).
This central thrust in Christ's ministry, namely, preaching and teaching, left a deep impression on His disciples. As the Twelve began their pastoral work, as stated in Acts 2:42, they were merely imitating what they had observed Jesus do, repeating what had been modeled before them. As they shepherded this first church in Jerusalem, they immediately began teaching, because this was what Jesus had done with them. Any other ministry priority would have been a departure from the consistent example they had seen in Christ's own ministry.
Commanded in the Great Commission
Furthermore, the apostles taught these new believers because this was what Jesus had commanded them to do. In the Great Commission issued only days earlier, Jesus had charged them: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:19–20).
In this authoritative mandate, their essential responsibilities—going, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching—climaxed in this last charge of "teaching," as they were commanded to indoctrinate the new believers in all He had taught them. As Jesus had instructed them, He now directed them to do the same with others. In fact, teaching is so foundational to fulfilling in the Great Commission that Jesus identified His future followers as "disciples," or learners. First and foremost, the apostles were to make learners—not "fellowshipers," breakers-of-bread, or prayers. Although these other spiritual disciplines of fellowshiping with each other, communing with Christ, and praying to God are undeniably important, they would become a reality only as these new followers were first taught the essential truths of the Christian faith. So in obedience to what Christ had commanded in the Great Commission, the apostles taught new believers.
Practiced in the Early Church
The fact that these new believers were "continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42, italics added) implies that the Twelve were teaching on a regular, ongoing basis. The apostles' ministry of preaching and teaching is mentioned more often than any other activity in which they were engaged (Acts 2:42; 3:11–26; 4:1–2, 8–12, 19–20, 31, 33; 5:20–21, 29–32, 42; 6:2, 4, 7–10; 7:1–53). So overwhelming is this evidence that it can be argued that Acts is primarily a record of apostolic preaching and teaching. John MacArthur concluded, "The early church sat under the teaching ministry of the apostles, whose teaching, now written on the pages of the New Testament Scriptures, is to be taught by all pastors."
No matter where they were, these apostles were preaching. Whether in Solomon's temple (3:11–26; 5:20, 42), in public gatherings (4:2, 33), before the Sanhedrin (4:8–12; 5:27–32), or from house to house (5:42), they boldly taught in the name of Christ. Even in the face of life-threatening dangers, the apostles refused to be silenced, declaring, "We cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard" (4:20). When the demands of ministry grew complex, they would not be diverted from their central task of teaching. They said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God" (6:2). Most notably, when the successful expansion of their ministry was described, it was measured in terms of spreading "the word of God" (v. 7). Similarly, when those under their teaching—men such as Stephen and Philip—were thrust into ministry, they taught the "word" with extraordinary effectiveness (7:2–50; 8:5–6, 25–35, 40). In fact, the first disciples filled all Jerusalem with their teaching (5:28). Unmistakably, the apostles' teaching was most important in the early church.
Reinforced in the Pastoral Epistles
The primacy of the apostles' teaching was a central theme in the Pastoral Epistles. The apostle Paul encouraged Timothy and Titus to devote themselves to the ministry of preaching and teaching God's Word. The first duty with which Paul charged his young associate, Timothy, was to "instruct" the church about proper doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3), which is "the pillar and support of the truth" (3:15). Timothy was to be "constantly nourished on the words of faith and of the sound doctrine" (4:6) and to "prescribe and teach these things" (v. 11). He was to "give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching" (v. 13), never neglecting his "spiritual gift" of teaching (v. 14). He must "take pains with" and "be absorbed in" his teaching, paying "close attention" to his "teaching" (vv. 15–16). All ministers, Paul wrote, must "work hard at preaching and teaching" (5:17), instructing (6:17), and guarding the truth (v. 20).
In 2 Timothy, Paul reinforced this theme with his young son in the faith. Timothy was to "retain the standard of sound words" (2 Tim. 1:13), "guard" it (v. 14), and "entrust" it to others (2:2). He was to "remind" others of the truth (v. 14), be "handling accurately the word of truth" (v. 15), and be "able to teach" (v. 24). Solemnly charged before God, Timothy must "preach the word" "with great ... instruction" (4:2).
Paul also encouraged Titus to minister God's Word. All pastors must "be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict" (Titus 1:9). He told Titus, "Speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine" (2:1). Paul charged him, "These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you" (v. 15).
Thus, in these three Pastoral Epistles, the apostle Paul affirmed the primary responsibility of the ministry, namely, to effectively disseminate the apostles' teaching.
THE FOREMOST RESPONSIBILITY
Biblical preaching must always occupy the leading place of influence in the life of any church. At the core of any healthy congregation is a vibrant exposition of God's Word. Unfortunately, though, many pastors are turning away from the central role of expository preaching and doctrinal teaching. But in so doing, they fail to realize that new converts, first and foremost, need to be taught God's truth. As a result, many other things are competing with—and even replacing—the primary role of biblical preaching in the church. Christian concerts, drama, pageants, festivals, musicals, talk shows, and religious movies are establishing a greater foothold in the life of the contemporary church. Some of these activities may have a place in the church, but they must never compete with nor overshadow the Spirit-energized proclamation of God's Word within a church.
In diagnosing the ills of emphasis on these auxiliary methods, Martyn Lloyd-Jones lamented, "All this at best is secondary, very often, not even secondary, often not worthy of a place at all.... The primary task of the Church and of the Christian minister is the preaching of the Word of God." He echoed the words of the chief pastoral voice of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, who declared, "The primary importance of the pastor is to be an expository preacher."
Evangelical churches desperately need to return to the primacy of the apostles' teaching. Preaching is the foremost responsibility of the preacher and the church.
THE PATTERN OF THE APOSTLES' TEACHING
Since the apostles' teaching was so primary, what exactly did they teach? What was the content of their doctrine?
They expounded the pure truth of divine revelation, firmly grounding new converts in the essential tenets of the Christian faith. At least three things may be noted about their teaching ministry: It was rooted in the Old Testament, focused on Jesus Christ, and centered on doctrinal instruction.
Rooted in the Old Testament
Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost demonstrates how heavily the apostles drew on the Old Testament Scriptures in their teaching (Acts 2:14–36). Replete with biblical quotations, this first Christian message was a biblical exposition of several key Old Testament passages (Joel 2:28–32; Pss. 16:8–11; 110:1). Even when Peter later stood before the Sanhedrin, he cited the Old Testament (Acts 4:6–10; cf. Ps. 118:22; Isa. 28:16).
In turn, the new believers who sat under the apostles' teaching repeatedly used the Old Testament. For example, after Peter and John were released by the Sanhedrin, they returned to the believers and reported what God had done (Acts 4:23). In response, the believers spontaneously lifted their voices to God in prayer (4:24–31), quoting several Old Testament passages (Exod. 20:11; Pss. 2:1–2; 146:6).
Excerpted from Famine in the Land by Steven J. Lawson, Jim Vincent. Copyright © 2003 Steven J. Lawson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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