“In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.”
What makes a sermon “good”? Having preached my fair share of stinkers, I often ask myself this question. We have examples in the Bible of topical, textual, and narrative approaches that were all effective. Jesus spoke plainly, used props, and told stories to get his point across. Apollos spoke eloquently. Paul, Peter, and John, though different, were all powerful. Stylistically, one listener may gravitate toward a studious academic approach while another prefers to listen to more conversational preaching. Others may thrive on a delivery filled with passion. But personal preferences aside, a few principles should apply to all these approaches.
Preach Biblically – The first and most important aspect of good preaching is its Scriptural content. Since the Scriptures come from God they are practical and effective to strengthen us (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Acts 20:32). Therefore, one of the main focuses of preaching is to get others to know the truth (Jn. 8:32; 1 Cor. 2:12-13). Preachers can do this effectively by showing Jesus in every text (Jn. 14:6). Jesus is the key to unlocking the power of the Old Testament Scriptures and therefore must be at the center of every sermon (1 Cor. 2:2; Lk. 24:27). Enlightening and informing the listener is the first goal of “good” preaching.
Preach Attractively – The power to transform sinners into saints rests with God and His living word (Jas. 1:18, 21; 1 Pet. 1:22-25; etc.). Thankfully, the salvation of others does not depend upon our eloquence or ability (2 Cor. 4:7). But God does choose to make his appeal through us (2 Cor. 5:20). With that being said, it is entirely possible to have all the ingredients for a “good” sermon only to botch it with a poor delivery. A haughty tone, a meandering outline or inappropriate comments can derail an otherwise good sermon. The answer is not to remove all traces of personality from the preaching and to simply read the Scriptures (though this has its own merits [1 Tim. 4:13]). The preacher’s role extends beyond simply dispensing information. His job is not merely to get others to know the truth but to present it in such a way as to encourage listeners to love the truth (Psa. 19:10; 119). This is done not simply by showing Jesus in every text but by showing Jesus as someone to love. It is not enough simply to enlighten and inform listeners but we must also to persuade and compel listeners (Acts 2:37; 17:17). In other words, we must try to get them emotionally invested in the gospel story.
Preach Powerfully – Lastly, preachers must be bold in their delivery of God’s word (Acts 4:13, 29, 31; 28:31; Titus 2:15). The only way a person can preach boldly while maintaining a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:5; 1 Pet. 3:16) is to embody the teaching in his own life (1 Tim. 4:12). A hypocritical teacher may hinder the message (1 Cor. 9:12; Rom. 2:17-24; Jas. 3:1). When teachers do the truth they are showing Jesus not only as someone to be admired and loved but as someone to be followed. By presenting the truth correctly, the preacher is informing and enlightening the listeners. By preaching the truth attractively, he is persuading and compelling them. But by enjoining his example to his preaching, he is moving the listeners to action. This 'double preaching,' a consistent message in word and in deed, is the goal of every faithful servant of the Lord (Ezra 7:10).
Similarly, Aristotle sums up his approach to effective persuasion in three words: Logos (appeal to logic, persuasion by reason), Pathos (appeal to emotion, persuasion by evocation), and Ethos (appeal to ethics, persuasion based upon the credibility of the speaker).
So, what constitutes “good” preaching? Styles of delivery may vary but to be effective we must make the gospel clear, make the gospel real, and make the gospel life itself. These are a few things I try to keep in mind when preparing and delivering a sermon and I hope you will too if you ever have that privilege.
“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Most of us have learned not to rely on others too much. This conditioned thinking is partly due to our individualistic culture which praises self-sufficiency. But perhaps (and I hate to be pessimistic) the main reason we tend not to rely on others is not due to culture but experience. It’s just easier not to trust people. As long as we don’t expect too much out of our relationships, we won’t be disappointed. If I don’t trust you, you can’t burn me.
But insulating oneself from others to avoid the immediate pain of disappointment is just trading one kind of pain for another. It’s the difference between suffering a spiritual punch in the gut once in a while and enduring the continual dull ache of arthritis. So, how can we learn to trust others, let alone rely on them for help or help bear their burdens, knowing that the possibility of a letdown might be just around the corner? If we’re being honest, this will require a power far greater than ourselves to manage. Thankfully, that is exactly what we have in Christ.
In Christ, we adopt a new system of trust, not in others but in the Lord. We must each develop a strong, independent faith in Christ so that, even when we’re not getting support from others, we have all the help we need (Phil. 4:10-13). The Lord always comes through even when people don't (Psalm 146). The Lord never leaves us even when people do (Heb. 13:5). Giving the Lord our ultimate burden and trusting him to the fullest extent renews our trust in others and even strengthens us to help them.
Therefore, bearing another’s burden is a divine activity of love (Gal. 6:2; 5:13; Rom. 13:8-10; Jas. 2:8; Mt. 22:37-40). God, needing nothing himself (Acts 17:25), offers to carry our load (Psa. 55:22; 1 Pet. 5:6-7). The ultimate expression of God bearing our burdens is found in the cross when Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). We were “weary and heavy laden” and he carried the crushing weight of our sin to give us rest (Mt. 11:28-30). All other burdens are light by comparison.
In Christ, we adopt a new mode of thinking. Paul calls this the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:3-8), where our thinking is shaped, not by culture or past experience, but by the gospel. Through this new system of trust, we discover that Jesus viewed his own life as a gift to be laid down for the benefit others (1 Thess. 5:14-15; 1 Jn. 3:16-18). Thinking like Jesus can only lead to acting like him.
In Christ, we adopt a new way of life, the eternal life of Christ (Rom. 6:4; Col. 3:1-4). Our renewed mind should move us to cultivate an environment that makes it easier for others to share burdens, confess sins, and seek help in times of trouble.
“By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet. 2:24) God lifted our burdens in Christ so that we could become his wounded healers, his agents of comfort, his burden-bearing servants. Are you lightening the load of another? Are you approachable? Kind? Patient? Gentle? These are the marks of Jesus’ life, the evidence of the Spirit’s power at work in you (Gal. 5:22-25).
As Jesus carried the cross for others, so Christians must carry one another’s burdens. God once told his people, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!’” (Isa. 35:3-4). We must make it our aim to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess. 5:11).
In Christ, it’s all for each and each for all; but no one can slide through on the help of others alone. The command to “bear one another’s burdens” (v.2) is balanced by “each will bear his own load” (v.5). So when it comes to myself, I must recognize my own responsibility; when it comes to my brother, I must be sure to remain humble when I offer help (vv.1-3). And when it’s hard to “bear one another’s burdens,” we must “not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (v.9)
“But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord, I say, “You are my God.” My times are in Your hand; Deliver me from the hand of my enemies and from those who persecute me.”
King David realized he was subject to change and adversity but, by faith, he entrusted his fragile life (Jas. 4:14) to the unchanging “hand” of God. This comforting truth finds expression in Psalm 46:10: “Cease striving and know that I am God." What does it mean for us to commit ourselves to the care or “hand” of God?
WE ARE NOT TRANSCENDENTALISTS
Because we believe in a sovereign God, we are not trapped in the grip of blind predetermined forces. The Stoic philosophers Paul encountered in Athens (Acts 17:18) believed in a merciless system of unchangeable fate. They believed events were predetermined so instead of struggling against this blind force we should simply accept things with a spirit of resignation.
But where does this thinking lead? Like the Stoics, we might say “Que sera sera” (whatever will be will be). But by faith we can say instead, “My times are in your hand” or as David said of God in another psalm, “You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me” (Psa. 139:5). It is a personal, loving God who is in control of our lives, not some blind predetermined force.
WE ARE NOT EXISTENTIALISTS
Because we believe in a sovereign God, we are not ships tossed about on the sea of chance. The other philosophers Paul encountered in Athens were Epicureans (Acts 17:18) who believed everything happens by chance. Since there is no existence before birth and nothing after death, “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). The greatest good is what brings the greatest pleasure. But this view turns freewill into a prison. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “We are left alone, without cause… condemned to be free.” In his novel Nausea, observing the nauseating quality of life, he said, “Man is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” Existentialism turns into nihilism. Nihilism turns into fatalism which translates into hedonistic and indulgent behavior.
So the attitude is “Carpe diem!” (seize the day). The nihilist says there was nothing yesterday and there will be nothing tomorrow so do what you want today. But Jesus says today matters because of what God has done in the past and what he promises to do in the future (Mt. 6:34). Our lives are not the result of random chance with only black nonexistence in the future. Our lives matter because there is a loving God in control of all things who works all things according to his will.
WE ARE CLAY BEING SHAPED BY GOD
Because we believe in a sovereign God, we are being trained in the school of God’s providence. God has not abandoned his creation (Deism) nor is he a personification of nature (Pantheism). But this does not mean he has forced his will upon us (Calvinism). Rather, God is orchestrating everything according to his plan and incorporates us into his plan when we choose to follow his will (Acts 17:25-28; Eph. 1:5-7). Though his hidden will may be mysterious and confusing to us (Deut. 29:29), especially when we suffer, his revealed will is clear and comforting: “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose…” (Rom. 8:28-29)
As we live by faith, we are being shaped, one life experience at a time, into conformity with the image of Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18; 1 Jn. 3:2). Despite our changing circumstances we must commit ourselves into the Potter’s shaping hands. Though there are times God’s hand may seem hidden (from our perspective) his rule remains absolute. He is aware of the most minute details of life on earth, even down to the lifecycle of a lowly sparrow, “and you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mt. 7:11; 10:29-31).
“If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
What happens when a Christian dies? We know that in death the spirit and body separate (Ecc. 12:7; Jas. 2:26). We also know there will be a future resurrection but what happens to the faithful until then? God hasn’t revealed much on this issue but he has given us a glimpse through the inspired writings of the Apostle Paul.
Writing to the Philippian Christians from prison, Paul contrasts “departing” this world to be with Christ with “remaining” in the flesh (Phil. 1:19-24). If Paul is acquitted he will continue to “live in the flesh” and honor Christ in his work with the churches. If he is found guilty and executed, he considers this a “far better” situation because he will then “depart” from this world “and be with Christ.”
He says in another place, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Cor. 5:6-8) So, while we are faithfully serving the Lord here on earth (walking by faith, not by sight) we are “at home in the body” and alive “in the flesh” but “away from the Lord” (locationally not relationally). If we die, we “depart” to be “with Christ” and are “at home with the Lord.”
But how does all this work with the resurrection? Scripture teaches that when the Lord returns there will be a bodily resurrection and he will hold the world to account in an ultimate act of judgment (Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 17:30-31). We may not understand all the intricacies of this but here’s what we know for sure: Unless the Lord returns first (and thus initiates the resurrection and judgment), we will all face our death, or as Paul puts it, our “departure” from this world (2 Tim. 4:6). If that departure occurs before the resurrection, we will then go to “be with Christ” to await the resurrection (Heb. 9:27).
Paul teaches that when the Lord returns, he will “bring with him those who have fallen asleep” in Jesus, and these will rise first (1 Thess. 4:13-18). This makes sense if the faithful go to be with Jesus when they die. Jesus told the penitent thief on the cross, “today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). While Jesus’ body lay in the tomb, before his resurrection, he was in Paradise where the tree of life is in the presence of God (Rev. 2:7).
But why the resurrection? If when we die we are “with the Lord” why do we even need to be raised from the dead? The answer lies in God’s eternal plan to redeem all that has been corrupted by sin since Genesis 3, including our sin-cursed bodies. God created us in his image as embodied beings not disembodied spirits (Gen. 2:7; cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-5). God’s goal, which he has initiated in Jesus’ resurrection, is to “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10), to “reconcile” all that sin and death estranged from him (Col. 1:20). Part of that process of reconciliation is to unite our spirits with our renewed and incorruptible bodies in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:50-57).
Our resurrection will then signal the freedom of “all things” that were subjected to corruption and death. Paul says, “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Both Peter and John borrow a phrase from Isaiah and call this new creation, which has already begun in Christ but is not yet complete (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), the “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-4).
This “new creation” will be finally realized only when the Lord returns (2 Pet. 3:7-12; Rev. 20:14). In the meantime, we have an imperishable inheritance kept in heaven for us (1 Pet. 1:3-5). We are to live holy and hopeful lives awaiting the day when we “attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11). If we “depart” before then, we will “be with the Lord” to await that day.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Some have defined faith as “belief in something you know can’t be true” or “the illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” But Biblical faith is not unthinking, irrational or gullible. It's not a "blind" leap as we often say. Instead faith is a measured step we take based on evidence provided by God himself. There is confidence in that step of faith because there is a sure foundation of trust beneath it. The word translated "assurance" can mean "substance" or "confidence," indicating that which provides the foundation for trust. "Conviction" is sometimes translated as "evidence," indicating the proof or reality of something. So faith is not belief despite the evidence but trust because of the evidence. This does not mean faith is always based on scientific demonstration. We sometimes forget, still living in the glow of the Enlightenment, that there are other forms of evidence.
Though the Bible makes some extraordinary claims, we have strong reasons for believing in the existence of God and the truthfulness of his promises. We can see four of those reasons by looking back, looking up, looking down and looking in.
Look back to the beginning of the universe. Just in the last 100 years, the majority of scientists have come to believe that the universe had a beginning. We are able to detect the expansion of the universe in size in all directions indicating a fixed starting point in time and space. In other words, as Stephen Hawking said, “the universe has not existed forever… it had a beginning.”
The opening verses of the Bible give a reason for that beginning: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). If God did not create the universe then what is the alternative? Criticism without alternative is empty. One popular alternative is that it simply came into existence for no apparent reason. But can something come from nothing? If the universe has a beginning, there must be a reason for its existence.
Look up to see a universe finely tuned for life. Imagine playing poker with someone who draws twelve straight royal flushes, the odds of which are about the same as winning the lottery twelve times in a row. Something similar could be said with respect to the universe. There are many features of creation that need to be precisely as they are for life to be possible, not just life on Earth or life as we know it, but any form of life anywhere.
How are we to explain these amazing “coincidences”? The rational conclusion is that the universe is not a result of random forces but of a purposeful mind. Paul says, “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
Look down into the empty tomb. The historical evidence of Jesus’ bodily resurrection agrees with what the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, that he was raised from the dead and appeared before many people. Christians proclaimed this resurrection even under threat of death. Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in the first century wrote, “I ask them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution.”
What alternatives are there to Jesus’ resurrection? Was it a legend? History shows that it takes about three generations for a legend to develop and Christians were proclaiming his resurrection immediately after it took place. A hallucination? Could hundreds of people have seen the same hallucination? Not likely. Was it all an elaborate lie? What would these Christians have to gain from lying? Poverty, prison and persecution awaited them! Or could it be that God “has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31)?
Look in the pages of the Bible. For me, more than all the philosophical and scientific arguments for the existence of God, there is the Bible itself. And I don’t mean the many convincing proofs for the inspiration of Scripture. An even greater proof to me is the Bible’s message, the gospel. The beautiful story that unfolds in its pages reveal God’s unconquerable love toward flawed and sinful people like you and me. It tells of his power and wisdom to bring his eternal plan to fruition in Jesus. It tells of his amazing grace toward all those who trust in him. That’s reason enough for me.