So, how’s it going? Did you get enough sleep last night? You get out of the house on time? Did you find a good parking spot this morning? Were you welcomed as you came in? Was it clear where to go? Did you think the building was clean? Are the seats comfortable? Can you see and hear all that’s happening from where you’re sitting? Is it too cold in here, or maybe too hot? What about the people sitting around you? Are they the kind of people you like to go to church with? You may be too nervous to look around right now, so just think to yourself…are they the right age, race, or social class? Are they like you? And what about the service so far? Did you like the music? Was it too traditional? Too contemporary? Maybe not enough of both? How about the offering, can you believe that we still pass the plates? How did it make you feel? Pressured, embarrassed, perhaps even guilty? And now you all know what’s coming, maybe you didn’t know it’s already begun – the sermon! You have to agree this is hard thing to don’t you think? The preacher has to be someone you feel you could relate to. He needs to be holy, but not too holy. He needs to be knowledgeable, but not too knowledgeable. He needs to be compassionate, but not too compassionate. And what about the message? It needs to be good enough, relevant enough, and certainly short enough.
There is so much to consider when evaluating a church isn’t there? Have you ever really stopped to think about it? Have you ever asked yourself why you’re here? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are literally endless opinions about what makes a good church. But what do you think? What makes a good church? Is it pristine bathrooms, a robust youth program, or the right music played in the right way? Is this really what makes a good church? Of course there is no such thing as a perfect church, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that any church I pastor will be a perfect church, but that doesn’t mean our churches can’t be more healthy. So what makes a healthy church?
I begin asking these questions today because we’ve normally taken the first few weeks of the year to focus on the nature of the Church. This year we’d like to do something different. Rather than spending just a few weeks talking about the Church, we’d like to take the first Sunday of the next 9 months and focus on the 9marks of a healthy church. To begin today we’ll look to the first mark of all healthy churches, which happens to be the most important mark because if you get this right, all the 8 other marks fall into place. What is this first and most important mark of a healthy church? Expositional preaching.
I have a great burden this morning. I want you to understand and embrace what pastors are to give themselves to, and what you as the congregation, are to demand from your elders. Usually expositional preaching is explained by contrasting it with topical preaching, and I’ll do a bit of this today, but mainly I want you to see preaching in action in the pages of Scripture for yourself. So, our text today is Nehemiah 8:1-12, follow along as I read.
First, see the call of Biblical preaching in Nehemiah 8:1 which says, “And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel.”
I say we find the call of Biblical preaching in this first verse because that’s what we see. These Israelites had just returned from captivity in Babylon living under the reign of Cyrus, and because God had stirred Cyrus’ heart to do so, Cyrus allowed any Israelite who so desired to return home to Jerusalem, rebuild the temple, and worship God. So, a large number of Israelites (commentators say around 42,000) returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. Then we see it…the people gathered themselves together as one man in the center of Jerusalem, and collectively they begin calling out to Ezra the prophet in 8:1 saying, “BRING THE BOOK!” Pause here: these people were conquered by another nation, ripped away from their homes, forced to leave the promise land that God had given to them, and taken away to live as aliens in a foreign land; this was a horrible tragedy. They had been in captivity for years and years and haven’t read or heard Word of God preached in ages, so when they came back home, and rebuilt the walls, they gathered together and begged for preaching!
Now comes the challenging part for us in our day. If these suffering exiles and alienated people yearned for the preaching of God’s Word so much when they came home that they all came together and “as one man” begged Ezra to preach saying “Bring the book!” why do so many of us seem so unmoved when we gather together for worship here, as if the sermon is the part of the service where worship stops and mere talking begins? Perhaps we have been too entertained with the things of the world all week long that when it comes time to sit under the preaching of the Word our hearts are too cold or indifferent to be moved? Perhaps it’s because too many of us have heard bad preaching that feels like mere talking by those who use anything but the Bible to fill out the content of their preaching? Perhaps we don’t want the Word preached because it demands so much change from us? How many of us deep down really do just want to be entertained? How many of us really do want mere talkers in front of us telling us there is no sin, and that we don’t need to change in order for God to accept us? I’m sure living inside each of us there is a mixture of these realities, causing us to keep away from the preaching of the Word. But be honest with yourself, don’t these things reveal our need for the Word even more? Deep down we know what we really need, and we’ll only find it when we ask for ‘the Book’ as Israel did here.
The people of Israel called on Ezra to do this directly after a nationwide tragedy. This is what you, Church, must always call and demand from us as well. It’s your job to call to us saying, “BRING THE BOOK pastor, we don’t want anything but the book!”
We’ve seen the call for Biblical preaching, now let’s turn secondly to the content of Biblical preaching in 8:2-8. In this second chunk of our passage we see what makes up the content of Biblical preaching, and it all centers around how Ezra and the Levites worked with the Word. Notice that in v1 Ezra was asked to “bring the book” and now in v2 it says he “brought the book.” In v3, “Ezra read from the book.” and “…the people were attentive to the book.” In v5, “Ezra opened the book.” and, “…when Ezra opened the book, all the people stood up.” In v6, “The people responded to the book by worshiping and calling out ‘Amen!’ ‘Amen!’ lifting up their hands and bowing their heads worshipping.” In v8, “the Levites translated, or explained the book to give the sense of it so the people could understand.” Everything in this middle chunk revolves around the Book. Everything in this whole event revolves around God speaking to His people through His Word and His people speaking back to Him! This is why we plan our worship services the way we do, to imitate this call and response between God and us. But let’s ask a question – How does this section’s focus on the Book, the WORD of God, affect how preachers are supposed to preach? This passage’s focus on the Word clearly gives us our answer:
a) Preaching should be from the Word only. They asked Ezra to bring a specific document to the pulpit, the Word. This means that Scripture should be the only thing that determines what is said in a sermon. This means the point of the text should be the point of the sermon. Ezra had authority here at this post-captivity event only because he preached the Word, and preachers today only have authority if they do the same thing. The closer the preacher sticks to the text, the more authority he has to speak; the farther away he moves from the text, the less authority he has speak.
b) Preaching should be from the Word only. In Isaiah 55:10-11 God says, “Just as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth, making it bear seed to the sower and food to the eater, so will My Word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and succeed in the purpose for which I sent it.” Since God’s Word never comes back void when it goes out from the pulpit; it means that man’s word will comes back void when it goes out from the pulpit. 1 Pet. 1:23 agrees, “…for you have been born again not of seed that is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring Word of God.” This means God has made it so that when His Word goes out in the power of His Spirit something happens no man can accomplish, people are transformed. Why so much emphasis on the Word of God within a sermon? Because the word of man cannot produce in man what the Word of God can and does.
c) Preaching should be from the Word only. I’m not concerned with style here, this has nothing to do with style, rather it has everything to do with how we choose to say what we’ll say. This type of preaching tests the preacher’s heart because it believes that what God has said is more important and beneficial for the Church than any ideas coming out of my head, no matter how well intentioned they may be. Therefore, preaching that does not linger over the Word is not Biblical preaching. No wonder people think preaching is so boring in our day, because all we see is people getting up before them giving motivational selp-help messages that are loosely tied to some passage in the Bible, if at all! The people in Ezra’s day knew that they needed someone called by God to open God’s book and proclaim it to them in the power of God’s Spirit. They asked for it, and that’s what the Church must ask for today! We don’t need preaching that’ll increase our self-esteem or preaching that’ll make us feel good and comfortable, we need preaching that humbles man, exalts God, and promotes holiness. This kind of preaching only comes from the Word.
d) Preaching should be from the Word only. 2 Tim. 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training, in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” When God’s Word goes out, believers will be equipped for good works. Works that Eph. 2:10 says were prepared in advance for us to do, and works that Matt. 5:16 says are to be public so people will glorify God because of seeing them. So you see, the preaching of the Word of God ultimately serves the people of God for the purpose of the glory of God.
e) Because preaching should be from the Word only, we can now tell the difference between faithful and unfaithful preaching. Faithful preaching is the faithful explanation and application of the Bible where the text of Scripture provides the content of the message. Historically this practice has been called expository preaching because it exposes us to God’s Word. Unfaithful preaching therefore is when the preacher uses the text of Scripture as an occasion for his own message. Do you see the difference here? Faithful preaching seeks to set the Bible and its agenda before you, while unfaithful preaching seeks to use the Bible as a launching point for the preacher’s agenda. Faithful preachers seek to show God to their people, while unfaithful preachers seek to use God and His Word as a platform to show themselves and their mighty wisdom to their people. Faithful preaching is praiseworthy, unfaithful preaching is blameworthy. There can be a thousand things wrong with a local church, but if the preaching is from the Word, if the preaching is expositional, you can trust that God by His Spirit working through His Word, will transform that congregation completely.
Listen to 1 Samuel 3:21. “And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the Word of the LORD.” The Lord revealed Himself to Samuel by what? The Word of the Lord! Therefore, since God reveals Himself to us through His Word, and when we see God revealed in all His glory through the gospel (which is the pinnacle and center of His Word), we are changed and we become more like Him and less like us. So every time a preacher stands before you, God’s glory is at stake, and if glory is at stake, why would I withhold that glory from you by not preaching from God’s Word? If you don’t see God’s glory revealed through His Word here in the pulpit week in and week out you’re not going to see it anywhere else. Because God’s glory is at stake preaching is not conversation, it’s not discussion, it’s not casual talk about religious things – it’s a heralding, it’s the messenger of the King coming to the townsfolk and crying out, “Hear ye, hear ye….!”
So, we’ve seen the call and content of Biblical preaching, now lastly, I want to end by looking at the consequences of Biblical preaching in 8:9-12. Here in this last section we find the glorious consequences of true Biblical preaching. These Israelites had just experienced a horrible tragedy that lasted for many years, they knew what they needed, so they asked for it. As Ezra preached the Word, the people wept because they saw how far short they had fallen from God’s standards. This is one effect of the Word being preached, it is the great mirror, the window into our souls, revealing to ourselves who we really are. But this is not the only effect of the Word being preached. Ezra spoke again into the midst of their weeping over their own sin, and told them to rejoice and not be grieved because “…the joy of the Lord is their strength.” We see here that when true preaching is taking place, we will not only see our sin as it is, we will be made happy because the joy of the Lord becomes our joy, and that gives strength to us in any season we find ourselves to be.
Do you see what happens next? v12 says all the people went away to eat, drink, and celebrate because (this is key) they understood the words that had been made known to them. When the people of God understood the Word of God that is preached it produces joy. And not just any joy, but the very joy of the Lord becomes our strength! His joy becomes our joy when His Word is preached. They had reason to celebrate for sure……but don’t we have even more reason to celebrate every week as we gather together to sing God’s Word, pray, God’s Word, read God’s Word, and hear from God’s Word?! Indeed we do. Because in God’s Word we discover the Word made flesh, Christ Himself come for sinners like you and me! Preaching therefore is not to be an activity that merely seeks to inform the mind. No. It seeks to both inform the mind and inflame the soul, to engage our thought and enliven our hearts. What joy is to be had as the Church gathers around the Word!
So Church, here at the beginning of a new year we will, as Israel did before Ezra and Nehemiah, gather and grow by lingering closely to His Word.