We are committed to expository preaching as the norm at Antioch. It doesn’t mean we can never share a sermon that is more topical, but probably 45 weeks of the year, we are working our way through a book in the Bible, verse by verse. Why is that helpful? Because we are getting the milk and the meat of Scripture. Try this experiment if you will, and your kids will LOVE it. Go for a month just eating doughnuts for every meal. Or ice cream if you’re not a doughnut family. Sounds like fun! But it would make you sick. And weak. Topical preaching runs heavily toward milk and cookies. We need the meat and vegetables (and milk!) that the Bible offers in every book in order to be spiritually healthy. Working through a book also gives us an understanding of the context from which each verse comes, the reason the author wrote the book, his intended audience, and how it fits into the whole of Scripture. Can you imagine a Chemistry professor teaching a textbook on chemistry by picking out parts of sentences at random and using them for his lectures, with no context, no understanding of how one thing relates to the other? Working through a book also forces us to deal with the difficult issues. You can’t preach through James without talking about prejudice, the rich exploiting the poor, quarrels and fights in the church, how we use our tongues to hurt, or elders’ prayer for the sick. Sometimes the Bible confronts us and sometimes it upsets us. Tim Keller said this: “Only if your God can say things that upset you will you know you have a real God and not just a creation of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible (the point of contradiction) is not the enemy of a personal love relationship with God (the point of contact). It is the precondition.”
What is expository preaching? Here are two definitions I like. John Stott: Exposition refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor opens what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted, and unfolds what is tightly packed. (Between Two Worlds) Alistair Begg: Unfolding the text of Scripture in such a way that makes contact with the listeners’ world while exalting Christ and confronting them with the need for action. (Preaching for God’s Glory)
Why teach through books of the Bible instead of interesting topics? I mean, won’t we be able to draw a bigger crowd if we teach interesting topics? Probably! But is that the purpose of a pastor or a church? To stack people on top of each other and hope that maybe they will grow? Paul said the church leaders’ job is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry…building up the body of Christ.” We teach through books of the Bible simply because the Bible, and only the Bible, is the Word of God. And because we believe what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Profitable for truth, for exposing error, for correcting wrong behavior and for training good behavior. But even more, Paul said, that we may be complete men and women of God and that we may be equipped for every good work! That’s a lot of good works. Good works in the home, good works in the church, good works in the place of business, good works in the community. So, it must beg the question: Why don’t we see much expository preaching in churches anymore? Alistair Begg said, “The absence of expository preaching is directly related to an erosion of confidence in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.” If we lose confidence in the Bible, then we replace a period in the Bible with a comma. One “comma” prevalent in many churches today is to reject clear biblical truth that God created two genders, male and female, and that God created and ordained marriage as between one man and one woman. Period.
Paul spent three years in Ephesus, preaching and teaching. Remember when Paul met with the Ephesian elders a few years later, as he was on his way to Jerusalem? He said, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” I believe the whole counsel of God can best be declared through expository preaching. Tim Keller said it this way: “Expository preaching should provide the main diet of preaching for a Christian community. . . . (It) is the best method for displaying and conveying your conviction that the whole Bible is true. This approach testifies that you believe every part of the Bible to be God’s Word, not just particular themes and not just the parts you feel comfortable agreeing with.”
So, the family returned to Egypt after a long journey to Canaan, where the brothers buried their father, Jacob. When they got back, Joseph’s ten older brothers suddenly realize their father is dead. That’s the way it reads, and it would be funny if it weren’t so sad! Because this triggers in their minds that only one possibility awaits them: they will be punished, maybe even put to death, for their sin against Joseph 39 years earlier. In their muddled thinking, stoked by fear, Joseph has been patiently biding his time for years, while his hatred boiled just beneath the surface, waiting until the day that dear old dad is out of the picture so he could execute his wrath on these wicked men. Oh, and at the same time, he has been generously providing for his brothers in Egypt for 17 years. What do they do? They send a messenger to Joseph with a made-up story about their father Jacob giving a command before he died that Joseph should forgive his brothers for their sin. And, the messenger says to Joseph, your brothers ask that you forgive their transgressions as they are the servants of the God of your father.
It reminds me of the parable of the unforgiving servant that Jesus told in Matthew. A servant owed, let’s say, 5 billion dollars, to the king. No way he could ever repay it, so the king ordered that he and his family and everything they had be sold. The man went to the king and begged for mercy. And the king forgave his debt! Completely forgave him, no strings attached. The servant went out and happened upon a man who owed him $5. He seized the man and began to choke him while demanding payment. The servant begged for patience and promised to pay, but the man who had just been forgiven 5 billion dollars took the man who owed him $5 and put him in prison until he could pay what he owed, to the last penny. The only way to understand that parable is to see that the man who had been forgiven 5 billion by the king did not receive the grace he had been given. He still saw himself as someone with an unpayable debt and therefore had no patience with anyone who happened to be in his debt. Simply put, he rejected grace and held even more tightly to the law.
Tim Keller wrote, “When something happens that reveals your sins more clearly than you have ever wanted to see or admit, does it move you away from God or closer to him? If it makes you want to stay away from God and prayer and church—that shows you don’t understand what Jesus did for you. If you grasped it, your inner dialogue with God would sound more like this: ‘Lord, I knew before that you died for me and accepted me, but I didn’t know I was this foolish or this sinful—so now I realize your love is greater than I thought. Your mercy is more free and undeserved than I thought!” (Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I?)
The brothers were afraid of Joseph because their understanding of a gracious and forgiving God was stunted. Again, Keller writes, “If you have a God who is nothing but wrath, and if you have little understanding of what happened on the cross, you’ll be a driven person. You’ll try hard to be moral. You’ll try hard to be good, but you will always feel unworthy. It will be hard to grow into a loving person, because fear cannot awaken love. Only love can awaken and grow more love.”
So how do we approach and accept the amazing grace of God’s forgiveness? Stuart Townend’s last refrain in “How Deep the Father’s Love” says it so beautifully:
I will not boast in anything, No gifts, no power, no wisdom;
But I will boast in Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection.
Why should I gain from His reward? I cannot give an answer;
But this I know with all my heart –His wounds have paid my ransom.
Picture three grown sons standing around their father’s bed on Christmas, 2005. The four men of the family were together for the first time in at least 15 years. The oldest grew up like many firstborns, wanting to please his dad, working for the company that gave his father a career, being a responsible son. The second son ran off to college, met his wife, and settled 75 miles away from his hometown. His relationship with his father had been strained over the years, sometimes because of his stubbornness and pride, sometimes because of his father’s. The third son ran off to the beach after some run-ins with the law, and there he had stayed, without a driver’s license but with a job, a moped and a faithful dog. He too had a strained relationship with his father whose feelings about his third son’s lifestyle seemed to alternate between guilt and frustration.
Here they were, all together again, brought to this place because their father was dying. He had been diagnosed three months earlier with cancer and was doing all that he could to beat the disease. But the prognosis wasn’t good, and the weight of their father’s impending death muted the sons’ laughter and rough teasing. They didn’t know what to say. They listened to their father speak about growing up as one of eight children in a house where there were no extras and often not enough love to go around. “The only thing my parents ever gave me,” he said, “was a .22 rifle.” He went over the finances with his three sons and began to cry as he spoke of leaving his wife, and their mother, behind.
He said that he had not done a good job when the three boys were growing up of expressing how proud he was of them. “I couldn’t have asked for three finer sons,” he said. “I just wish I had done a better job giving encouragement and guidance for you three, but when I was growing up, all I got from my dad was the belt…and I guess I passed some of that on.” The middle son responded, “Dad, we deserved every lickin’ we got…and plenty we didn’t get!” The father smiled tiredly and praised his two older sons for the way they had raised their own children. The talk shifted to final plans that would need to be made. “What would you like your obituary to say, Dad?” they asked, and the oldest took notes. “What hymn or scripture would you like in your funeral service?” the middle son asked. His father replied, “How Great Thou Art.”
He died a little more than 3 months later. And as the middle son, though I have many regrets about my relationship with Dad, for this one thing I will always be grateful: that the last Christmas we were together, speaking to one another with love, putting the past hurts behind us, loving one another just as Christ has loved us.
I am certain that this column is being read by many who are estranged from a brother, a father, a mother. Some have made a vow to themselves that you will “never step foot in that house again!” because of past hurts or offenses. Consider this truth: “Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Time is short, friend. Why not be reconciled today, before the sun goes down?
Is it hard? Yes. Is it worth it? Oh, yes.
The last act of Father Jacob was to bless his twelve sons, and you can read his blessing/prophecies in Genesis 49. Though all of the sons are important in the history of the foundation of Israel, the lion’s share of the blessings go to Judah and Joseph. Judah is the lion of the tribes and Jesus is the lion of the tribe of Judah, the King of kings. But Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son as a child, and clearly Joseph lived in such a way to increase favor with his father. Charles Spurgeon said, “The main point in Joseph’s character was that he was in clear and constant fellowship with God, and therefore God blessed him greatly. He lived to God, and was God’s servant; he lived with God, and was God’s child.”
Jacob gives God five titles as he uses the word “blessings” five times. Jacob says God is: The Mighty One of Jacob. The Shepherd. The Stone of Israel. (The Shepherd leads and the Stone is stable, unchanging.) The God of your father. The Almighty. What a great word of God to pray back to God! “Oh God of my father, you will help me! Almighty God, you will bless me and have blessed me with blessings from heaven!” He helped Joseph and heaped blessings on his head and those who came after him, as his father says here. And the same is true for all who follow Christ and are co-heirs with him.
Jacob says to Joseph, “The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents.” I love this new Jacob. I don’t think Jacob is saying he has been blessed so much because he is better than his father Isaac or his grandfather Abraham. I think the opposite! I believe he is acknowledging that God’s grace to him is amazing beyond anything he could imagine because he deserved none of it. He may be saying something like this: You have blessed me beyond anything I can imagine, God, because I know I was selfish, deceitful, a bad father, and a lousy patriarch. And yet you forgave me and turned my heart towards you.
When I think of Jacob at the end of his life, I think of the woman “of the city, who was a sinner,” who kissed Jesus’ feet and anointed them with ointment. Jesus was rebuked by the host, a Pharisee named Simon, who thought to himself that if Jesus were really a prophet, he would know who this woman was! Jesus knew Simon’s thoughts so he told him a story of someone who owed a lot of money and was forgiven the debt and as a result loved the one very much who had forgiven him. Then he said of the woman, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
I think Jacob knows best at the end of his life how much God had carried him and loved him and forgiven him. He loves much because he has been forgiven much. Finally, at the age of 147!
Why wait until the end of life to know that truth and walk in the love that flows from a heart that has been “forgiven much”?