The call to pastoral ministry is a package that comes with a variety of tasks. But none of them begins to approach the weight of responsibility attached to the role of a pastor-teacher (Eph 4:11). When most pastors receive “the call,” they do not testify that God has called them to be a dynamic leader, clever innovator, or capable administrator. If they possess those abilities, that is well and good, but that is not what is usually impressed upon their heart. No, they know and testify that God has called them to preach.
The role of a pastor-teacher necessitates a different kind of preaching than that of a traveling evangelist or para-church leader. As the pastor of a local church, one has the God-given responsibility to nurture and “feed the flock of God” (1 Pet 5:2) by providing them with doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). An important part of accomplishing this task is systematically leading God’s people in the study of “all Scripture” (2 Tim 3:16).
Preaching through books of Scripture is the “meat and potatoes” of one’s pulpit ministry. Systematic preaching and teaching may not seem like a glamorous job. In fact, it is not far removed from the task of a loving parent who, day after day, and week after week, works hard to procure, prepare, and serve nutritious meals for their family. Sometimes this means serving foods that are needed but not appreciated. Sometimes it involves a menu that is limited by one’s own abilities and resources.
This kind of preacher will probably not be nominated for “chef of the year” by any glossy magazines. No, they are the ones who prepare the soul food on which their spiritual family must live throughout the year. His systematic teaching and biblical proclamation is vital to their long-term spiritual health and growth, both individually and corporately.
Preaching Through Books of Scripture
Why should a pastor give priority to preaching systematically through books of Scripture? Why not focus on individual sermons or prepare a catchy series on a trending topic? Before answering these questions, let’s make a few clarifications.
SOME INITIAL QUALIFIERS
The argument here is that the book series should be a primary, staple food in the diet of sermons that pastors prepare for their people—not that a pastor should only preach through entire books of Scripture. Balance is the key.
During my years of pastoral ministry, several things proved to be helpful while endeavoring to maintain a proper balance in my weekly preaching ministry.
Preaching through books of Scripture is the “meat and potatoes” of one’s pulpit ministry.
First, try to structure your preaching schedule around several key dates or periods of time in the Christian calendar. For example: Advent, Lent, Eastertide, Ascension Sunday, or Pentecost Sunday. We do not need to follow the liturgical calendar as closely as some churches; however, observing major days and seasons can help to maintain a proper emphasis on the gospel story of the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ—as well as the Person and work of the Holy Spirit.
Second, preach a variety of sermons. Some may be more topical or theological than others. Preach from both the Old and New Testaments and occasionally alternate between the various genres of biblical literature: history, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, apocalypse, and epistle. Even within the Gospels there are a variety of genres such as parable, didactic, and narrative.
OBJECTIONS AND ANSWERS
Pastors may have legitimate reservations about embarking upon a lengthy book series. If that’s you, don’t worry. You’re in good company. None other than Charles Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers,” opposed the idea because he felt it would hinder the preacher from being directed by the Holy Spirit. Instead, he preferred preaching from short texts. However, Spurgeon did love to read and quote from the Puritan preachers, many of whom were known for their sermon series.1 Perhaps this illustrates for us that balance is once again key.
Let me try briefly addressing some misgivings about dedicating such a significant amount of time to systematically preaching through a book of Scripture.
Objection 1: Systematic preaching prevents sermons from dealing with topics that are relevant to people’s daily lives.
Thoughtful and prayerful planning still allows pastors time to address necessary topics each month. However, biblical books in-and-of-themselves address many issues relevant to people’s lives today. Writing on this very concern, Irvin Busenitz states that “With a reasonably broad coverage of the Bible in one’s preaching, a wide variety of problems and life situations can be addressed naturally and delicately without violating expository boundaries in employing a ‘topical’ approach.”
Objection 2: Scheduling a series circumvents the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the process of selecting sermons for each service.
It is just as possible for a pastor to be led by the Spirit in selecting and planning a series of messages as it is for one particular message. We must never lose sight of the fact that each individual book of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit with a specific purpose in mind, which he intended to be learned and applied. The Bible is not designed to be a collection of proof-texts or a giant “promise box” for people to randomly draw from. God intends his people to read and study each book as it was given, with due consideration of the historical, literary, cultural, and linguistic context. It is wrong for pastors to ask the Holy Spirit to give them proof-text, hop-scotch sermons from week-to-week while neglecting to apply themselves toward understanding and teaching what the Spirit has already clearly given in the perfectly inspired books that make up the Bible as a whole.
Objection 3: People will get bored if I try to preach through an entire book of the Bible.
It is far more likely that dull sermons, dispassionate delivery, and repetitive preaching patterns from year-to-year will bore people. Many people can acquire a “taste” for this approach to preaching if pastors will go about it gradually and continually work hard to improve. Pastors should not allow the consumer mentality of the business world to dominate their thinking. Like any good parent would do for their children — pastors must be more concerned with what their people need than what they want. Nevertheless, we can endeavor to prepare spiritual meals in ways that are creative, tasteful, and appealing without compromising the “meat” that people need.
The Case For Preaching Through Books of Scripture
The main premise of this article is that systematic preaching through Scripture should be considered the most essential, staple food in a pastor’s menu. Here is a brief consideration of the philosophical, biblical, historical, and practical reasons this approach is so needed.
1. THE PHILOSOPHICAL ARGUMENT
Pastors ought to devote a greater portion of time in leading the congregation through Scripture than to any other approach in preaching. This is not a conclusion that has been hastily reached either by myself or by others who hold the same conviction. It is part of an overall philosophy and theology of pastoring that has developed over time.
Pastors ought to devote a greater portion of time in leading the congregation through Scripture than to any other approach in preaching.
Most pastors know the struggle of seeking the mind of God for their people and endeavoring to preach sermons that not only communicate truth, but are also timely and applicable to their congregations. There are many tensions and temptations which preachers must confront within themselves when they set out to prepare a sermon or series. But most of them boil down to this basic issue: “Am I going to tell people what they want to hear? Or shall I preach to them the things that I want them to hear? Or am I committed to proclaiming those things which God wants them to hear?”
One of the greatest safeguards against preaching only what they want, or what you want, is to consistently engage in the discipline of preaching systematically through the inerrantly inspired books of the Bible. This puts the focus on what God has already said — and still wants people to understand. As Kent Edwards put it,
It seems presumptuous for a preacher to always know what God wants their congregation to hear. I struggle to understand what my own heart needs, and I suspect that many of my colleagues do as well. How else do you explain that so many topical preachers are saying the same thing? Many admit to borrowing (or buying) ideas from other topical preachers. But this practice would seem to defeat the purpose of preaching a topical sermon in the first place.
Someone else observed that in topical preaching, there is always the danger of “using the text as its masters rather than serving the text as its ministers.” Several decades ago, John Broadus issued a similar warning to preachers whose sermons tended to be topical rather than Bible exposition. Of such a preacher, Broadus writes, “He is in danger of preaching in too narrow a field of truth and human need, since of necessity he will be drawn to those subjects that interest him personally or with which he is already familiar.”2
This is why the systematic exposition of Scripture should be the highest priority in the pastor’s study and preaching patterns. Irvin Busenitz is correct when he states that “[The preacher’s] task is to unfold the Scriptures, not merely to enfold them into a topic. The latter will bend the Word to conform to the preacher’s perspective; the former will bend the preacher’s perspective to conform to the Word.”3 In other words, “The preacher must lead his people into the text, not away from it.”4
2. THE BIBLICAL ARGUMENT
The Bible itself speaks to the importance of the systematic teaching of Scripture. The great reforms instituted by Jehoshaphat were accompanied by a renewed effort at teaching the law of God to the people of God.
5 Therefore the Lord established the kingdom in his hand. And all Judah brought tribute to Jehoshaphat, and he had great riches and honor. 6 His heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord. And furthermore, he took the high places and the Asherim out of Judah. 7 In the third year of his reign he sent his officials…and with them the Levites…and with these Levites, the priests…. 9 And they taught in Judah, having the Book of the Law of the Lord with them. They went about through all the cities of Judah and taught among the people. (2 Chronicles 17:5-9)
Similarly in Nehemiah’s day, the rebuilding of the Jewish nation after the exile was greatly helped by the strong and capable teaching ministry of Ezra and his associates.
6 …this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given…. 10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel. (Ezra 7:6a, 10)
In the very next chapter we see the teaching and instruction of the law with the response of the people:
1 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. … 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also… the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
The apostle Paul considered it of great importance in his own ministry that he preach “the whole counsel of God.” He did not want to fail in his responsibility by neglecting to declare all that God wanted him to preach: “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27).
Systematic exposition of Scripture should be the highest priority in the pastor’s study and preaching patterns.
In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul urged young Timothy, “Preach the word.” Again, the emphasis is on the need for pastors to faithfully apply themselves, not in preparing a “good sermon,” but in feeding the flock of God with the undiluted milk of the Word.
3. THE HISTORICAL ARGUMENT
The importance of this practice has been illustrated again and again throughout the history of the Church.
Richard Phillips records that “in the early church, Origen, Christianity’s first great, biblical theologian, preached through the Gospel of Luke with more than 150 sequentially organized sermons.5 He further writes:
The greatest preacher of the patristic age, John Chrysostom, is known for expository preaching. He preached 67 sermons on Genesis, 58 on various Psalms, 90 on Matthew, 88 on John, and 55 on the Book of Acts. St. Augustine, the great theologian of the patristic era, preached famous expository series on John and the Psalms.6
Interestingly, the middle ages witnessed a decline in this kind of preaching, and the fruit of this trend seems evident in the spiritual darkness which overwhelmed so much of Christendom.7 Nevertheless, God did not leave His Church without shining lights in a dark age. Would it surprise you to know that “…the greatest of the Medieval preachers, including Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Bonaventure, exposited whole books of Scripture”?8
Moving into the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation in Europe was marked by a restored emphasis on the supreme authority of Scripture. In fact, Philip writes that “the Reformation was in large part a reformation of preaching.” With this emphasis came a renewal of the practice of systematically preaching through books of Scripture. One example was Ulrich Zwingli who “almost five hundred years ago in the city of Zurich…inspired by the preaching of the early church fathers Augustine and John Chrysostom, preached through the gospel of Matthew.”9
Reformer John Calvin also employed this method, and is said to have preached through nearly the entire Bible during his lengthy ministry in Geneva, Switzerland.10 On the German side of the Reformation, Luther also employed the systematic preaching of the scriptures.11 While men such as Wesley and Whitefield did not preach book series (to the best of my knowledge), they had a far more itinerant preaching ministry, which would not have permitted them to do so. Pastors are specifically called upon to fill the biblical role of pastor-teacher (Ephesians 4:11).
4. THE PRACTICAL ARGUMENTS
There are many positive results that will be seen in the church when pastors faithfully apply themselves to this discipline over a long period of time. Some benefits of preaching through books of Scripture are:
- Promoting biblical literacy.
- Providing people with a biblical frame of reference (helping them learn to think biblically).
- Laying the foundation for good theology.
- Cultivating a desire for personal Bible reading and study.
- Teaching good Bible study methods
- Instilling principles of sound interpretation of Scripture in its various genres and contexts.
- Increasing confidence in the reliability of the Bible as God’s inerrant Word.
- Helping pastor and flock study sections of the Bible that are often neglected.
We have looked at the benefits and importance of systematically preaching through books of Scripture and furthered our understanding of the philosophical, biblical, historical, and practical reasons for this. Hopefully, by God’s grace, you have come away from this article with an increased desire to make known the whole counsel of God to the people of God.
While it is not my purpose here to address the subject of sermon preparation, in the future I hope to give attention to sermon prep with specifics that may be helpful to those who have never tried to preach or teach through an entire book.
It’s not easy being a meat-and-potatoes kind of preacher. Some will prefer the microwave junk food of popular, personality-driven ministries. Others will be enamored by the homiletical delicacies of impressive gourmet cooks. But if you want to consistently feed your congregation with spiritual food that will grow strong, mature saints, there is no substitute for this kind of preaching ministry.
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Preaching & Preachers. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972, pp. 188-189
- Irvin Busenitz. On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons. New York: Harper, 1944, 136-37
- Ibid., 136-37.
- Irvin Busenitz. Expository Preaching Without Notes. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962, 22.
- Richard D. Phillips. Expository Preaching. Reformation 21: The Online Magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
- Hughes Oliphant Old. “Preaching by the Book: Using the Lectio Continua Approach in Sermon Planning.” Issue # 8 Reformed Worship: Resources for Planning and Leading Worship. Accessed in 2008.
- Phillips. Expository Preaching.