REFLECTIONS ON TIMOTHY KELLER’S “PREACHING”

Most pastors aspire to be good preachers and teachers. We know that the one meeting where the most members come together is the weekly worship service. A half hour or more from the start of the service, the preaching of the word takes centrestage. Even though pastors have different strengths and passions, there is a general expectation that he or she should be able to preach well.

One of my habits since I graduated from seminary was to read a book or two about preaching every year. I would glean some insights to incorporate into my philosophy of preaching. I would seize practical tips and methods and eagerly test them out. In the last decade, even though this annual readings has reduced, on the average, it is one book a year. This year I picked up Timothy Keller’s book on “Preaching”. I read it during a vacation to Bangkok. Now I am reading it again and writing my reflections on it chapter by chapter. Today I look at the prologue or introduction.

Prologue: What is Good Preaching

Keller gives his answers to the question, What is good preaching and how is this different from great preaching? Good preaching depends on the preacher’s gifts and skills – his ability to crystallise the truth, give it good organization and order, punchy illustrations and images, strong arguments and persuasive reasons, and applications that reach the heart. On the other hand great preaching requires fire from heaven, the Holy Sprit’s power to persuade and motivate and change. He gave the example of George Whitfield whose sermons were great and saved and transformed many lives but were sometimes poorly interpreted and structured. Great preaching but not good preaching. Great preaching is preaching with unction. Good preaching is sound interpretation of the word, with truths ordered logically, and delivered clearly and convincingly. Good preaching becomes great when the Holy Spirit takes it and open the heart of the hearer to heaven’s choir. However bad sermons can also become great when the anointing is present.

Keller says good preaching comes from loving the truth and loving people. This love makes the preacher exegete the text in its context and larger theological context to uncover the truth that needs to be proclaimed. Good preaching loves the people and knows them in the culture that influences them. It is able to analyse the culture and its counterfeit gods. It is able to show how God’s truth addresses the falseness of the culture, and how Christ actually fulfils the aspirations of the culture. Proper exposition of the text, and the transforming power of the Spirit, meet together, when Christ is revealed and proclaimed in the text..

How important is rhetorics, the art of communicating, in order to persuade and motivate people? Paul’s “I did not come with eloquent words or human wisdom” and “my preaching was not with wise and persuasive words” (1 Cor 1:22-24) does not mean that we reject all oratorical and rhetorical skills. Paul actually refers to “verbal bullying”, trickery and manipulation. Rather like Calvin, we need to acknowledge that rhetorics has it proper role: “Eloquence is not at all at variance with the simplicity of the gospel, when it does not disdain to give way to it, and be in subjection to it, but also yields service to it, as a handmaid to her mistress”.

Every pastor wants to spend adequate time and give proper attention to preparation of the sermon and its application to the hearers. However, I know from experience that its tough to do it week in and week out. The pastoral ministry is multi-tasked. Your days would be packed with planning, organising and evaluating. There are people and cell groups to meet. There are administrative and routine tasks from bulletin input to answering WhatsApp. In addition there are always interruptions and emergencies as well as the emotional drain of handling people. So the weekly ideal of ten hours allotted to the preparation of the sermon is often sliced away by urgent tasks that yelp for attention.

It would be great if churches had multiple staff or active and wise lay leaders who shield the pastor so that he can devote himself more to the ministry of the word and to prayer (Acts 6:4). Such churches are blessed indeed! For then the pastor can do justice to preaching.

However, I find the labels “bad”,”good” and “great” reminding me of the teacher’s frequent  remarks on my exercise book in primary school. Our assignments and exercises were marked, Good, or V.Good or Bad or Do Your Corrections! The better term to rule all the terms Keller used may be “faithful”.

Faithful preaching is what God calls us to do.  We have to be faithful to the text to bring out its true meaning, fulfilled in Christ, and to deliver it persuasively. We have to be faithful to apply the gospel truth to people in a culturally relevant way so that it changes lives in the long run. And we faithfully pray before, during and after sermon preparation for the Holy Spirit to guide and anoint us. And all this has to be done in time that is at times reduced due to the press of other responsibilities. However the final impact our sermons makes on people we leave into the hands of God. “Great” preaching cannot depend on quick polls, or members shaking the pastors hands and appreciatively saying Thanks pastor for that word. The label “good” and “great” are subjective and synthetic. We need to strive to be faithful preachers who preach Christ.

Chapter 1: Preaching the Word

Keller cites a seven volume history of preaching by Hughes Oliphant Old. Old names five basic types of sermons preached throughout the centuries. They are the expository (systematic explanation of scripture week by week based mainly on a single passage), evangelistic (conveying truths to nonbelievers), catechetical (teaching church’s confession and theology), festal (related to observances of the church year like Christmas), and prophetic (landmark sermons that addresses a juncture in history, event or culture).

To Old there are two main types of sermons: the expository organized around a single passage; and the topical or thematic which communicates a biblical idea from many passages or texts. Keller is of the conviction that “expository preaching should provide the main diet of preaching for a Christian community” (32) even though both main types of preaching would be needed today as it has been throughout history. He gives several reasons for his view: 1) expository preaching is the best way to display your conviction that the whole Bible is true. 2) Such preaching “makes it easier for hearers to recognize that the authority rests not in the speaker’s opinions or reasoning but in God, in his revelation through the text itself” (36). 3) It enables God to set the agenda for your Christian community. 4) It also “lets the text set the agenda for the preacher as well” (37). 5) It teaches your audience how to read their own Bibles and interpret the text. 6) It leads you to see the one overarching theme of Christ.

Expository preaching is not without its dangers. In the first 500 years the church used the lectio continua method, systematically working through whole books of the Bible taking years to bring the church through the Bible. This was followed by lectio selecta because of the increase in special feast and holy days. Selected texts covering large themes and special days like Christmas are used. In the last century great expositors have risen to revive the lectio continua and it has garnered quite a following. Even so Keller gives his warnings about this.

Times have changed and people are much more mobile. They do not stay their whole lives in one city like in the ancient days. And they do change churches for a variety of reasons. And they are various stages of maturity. Just going through a large book like Isaiah may take 2 years. So the pastor will have to ask himself: do I want to follow a rigid whole book approach or do I want to be more flexible and arrange a richer diet for the members and expose them to a greater variety of passages and themes from both Old and New Testament? Keller advises expository mini-series that cover various parts and genres of the Bible: Old and New, narrative, didactic, poetry, gospels in a reasonable amount of time.

The other danger Keller warn of is the tendency of expository preachers to dwell so much on sharing the gleanings of their exegesis and research that they neglect another vital area. “Neglecting persuasion, illustration, and other ways to affect the heart undermines the effectiveness of preaching- first because it’s boring and second because it’s unfaithful to the very purpose of preaching” (42).

The third danger is a too narrow definition of what constitutes “expository”. To some it has to be verse by verse. To others it is the one central truth and a streamlined outline. For others there is only one main point for any passage and only one!

I like what Keller says. More flexibility and creativity is to be welcomed. I believe that expository simply means bringing out the real meaning of the text. It could be based on a single passage or it could be based on many texts as when you preach about the Trinity. The main thing is that the texts should all be properly interpreted in their proper context. That is expository preaching: whether single or multiple texts were used. The benefits of the single passage exposition (stricter definition of expository), applies to the multiple texts exposition (topical) too, if a lectionary was used, or if one intentionally worked out a plan for a balanced coverage of biblical themes.

Let me end with a summary of Keller’s idea of expository preaching: “Expository preaching grounds the message in the text so that all the sermon’s points are points in the text, and it majors in the text’s major ideas. It aligns the interpretation of the text with the doctrinal truths of the rest of the Bible (being sensitive to systematic theology). And it always situates the passage within the Bible’s narrative, showing how Christ is the final fulfillment of the text’s theme (being sensitive to biblical theology).”(32)

Chapter 2: Preaching the gospel every time

I love this chapter. I subscribe to what Keller teaches here. However I suspect that applying it to every passage I preach may prove to be difficult. But I am willing to give it a shot. Here are some lovely extracts from this chapter.

“To see how the text fits into its whole canonical context, then, is to show how it points to Christ and gospel salvation, the big idea of the whole Bible. Every time you expound a Bible text, you are not finished unless you demonstrate how it shows us that we cannot save ourselves and that only Jesus can. That means we must preach Christ from every text, which is the same as saying we must preach the gospel every time and not just settle for general inspiration or moralizing.” (48)

“To preach the gospel every time is to preach Christ every time, from every passage. Only if we preach Christ every time can we show how the Bible fits together.” (57)

“If you don’t see how the chapter fits into the whole story you don’t understand the chapter. So preaching Christ every time is the way to show people how the Bible fits together”. (59)

“Ed Clowney points out that if we ever tell a particular Bible story without putting it into the Bible story (about Christ), we actually change its meaning for us. It becomes a moralistic exhortation to “try harder” rather than a call to live by faith in the work of Christ. There are, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: Is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do or basically about what he has done?”(60)

Keller talks about two dangers to avoid in preaching the gospel every time. The first is that of preaching a text, even about Jesus, without really preaching the gospel. He gives the example of a sermon he heard about the demoniac’s deliverance in Mark 5. Christ is painted as the liberator. Jesus came to set free those in bondage, isolated from people, and emotionally and mentally fragmented. Jesus liberates the demoniac. He can also liberate you of your low self esteem, addictions, bondages, loneliness, emotional and mental oppression.

Then Keller relates another sermon on the same passage. The preacher showed that the demoniac was a picture of all of us as sinners. Enslaved to sin and the powers of darkness, estranged from God, and from others, and from ourselves. The big question: Why can Jesus forgive and restore him? Jesus could forgive because He took the man’s place: he was naked, a prisoner, isolated as he was crucified outside the gate, crying out My God My God why has Thou forsaken me? Jesus became his Substitute. He bore all the sins of the demoniac, and all of our sins on the cross.

Both sermons were about Jesus but the latter sermon laid out the gospel clearly. The former sermon may give the idea that salvation is about being healed of addictions, demon possession and loneliness – which is short of dealing with the root problem of sin.

The second danger of preaching Christ is that we fail to preach the text itself: “There is another mistake into which we can fall. It is possible to “get to Christ” so quickly in preaching a text that we fail to be sensitive to the particularities of the text’s message. We leapfrog over historical realities to Jesus as though the Old Testament Scriptures had little significance to their original readers. Ferguson writes that this mistake “is likely to produce preaching that is wooden and insensitive to the rich contours of biblical theology.” The result will be this: because we have not spent time in the text itself, the way that Jesus is described will sound the same from week to week. Jesus will not be truly the resolution or climax of the particular theological theme and the answer to the specific practical problem. If he is that, there will be as many different ways to preach Christ as there are themes and genres and messages in the Bible. But if you don’t go deeply enough into the original historical context, you will have two or three stock ways of bring in Jesus, and they will sound the same every time.” (66-67)

Keller believes that legalism and antinomianism have the same root. They are “non-identical twins from the same womb” (Sinclair Ferguson). At the root of both is a distrust in God’s love. This distrust has gone into human bloodstream since inserted by the lie of the serpent at the beginning. The only cure is the gospel of Christ.

The legalist feels that God is a reluctant giver. He does not trust God’s goodness and generosity. God withheld one thing in the garden: the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He is a stingy giver unwilling to freely give us all that he has. So the legalist feels that he has to perform and jump hoops to deserve the Father’s blessing.

The antinomian feels that the law is given to restrict his personal freedom and growth. “God does not want you to be like god,” the serpent had said. He cannot see that God forbade the eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil because of the physical and spiritual death that would come on us. The antinomian feels that God does not want us to be like him or to grow into our full potential.

So at the root of both poles is a distrust of God’s love and His commitment to our well being and highest good. The cure to legalism is not to give a bigger dose of grace. And the cure to antinomianism is not to give a bigger dose of the law. The cure to both is to preach the glorious gospel which reveals, in immeasurable depth and richness, the great unconditional love of God. This will dissolve the distrust of God over time as the hearer believes the gospel and acts on it and experience God’s love to be true.

What a great insight. May the Lord help us to preach the gospel of grace in all its richness from all parts of the Old and New Testament to avoid the opposite poles of legalism and antinomianism.

Chapter 3: Preaching Christ from all of Scripture

Timothy Keller believes preaching the gospel every time is synonymous with preaching Christ every time. How can we like the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus, show other believers how Christ is in the text from Genesis to Malachi? Keller gives 6 handles to help us preach Christ from all of scripture. These are supplemented with references to books that are explained in quite extensive and useful notes at the back of the book.

WE CAN PREACH CHRIST FROM….

EVERY GENRE AND SECTION OF THE BIBLE – Each part or section of the Bible point towards Christ in a particular way. Christ is the hope of the patriarchs and the angel of the Lord in Genesis. He is the rock of Moses in Exodus. The the fulfiller of the law in Leviticus, the true tabernacle in Numbers, and on it goes.

EVERY THEME OF THE BIBLE – Some themes of the Bible are kingdom which points to Christ our King; the covenant which points to the new covenant Christ enacted for us; the theme of home and exile, with Christ being exiled from the heavenly home in order to lead us back; rest and Sabbath, justice and judgment and righteousness and sin.

EVERY MAJOR FIGURE OF THE BIBLE – Christ is the better Adam who passed the test in the wilderness; the better Abel whose blood cried forgiveness; the better Abraham who left heaven to come to sinful world; the better Isaac whose sacrifice brought blessing even to Gentiles; and on and on it goes.

EVERY MAJOR IMAGE OF THE BIBLE – these could be impersonal objects like the bronze snake and the smitten rock in the wilderness, the tabernacle objects, the tree of life, the Passover Lamb.

EVERY DELIVERANCE STORY LINE – any narrative that carries a deliverance story line, a grace pattern or event, can point us to Christ. Examples are David’s defeat of Goliath which resulted in every Israelite partaking of the victory and benefits they never fought for. Then there are the stories of Naaman the Syrian general, the salvation of eight from the great flood, the story of Esther, the exodus from Egypt, the exile to Babylon and the return from exile, and many more.

INSTINCT – “Perhaps most outstanding preachers of the Bible (and of Christ in all Scripture) are so instinctively. Ask them what their formula is and you will draw a blank expression. The principles they use have been developed unconsciously, through a combination of native ability, gift and experience as listeners and preachers. Some men might struggle to give a series of lectures on how they go about preaching. Why? Because what they have developed is an instinct ; preaching biblically has become their native language. They are able to use the grammar of biblical theology, without reflecting on what part of speech they are using.” (Sinclair Ferguson)

I like what Timothy Keller has to contribute here. He has done a lot of research on how to preach Christ as can be seen in his extensive quotations plus his valuable summaries of what the authors of these thick books had said. Great stuff in the amplified notes at the end. Hopefully with the great respect and following Keller has more preachers will learn to preach the Old Testament the way Christ did it with his companions on that road to Emmaus. Preach Christ from every Scripture is a great chapter.

Chapter 4 – preaching Christ to the culture

“Preaching Christ to the Culture” is a heavy chapter. I find myself in unfamiliar territory. But vital to understand. I never had this kind of training or knowledge or approach in homiletics. All I remembered from my homiletic class by Rev Denver Stone was, “The whole purpose of preaching is to be understood” and “Make sure you preach 20 minutes, two minutes more or two minutes less.” The former seems to relegate preaching to lecturing, and the latter, was an impossible challenge for me personally. So preaching Christ to the culture, is welcome emphasis that I find in Timothy Keller’s book “Preaching”. Maybe that is why he is so effective, so virulent, so penetrating.

My apologies for procrastinating on this chapter’s reflection.

Keller begins by exploring the question, How can we be more persuasive in an increasingly post everything age? Some think changing the mode of communication will help. Modern people want interaction and to discover truths on their own. Yet today TED talks are highly popular. Some think the content should be changed to make it friendly to the secular audience. Dispense with the word “sin” and “sinner”. Or in the sermon start with the problem and show how the Bible and theology tackle the issue and give solutions. In other words, Should preachers change for the culture or challenge the culture? Keller gives his answer as YES, BUT NO, AND YES. YES: let us affirm whatever we can of the culture, even baptize and use it, as John used the concept of Logos (a Greek belief) in John 1. We have to be sincerely appreciative and affirmative in doing this and not fake it. Secondly, BUT NO:  we have to confront what is wrong about the culture: we have to defy unbiblical worldviews and values and morals. And finally, AND YES: we show how in Christ we can have what we actually were searching for in the first place. How do we do it? Keller shows six ways, some of which most preachers are familiar with, but a few are harder to explain without examples. So I recommend you buy his book and read these in detail to learn the ropes from this expert.

Here are the six ways:

  1. Use accessible vocabulary.
  2. Employ culturally respected authorities.
  3. Demonstrate and understanding of doubts and objections.
  4. Affirm in order to challenge baseline cultural narratives.
  5. Make gospel offers that push on the culture’s pressure points.
  6. Call for gospel motivation.

The elaborations and explanations in points 3 to 6 are excellent and he does go into detailed explanations and examples which are an absolute help.

This is where Keller excels and fills a gap. I have read many, many books on preaching over many decades but few have dealt with this topic in a detailed, helpful, practical way that preachers will appreciate. And because Keller is convinced it is highly important to understand this in order to be persuasive in this increasingly secular age, he devotes many pages to this matter. Good preachers must be able to unravel the “foundational cultural narratives of our time” underpinning such commonly accepted statements as “Everybody has a right to their own opinion” or “You have to be yourself”. This will equip us to challenge these slogans in our preaching with winsome clarity.

There are four more great chapters of this book but I have run out of steam trying to finish a summary and reflection on these chapters. Apologies. What I can say is this is a very good resource on expository preaching that you would want to read and keep in your library!

Preaching like cooking for family

A good balance for everyone at the dinner table
A good balance for everyone at the dinner table

The sermon is preferred differently by people of different temperaments. The sanguine (the “I” in the DISC) will like messages with moving stories embellished with dialogue, and content with relational elements. The phlegmatic (S) needs sermons that reassure, comfort and encourage them constantly. The melancholy(C) prefers to dive deep into analysis, interpretative details and arguments about the Biblical text. The choleric (D) will want to be challenged by a sermon calling them to do things that produces results and make a difference, and have sure-fire practical steps of action.

This alone presents a challenge to the preacher. Can he add elements to target each of these unique temperament preferences in most sermons if not every sermon? Such a sermon would then have to have a moving story or relational element added if the text is not a narrative. It would have to be positive, comforting and encouraging. Based on a text that is not ignored, the sermon has to arise and be systematically built up from a careful interpretation of scriptures that include nuances and alternative interpretations. It would also have to point to a lack, gap or need in the hearers so big they would be motivated to want to do something about it. It would have some practical steps of plugging the gap at the end. This is a tall order and when you consider the many other roles and responsibilities of a small church pastor it appears almost impossible to do this consistently over a long period of time.

Feeding the church is like feeding a family. Every child has different preferred, or favourite and despised dishes. It can be so opposite and impossible. One prefers rice, another rather eat noodles most of the time. One hates fish because of the bones inside, others love whole fish and find the Dory too bland. Most love curry but one has the runs when she eats spicy. So like any smart mother, the pastor has to plan a balanced menu of sermons of different kinds: topical series that are easily digestible by most; sermons for special occasions like Easter or missions Sundays or anniversaries; deep book studies of Old and New Testament; and standalone sermons that addresses some challenge that the church or society is facing. And major on what the apostle Paul majored, “We preach Christ and Him crucified” – the finished work. Furthermore, church members, like family, have to learn to understand and embrace this variety of approaches out of love and respect for other family members. Church is family and this is what family does.

Sermon with story, personality and a journey

I was enjoying an article in SundayLife about two Singaporean poets. One of them is Aaron Lee, a Facebook friend and a Christian elder in a Brethren Church. It was an interesting interview but a line he quoted from his mentor caught my attention. He talked about some verses he had captured on his cellphone, lines inspired by daily life and social commentary that never got birthed as poems. He recalled how his mentor had given him some advice long ago. Aaron said: “She told me: ‘It’s got to have a story, a personality, so people can go on this journey with you.‘” The sentence held me captive and I was reminded of the several books that talked about the importance of the sermon being structured like a story, a narrative, a homiletical plot. It was such a good reminder as I tend towards the tired three pointer didactic sermon. Perhaps I should look for texts and themes that can be put on a story board and bring the congregation from tension to truth, from problem to promise, from conflict to resolution, from suspense to conclusion.  I have to think and order things more like a short film director than like a teacher or textbook author.

Lord help me. It’s so easy for me to fall back into that didactic three points sermon structure. It’s a rut I so easily fall into. Set me in front of a story board, and if there is no plot let there be no sermon. Amen.