The Bible: A historical book for a contemporary audience

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I follow over 40 different blogs on a regular basis. One of these writers is a teacher out of London, UK, named Peter Mead. His ministry is one of teaching preachers, and his blog, Biblical Preaching, contains his thoughts on how to accurately preach God’s Word. I really enjoy reading it, and he shares some great insight.

Mead is a huge proponent of expository preaching. That is, he believes that preaching is best when it’s done straight through a Bible book Correction: Many people take that to mean preaching straight through a biblical text, rather than skipping around hitting various topics. (Unlike many others, though, he does recognize the usefulness of intentional topical preaching.)

Recently, he wrote a short post based on comments that Warren Weirsbe (a great modern Bible preacher) wrote about Harry Ironside (1876-1951; a preaching giant from the last century).

Here is one of Weirsbe’s sections Mead quoted in his post:

Some have criticized Ironside for preaching through Bible books instead of preaching “more contemporary messages” in such a strategic pulpit.  But time, I think, has vindicated his ministry.  His expositions are as fresh and meaningful today as when they were preached.  I have many books of “contemporary sermons” in my library, and they read like old newspapers in comparison.

My initial response, when I read this, was, “Yes, that’s true. Messages built on contemporary needs and topics have short-lived value. Preaching should follow the text more.”

In fact, this is my background and my training. I grew up in a church that taught through the Scriptures, and I was trained to do the same thing because it is the right thing to do. So it was sort of like going back to a comfortable place to read this.

But as I thought about it over the last week, I was reminded of something very important. Most of the Scriptures were not written as sermons or messages to be taught straight through. Sure, some of the letters in the New Testament are designed that way and a few books in the Old Testament, but the majority of the Bible is not. Here are a few examples:

The first 17 books of the Old Testament and first five of the New Testament are histories or narratives that tell us things that happened. These are not things we are supposed to necessarily duplicate; they just happened. And many of these stories are not even told in the order they happened. They were recorded as the writer remembered or collected them. Many times, in the gospels especially, stories are recounted together in groups of like stories (topics or settings), whether or not they actually happened in that order.

The Old Testament also includes a few books of poetry, none of which requires or even wants to be taught from beginning to end. The Psalms, for instance, is essentially a hymnal, a book of songs the people sang or recited at various times throughout the year, much like we skip around modern songbooks depending on the day’s message or the time of year.

Then there are the actual “sermons” of the Bible – the words of the prophets. Bible prophecy comprises about one-third of the Scriptures, a large chunk. They can be preached straight through, but do they need to be? I don’t think so. In fact, many of the visions that the prophets recounted were given days, weeks, months, and even years apart. They didn’t even preach them straight through!

Not only that – they were God’s response to the contemporary problems of the day. The same holds true for the New Testament letters. Both the prophets’ and the apostles’ writings are full of then-modern people, places, and (most importantly for our purposes) issues. They responded to the issues of the day, using whatever ancient Scriptures they needed to drive home the point. You never find them preaching through any of the Old Testament books.

The reason we can use the Scriptures to speak to modern issues is that humanity’s problems are the same in every generation. The apostles and prophets, Jesus’ cultural-laden stories, and the narratives of life in the ancient Middle East are always relevant because we can see ourselves in them. But just like they addressed issues as they arose, so should we – not necessarily tied to an outline that was written for a specific time and place.

Now, there are times that preaching or teaching through a book is important and useful. I do so at least once each year with one of the letters. In fact, I’ll be teaching through Philippians this fall at Oak Tree Community Church. So, I’m not against it by any means. But to say that it is the best way (Mead) or the only proper way (others), I think does a disservice to those who willingly sit under our teaching.

I love the way Andy Stanley puts it in his book, 7 Practices of Effective Ministry. They are very specific about what they teach each group of people in their church because, “All Scripture is equally inspired. All Scripture is not equally important. All Scriptures is not equally applicable” (pp. 124-125).

This is the balance we need to remember. There is a huge difference in preaching or teaching what people need to hear and what they want to hear. We would do well to follow the example of Jesus and the apostles and prophets by diligently preaching what people need, whether or not it exactly follows an ancient writer’s outline.

Never forget: we are not called to teach the Scriptures. We are called to use the Scriptures to teach people.

24 thoughts on “The Bible: A historical book for a contemporary audience

  1. Thanks for giving such a lengthy interaction with the brief post I offered. And thank you for your kind words about my blog – http://www.biblicalpreaching.net . You obviously have a much appreciated ministry and I praise God for that and for your work there at Oak Tree Community Church.

    I will follow your lead and reply with a post on my blog. Actually, I like to limit the length of each post and also appreciate having several days worth of writing done, so I will divide my response into several posts. I hope that is okay with you? Hopefully it will drive some readers your way.

    Warmly,

    Peter

  2. I found your article interesting although I think you have misunderstood Mead’s definition of expository preaching. I think you will find that you both have very similar definitions. It is just a shame that you chose to mention someone by name (point could have been made without being personal). I appreciate Mead’s humble response to your words/criticism and his desire to encourage you.

    • K-Bo,

      I'm sorry you took it this way, but my post was to be respectful to Peter (and Weirsbe and Ironside, who I also respect). I greatly enjoy reading his thoughts on preaching, and – using a well-regarded pattern of the past (usually book-for-book) – I wrote a piece for the specific purpose of discussing this with him in an open forum.

      Unlike many others who snipe articles like this, I clearly posted on his blog so that he had the chance to respond in kind. Given his comment above, I believe that Peter understood this.

      I hope you'll follow the discussion and chime in with your thoughts throughout. Thanks

      Daniel

      • Thanks for your response. I guess I misjudged your intentions on starting the debate. Please forgive my criticism. I guess that my concern came from a trend of too many people “taking a swipe” at others which goes on. I can see now you were seeking to open up a friendly debate on the matter (which you have acheived).

        What may be useful for us who are less trained on these matters would be a short paragraphy, from yourself and Mead, giving a summary of your different points of view to more easily compare (then leaving the larger comments that have been posted for more in-depth comparison and understanding).

        Am I correct in understading that your point more relates to preaching, for examply on a Sunday, than to Bible teaching which many churches do through the week be it in small groups or at a service?

        • Hi K-Bo,

          Thanks for coming back. I agree that there are too many sites that do this sort of thing purely out of spite and/or hatred. As you see, my goal is neither.

          I think Peter Mead is going to be using the next series of posts to explain his position while commenting on my post. I'll comment on each of his posts in response. I may do a follow-up post, as you suggest, to clarify my position out of these comments.

          You asked: "Am I correct in understading that your point more relates to preaching, for examply on a Sunday, than to Bible teaching which many churches do through the week be it in small groups or at a service?"

          Yes, that is my primary topic here. For instance, I am teaching through the end times in five weekends right now. Obviously, that is not nearly enough time. So during the Sunday worship service I am teaching the big ideas (the Tribulation shows that God keeps his promises) and leaving the detailed teaching for a smaller group on Sunday evening.

          My position is that, since we have only a limited amount of time and the greatest number of people on Sunday morning, those messages should be targeted to widest audience possible. What most people consider expository preaching (verse-by-verse, book-by-book), does not accomplish that, in my experience.

  3. Hi Daniel,

    Thank you for the stimulating post. Let me begin by affirming your point that expository preaching is not the only way to preach biblically, faithfully, and fruitfully. That being said, I do find your rationale somewhat problematic. Your assertion that, "Most of the Scriptures were not written as sermons or messages to be taught straight through," needs clarification. For example, whether Scripture was originally written in sermonic form or not is irrelevant. We are not preaching the form of the book, but the content of the book. Similarly, your assertion concerning whether they need to be preached straight through comes with a boat load of assumptions. How do you know how they were intended to be proclaimed? The fact is that God has chosen to give us books, not snippets of books. The fact is that God has ordered the books in a particular way. Let me illustrate. I see that in your "About Me" section you have written a book on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Let me ask you something. How would you like someone to read or go through your book? Would you want them to interact with your book a sentence here, a paragraph there? A reader might argue that this approach is valid because you wrote these chapters at different times and not all in one sitting. I suspect though that your book develops ideas and thoughts progressively so that for someone to really understand your point(s) they have to see you develop your argument all the way through. There is something important lost in going through a text piecemeal. This is one reason why I believe in expository preaching through a book. I also believe that we teach at least two things when we preach the Bible. We teach content (what is in the text) and we teach method (how should we handle the text). What does topical preaching teach people about how to handle the text?

    • You said: "The fact is that God has chosen to give us books, not snippets of books."

      I think "books" is a misnomer. We call them books, when, in actuality, some of them are not. The fact that they have chapters does not make them books. To be honest, the chapter-verse breakdown sometimes is a hindrance rather than a help, especially in the letters.

      God gave us stories, prophecies, letters, proverbs, songs – not necessarily books. Which leads into my next response…

    • You said: "The fact is that God has ordered the books in a particular way."

      I'll disagree with you here. The catalog or collection that we hold dear has come from God, but the order in which the individual parts appear cannot claim the same inspiration.

      In fact, the Scriptures have had multiple orders throughout the centuries. The Hebrew Scriptures (which I call the Old or First Testament), for instance, still have three divisions (in this order):
      – the Torah (Law of Moses; Genesis through Deuteronomy)
      – the Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets)
      – and the "Writings" (Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles)

      This is not the order of our Bibles, but we don't throw out their's or ours as non-Scripture, because the order doesn't matter.

      The New Testament order is the same. Regardless of the order you put the "books," it is their content that matters.

    • You said: "Let me ask you something. How would you like someone to read or go through your book? Would you want them to interact with your book a sentence here, a paragraph there?"

      I see a difference between what we do in our worship services and what people do in their own personal or small group study.

      If someone sat down to read what I had to say on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, I would expect them to read it through, at least within in each of the sections. That said, I also wrote it in such a way that I can say, "You know, read chapter 7 of my book if you want information on the biblical discussion of marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian."

      My goal during Sunday worship is not to teach everything about everything in the Scriptures. It is to lead God's people one step closer to him and inspire them to do something about that step this week in their very busy lives.

      Again, sometimes I do that by teaching through a biblical book or letter, because it addresses those things. Many times, however, I do like the apostles, prophets, and Jesus, and address the issue, using the Scriptures as the basis for my response to the issues.

      This is where Peter and I agree – the Scriptures should be taught accurately to address the issues they were meant to address.

    • Last one. You said: "We teach content (what is in the text) and we teach method (how should we handle the text)."

      I absolutely agree with you. That's a great way to put it.

      You asked: "What does topical preaching teach people about how to handle the text?"

      I believe it shows that the Scriptures were given to us to be used, memorized, handled, not just studied for theory. As I said, I'm all for Bible study, theological discussions, etc., but most people want to know how to do life.

      By using a topical method, I show by example that the Bible has answers to life's questions, not just in one book or chapter, but in common threads throughout. I show that it is approachable by everyone, not just the learned or theologically trained. I show that in the middle of the stories of long-gone people and places, there are timeless principles at work, so it's not a waste of time to read it and study it.

      Anyone who hears even one or two of the messages that I give during our worship services knows that I have an extremely high view of the Scriptures. One of my favorite sayings is that the Bible is God's very own heart and mind given to us on paper in a language that we can plainly understand.

      When we interact with the Scriptures, we are interacting with God himself. And I believe that, just like every other relationship, our relationship with him is not simply linear, but fluid, moving, and growing. And our interaction with his Word should be the same.

      Great thoughts, Charles; thanks for the great discussion!

    • Hi Charles,

      Thanks for your comments. Let me take them individually, in several responses.

      You said: "For example, whether Scripture was originally written in sermonic form or not is irrelevant. We are not preaching the form of the book, but the content of the book."

      That's true, which is the basis for my thoughts. There are many people (although Peter Mead does not) who demand that the Scriptures be preached as written, never jumping around, in order to be accurate to the text. My point is that we can be faithful and accurate without having to go straight through, precisely because the Scriptures themselves do not demand a specific form.

      I just used Peter's post as a springboard for this topic.

  4. My correction above is due to the fact that I aligned Peter Mead with Weirsbe's quote about "preaching through Bible books". That was what made me finally write on this topic.

    However, I knew – though I forgot – that Peter Mead does not define expository preaching like that. In fact, he and I have a shared regard on handling the text with accuracy when preaching and teaching (2 Timothy 2:15).

    I have corrected the sentence that wrongly identified Mead in that way. The rest of my post is accurate, and it was Weirsbe's quote in Mead's post that triggered it.

    I trust we can continue to discuss this important topic, even though I was wrong in that statement.

  5. Hi Daniel,

    I am fine with your correction concerning "books." My point is simply this that Genesis 1 (or whatever you want to call it) was placed before Genesis 2, and so on. Note that even the book of Psalms has a particularly designed arrangement (Psalms 1-41, 42-72, etc). Note the structural marker which concludes each book ("blessed be the Lord"). Genesis is also clearly structured and arranged with toledot (these are the generations). So whether you want to call it a book or not, or whether you agree with chapter and verse divisions or not, is really beside the point. The content of the "book" is arranged in a particular way, and I would suggest a purposeful way. What is the best way to honor that purposeful arrangement? All things being equal, why not approach the book as it was intended to be read?

    By the way, you have misunderstood my comment concerning order. I am not arguing for a particular canonical arrangement. My point concerned the order of the material in the book. In any case, please note that God did not give us a topical Bible He gave us a Bible which addressed topics in a way that he apparently wanted them addressed.

    You state: "By using a topical method, I show by example that the Bible has answers to life's questions, not just in one book or chapter, but in common threads throughout. I show that it is approachable by everyone, not just the learned or theologically trained. I show that in the middle of the stories of long-gone people and places, there are timeless principles at work, so it's not a waste of time to read it and study it." A couple of questions here. Are you suggesting that preaching the Bible as it written will not be able to trace thee threads or pick up the timeless principles? Are you suggesting that doing or understanding exposition requires the theologically trained? In my opinion, topical study requires more theological sensitivity than exposition, lest you get into an oversimplified form of proof-texting,

    You state, "Anyone who hears even one or two of the messages that I give during our worship services knows that I have an extremely high view of the Scriptures. One of my favorite sayings is that the Bible is God's very own heart and mind given to us on paper in a language that we can plainly understand." Whether you hold a view of Scripture or not (and I suspect that you do) is not for me to decide. I can say that my high view of Scripture seeks to honor the Word by proclaiming that Word in the order it was given and not in the way I wish it were given.

    • Hi Charles,

      Thanks for your continued thoughts.

      You said: "All things being equal, why not approach the book as it was intended to be read?" I think that this is our main point of departure. I see a difference between personal reading and what we do as teachers. I encourage people to read through the Scriptures, but I am not going to teach them like that because some things are more important and more applicable to the group at large in the few minutes (or more) that I have with them each weekend.

      You said: "By the way, you have misunderstood my comment concerning order." Yes, I must have. It sounded like you were still talking about the books themselves when you said, "The fact is that God has chosen to give us books, not snippets of books. The fact is that God has ordered the books in a particular way."

      You said: "Are you suggesting that preaching the Bible as it written will not be able to trace thee threads or pick up the timeless principles?" Not if you have the time to do a thorough study. But most of us do not have that kind of time in the worship service. Or if we take that time (Romans over 3 years, for instance), we can neglect all sorts of other equally or more important things along the way, an imbalance in the other direction from topical-style preaching.

      You said: "Are you suggesting that doing or understanding exposition requires the theologically trained?" To a point, yes. Proper Bible interpretation is very much both a science and an art that must be learned. But I also believe that the church is supposed to be raising up people who can accurately do that kind of study. I just don't think that Sunday morning (or whenever the corporate worship takes place) is the time or place for that.

      You said: "In my opinion, topical study requires more theological sensitivity than exposition, lest you get into an oversimplified form of proof-texting." That's an excellent point which has been proven many times over by those who mistreat the Scriptures. The other extreme is also true, though, that people park in a certain book for way too long, reading into it things that should be taught from elsewhere. This is why it is especially important for teachers to do the kind of exposition for which Peter Mead and I (and I assume, you) strive for every time we open the text.

      You said: "I can say that my high view of Scripture seeks to honor the Word by proclaiming that Word in the order it was given and not in the way I wish it were given." That's fair. I don't think it's wrong to teach that way. I would say, "My high view of Scripture seeks to honor God by proclaiming his Word as a response to the growth needs of the people who sit before me." For me, sometimes that is straight through an apostle's letter. But most of the time it is addressing doctrines or issues that the people are dealing with at the time.

  6. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for hel;ping me to think these things through.

    One final point. I think that you might need to reconsider your view of preaching in light of Judeo-Christian history and not just the present. When the biblical books were written the idea of reading was almost always public. It was not until the invention of the printing press about 500 years ago that most people could afford to have a copy of one of the books, much less the whole Bible. So for most of the last 3500 years the Scriptures would be read publicly, nor privately. It is likely then that all the Scriptures were originally written for public, not private dissemination. And I would suggest that many of these hearers were able to find the Scriptures relevant and helpful without going topical.

    • Hi Charles,

      This is a great discussion. Thanks for keeping it going.

      You said: "So for most of the last 3500 years the Scriptures would be read publicly, nor privately. It is likely then that all the Scriptures were originally written for public, not private dissemination."

      No doubt about that at all. The first half of what we call the Old Testament was a collection of stories passed down orally throughout the generations until someone wrote them down. (Although, don't forget that Moses did tell the people to write down the law, and teach it in their private homes to their families – Deuteronomy 6.)

      Solomon, Hezekiah, and others collected the proverbs over a period of a couple hundred years. Of course, the prophets all preached their messages over a span of about 600 years.

      The gospels were written down as recollections from the apostles (except for Luke, which was a two-part series with Acts written especially for Theophilus).

      And the apostolic letters (including the Revelation) were written to be read in churches and passed around.

      However, just because they were normally read publicly doesn't mean they were understood as read. In fact, a big deal is made in Nehemiah, for example, because the returning exiles didn't fully understand the law as Ezra read it. So Levites "were teaching the people the law…They read from the book of God's law, explaining it and imparting insight. Thus the people gained understanding from what was read." (Nehemiah 8:7-8)

      In this case, the exiles hadn't heard the Law for so long that Ezra had them stand as he read the whole thing from morning until night – a far cry from our worship services today. But teaching was necessary for them to understand it.

      I think of Jesus and the apostles, who taught the OT Scriptures, but not in straight-through fashion. In fact, Jesus and Paul both would sometimes quote just a couple of words from an OT passage and make an entire teaching around it. We never find them quoting, much less teaching through, a whole book or even chapter.

      You said: "I think that you might need to reconsider your view of preaching in light of Judeo-Christian history and not just the present."

      I understand what you're saying, but the fact is, we live in the present, not the past. Some people take your statement too far and say that only certain translations should be used. Or that modern technology should not enter into our church doors. When the Scriptures were new, they engaged their modern audience. I believe that our methods of teaching the Scriptures should always be changing to engage the people we have.

      I guess what I'm saying is that, when it comes to teaching people, I try to start with where they are, the issues they are facing, the questions they are asking, and use the Scriptures to show them the truth of the matter and point them in the right direction.

      Sometimes that means going through an entire book or letter. But most of the time it is a 3-5 week series on what the Bible says about a topic. Which, by the way, allows me to go much, much deeper on that topic or doctrine than I could if I were teaching straight through a book.

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