What I’ve Learned After One Year of Preaching God’s Word
Editor’s note: This is a companion piece to “What I’ve Learned After 33 Years of Preaching God’s Word.”
I love learning and books, theology and doctrine, church history and wrestling with difficult questions. These things are essential for the health of the church. But they are no substitute for the learning that comes from God by his Spirit through his Word.
“We know nothing till we are taught of the Holy Ghost, who speaks to the heart rather than to the ear.” Charles Spurgeon said this in his final message to the Pastor’s College Conference after 42 years in the ministry. He had learned what it is to be “taught by God” (John 6:45). Well, I have 41 years to go until I reach that milestone, but over the last year of preaching through God’s Word, I have become more aware of what he meant. God’s Word has opened my eyes “to behold wondrous things” (Ps 119:18), and shepherding his people has allowed me to see visible expressions of God’s spiritual truths.
In particular, three lessons from my first year stand out.
1. I underestimated the value of the local church in my “overestimation” of it.
I have always had a high estimation of the church. When my wife and I looked to join our first church together, one of the reasons we joined the church we did was because they faithfully practiced corrective church discipline.
Relative to the evangelical landscape, however, many would probably say I place too much value on the local church. They would say I overestimate it. That’s because for many evangelicals, the church is not a people called to—among other things—“purge” evil from their midst like Israel. It’s more like a community grocery store that sells goods to consumers and provides a comfortable coffee shop for people to talk about their life-journeys. It’s not a temple where the glory of God appears and his commandments are stored, but more like the Areopagus where we can all gather to “hear something new” (Acts 17:21).
So I find it rather surprising that a year of preaching through Ephesians has taught me not that I overestimate the church, but that I’ve underestimated it. The Almighty showed me how weak my understanding was. Before, my understanding of church membership largely came from texts like Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, and 2 Corinthians 2. It was largely a logical implication of discipline. Now, my understanding of church membership begins with the vast plan of God to create and redeem a people for himself from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1) who, being reconciled to God, are now reconciled to one another (Eph 2), to display the wisdom of God in the heavenly places (Eph 3) by living and growing together in unity (Eph 4), displaying an ethic of sacrificial love modeled after Christ himself and guided by the Spirit (Eph 5) as they wage war against the devil and persevere unto the end through prayer (Eph 6).
God places a much higher value on his church than I knew even a year ago!
2. A good pastor must also be a good gardener.
Before this last year my wife and I had always lived in apartments. Now we live in our church’s parsonage, so it’s the first year we’ve had a yard. We decided to plant some flowers and some plants with bizarre names, as well as grass in the patchy areas.
When we planted the grass seed, we watered it several times a day. But weeks went by and nothing sprouted. We didn’t know what was going on. Did we need more fertilizer? Did we need to check the pH of the yard?
Then it started raining consistently. Suddenly, the seeds sprouted. The same thing happened with the flowers. One day they weren’t there; the next they were.
A good gardener delights in what he plants, and finds joy in seeing the smallest fruit. So it must be for the pastor. Fruit does not appear right after the seed is sown. There is a process. It takes time and patience. The question is, when the smallest sprout appears, will we rejoice? Or will we grumble that it’s not fully grown?
Spiritual fruit is slow-growing. The church does not become a vibrant, unified, mature people the moment we preach Ephesians 4. But we can see little sprouts of promise: a comment here, a prayer there; a gift here, a discussion there. Let us praise God for these moments!
3. The people of God need to meet Mr. Hermeneutics.
Why do so many people read such horrendous books and listen to such unbiblical preaching and think it is biblical? I suspect one reason is because they do not know how to “examine the Scriptures to see if these things are so” (Acts 17:11).
Biblical interpretation needs to be taught. I believe that we, as pastors, can wrongly assume that people know how to read the Bible. We have been trained in hermeneutics and forget that it’s not foundational for everyone. Many people who read the Bible are not looking for authorial intent but for special, personal revelation because mysticism is the air our culture breathes.
Expositional preaching helps people read the Bible, but more is needed. We can teach God’s people how to read God’s Word through Sunday School, evening services, one-on-one discipleship, or small group studies. Whatever the means, it must become a priority in making disciples.
Take these three lessons for what they are worth. I’m no veteran, but God teaches even the rookies. Some seasons are better than others. Others aren’t as good as they seem. But even if the day is dry, and there be no fruit on the vines, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab 3:17-18).