Have you ever wondered, perhaps when reading through John Calvin’s Institutes or the Westminster Confession of Faith, why God gave us His Word in such a confusing and disjointed way? I mean, shouldn’t the book of Genesis be about the doctrine of revelation rather than being about the creation of the world, the fall of man, and the lives of the patriarchs? How can we read God’s Word until we have carefully articulated a doctrine of revelation? And wouldn’t it be more sensible if Moses and the Holy Spirit had explained to us theology proper, the doctrine of God, before saying, “In the beginning God …” so that we would know of whom the words spoke? At least the last book in our Bibles deals with last things, but I don’t think anyone would ever describe the book of Revelation as straightforward prose, something eminently easy to understand.
When I was in seminary, I had an outstanding professor of systematic theology. He was no atomist, a person who comes to the Word of God and looks at each passage as if it were in a vacuum, as if there were no relation between this text and that, as if we can say the Bible here teaches x and there teaches non-x, and we’ll believe both if we’re pious enough. He rightly defended the labor of systematics as an attempt to rightly understand the Word of God in its context. He showed that the God we worship is a God of order. His Word coheres; it is one Word. But it is one Word that is given to us in historical narratives, wisdom literature, and prophetic discourses, both more apocalyptic and less. There are also didactic portions, but the Bible isn’t a systematics text. And if we preach as if it were, we do a disservice to the Word, and to preaching.
One of the dangers of treating the Bible as a mere sourcebook of quotes to corroborate our systematic theology is that such makes it easier for us to ride our hobby horses. We Reformed folk, of course, are rather adept at talking about election. And the Bible talks about election in many places. But the Bible isn’t only about election. One of the advantages of preaching exegetically, of refusing to pick out a theme and then go￼to the Bible, is that it allows the Bible to balance our themes. If we follow God’s story, we are less likely to simply repreach our favorite abstractions from God’s Word.
The same principle also works in reverse. Not only do we preachers like to talk about what we like to talk about, we don’t like to talk about what we don’t like to talk about. We Reformed folk aren’t so well-known for our gifts in mercy ministry. We aren’t known the world around for preaching faithfully and powerfully on the “one-another” passages of the Bible. And so it would be rather easy for us to exacerbate our weaknesses by not preaching on them—if we are free to flit here and there, from one passage on election to another, in our preaching.
When we take the simple precaution of preaching through books of the Bible (understanding also that we probably have missed the point if we spend decade after decade preaching exclusively through Paul’s epistles), we can alleviate the temptation to stay inside our own comfort zone, and that of the sheep entrusted to our care. Our calling is to preach the whole counsel of God, and to do that, we have to preach the whole counsel of God.
But there is still more to it. Systematic theology reminds us that the Bible is one book. Indeed, because the God who wrote it is one (Deut. 6:4), it is likewise one. We cannot and must not pit one passage against another, as if John 3:16 can be trumped by or can trump John 3:3. Neither, however, can John 3:16 trump or be trumped by Psalm 14:3. In order to preach a passage rightly, it must be preached in context. Context, however, isn’t simply the verse or chapter before and the verse or chapter after; it is the totality of the Word of God. Thus, when we preach a particular passage, if we do it right, we actually are preaching the whole counsel of God. We preach the whole Bible every time we preach any passage of the Bible. We cannot rightly explain the love of God if we do not include an understanding of the wrath of God. And in like manner, we cannot rightly explain the wrath of God if we do not include the love of God. The Word of God, paradoxically, is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
But how can we capture the whole counsel of the Lord without swallowing the entire day of the Lord in the process? It’s hard enough to preach one small passage without having various wristwatch alarms chiming away to let us know folks might miss their tee time without having at the same time to preach the whole Bible.
The solution comes when we remember that we not only ought to preach the passages as they come and that we not only ought to teach the whole of the Bible whenever we preach any of the Bible, but that we must always preach Christ and Him crucified. This, however, isn’t the third point in this written sermon on sermons. Instead, it subsumes the other two points. That is, there is one hobby horse we must never dismount or allow ourselves to be bucked from. The one message that all the Bible proclaims, from cover to cover, is the story of Jesus Christ.
Thus, when Paul boldly declared that he would preach nothing but Christ and Him crucified, he did not mean that all of his sermons would be taken from the last pages of the gospels. Paul was certainly familiar with the end of the gospel of Luke, where we find the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Our tendency when we come to this passage is to look at it in the context of the hidden Jesus. That is, we want to understand how it was that Jesus was not recognized and how He seemingly disappeared. What ought to fascinate us, however, is the glimpse we are given of the revealed Jesus.
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus gave the one sermon above all others that I would like to have heard. Beginning with Moses, we are told, Jesus explained all of the Old Testament. Here i was an Old Testament survey lecture given by the Master Himself. But the great thing about this sermon wasn’t so much that it explained the Old Testament, but that it explained Jesus. That is, Jesus preached rightly. As we are told, He “expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”
The book of Genesis then, isn’t ultimately only the story of the Creation or of the patriarchs. It is also the story of Jesus. The book of Exodus doesn’t exist merely so that we would understand how God’s people came to the Promised Land, but also so that we would understand the Promised One. The book of Leviticus isn’t simply a collection of arcane rules regarding sacrifices. It is also an exposition of the Ruler over all things who is our one sacrifice. The book of Esther, we are told, doesn’t even mention God’s name. But it, too, if we would rightly understand it, speaks of God’s Son. Of course we weren’t there. We didn’t hear that sermon. But we know at least this much, that the story was all about Jesus.
In the church where I serve, we find it rather easy to remember to preach Christ and Him crucified. We remember to do this because every week we remember to remember after the sermon. That is, we preach not only the text, not only the whole of the Bible, not only Christ and Him crucified, but we preach also the table. After we hear the Word preached, we eat and we drink the Word visible. One of the advantages of celebrating the table of the Lord every week is that it reminds us of what it is we are to preach. The table, which without the preaching of the Word would just be a table, adorns the preaching of the Word, adding a means of grace to the means of grace of preaching.
Even after the preaching of the Word, we must labor not to forget how and why we have preached. Though it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, from time to time a congregant will greet me after the service and say, “That was a great sermon, pastor.” I always respond by saying, “I get to preach a great Gospel.” It is for this reason that our fathers were known to
place on their pulpits this written reminder of the very purpose of preaching: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” May we honor those fathers in our sermons, and better still, honor the Jesus whom they preached.