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I will never forget the first time I heard exegetical preaching. The Word came to life in vivid color, though at the time I was not knowingly prepared or in expectation. The church was a modest white shiplap building on a patch of wild grass and sand. The church members wore farm boots. There was only one small piano in the back of the chapel. Strange, unimpressive, not “strategic” in the eyes of a city kid away from home for college. The pastor preached from Numbers.
I went back often to hear this man preach. Week after week, wandering with the Israelites through the book of Numbers, I was on the edge of my seat. I wondered if maybe he had some special gift, some sort of secret wisdom. I learned that this practice was completely ordinary for this church and for all historically Reformed churches. Clearly laid out by God Himself in Scripture. A devoted practice of a divine mandate.
ordained ordinary means
The heart of a Christian is to know God and be known by God. Calvin begins his Institutes: “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God. . . . Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.” In the original wording, sui notitiam, or “knowledge of self,” is not merely individual but corporate. It is through this lens that the corporate aspect of Lord’s Day worship, the public reading of Scripture and preaching, is best understood and its primacy appreciated.
Individually, there are many practical hindrances to Sunday worship. In modern days, there have been many attempts to ease these deterrents. While they are likely well intended, at least some of these efforts to update corporate worship have overlooked what the Westminster divines called the ordinary means of grace:
The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation. (Westminster Shorter Catechism 88)
How does this help a mother of three “sons of thunder” get to church on time? Many days it does not enable us to arrive right on time, yet this is our focus and why we strive to make it there at all. Many details may fall to the wayside as we make our practical priority participation in the means of grace. Some Sundays we are providentially hindered, and we thank the Lord for His constancy in the next opportunity to gather for Lord’s Day worship.
a humble hermeneutic
What happens when we gather with believers for worship on the Lord’s Day? It is not what we bring; it is the Lord who uses His means to reach us. It is His Word that corrects and trains (2 Tim. 3:16), His Holy Spirit who comforts (John 14:26), and His Son who acts as our High Priest (Heb. 4:14–16). While we may prefer to apply these as we deem best, we serve a God who in making Himself known also prescribes these means. There is both weight and freedom in the order that God has ordained, and this helps us see that ordinary is not “with no special or distinctive features” but rather holy and set apart (see Isa. 41).
This approach to a Sunday church gathering may seem counterintuitive to a Western mind. Won’t young people be bored by these strange stories? How can we relate to Hebrew genealogies? Why should we read the ceremonial law if we are “New Testament Christians”? Aren’t there other ways to show that we are devoted to God? A covenantal view of Scripture showed me that these are good questions, answered by a consistent hermeneutic (theory of interpretation). The practice of verse-by-verse study allows us to address each hermeneutical fallacy as it is exposed by the text at hand. Though this method may not always proceed at the speed we want, perhaps we should not be so surprised that the Bible existentially applies to our human experience in more ways than we personally may have yet to live.
the son of man must be lifted up
Sitting under exegetical preaching taught me by example, rather than mere explanation, how to read and study the Bible. This tested pastor displayed humility week after week in addressing each twist and turn in the book of Numbers. His preaching started with Scripture and was pastorally applied to the congregation. What stood out was not the presentation but the consistency, holiness, and loving provision of our covenantal God. Chapter after chapter, the preacher faithfully displayed that Jesus was not an afterthought; He was there all along and from the very beginning. Faulty typology was addressed in stride, and the beauty of John 3 (just before that famous verse) was unobstructed: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (vv. 14–15; see Num. 21:4–9). This is the main purpose of preaching: to point to Christ and to make God’s glory known. And the congregation aptly responded, singing: “Lift high the cross! The love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore his sacred name. O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree, your death has brought us life eternally.”
As a pew-sitter, I find that this is what sets the Christian heart aflame. May we be like those Greeks who dared to say, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (John 12:21, KJV). The freedom of Scripture interpreting Scripture shows the whole of God’s revealed Word to be “living and active” (Heb. 4:12) rather than irrelevant. Truly, “let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (v. 11) as we sit under God’s means of grace manifested in the daily Christian life.