By Harry R. Osborne
In Nehemiah 8, the people of Israel who had returned from the captivity assembled to hear the law. They were not reluctant hearers, but attentive recipients of the word. In-deed, the text says that “the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law” as Ezra spoke from the pulpit “from early morning until midday” (v. 3). Extended periods of listening to God’s will has never been boring to those who love the Lord and his truth it is a thrilling opportunity!
Their exemplary response to God’s law began in reverence when they stood as the book of the law was opened and concluded with the people voicing, “Amen, Amen,” to the teaching as they worshiped God. The day ended with the people being joyful “because they had understood the words that were declared unto them” (v. 12). Though the day began with many being ignorant of the law’s teaching, they understood and rejoiced by day’s end.
The book of Nehemiah goes on to record the people’s confession of sin and their vowing together “to do all the commandments of Jehovah our Lord” (Neh. 10:29). How was this great change in understanding of God’s will and the consequent uplifting of the people accomplished? What kind of teaching aided this much needed transformation of will and action? Our questions are answered as the following is revealed about the teaching of Ezra and his fellow teachers, “And they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8).
This was a case of distinctive preaching which should serve as an example to us. The same things that made this distinctive preaching acceptable to God and effective in reaching honest hearts can do the same in our time. Notice the elements of this distinctive preaching: (1) It was preaching founded upon the word of God. (2) It was preaching which examined and applied the principles of truth. (3) It was preaching designed to be understood by all hearers.
Brethren, it is incumbent upon God’s people to examine the preaching of our day to see if it meets the divine criteria of such distinctiveness. Those of us who preach must honestly measure our teaching by the divine standard, not the standard of popular appeal or cultural correctness. Those of us who listen must demand distinctive preaching which fosters an understanding of truth and a proper application of its principles as we commit ourselves to total faithfulness.
Preaching the Book
Ezra preached what is sometimes called an expository sermon for half of one day. His teaching was not based on a joke or a story of what happened to him while out fishing. Those listening to Ezra went away with the words of God upon their hearts. Divinely approved, distinctive preaching has always been “book, chapter and verse” preaching.
New Testament preachers did the same. Paul said that the Scripture was given “that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Peter referred again and again to Scripture as the proof in his sermons. The Hebrew writer used Scripture to prove each point he made. Thus, Paul gave the simple instruction for all preachers of all time: “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2).
In our time, many denominational preachers and “televangelists” have blazed the trail of minimizing the use of the Scriptures. Sadly, too many of our brethren seem to be following their lead. Sermons with three, two, or just one Bible passage cited during the entire sermon are be-coming far too common among us.
As the volume of cited Scripture diminishes, the dependence upon uninspired poetry, jokes, stories, and literature has increased. Though such material is sometimes good to illustrate a Bible truth, let us always show our emphasis upon the word of God by appealing predominantly to it.
Examination and Application of Bible Principles
Ezra did not merely read the law and leave the people to interpret it in any fashion they desired. He correctly recognized that a divinely inspired message instructed a right path of faith and conduct. Thus, the text says he “gave the sense” of God’s instruction. This was done as each principle was examined and applied so that the hearers might comprehend both the truth taught and how that truth had practical application in their lives.
It was this process that helped the people understand that they were not living as God had prescribed within his law. Their initial examination of that law caused the people grief as they faced the fact of their unwitting disobedience. Their past failure to keep the Feast of Tabernacles as ordained by God was then corrected as they understood “the sense” of God’s commands and applied themselves to obey the law in this matter. Distinctive preaching made this progress possible.
The New Testament requires the same kind of distinctive preaching which examines “the sense” of truth in propositional terms and shows the practical applications of that truth by calling upon the hearers to correct their actions in obedience. Whether those preaching in the first century affirmed the proposition that Jesus was the Christ, that salvation was by grace through faith, or that Christians have an obligation to holiness, they examined the doctrine of Christ to ascertain the truth and gave “the sense” of that teaching.
Such preaching demanded that they oppose false concepts which would lead people away from God and his truth. While affirming that the crucified Jesus was the Christ, they exposed and opposed the Jews and Greeks who denied that propositional truth (1 Cor. 1:18-25). While affirming that salvation was by grace through faith, they had to expose and oppose the Judiazing teachers who taught otherwise (see the book of Galatians as an example). While affirming the necessity for holiness in the life of Christians, it was also necessary to expose and oppose those who would turn the grace of God into a license to sin more abundantly (Rom. 6:1-11; 1 John 1:6; 1 Cor. 5). Preaching which accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative may please the ears of the world, but it does not please God by following his plan for distinctive preaching.
The hearers of the first century were also given responsibilities to insure that such preaching would continue in their presence. John told the hearers to “believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God; be-cause many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). John then gave propositional truths to test for false teachers. When the hearers questioned a teacher regarding such specific points of truth and compared the teacher’s words to the word of God, false teachers could be identified, exposed and avoided.
It is a sad fact in our day that some label as “creedal” the attempts to so identify false teachers of today. The charge is exactly opposite of the truth. Opponents of such examination are the real perpetrators of a “creedal” mentality as they demand the acceptance of some teachers of error based upon past history of how brethren have traditionally handled such differences. That, brethren, is creedal thinking at its worst!
We face an urgent need for distinctive preaching on numerous issues of our day. The following are but a few examples: (1) “The sense” of commands regarding godliness need to be examined clearly and application made in our preaching. Among Christians, the prevalence of immodest dress, the justification of social drinking, and the incidence of immorality have risen to alarming rates. Why? In part, it is because we have failed to preach the distinctive truth on such matters without compromise. When churches hear preaching which excuses apparel revealing more of the body than it covers, justifies drinking intoxicants at so called “moderate” levels, and tolerates unlawful marriages or at least the defenders thereof, is it any wonder that more of this behavior is the result? Distinctive preaching will point people towards holiness and godliness rather than seeking tolerance for worldliness (2 Cor. 6:14-18;1 Pet. 4:1-6; 1 Tim. 2:9-10; Matt. 19:3-12).
(2) “The sense” of passages distinguishing between the Mosaic law and the gospel of Christ need to be distinctly taught in our time. There are brethren teaching that we are now under the same law as those in Old Testament times. They contend that Colossians 2:14 only affirms that sin, not the old law, was nailed to the cross. They further argue that Jeremiah 31:31-34 does not speak of a change in law, but a renewal of the old law upon Israel’s return from captivity. No, a change of law is the subject of those passages as well as every epistle written to oppose Judiazing teachers and a host of passages too plain to overlook (Heb. 7:12; 8:6; 10:1-10; Eph. 2:14-15; 2 Cor. 3:7-14). It is indeed ironic that those teaching this doctrine affirm we are under the same law to which the Hebrews wrongly sought return and were rebuked with these words, “For when by the reason of time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need again that some one teach you the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of solid food” (Heb. 5:12).
(3) “The sense” of passages declaring the conditions for salvation need to be examined and applied in clear terms which show the distinctive nature of Christ’s doctrine in contrast to denominationalism. Denominationalists are called out of their error and into God’s truth by preaching which exposes the error of false doctrines such as salvation by faith only, once saved always saved, infant baptism and the like. At a time when the distinctive nature of gospel preaching needs to be heard more than ever, too many are preaching sermons which could be as easily preached in a Baptist church without a dissenting word. Some have grown weary of meetings wherein the gospel plan of salvation is explained and an invitation is extended urging hearers to obey the Lord by meeting those conditions for pardon. Such preaching is replaced by sermons on “inter-personal relationships,” “self esteem” and other topics of discussion in psychology circles.
Do we really believe this change from a distinctive message to one which copies denominational jargon will help bring those in error to the truth? Some of the strongest Christians I know were converted from denominations, my own mother among that number. Without exception, each of them have told me that distinctive preaching which drew a clear contrast between the error they believed and the truth regarding salvation was instrumental in their conversion. All have said it was difficult to hear at fast, but necessary to motivate an examination of Bible teaching to find the truth. The book of Acts confirms the need for and effectiveness of such preaching.
Passages showing that the faith which saves is the faith that obeys need to be preached with clarity and force (Jas. 2:14-26). Passages showing the demands of repentance must be examined and applied (2 Cor. 7:10-11). Passages stating the necessity of water baptism for the remission of sins must be affirmed and defended against the devil’s error which denies the necessity of baptism for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-11; 1 Pet. 3:21).
Preaching To Be Understood
Finally, Ezra preached “so that they understood the reading.” New Testament preachers did the same (Eph. 3:3-4; 5:17). Distinctive preaching seeks to be understood by all hearers (Isa. 35:8). Distinctive preaching does not gain itsdistinctive nature from the advanced vocabulary or oratorical ability of the preacher (1 Cor. 2:1-5). The servant of God does not seek to be remembered for his unique delivery and style, but seeks for the audience to understand and re-member the truth of God’s word.
One of the common characteristics present in false teachers is their repeated claim to have been misunderstood. When accused of teaching error, they often shift the blame to the defender of truth by saying it is all just a confusion over terminology. If these teachers truly find it too difficult to speak so that they are understood, they need to reevaluate their usefulness as gospel preachers. When someone starts to question the clarity of truth, it should serve as a warning that the “truth” they teach is not the truth of God. Those who preach the distinctive message of truth will be under-stood because that message was designed by God to be understood by hearers who could then apply the principles into a life of service to God as he clearly commands in his word. Let us unashamedly preach the distinctive truth of God so as to be understood.
Guardian of Truth XLI: 1 p. 24-26
January 2, 1997