Is an emphasis on reading God’s Word in church preferential, cultural, or biblical? The answer can be found in the Bible itself. As Alistair Begg explains, Nehemiah 8 sets a pattern for the centrality of Scripture to the worship of God’s people. After Jerusalem’s wall was rebuilt, fifty thousand worshipers gathered with Nehemiah to expectantly hear God’s Word proclaimed. United in devotion, they responded with hands lifted in praise and faces bowed in contrition—a reminder to us that our own posture before the Lord reveals our hearts.
I invite you to take your Bibles and turn back again with me to the portion that we read from Nehemiah chapter 8, as we continue our studies in the book of Nehemiah, under the overarching title of Doing God’s Work in God’s Way. And if you have your Bible open, then we’ll pause once again in a moment of prayer.
Let us pray:
O God our Father, it is our earnest cry to you that beyond the voice of a man and beyond the pages of this wonderful book, that we may hear your voice and may meet with you. We pray this for us as a church, so that we might increasingly be brought into conformity with your Word, and we ask this as individuals: no matter what it means, no matter what changes it brings, we tell you that we want to hear you speak. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Chapter 6 was all about Nehemiah dealing with intimidation. Chapter 7 gives us a wonderful record of Nehemiah and his organization. And chapter 8 brings us to the place of Ezra and the proclamation.
There is a sense in which this morning’s study helps to go some way towards answering the question “Why is it that a church such as this would give such place and priority and preeminence to the public reading and teaching of the Bible?” Because after all, not every place that names God’s name and sets about to conduct worship services does as we do. Therefore, any thinking person presumably would want to try and analyze as to whether we were doing something that was merely preferential, or something that was influenced simply as a result of external factors of time and culture, or whether we’re actually doing something that was of primary and foundational importance—if you like, something that has a biblical mandate, that there is both precept for it as well as the practice of it, which we’re able both to obey as well as to observe. Because some of you have come from backgrounds—even as recently as last week—where your experience of worship was very different from this on a number of levels, and perhaps not least of all, on the basis of the fact that far much more time was spent in a liturgical emphasis, going through certain factors, than would ever be spent on time given to the teaching and reading and explanation of the Bible. And again, any thinking person has got to ask themself whether this is simply a matter of superficial conjecture or whether it is, in point of fact, something that is substantive.
I want to suggest to you this morning that it is absolutely foundational. I want to suggest to you as well that if I had a much longer time than I have, I can argue this and prove this to you categorically from the Bible. I believe that if you would like to engage yourself in a quest to discover the accuracy of such an assertion, then you can with fearlessness and with expectation open your Bible and search the Scriptures to see if these things are so. It is very, very important that we say this, because it is such a central element in our church’s life and practice. And recognizing that many come as visitors, who may well have different perspectives and backgrounds, it is a wonderful opportunity for us to affirm again something that is of primacy here at Parkside Church.
We recognize, of course, that in the minds of secular man, the idea of spending this amount of time on both reading and teaching and studying and understanding the Bible is really quite a strange notion. Because after all, the elevation of that which is tolerance beyond that which is truth has reached such an epidemic proportion that there is great skepticism about anybody who speaks concerning anything with a measure of forcefulness. And the television medium makes it such that anybody who appears on TV to be driven and convicted, or speaking with conviction about anything, looks, really, rather crazy. And people have become fearful of this, and in certain cases with justification.
In the British Isles, many years ago now, there was a man by the name of Stanley Baldwin, a politician. And he was living in an era of great orators and powerful leaders. Lord Birkenhead was one. Lloyd George was another. Winston Churchill was another. And Baldwin had a bit of a problem, because Baldwin really couldn’t speak, and yet Baldwin was going to go head to head with some of these men in seeking to secure votes from others. And so what he decided to do was to turn his weakness into a strength. And he began to suggest to people that he was just a plain, ordinary Englishman, that he wasn’t one of these great speakers like Lloyd George or Winston Churchill or Lord Birkenhead—none of that for him. No, no, he was a man of the people! And furthermore, he suggested, you ought to be very, very careful of anybody that speaks with such forcefulness; you should be very cautious of anyone who speaks with conviction or with emphasis. And he sold this to the people, to his own successful end. And it left a legacy in the country which spilled over into the church and, I think, which largely is existent, if we examine it, within the church today, even here in the United States.
It’s been brought on, in many cases not without justification, as a result of some of the most extreme and bizarre forms of proclamation, such as we’ve witnessed on television and been party to in listening to these things. But beyond that, I think it has to do with something far more significant, and that is that there is a sneaking suspicion that the Bible is not to be trusted in the way that people say it is—that there is a loss of conviction regarding the authority of this book. So that what people do when they come and encounter authoritative preaching is, given all this Baldwinism in the back of their mind and all these different things, they’re tempted to believe that anybody who is speaking with such conviction is presumably merely trying to manipulate people, and that since there is no real foundation and power in this book, they’ve already decided, then presumably the forcefulness is somehow to compensate for the absence of dynamism that is inherent in the book itself. And of course, there is a way of speaking which so attracts attention to the individual that at the end of it all, people are saying, “My, what an amazing speaker!” What we long for is that the people would walk out of a building saying, “My, what an amazing God, and what a wonderful book!”
Now, Spurgeon, when he was lecturing his students in an earlier generation, said to them concerning this,
Unless we are instructive preachers, and really feed the people, we may be great quoters of elegant poetry, and mighty retailers of second-hand windbags, but we shall be like Nero of old, fiddling while Rome was still burning, and sending vessels to Alexandria to fetch sand for the arena [when] the populace starved for want of corn.
And there is a kind of preaching that’s like that: it’s entertaining and it’s wonderful, but at the end of it all, the people feel as though the guy has been fiddling while their lives were burning down.
Now, the antidote to that is to do what we’re going to discover here in Nehemiah chapter 8: to refuse to respond to the spirit of entertainment which pervades our day, whereby people do not come expecting to hear from God, but they come expecting to hear from man about man. They do not gather, sit up attentively, listen with expectancy, but they sit back passively. They have just come off a week in which they’ve been traveling, and etched in their mind is the recurring phrase, “And now I want you to sit back and relax and enjoy the flight.” And somehow or another, that’s exactly the feeling they have, and so they came to sit back and relax and to enjoy the flight—a flight of fancy, often led by some character at the front, which you may like or you may dislike but probably will be ultimately irrelevant to the fact that you have a business to return to tomorrow, you have an elderly relative to visit this afternoon, you have a teenage son who’s wrestling with drugs, you have a marriage that’s on the rocks—a flight of fancy that really means very little at all.
You see, to preach is no special honor. But it is a great calling. Bruce Thielemann says it this way:
There is no special honor in being called to the preaching ministry. There is only special pain. The pulpit calls those anointed to it as the sea calls its sailors; and like the sea, it batters and bruises, and does not rest. … To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time and to know each time you do it that you[’re gonna have to] do it again.
Now, what we have in Nehemiah chapter 8, then, is a classic illustration of this kind of proclamation. And what I’d like you to notice this morning is simply four points. Let me give them to you so you know where we’re going. We’re watching the people here, and we’re going to discover, number one, that they gathered expectantly; number two, that they listened attentively; number three, that they responded properly; and number four, that they departed joyfully. Okay?
So first of all, we’re going to see in these opening verses the people gathering. And we’re told that they gathered; we’re told where they gathered. They gathered “in the square before the Water Gate.” We wouldn’t want to make more of this than is there, but it is interesting to note that they arrived in the place that was not cloistered away in the temple area, but rather that they gathered in one of the centers of city life—the kind of place where God’s wisdom pleads to be heard. They were in the mainstream of things; they were out where others could observe them—the aliens and the strangers—and they gathered there. They gathered, you will see, “as one man.”
Now, the reckoning from chapter 7 is that there must have been somewhere in the region of fifty thousand individuals who gathered on this particular occasion. That’s a large congregation. And yet we’re told that they gathered “as one man.” They gathered “as one man.” In other words, they came together in a spirit of unity. They came together with the same desires and the same devotion. This is the way God’s people must always come if there is to be unity amongst the people of God.
We’ve been learning this in 1 Corinthians 14, in the evening, I believe. Because we’ve been discovering there that the expression of giftedness within the framework of corporate worship has to do with building up the church, that the whole emphasis that Paul gives there to the church in 1 Corinthians 14 is not that if you take a thousand people and they gather in a room, they are there to have a thousand individual experiences, but rather that the thousand people have been brought together in the room in order that they may bring themselves—that they may bring their own spirit of devotion, their own spirit of expectation, their own contribution to the worship—so that their primary focus is not “What am I receiving from this event?” but it is rather “What am I contributing to my brothers and sisters who have gathered around me?”
Now, for a church ever to have a spirit of unity and commitment amongst itself, it demands this kind of unity in its gathering, with the same devotion and the same desires. No business organization can have any cohesion to it without this: it needs to be stated clearly why they’re there, it needs to be stated clearly as to what they’re doing, it needs to be made clearly plain to them why they’re going to sell or whatever it is they’re going to do. And so, when God’s people gather, the same is true.
“Now,” says somebody, “but surely we’re all very different.” Yes, of course, there’s tremendous diversity to us. It just struck me again yesterday in Washington, DC, the amazing thing about how many faces there are in the world. “Well,” you say, “that just struck you yesterday? You waited till you were forty-one to find that out?” No, it struck me many times; but it’s awesome when you’re in an airport like that, such an international airport, you realize the millions and millions and millions of people in the world, and you think, “All these people, there’s no two faces the same, except when God decided to make two the same.” The amazing diversity that is represented in a congregation like this. And may it increase more and more! May our congregation be marked by the diversities of race and nationhood. May it be so, for God’s glory, so that we can show that what we’re talking about—and not the superficial merging of our backgrounds, but rather a unity in devotion that is marked by 1 Corinthians 1:10. Well, if you turn to that, you’ll find out what it is. If you don’t, you’ll just have to listen to me tell you. First Corinthians 1:10: “I appeal to you, brothers,” says Paul, “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you [may] agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
Now, this doesn’t mean that we all agree about everything. Because some people like this, and some people like that, and some people like the next thing. But what it does mean is that at the very center of what it means to be the family of God, there has to be unanimity of perspective in relationship to the priority of prayer, to the authority of the Bible, to the centrality and preeminence of Jesus, to the absolute necessity of evangelism, to the central place of the worship of God’s people, and so on. And it is these shared convictions which allow God’s people to gather together as one man. And you cannot have a church family without that unanimity of perspective. And that is something, loved ones—church—for which we need to pray constantly: that God would allow us as we gather to gather expectantly and in unity.
Because after all, we, like them, are gathering also voluntarily. We’re not gathering here as a result of an act of Congress. There may come a day when an act of Congress says that we can’t gather here, and then we’ll have to gather against the situations, but for now we’re able to come voluntarily. We’re able to come with the spirit of the psalmist in our hearts: “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go [to] the house of the Lord.’” That’s the difference, incidentally, between a believer and an unbeliever—or at least between somebody who’s walking with Christ and somebody who isn’t. ’Cause you can’t be walking with Christ and not want to walk with the people who love Christ. And so, when church for you is merely the attendance upon an event which you have to endure, which may have facets of enjoyment in it, then presumably something in terms of your own relationship with God needs to be addressed.
You see, why don’t our children get up in the morning and go, “Hey! Sunday! Church! We’re going to church!” Oh, yours do? Well, I’m sorry; I got a different group. Why is that? Well, there’s a ton of reasons. But at the very heart of it all is simply this: “There[’s] none that seeketh after God. … No, not one.” It doesn’t matter where you rear them or what you do with them; they do not by nature ascribe to the things of Christ. They do not by nature love the law. They don’t by nature love the Word. They don’t like singing. Teenage kids, many of ’em, the last thing they want to do in the world is sing. And if they do sing, they ain’t gonna sing what you want them to sing, ’cause that’s like, “Whoa, I’m not gonna do that stuff!”
So what do we have to pray? Not that we can coerce them and convince them; ultimately, we need to pray that the Spirit of God would change their hearts. I don’t know what day it was in my teenage years when God worked something in my heart that made me go to church expectantly, but I know he did. When I got my driver’s license, the thing I was most excited about—and this may seem bizarre to you and casts me in a weird mold, and I can tell you I was as ordinary and bad a guy as you can ever imagine—but when I got my driver’s license, one of the most exciting things was to be able to drive thirty-five miles from Ilkley in Yorkshire to York, which is further north and in east, to go there to hear David Watson preach on Sunday nights. And the service, you had to get there forty-five minutes before it started. Now, I don’t know when that transaction took place in my life, but it took place somewhere. And I can only imagine that somehow or another, the way in which my parents framed the parameters for me paved the way for that transaction taking place, so that I didn’t make a decision in a vacuum.
The people all gathered, and you will notice there were boys and girls there as well as men and women. They gathered expectantly, and their expectation was directly related to what was about to happen, because they told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses which the Lord had commanded for Israel. “Bring out the Book!” they told him. “We want to hear what God has to say, what the Lord had commanded. We don’t want to hear too much from you, Ezra, but we want to hear a lot from God. We don’t want a lot of your opinions and your notions; just read the Book to us, explain the Book to us, apply the Book for us, and we’ll be very thankful for that.”
Do you know that every time that reformation and a revival has taken place in the history of Christendom, it has always been related to great preaching? Always! That’s why we would do well—and I say it to you often—to pray for God to raise up young men in whose hearts there is a conviction concerning the Scriptures. Because at every point in history when society has turned around as a result of the people of God being stirred, it has been directly related to preaching. Acts, on the day of Pentecost, what did they do? They preached: “‘Men and brethren, listen to this: this Jesus whom you crucified, God has made him both Lord and Christ.’ And when they heard this, the people were cut to the heart, and they said to one another, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do? There’s something we need to do here.’”
Let me quote to you from Martyn Lloyd-Jones:
What is it that always heralds the dawn of a Reformation or of a Revival? It is renewed preaching. Not only a new interest in preaching but a new kind of preaching. A revival of true preaching has always heralded these great movements in the history of the Church. And, of course, when the Reformation and … Revival come they have always led to great and notable periods of the greatest preaching that the Church has ever known. As that was true in the beginning as described in the book of Acts, it was also after the Protestant Reformation. Luther, Calvin, Knox, Latimer, Ridley—all these men were great preachers. In the seventeenth century you had exactly the same thing—the great Puritan preachers and others. And in the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield, the Wesleys, Rowlands and Harris were all great preachers. It was an era of great preaching. Whenever you get Reformation and Revival this is always and inevitably the result.
Now, whatever the late twentieth century in America is about, it sure isn’t about great preaching. It might be about great entertainment. It might be about great singing. It might be about great seminars. It might be about great families. It might be about many things, all of which in and of themselves are fine, but it is not about, I suggest to you, great preaching. Therefore, for those who go round, they always ask me, they say, “Do you think there’s a revival here?” I say, “No. No.” Because revival and preaching have always gone hand in hand. And preaching is in the shadows; neither the world nor the church believes in it. And that’s why, instead of congregations coming expectantly, the temptation is that they come passively.
So, notice then, first of all, all the people gathered expectantly. God gave Ezra the ability and the authority; the people gave him the opportunity and the invitation. And what did they do? Well, they listened attentively. Verse 2: “On the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly”—notice—“which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.”
Now, there is a principle here, loved ones. I’m not sure just how it all works out, but I know there is a principle here—namely, that the idea that the only way to effectively instruct a congregation is to divvy it up on the basis of age and special interest is not a biblical principle. It’s not necessarily a wrong principle, but it’s not a biblical principle. The way of instruction in the Old Testament was, first of all, parental instruction to the children, and then it was the instruction of the elders of the church to the families. And you didn’t break everybody up on the basis of pre-this, post-that, pre-this, pre-the-next-thing, and so on, so that you have the family totally disintegrated all of the time.
“Well,” you say, “you can’t possibly expect that little So-and-So, who is only five or six, could possibly sit and listen to this great rambling dissertation, do you?” Well, yes. Yes I do, actually. You say, “Well, you’re weird.” Well, yes, I accept that as well. But I still do. Does this mean, then, that there is no place for everything else that’s going on just now? No, it does not mean that for a moment. But I think we need to start where the Bible starts.
For example, last Sunday night, preaching in a church in Florida, I listened with great happiness as a group of young people sang in the evening service—blessed the people around, and it was a jolly nice song. And then they took off. They proceeded to walk right out the door and were history—before I preached! Which sent a nice message—a number of messages. I managed not to say anything, which was a miracle in itself of grace. And I never said anything Sunday, Monday, Tuesday; then Wednesday, I couldn’t help myself. I started to talk about it by Wednesday, and I still haven’t got it out of my system.
But here’s the deal: I know what it was about; I just think they were wrong. I know what they were saying. This is what they were saying: “Young people like that won’t come to a ‘evening service.’ Therefore, what we have to do with young people like that is take ’em out, give them basketballs and burgers and babes, and then we’ll get ’em all, and then, once they get the basketballs, the burgers, and the babes, then they’ll grow up, they’ll be strong and tough Christians, and then they’ll all start coming to the evening service.” Bunk! Bunk! Because many of their parents don’t come to the evening service, to start with; they’ve already capitulated to it.
If we think that we’re gonna instruct people the Sesame Street way, from preschool to postdoctoral thesis, then we will live with the implications of all these dumb puppets. Because the theory was that if you have the “Waka-dacka-dicka-doo, 1-2, A-B-C,” then the people will start to love education. And then, once they leave the puppets behind, then they’ll love it when they go postpuppet. But they don’t! They don’t go postpuppet! ’Cause the only way they know to get educated is entertainment education. So now we entertain them from the age of four to the age of seven. Now the teacher’s got a real problem, ’cause she ain’t got no puppets, so she better go get some puppets, ’cause she’ll never keep ’em in there. Now we’ve got the junior highers. Well, they can’t listen, so we get more puppets and bigger puppets. And then the senior… and so it goes on—till you get a congregation like this! A congregation that doesn’t know… I mean, I don’t mean this congregation, but… I don’t mean this congregation. Seriously. What I mean is, if you start with that group and you capitulate to that into adulthood, then you’ll have a congregation of adults that don’t have any notion in the world about thinking or reasoning or anything else. So the notion of them listening attentively is an interesting one. But that’s exactly what they did.
Now, the young and old were always involved like this in the reading of the Law. Deuteronomy 31. Let me read it for you. Deuteronomy 31: Moses wrote down the Law, and he commanded the elders of Israel at the end of every seven years to do this. Deuteronomy 31:11: “When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing.” “Now this is what you are to do,” he says. “Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns.” Why? “So they can listen and learn.” Learn what? “Learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”
The other evening, at a little hospitality time here in the fellowship hall on a Friday evening, a young girl asked my wife what she thought of the new approach to spelling. Caught her a little off guard; she said, “What is the new approach to spelling?” The girl said, “Well, the new approach to spelling is that you can spell any way you want any time you want, and that what you do is, the child just spells, and then the teacher looks at it and says, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice, honey? Is that how you think it’s spelled?’ And the child says, ‘Mm-hmm!’ And the teacher says, ‘Well, that’s nice. I’m glad you like to spell that way. And you just go ahead and spell that way for a little longer.’” So now they’re going on it this way, and they’re spelling things with ph’s and f’s and everything else—fish spelled p-h-i-s-h, and all sorts of things. And somehow or another, miraculously, around at the age of seven and eight, I’m told, this all kicks in, and it all starts to work for you, and you leave the phonetic and move to the pathetic—because it’s not gonna happen!
And there is a whole approach, you see, to education which is… If you suggest to people that the way you learn is you learn things off by heart—and oh, I know I’ll get letters from educators like crazy, but I’m into it now in any case—if you learn things off by heart, you’re not really learning them; if you experience them, you’re learning them. Okay, well, tell me how you experience history. How do you experience the Battle of Hastings in 1066? But that’s exactly the way it is. ’Cause my kids come home from school, they got a thing like, “How would you feel if you’d been at the Battle of Hastings in 1066?” The answer is, I haven’t the foggiest idea in my mind how I would feel. 1066 is a long time ago! Are you sure it was 1066? “Well, no, but it doesn’t really matter whether it was 1066; what matters is how you would feel about it.”
So you see, when you bring this mentality of education into a church context and somebody says, “This is what the Bible says, this is what the Bible means, and this is the implication,” the natural reaction is, “I don’t like that stuff! That’s not what I’m used to. I’m used to just assimilating things at my own level in my own way. If I want to spell, I spell. If I want to add, I add. If I want to do what I want to do, I do it.”
But there’s no suggestion of that in the reading of the law. “Read the law of God,” says Moses, “so that they may listen and they may learn to fear God.” Takes us into another whole department. And despite the length of time involved, back in Nehemiah 8, they did just that—from early in the morning until the middle of the day. Their attentive listening was an indication of what was going on.
Now, for a realistic experience of preaching to take place, loved ones—for it to be something more than just a knowledgeable fellow banging up against a box—two things are involved: the congregation has to come prayerfully expectant, and whoever has the privilege of teaching has also to come prayerfully expectant. Then when you have that meeting of expectations before God, then God will do what he has pledged to do through his Word. But if you have someone who speaks merely to hear their voice or to impress people, or if you have congregations that listen merely to be tickled and entertained, then there is no real proclamation, and there is no significant reaction.
The people listened attentively.
Thirdly, and second to the end, the people responded properly. The interesting thing is that they had a platform erected for this thing; they had a pulpit, large enough for Ezra and these thirteen men. I’ve tried to work out what’s going on here, and the best I can figure is this: that they built this big platform, they put Ezra and the other thirteen men up on top of it. Since they were reading from the break of dawn till the noontime hour, and they were reading from the Law of God, it seems more than likely that Ezra was not doing all of the reading, but rather that he was sharing it. And so that different ones stood up and they read a wee bit, and then someone else stood and read another portion, and that in between the readings of the Book of the Law there were pauses, and that’s where these characters in verse 7 come into play—the Levites. Because we’re told in verse 7 that they “instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there.”
Now, as best as I can put the picture together, it goes like this: Brother X gets up and reads a chapter and a half. Then there is a pause. And the people who are scattered throughout the group turn to the people around them and say, “Do you understand what he just read?” And if the people say, “No, I don’t,” or “I have a question about this,” then the individuals who are out amongst the group, they then read again from the Book of the Law; they make it clear, they make it understandable, so that the individuals can apply it to their lives. That makes a lot of sense, I think.
And certainly it establishes something of a principle. I don’t know whether it gives us the basis of small groups, whether it provides for us the notion of Sunday school—just exactly how we would frame it—but there is a principle here that needs to be adhered to, understood, and applied. It certainly speaks to the issue of eldership in a local church. Because no individual who has the privilege of proclaiming the Word of God—systematically, consecutively, week by week—can possibly answer all the questions that come concerning the Word of God, neither by ability, nor by personality, nor anything else. But if you have a plurality of elders in a church who are “apt to teach,” then the questions that are raised by the congregation may be answered by these men dispersed amongst the congregation so that they may turn to the people and say, “Do you understand what was just being taught?”
This is why, for example, in the book of Titus 1:9, it says that an elder must be one who “hold[s] firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught.” He’s got to be a guy of absolute biblical conviction; he’s got to believe it, understand it, apply it, live it. Why? “So that he can encourage others by sound doctrine,” or teaching, “and refute those who oppose it.” And that is exactly, in some measure, what was going on here as a result of the construction of this pulpit. The people gathered, and they listened attentively, and they responded properly.
Now, it is also of some interest to me—and I wouldn’t want to make too much of this, but I would like to make something of it—that at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, there was glory and beauty, there was drama, there was natural and supernatural dimensions to overwhelm the worshipers. But here the focus of the people—fifty thousand of them, when they gathered—was on a wooden platform and on a scroll—or more properly, was upon that which was written in the scroll. Okay? So the focus of the people was directed to a large wooden platform, and the significance about the large wooden platform was not the fourteen individuals who were on it but was the book from which they read.
Now, does this have implications? Well, I personally believe it does. I think it has implications for church architecture. You see, it’s when you give up the preaching of the Word and turn it into a liturgical thing that you no longer give preeminence to the Book, and you create liturgical stations all around your place, because the liturgy has preeminence over the proclamation. When you have a church where the proclamation is that which establishes all the form and function that flows from it, then you may have a church building just as plain as this. ’Cause people come and they say, “My, my, you know, I like the building, but it’s very plain. You don’t have anything hanging from anywhere, except those microphone things. It doesn’t seem like a church.” Now, what they mean by that, I understand: it doesn’t, in certain cases, have shrines and little statuettes, and it doesn’t have crosses, it doesn’t have things that hang. But it has a box, and it has a book. “For you have exalted above all things your name and your word.”
And if I’d designed this a little differently, I’d have this thing so it’d turn around Monday through Saturday and face the pews, with an open book on front of it—the Scriptures—and with a single spotlight on it, in the darkness of the night or in the sunshine of the day, so that every person that walked in this building and walked around the perimeter of it and looked through the windows would look at a box that contained a book that introduced to a Savior who could change their lives.
That’s the significance of it. So that the absence of other things are not to denigrate those other things; the absence of other things are to exalt the one thing. For it is only in the Scriptures that God has revealed himself savingly. He has not revealed himself savingly in any created thing, save his Son and his book. Therefore, anything which creates in the mind of a worshiper that there is significance there, as opposed to over there, is a deviation and fouls up the first two commandments, which we saw some time ago.
So they gathered, and they responded by lifting up their hands and saying, “Amen! Amen!” We haven’t been saying amen so much in the last wee while here at Parkside. Have you noticed that? It’s not cool to say amen out loud. Especially businessmen don’t like to say amen out loud. Businessmen don’t like to sing; that’s why many of you don’t sing. When the Spirit of God looses your tongue, you’ll sing. You’ll surprise your wife, your kids, and yourself. But until he does, you’ll be exactly the way you are. Until the Spirit of God loosens our tongues, we will either say amen because somebody said to say it, or we will say it because it comes from our hearts. “The people lifted their hands and [they said], ‘Amen! Amen!’” “Right on, Ezra! So be it!”
“Well, you can’t lift your hands here.” Why not? Whoever told you that? You say, “Well, it’s not one of those kind of churches.” One of what kind of churches? First Church of the Lifted Hands? What is this, First Community Church of Sit on Your Hands? Nobody ever told you that. You meet your wife after she’s been gone, how do you go for her? Like that! You say, “I love you, I want you.” Your children come and greet you when they’re tiny kids; they come at you: “I love you, I want you.” The posture of a congregation is significant. They “lifted their hands,” they said, “Amen! Amen!” and they fell down—“they bowed down and [they] worshiped … with their faces to the ground.”
See, that’s one of the great advantages in going into the African continent. ’Cause you go into the continent of Africa, and by and large, they don’t have any good church buildings like this. They got a bunch of rickety old chairs and a few things and corrugated tin and everything else, and we go, “My, my, can we really have church here?” And boy, do they have church! But if they read in the Bible, it says, “And they worshiped with their faces to the ground,” they got nothing in front of them, so they just get down and worship. They don’t have to rearrange everything and fiddle it all around. If we want to kneel down here in this church, we got a big problem. You can’t even kneel down. I mean, try and kneel down where you’re seated; it’s virtually impossible. You’ll knock your two front teeth out!
Now, why did we do that? Well, we’re not gonna redesign the church this morning—I mean, maybe tomorrow, but not today. The reason we did that is largely because we’ve got the notion that people who kneel down, they don’t really mean it. Isn’t that what we think? “Oh, those people who kneel down? They just kneel down ’cause they don’t know enough not to kneel down.” Maybe they know something we don’t know! Maybe they know that when a man kneels down, it does something to his head and to his heart. If I asked every man right now to move to the side of the aisle and kneel down on the floor, it’d be an awesome sight. Because our posture reveals our response.
They all gathered. They all listened. They all responded. They lifted their hands in worship, they bowed their faces in contrition, and they wept. They wept! Why did they weep? Because the Word of God struck them, hit them, hurt them. The Book of the Law hit them where they needed hit. See, not all guilt is wrong. When God moves in our hearts and says, “You know what, you haven’t been praying the way you oughta be praying,” that’s good guilt! Because it’s there not in order to make us feel bad; it’s there in order to remind us we better get back praying again. “You haven’t been witnessing to people the way you were witnessing to them. You’re not sharing your faith. You haven’t shared your faith in the last week, the last two weeks, the last month. Nobody around you has ever heard one thing about Jesus out of your lips,” says the Spirit of God to me. “Alistair Begg, you know that?” Well, that’s good guilt. See, we have this notion that all guilt is wrong, and all guilt is not wrong. Guilt which is there in order to show us our need of a Savior, need of repentance, need of faith is good guilt. And the people listened to this thing being read, and they wept.
It’s been very seldom in nineteen years when I have preached that people have wept. And that has to do with the Spirit of God. And it’s been very seldom in nineteen years that I have wept as others have preached. But that has mostly to do with the hardness of my heart. Who will weep for the powerless state of the church? Who will weep for our hard hearts when our friends and neighbors do not know Jesus? Who will weep at our lethargy in praise?
They gathered expectantly, they listened attentively, they responded properly, and they went home joyfully. Nehemiah comes to them and he says, “Okay, guys, that’s enough of the crying. Let’s go. We’re outta here. Go out, get something nice to eat, and if you’ve had something nice to eat, send some to your friends. This is a sacred day to the Lord. The joy of the Lord is your strength.” “Weeping comes in the evening, and joy comes in the morning.” Let’s go, and let’s go gladly. We came expectantly, we listened attentively, we responded properly, we’re leaving joyfully.”
That’s the way it ought to happen. That’s why, incidentally, Ron mentioned the idea of sitting quietly for a moment or two. Would to God that we were sitting quietly to wipe our tears and replace them with a smile, so when we walk out the door, we may leave as they left.
This is a simple lesson on the place of preaching and the way in which God’s people should attend upon worship. May God help us to learn from it.
Let us pray:
Our God and our Father, we thank you for this wonderful day. We thank you for your book, the Bible, that you’ve given to us in order that we might understand and live by it. We thank you for our church and for all the blessings you’ve poured upon us. We thank you for one another. We pray that you will help us, as day passes day, to remember these simple principles as we think about bringing our families and friends to worship.
Help us, Lord, to gather expectantly, to listen attentively, to respond properly, and in your goodness to leave joyfully, knowing that you, the Lord, bless us and keep us, that you make your face to shine upon us and be gracious unto us, that you lift up the light of your countenance upon us and you give us your peace, today and forevermore. Amen.
 D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 11–12.
 C. H. Spurgeon, “Sermons—Their Matter,” in Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 72.
 Bruce W. Thielemann, The Wittenburg Door 36 (April–May 1977).
 Psalm 122:1 (KJV).
 Romans 3:11–12 (KJV).
 Acts 2:36–37 (paraphrased).
 Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 24–25.
 W. E. Sangster, The Craft of Sermon Construction (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1951), 11.
 2 Timothy 2:24 (KJV).
 Psalm 138:2 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 30:5 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.