Pastoral Priorities — Part Two
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Pastoral Priorities — Part Two

Acts 6:1–7  (ID: 2876)

How should a pastor prioritize the many demands placed upon his time and energy? Alistair Begg emphasizes that this question must be answered not by looking to the expectations of the congregation but by examining what the Bible has to say. The pastor’s priority must be the faithful preaching of God’s Word, undergirded with prayer and with Jesus in view. Faithful ministry of this kind builds up the congregation and equips the people for acts of service.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 6

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23007

Basics 2012

“We will devote ...” Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23512

Sermon Transcript: Print

So, Acts 6:1:

“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and … the ministry of the word.’ And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

“And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”

Well, we’ll just pause for a moment and pray once again:

Gracious God, what we know not, teach us; what we have not, give us; what we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.

Eugene Peterson has observed as follows:

American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They[’re] not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. … Their names [still appear] on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, [they are abandoning] their calling.[1]

And to the extent that that is an accurate representation, at least in some measure, one of the major causes for clergy dropout, if we might put it that way, is the pressure that is felt by men in pastoral ministry, a pressure that is put upon them by the unrealistic expectations of their congregations—the expectations on the part of the congregation as to what is the nature of pastoral ministry and what it is that this man, these men, have been called to do. And if we had longer time and the opportunity for discussion, we could think out together and dialogue with one another about the kind of measures that might be put in place in the calling of pastors, in the instructing of the lay members of a congregation, and also of helping one another, in the prospect of being interviewed by many of these people, to make sure that we don’t misrepresent our own understanding of the Bible and of a calling to pastoral ministry.

And so, it is no surprise that the apostles, in the very infancy of the church, end up being distracted, or potentially so. And it is on account of that, as we saw on Monday, that they had to make a decision concerning what they were going to do. In the same way, it is all too easy for us to become distracted and, as a result, if we’re not careful, to end up neglecting—probably by default rather than by design—what God gives to us as the one thing—the one thing—that we have been set apart to do: namely, to feed the flock. Whatever else happens, we know that the reason that God has given us to the church is in order that we might fulfill this task. And Paul, you’ll remember, commends the Ephesian elders later on, reminding them of the vital nature of what it was they were going to do.[2]

Now, what we have here is the record, as Luke has given it to us and as we saw, of the growth that had taken place in the church, accompanied by the grumbling. The word in Greek, actually, is an onomatopoeic word, goggusmos. Goggusmos. It’s quite a good word, and if you say it, run it together, a lot of times—“ goggusmos, goggusmos, goggusmos”—it just sounds like [muttering]. And there’s nothing quite as soul destroying for the pastor, when he comes on the “goggusmosers.” And that’s what had happened here. There was a bunch of goggusmos that was going on. They had begun—in the ESV, there was “a complaint.” In the King James Version and in the NIV, they had begun to murmur. They were “murmuring.” The very sound of everything was that.

And so, the apostles responded to the murmuring by a declaration. We saw that: “It is not right,” verse 2, “for us to neglect this.” And then their declaration was followed by their delegation: “Pick out from among you,” verse 3, “seven men of good repute.” And the daily distribution was then going to go on unimpeded. The decision that the apostles had made, as we saw—and it’s important to underline—was not because they regarded this daily distribution as being unimportant but because they regarded the preaching and teaching of the Bible as being of supreme importance: “So, we’re not going to do this; we’re gonna let somebody else do this, in order that we can do what it is we have been called to do.”

If we’re not careful, we’ll end up neglecting what God gives to us as the one thing that we have been set apart to do—namely, to feed the flock.

Now, the word that is translated here, consistently throughout, is the word diakonia, for service. And I just want to point out to you that it is used variously. It is the word that is translated “distribution” at the end of verse 1: “in the daily distribution,” diakonia or diakonos. In verse 2, “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up the preaching of the word of God to’”—and here it comes again, diakonein—“‘to serve tables.’” But it is also the same word that is used in verse 4: “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the diakonia of the word.” So we need to understand that the ministry of the word—which we’re gonna make much of now in closing—the ministry of the word is vital, it is foundational, but it is not the only ministry. And the distinction that exists in the New Testament is a distinction of function and not a distinction of value.

And Stott is as good as anybody for me in helping to remind me that we need to recover the vision within our churches of a wide diversity of ministry which God entrusts to his people.[3] So that the ministry of the word—which is mentioned here and which is obviously the calling of the pastors-teachers in Ephesians chapter 4—the ministry of the word is then supposed to release ministries. Ministries. So that the edification of the people of God results in the diversification of the ministries in and amongst those people, whether that ministry is pastoral, whether it is social, whether it is political, or whether it is medical.

So that we help our people to understand that when we’re saying, “This is not a one-man ministry,” what we’re not saying there is, “We don’t want to do all the things that you want us to do. We just want to do one thing.” It may sound like that. And there may be a measure of self- preservation in it. But what we’re really saying is this: “I’m not the only person involved in full-time Christian ministry here. If you’re a Christian, you’re in full-time Christian ministry. Young mother? What a ministry! And what a full-time job. What a discipleship group you have been given in those children that you’re nurturing at your knee, that you’re guiding in the songs that you teach them, that you are training in the way of the Lord as you drive with them in your car.” And so the businessman goes out to work, the lawyer goes off to work, the artisan goes off to work, and he doesn’t say, “Well, I’ll go off to work now and do the things that put bread on the table, and then if I get a wee bit of spare time left over, I could do spiritual things or ministry things.” That dichotomy is not a New Testament picture.

And what I’m trying to make sure is that we guard ourselves against the potential of suggesting that “the ministry” has to do with a pulpit or becoming involved in overseas mission—so if anybody wants to get really serious about ministry, then they have to disengage themselves from every sensible part of life and get stuck somewhere like this, or go to some part of the world that is unpronounceable and nobody ever knows whether you’re doing anything or not. If we do that, then we reinforce models that are not New Testament models. No, we need to say to our people, “You’re involved in full-time Christian ministry—in the arts, in science, in the media, in government, in building a home.” And when a congregation doesn’t get that, when a congregation gets it upside down, it results inevitably in frustration and in stagnation. Frustration and stagnation. Because people then are looking always to somebody else to make sure everything is happening.

Now, these past two days have been tremendously helpful to me. I’m sure they have been to you. I’ve learned a lot, both from Mark and from Voddie. I think I can safely say that we would concur with the response of the people here to the initiative of the apostles, in respect to the fact that we feel the same way, where it says, “And this seemed quite wonderful to all of the people, and it made them very happy that they had come up with this plan of action.” And in the same way, we feel that what has been said to us, what has been set before us on the table, has also been a matter of great pleasure to us. I’ve been searching for the verse there. It’s in verse 5: “And what they said pleased the whole gathering.” That’s the phrase I’m looking for. And I want to suggest that what has been said to us by Mark and Voddie also has pleased us too. In fact, you could almost say, “We’ve had enough of this, and the sandwiches are waiting, and we might as well go.” And I, for one, would be very happy to advance it in that way, but probably somebody would say, “He’s just trying to sneak out of it as usual,” and so I stay to my task.

We are at verse 4, then, and it underlines the lessons we’ve been learning. It underlines the lessons that we’ve been learning. We’re dealing with couplets here, aren’t we? Growth and grumbling, declaration and delegation, and now prayer and preaching: “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

The Priority of Prayer

Prayer for these apostles was something that they knew by observation, first of all, insofar as it had been a priority for the Lord Jesus himself. It would have been impossible for these apostles to think in any other direction than this at all. You remember at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, how Peter is kinda ticked off by the fact that Jesus is not around when everything has been going so wonderfully well the previous evening. He thought that he would have been up early, ready to continue casting out a few demons and healing people, because the whole place was looking for him. And Mark records, “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.”[4] We’re so familiar with that verse that we might not even think about it. The incarnate Son of God, who lived in intimacy with the Father and the Spirit in eternity before his incarnation, decides that it is important for him—yea, that it is necessary for him—to get up in the morning and go away by himself in order that he might pray. And so they knew that he had constantly the Father on his lips.

I bet they said to one another, “There he goes again!” “Father,” they heard him saying— almost involuntarily, it would seem, from the way it’s recorded—“Father, I thank you that you have hidden these things from those who are wise and learned, and you’ve revealed them to little children.”[5]

“Jesus, could you teach us to pray?”

“Yeah. When you pray, say, ‘Father…’”[6]

“Where is he now?”

“Well, he’s in the corner of the garden, where he has enjoyed being.”

“What’s he doing?”

“Well, I think he’s praying.”

“Did you hear him say anything?”

“Yeah, I heard him saying, ‘Father…’”

“Well, that’s no surprise.”

“‘…if you’re willing, let this cup pass from me.’”[7]

And they stood at the cross, and he said, “Father, forgive them, ’cause they don’t know what they do.”[8] And he said, “Father, into [your] hands I commend my spirit.”[9]

You fast-forward to Romans 8, and what is true of us as children? We may speak to God as the Son spoke: “For you did not receive the Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”[10]

So when these fellows said, “We really can’t keep this going over here with all this administrative stuff,” the reason was in order that they might call upon the Father.

Let me say just three things about the prayer.

First of all, in terms of private prayer. Private prayer. Applying it to ourselves: we learned last night that it is okay for us to pray for ourselves, and we learned a measure of how to do that. We also recognize that it is important for us to pray by ourselves. We also recognize, I think, that we pray less than we should, and it’s easier to talk about it than to actually do it. So let’s be honest and say that we’re not always in the act of prayer, but we may actually live in the spirit of prayer.

Last evening, somebody was texting me all the time. I was happy about it. It was actually the Michael Jr. Incidentally, I mean, Matthew said that we have your addresses in relationship to all that money that you gave that guy. But more importantly, we all have his address. And we can track him down if you don’t get your CDs, you know? So you can relax about that. But it struck me that I had this immediate dialogue going on—and you know that, you’re keeping in touch with people by this strange mechanism. But actually, that’s true in relationship to our personal relationship with God, isn’t it? We talk to him in the car. We talk to him when we wake up. We talk to him when we’re brushing our teeth. We talk to him all the time.

If you’re a Christian, you’re in full-time Christian ministry.

Now, I have got friends who think that when I say stuff like that, it’s just a load of pious nonsense—you know, that “Begg’s a sentimentalist, and he’s got these kind of things.” And I can tell you who says it to me. He hasn’t said it to me in a while, but I remember him taking me aside when I told him that I didn’t mind the song which begins, “I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses.” “Oh,” said Michael, “please don’t be giving me that kind of twaddle. That is terrible stuff.” And I said, “No it isn’t.” I said, “I like the refrain”—“And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me [that] I am his own.”[11] That might sound sentimental, but it is actually theological. Because in the Upper Room Discourse, you remember, Jesus tells his disciples that “if a man loves me, he will keep my commandments, and he who loves me will be loved by my Father,” John 14:21, “and I will love him”—and here we go—“and manifest myself to him. I will show myself to him.”[12] He comes back two verses later, and he reinforces it: “We,” he says of the Father and of the Son—of course, by the Holy Spirit—“we will come to him and make our home with him.”[13] It’s a picture of immense intimacy in prayer.

And I want to say this to you, fellas: there’s no question that 90 percent of the books that we read on prayer—at least that I read on prayer—leave me thoroughly discouraged. I mean, horribly discouraged. Because, you know, if I wake up at three o’clock in the morning, it’s not to pray; it’s to go try and find an Ambien so that I can go back to sleep again. And then I read about these people, how holy they were, and devout—and sure, it’s an example and an encouragement in some measure. But if you think of father-son relationship, it’s helpful. The intimacy of silence in one another’s company. The not making of special appointed times to be together. My son doesn’t phone up and ask if he can have an appointment with me for a couple of hours, nor does he watch the clock while he’s with me, nor do I watch the clock when I am with him, eking out the opportunity, enduring it to the end. No, those books are helpful; they’re challenging. There’s not the whole story. I wish some of those dead boys were alive so we could ask them, “Hey, wait a minute…” You know?

Privately. Secondly, corporately. We will give ourselves to prayer privately. We will give ourselves to prayer corporately. I mean this, now, in terms of the gathering of groups of God’s people to pray. And I’ll just say a couple of things concerning this.

In the book Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, Miller distinguishes between what he refers to as “maintenance” prayer and “frontline” prayer.[14] Don’t know if you’ve read this. But he says that maintenance prayer is largely what happens in our churches. It’s about simply maintaining the status quo: people come together, and they pray essentially about the same stuff all the time. The prayer list changes, depending on who’s sick or who was released from the hospital or wherever it might be, but if you’re dead honest, there’s very little excitement in the thing, and there’s very little expectancy in the thing. And people will then say to themselves, “Oh, I should feel much better about this than I do.” No, I’m not so sure you should. It is actually okay, but it’s not great. No, he says, what we need to be engaged in is frontline prayer. And that is the prayer that prays, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”[15] That is the prayer that prays for people to be transformed.

And he says the elements in it are these: One, that we come together with a request for grace, first to confess our sins and to humble ourselves. To confess our sins and to humble ourselves. In most of our free churches, there is very little time given to confession of sin and to the humbling of ourselves. It’s a kind of 1 John 1:8–9 thing: you know, “We know we’re pretty bad, but if we, then you, and so… And let’s get on, now, and to Mrs. Jenkins, who’s had her third hip replacement, and get back down to the business of everything.” No. A request for grace, to confess my sin, to humble myself. Secondly, a compassion and zeal for the flourishing of the church in the world. A compassion and zeal for the flourishing of the church in the world. And thirdly, a yearning to know God, to see his face, to glimpse his glory. I think he has something there, and those of us who have to lead those times of prayer may take a leaf from his observations.

We will give ourselves to prayer privately, in our intimacy with God; corporately, in seeking to get beyond simply maintaining the status quo; and then publicly. Publicly. I think we’ve had just about enough from the public necessity of prayer and its importance and so on. Certainly, Voddie first, and then Mark has followed up on that. It’s come up again in our Q and A time just now. And so, why don’t we allow Spurgeon—since, apparently, he was the hero of two out of three—let’s allow Spurgeon just to say a word or two, and we’ll move on to preaching. He has a couple of chapters in his [Lectures to My Students], as you know, on prayer—one on the private prayer, and then on the public prayer. And this is what he says: He says,

As a rule, if called upon to preach, conduct the prayer yourself; and if you should be highly esteemed in the ministry, as I trust you may be, make a point, with great courtesy, but equal firmness, to resist the practice of choosing men to pray with the idea of honouring them by giving them something to do. Our public devotions ought never to be degraded into opportunities for compliment. I have heard prayer and singing now and then called “the preliminary services,” as if they were but a preface to the sermon; this is rare I hope among us—if it were common it would be to our deep disgrace. I endeavour invariably to take all the service myself for my own sake, and I think also for the people’s. I do not believe that “anybody will do for the praying.” No, sirs, it is my solemn conviction that the prayer is one of the most weighty, useful, and honourable parts of the service, and that it ought to be even more considered than the sermon.[16]

“More considered than the sermon.” And then I’ll leave you to read the rest on your own. But he actually says, if you have to give up something because you’re infirm or because your voice is giving out, then have someone else preach but do the pastoral prayer yourself. Let somebody else do the preaching. They can do that. But as the shepherd of the people of God, you lead them in that public prayer. It’s very interesting! And to the extent that there were public prayers in the gathering of God’s people, I can only assume that the apostles would have taken a lead.

“We will give ourselves to prayer.”

The Priority of Preaching

And then I’ve put… It’s a p there. I know it says “ministry of the word.” I’ve pointed that out to you. But I want to think particularly about preaching now, in terms of being servants of the Word. Because that’s what they’re saying, they are: “We are the ones who are in the ministry of the Word, the diakonia of the Word. We don’t make the Word serve us; we serve the Word.”

Now, before anybody gets upset, I recognize that this involves more than exposition from the pulpit, but it doesn’t mean less than exposition from the pulpit. We recognize that when he says, “We will give ourselves to the ministry of the word,” it is not simply the monologue ministry that happens from our pulpits, but in our counseling, in our training of people, in our developing of every area of ministry, it has to all be grounded in and it all has to flow from the ministry of the Word. And surely, if the apostles were in danger of being distracted, then as pastors, we have to constantly be on our guard unless we find ourselves overwhelmed by these administrative things and end up holding lightly to what is our priority.

Because the fact is that you need time and space to do the hard work of preparation. You need time and space to prepare. If you can’t prepare, you can’t preach. Lloyd-Jones said preparation is power. When the people asked John MacArthur, “What’s the key to your preaching ministry?” one of his most familiar answers is “The key to it is keeping your rear end in the seat.” “Keeping your rear end in the seat.” Doesn’t sound very spiritual, does it? But to keep your bottom in the seat, you’re gonna have to make sure that the people in the congregation know that the reason that your posterior is placed in the isolation of your study is not because you’re interested in becoming a theological egghead, but it is because you care so much about the people that you’re not gonna do them the disservice of running around like a chicken with your head cut off, accomplishing virtually nothing, at their behest, and then failing them when they come seeking for the food that would sustain them.

In many ways—without being unkind to our people—they are their own worst enemies. Because they want it both ways. They want you to come and feed them in the pulpit, but they want you to do absolutely everything else. And somebody, somehow, somewhere is gonna have to make a decision about what’s going to happen. And these apostles said, “This is important. We started it. Others will continue it, because we are going to give ourselves to teaching the Bible.” Teaching the Bible. And we’ve said at this conference from the very beginning—taking a leaf from Dick Lucas, I think, at the very outset—“How novel is this, that we’re going to try and teach the Bible by teaching the Bible?” You can’t get anything more basic than that: teaching the Bible by teaching the Bible.

What does that mean? It means a number of things.

One, that the source of the message—the source of the message—is Scripture and Scripture alone. That’s where it comes from—that the message is extracted from the text by our exegesis. It is not inserted into the text by our imagination. We open our Bibles. We have the Word that is being delivered. We have it as our source, whatever the verses are for the week. Now we must do the hard work of trying to come to an understanding of what is being said there. That then means that we’re gonna have to come to terms with the message as it is in the Scriptures so that we can explain the original setting and the reason for it being placed there.

In other words, until we understand the there and then of the text, we daren’t start on the here and now that our people are almost entirely preoccupied with—the idea of immediacy, the idea of relevancy, the idea of “Where am I in this passage? Why don’t you tell me about me, Pastor, and my stuff?” It’s a tremendous temptation, so that then everything becomes consumer oriented. You cannot have a pew-led ministry if you’re gonna start in this way. You cannot exercise ministry simply taking the questions that are uppermost in the minds of the people and seeking to answer them again and again. Those are not irrelevant questions. But far more important than the question that we are asking of God are the very questions that God is asking of us. And the only way that we will ever be confronted by those questions is when those who teach us the Bible begin with the Bible—and in seeking to unfold the text, keeping our eyes on the Lord Jesus, keeping our eyes on the gospel. Otherwise, we lose our way around the Bible.

I catch myself on this all the time, and I hate to think of many of the sermons that I’ve preached in my earlier years—frankly, I hate to think of last Sunday’s sermon—but I hate to think of them in the earlier years, especially preaching from Old Testament passages. I remember being ticked off when I did two addresses at Westminster Seminary, and it went over like a lead balloon. And when I was in having lunch afterwards, there was very little by way of encouragement that came out of it. And eventually, one of my friends, who was on the faculty, said to me, he said, “Well, you completely blew it.” I said, “Well, I thought it was pretty good. I told them about…” I can’t remember what it was. It was, like, Nehemiah, or somewhere in the Old Testament. And he said, “Yeah, but you never told them about Jesus. You never told them about the gospel. You never showed how what was happening there fits into the thing.”

It’s like people doing the story of David and Goliath. You know? “Oh, you’re a wee guy, and so was he. But don’t worry; we’ve got a big God. Let’s just pray, and we’ll get off for lunch now.” And the people are going, “What was that sermon?”—and many of them going, “Now, I loved that stuff. It’s about the little guy. That’s the story of America—the little guy, you know? We are the little guy, you know.” You know, “Defeating the giants in your life. Come back this evening, and we’ll cut another few heads off,” and so on. It’s very appealing, but if we don’t realize the typology that is represented there in the big picture—that David stands forward as the champion of his people; that he goes to war, in the way that Jesus Christ stands forward as the champion of his people, and so on. So if we lose Jesus in the plotline, then we’re really in difficulty.

Let me quote you from one of the books I recommended, just to prove that I can quote, and also that I read it. But this is in the Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles, from Goldsworthy, and page 44. Where was I going to start? Oh, yes. He says,

It stands to reason that if the Bible is the word of God, a number of things follow. In the Old Testament we find numerous cases where a prophet introduces his words with “Thus says Yahweh” or “An oracle of Yahweh.” The implication is that what the prophet says is what God says. It follows that an inspired human mediator does not compromise the divine word simply by being human. Nor does human language fail to communicate what God wants to communicate, since it reflects God’s speech. It further follows that God does not contradict himself, and thus we accept the Bible as the one word of God about the one way of salvation through the one mediator, Jesus Christ.[17]

“The one word of God about the one way of salvation through the one mediator, [the Lord] Jesus Christ.” So when we are doing the work of the ministry of the Word and seeking to teach our people, it is not enough for them just to get blessed by whatever particular passage we manage to deal with, but we must constantly be doing the hard work of helping them to understand where this fits in the entire economy of things, in the unfolding drama of God’s purposes.

Charles Simeon says we realize the sober responsibility that is ours in this, because as pastors, we “are responsible to expound the message” that has been “bequeathed to us” by the apostles “in the New Testament,”[18] and “God himself speaks to us by the preacher.”[19] “God himself speaks to us by the preacher.” Calvin somewhere else says, “Is this not the great mystery, that God deigns to consecrate the lips of men, so that the salvation of a man depends upon the lips of another man?”[20] That was Calvin said that. That wasn’t Finney—just in case some of you were about to reach for your pen. He knew what he was talking about, right? He was making the point.

Practical Reminders for Preaching

Now, let me just say a number of things by way of reminder. And we’ll bring this to a close. A number of things by way of reminder. As we preach, we need to keep certain things in mind. We have to remind ourselves that we’re preaching, most of us, to believers and to unbelievers at the same time. To believers and unbelievers at the same time. Therefore, I want you to guard against the kind of language from your pulpit that just assumes that there are no unbelievers there, so if somebody does happen to bring one of their friends from the gym, they just feel horribly uncomfortable because of the way the thing is so inclusive in its orientation. It’s not our job to make those who’ve come to church as our guests feel horribly isolated. The work of the Spirit of God to convict of sin is not the same as our ability to make them feel as if they’ve stumbled on a really bad opportunity. And the same is true, that we have to remember that we’re seeking to edify those who believe at the same time as we’re seeking to evangelize those who don’t believe. It’s no easy thing, but the Word of God does its work. That’s the first thing: to remind ourselves we’re preaching to believers and unbelievers at same time.

Secondly, we need to in our preaching make sure that we distinguish clearly between religion and the gospel. Between religion and the gospel. And I’m not just talking about saying, “Religion is this, and Jesus is relationship,” you know. That’s not what we’re talking about. Your friend’s going to say, “Yeah, I’m in a relationship with Buddha.” Say, “Oh, yeah, that’s true. I didn’t think about that. Yeah.” No, when we say we’re distinguishing between religion and the gospel, we’re distinguishing between, if you like, the spiritual transformation that is brought about as a result of a work of grace and the behavioral modification which can be brought about without any work of grace. That is religion. And not just the religion of the irreligious but the religion of the religionist—the people who are listening to us preach and who hear everything in moralistic terms, unless we’re distinguishing all the time between obeying God as a means of self-salvation and obeying God as a result or out of gratitude for an accomplished salvation. There’s all the difference in the world! And it’s the difference between religion and the gospel.

Thirdly, our preaching needs also to declare simultaneously the justice of God and the love of God. Because it is only when we declare God’s justice and his love and how it is resolved in the cross that the notion of substitution, of another dying in our place, makes any sense at all. If we fail to magnify both elements in that, people will be able to dismiss this notion of Jesus with relative ease.

Also, when we preach, we need to keep in mind that many of our listeners are not asking, “Is this true?” but they’re asking, “Is it relevant?” They didn’t come to ask questions about epistemology. The whole ethos of our world is largely “Meaning is whatever you want to place into it, you know. So, don’t tell me about the truthfulness of it.” Now, that’s not to step back from what we said earlier. But what it means is that we’ve got to do the hard work of not only explaining what something means but also telling our listeners why it matters: “This is what it means, and this is why it matters.”

A Warning and an Encouragement

I’m just gonna come to the last point in a moment, but before I do, let me issue to you a warning that may strike some of you as strange and an encouragement which won’t strike anybody as strange.

Here’s the warning. It is a warning about overestimating the importance of small group interactive Bible study. It is a warning about overestimating the importance of being together in little groups where we all sit around and pool our ignorance. It confronts this question: Is preaching just one of the ways in which the people of God are to hear the Word of God—in other words, it fights for its place in relationship to all other opportunities—is that all that the preaching and ministry of the Word is? Or is it, in the economy and purpose of God, the supreme way, the primary way, the first and foremost way that God has established for people to be brought under the sound of the gospel and edified in the truth? That’s the question.

Our preaching needs to declare simultaneously the justice of God and the love of God.

And I want to suggest to you that in the course of life, if we’ve lived any length of time at all, the pendulum will swing one way: “We don’t want to be sitting out there listening to old Joe. He goes on forever, and we can’t understand him. So let’s go over here. We’ll just go in a room, and we’ll figure it all out for ourselves.” They go and try and figure it out for themselves, and they’re figuring nothing out at the end of the day. Somebody emerges as the new teacher. Who knows how well he’s doing? Eventually, somebody says, “You know what? Old Joe wasn’t that bad.” So back we go to old Joe. Joe’s just as bad, maybe a little worse than he was, so back we come over here. I’m not suggesting for a moment that one is in isolation from the other. I’m talking about priority here. I’m talking about the nature of it.

And I’m not alone in this. We gave you the book last time by Christopher Ash. And if any of you read it, then you know that he addresses this. And in a way that is quite revolutionary, I think, he points out the fact that the proclamation of the gospel from the pulpit is actually “culturally-neutral.” He says that “preaching is culturally-neutral.”[21] Now, if you think about that for a moment, when you first read that sentence, you say, “Now, wait a minute. Preaching couldn’t be culturally neutral. Surely, of all things, it’s not neutral.” And then he goes on to make the point that throughout history—throughout the history of humanity—God governs his people by those who preached the written Word of God, not just by the written testimony given to people on scrolls to sit around and discuss with one another.[22] It was written down, but it was conveyed by words, by the prophets. They spoke the very word of God. Why? Because God is a speaking God. He spoke creation into being. And this verbal, plenary statement is directly related to the task to which these apostles are giving themselves. “God exercised his authority in Israel,” says Ash, “not by the written word, but by the written word preached.”[23]

And throughout the world today, whether it’s Merkel in Germany or whether it is leadership in Afghanistan, you can go to any place in the world today, and everyone in the world understands what it is to either sit or stand and listen to an authoritative voice saying something. They may reject it, they may not like it, but they understand. And the point Ash makes is, “And in that sense, preaching is culturally neutral.” People are able to do that. They may be bright, they may be dumb, but they all hear the same thing from the same voice—unlike when you put them in a room with one another.

Let me quote Ash for you. Better let him speak for himself, and then you can get annoyed at him instead of me:

In some churches we[’ve] slipped into assuming that personal Bible reading and one-to-one Bible studies and Bible study groups are the normative way for Christian people to hear the word of God. This, we say, is what a healthy Christian … looks like. But in defining the Christian life like this we may unwittingly have alienated the illiterate, the functionally illiterate, the less-educated, [and] those less confident in studying a text.[24]

And he says not everybody in the world wants to sit in a room and feel the horrible pressure of somebody saying, “I was wondering about the significance of the word ‘however’ in the second half of verse 3 in chapter 2.”[25] And the person is losing their insides, thinking, “I hope nobody asks me about verse 3b, or 2b, or whatever else it is. I hate it in here.”

He describes Cambridge, and university students from two universities getting together for the same Bible study. And he says, “What was interesting: one group spoke all the time, and the other group never spoke at all.” Because the group that never spoke at all were in the “dumb university.” The group that spoke all the time were in the “clever university.” And the people in the “dumb university” were inhibited by the quality of what the people had to say.[26]

Now, Ash then goes on to make the point: “I suggest [to you],” he says, “that we ought to rethink the place and [the] purpose of Bible study groups, for two reasons. The first is that, all too often, a Bible study group is a place where discussion substitutes for submission.”[27] So, we don’t want to submit to the Bible. “I don’t want somebody up there telling me the Bible. I’d rather sit here with a coffee and figure it out for myself. Actually, you know, I appreciate your view and your view and everybody else’s view, but I just don’t want somebody suggesting that this is what the Bible says.” He says, “The home group is the classic arena in which God’s people in fact sit above the Word of God.”[28] They don’t want to come and sit under the Word of God, so they get into their little groups and sit above it.

And then he says, “If you want a suggestion”—which maybe you don’t—he says, “my suggestion would be that if you’re going to establish groups like that, that you don’t use them for interpretation; you use them for application.”[29] So that you make sure… Let’s say you’ve got a congregation of 150 people, and you’re thinking about developing small group ministry—which we must have, because we know that we need to gather in the large group for encouragement, for edification; we need to meet together in smaller groups in order that we might exhort and encourage one another and tease out the things. He says, “If you end up, let’s say, with four groups of twenty, my suggestion” he says, “is that you build your Bible studies in those small groups from the pulpit ministry of the Word of God. That way, all of the eighty people that are attending have been under the same instruction.”

And the skill of the leaders—and he doesn’t say this; I’m just adding this—but the skill of the leaders is the skill that you find represented in the book of Nehemiah, when after Ezra has been told to bring out the Book, and he lays it on them from the high pulpit, that the other guys are out in the context saying, “This is what he said, this is what that meant, and this is how it applies.”[30] So that the cohesive impact of the scattered congregation is directly driven by the shared experience of sitting under the instruction of the Word. And the motivation in that is simply that God’s people might be on the same page, that they might be working from the same basis, and that they might be able to give encouragement to one another on the strength of that.

That’s the warning. And my encouragement to you is this: if you haven’t already begun so, that you begin to teach through the Bible by teaching through books of the Bible—that you give yourself to the systematic and consecutive exposition of the Scriptures. And I’ll tell you why. One, because it gives glory to God. It starts with God and his glory and not man in his need. Two, it demands that we as the teachers need to become students of the Word. Three, it enables the congregation to learn the Bible in the most obvious and normal fashion. Four, it prevents us from dwelling on our favorite texts and hiding from the hard parts. Fifth, it ensures a balanced diet of God’s Word. And six, it liberates us from the Saturday night panic stations that attach to “What the world am I gonna do tomorrow morning?” and shouting to your wife, “Where is the Time magazine? I haven’t seen it this week.”

You say, “Well, what about old Spurgie?” Because, you know, in his lectures he says, “You know, I sit around on a Saturday night, and I throw away all these sermon outlines.”[31] So you think that’s a good plan, do you? What about old Spurgie? I’ll tell you about Spurgie. You are not Spurgie! You might be able to grow a beard like him, but you ain’t got a brain like him. So you gotta learn who to follow. I couldn’t even grow his beard, so I’m out on two counts. Some of you can at least get the beard and look like him, but none of us have got the brain to deal with it.

Multiplication and Transformation

Growth, grumbling. Declaration, delegation. Prayer, preaching. Finally: multiplication, transformation. That’s what he says, verse 7: “And the word of God continued to increase.” It’s in the imperfect. You’ve got the increasing word of God, “and the number of the disciples multiplied.” It’s also in the imperfect. So you’ve got an increasing word, you’ve got a multiplying group of disciples, and you have got this amazing transformation represented in “a great many of the priests” becoming “obedient to the faith.”

It’s a wonderful place to finish, because we’re already going back. Our heads are already gone for Sunday. It’s Sunday comes around—I don’t think there’s a week in between Sundays; it just goes, like, “Sunday, Sunday.” And it’s like, “Is it Sunday again? How could it be Sunday now? I only had Sunday. That was yesterday.” “No, it wasn’t.” “Oh no!” Okay, so I understand that. I’m with you on that. I have Sundays too, you know. I’m in the same boat. So, it’s a tremendous encouragement. Because what you see here is that when the guys said, “This is my priority; I am going to preach this Word of God,” and it’s no surprise that as the Word of God was preached, the Word did its work. And as a result of that, the people were edified, the gospel was multiplied, and lives were transformed by it.

The Word of God was opposed. It seemed in many ways impossible. But actually, this is the first of these little summary statements here in Acts. So, you’ve got a little problem—here it’s the problem of distraction—and Luke says, “This is how they dealt with it, and the word of God continued to increase and the number of the disciples multiplied.”

This might be a sermon for you on Sunday, if you’re planning on doing a Spurgeon. Here you go: I’ll give you these three summaries. You can use it; it won’t be a bad sermon. I might use it myself, as it turns out. But anyway… Go to Acts chapter 12. Go to Acts 12. So, Acts 6, we’ve got a problem—distraction, everything else. But the word of God increased, the disciples multiplied, people became obedient to the faith. You go to chapter 12. It starts out with, “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword.” So, things are not good here. We’ve got persecution. We’ve got imprisonment. We’ve got everything else. Verse 20: “Herod was angry … they came to him …. [He] put on his royal robes,” verse 21, he “took his seat upon the throne, [he] delivered an oration …. And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’”

It seems as if the political structures of the day are triumphing and this “preaching of the Word” stuff isn’t working. Maybe we oughta take on the political structures and see if we can fix it! And “immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did[n’t] give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” It’s interesting the order of that, isn’t it? It doesn’t say, “He breathed his last and was eaten by worms.” So he got eaten by worms before he breathed his last. That is disgusting! But here’s the point, verse 24: “But the word of God increased and multiplied.” Everybody be preoccupied: “Herod’s doing this. Herod’s doing that. Peter’s in the jail again. The whole thing’s going to pot.” No it’s not! No it’s not!

Last one. This is the third point in your outline: Acts chapter 19. What have we got there? We’ve got the seven sons of Sceva. Sounds like another rock band, doesn’t it? “God was doing extraordinary miracles,”[32] and now we’ve got “the itinerant Jewish exorcists.”[33] They’ve got a thing going like crazy. Okay? And we’ve got a guy jumping around with an evil spirit, and it’s… You know, you think you’ve had a bad Sunday; you got nothing compared to this, I wouldn’t think: “The man in whom … the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered [them all] … overpowered them, so … they fled out of [the] house naked and wounded. And this became known to … the residents of Ephesus,” the Jews, the Greeks. “And fear fell [on] them …, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. And many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who … practiced magic [art] brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all.” They “counted the value … came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.” Here we go: “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”[34]

“I’ll just distract them, and they’ll stop.”

“We ain’t stoppin’!”

“Well, I will just… I’ll pound them into the ground!”

“Your main man is being eaten by worms right now.”

“Well, the demonic activity that fills their high streets will overwhelm them.”

“No, it won’t.”

“And were this world with devils filled, who threatened to undo us…”[35] The message, the apostolic pattern, and the apostolic preaching—to give themselves unstintingly to prayer and to the ministry of the Word of God—is there both to hearten and to encourage and to direct us.

If you feel that you may be getting swamped in ministry, I’m gonna encourage you to go home and speak to some of your people. Speak straightforwardly to them. The worst thing they could do is get rid of you—but you’re kinda fed up with it in any case, so it wouldn’t be that bad. And, you know, what’s the big risk? I mean, what, really, is the big risk? You can’t go on the way you’re going. You’ll kill yourself. You’re gonna have to determine biblical priorities, and you’re gonna have to ask for help for people to put them together.

And if you feel yourself swamped, then make sure that you put out the stabilizers. Those of you who have sailed: 1975, my wife and I sailed on a ship called the Mikhail Lermontov from New York to London. We were traveling fourth class, because there wasn’t a fifth class. And it was a bad-looking piece of merchandise. It was the finest ship in the Russian fleet, commercial fleet, at that time. All the plumbing was hanging out. It was a wonderful, you know, kind of second honeymoon for us. We were in bunk beds; I think I was on the bottom bed, and she was on the top. We hardly saw each other, ’cause we were so full of Dramamine.

And halfway through the Atlantic crossing, it got phenomenally rough. And then there was a sort of sound from… ’Cause, you know, we were close to the ocean bed where we were sleeping. And I said to my wife, I said to Sue, I said, “I don’t know what the world is going on, but can you hear that?” It’s like whirrrrr, but much louder than that. And so I said, “I gotta go find out what’s happening,” ’cause it was going like this as well. So I went upstairs, and I said to somebody, in Russian—no—I said to someone, I said, “What’s that noise?” They said, “It’s the captain is putting out the stabilizers. He’s putting out the stabilizers.” And apparently, in some of those ships, they have these things that come out from the hull, so broadening the base, thereby making them apparently more stable in the water—at least in terms of port and starboard movement. So I was very reassured by that, you know.

In 1986, Phil Hall, one of our elders here, and myself, we were in Africa. We were in Zurich, flying to Nigeria. We’re sitting on the plane, and we got the Herald-Tribune, and I saw something out the corner of my eye about a ship sinking. It just said, “Vessel Sinks.” So I said to Phil, just as a joke, I said, “Put your hand over the paper a moment.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Just put your hand over the paper. Just cover the paper.” So he did. I said, “You’re going to read a story there about a ship that sank.” I said, “I’m gonna tell you what the name of that ship is.” He goes, “How would you know what the name of the ship is?” I said, “It’s called the Mikhail Lermontov.” He looks it up, he goes, “Two days ago, off the coast of New Zealand, the finest Russian liner in the fleet sank off the coast of New Zealand.” I said, “There you go. It’s beautiful.” The stabilizers were useless. Absolutely hopeless. The thing was a crock.”

Prayer, the ministry of the Word—these stabilizers work. These are the stabilizers.

And since I’m in such a wonderfully nautical moment as I close, I brought you one of my boats from my collection upstairs. This is from the British Virgin Islands, 2006. I’m sure you’re impressed. There are a number of things about this boat. There’s only one thing I want you to notice, and that is that it doesn’t have a tiller. It doesn’t have a tiller. There would be no need for a helmsman unless you had a tiller. Because it would take a tiller to direct the movement of the boat in the water once there’s any kind of momentum either forward or backwards, and the tiller would need to be handled by somebody who was at the helm, and the movement that they made with the tiller would determine the direction and the movement and the shift of the boat.

Some of our ministries are like this boat. We’re just adrift, man. We’re bouncing back, forth, moved by this wind, that wind, this expectation, that aggravation, and everything else. Listen: God has given us the tiller. This is the tiller. This is the tiller. This is what guides the direction of our ship. You are the helmsman. Your significance is directly related to your hand on the tiller.

Fellows, let’s get our hands on the tiller. Let’s ask God the Holy Spirit to give us the courage, the conviction, to do the things we’ve spent two and a half days talking about, so that then, with Christ as the captain of our salvation,[36] and us as the helmsmen underneath his jurisdiction, and with the Scriptures moving our craft through the water, we may, by God’s grace, in safety reach the heavenly harbor.

Let’s pray together:

Father, we understand why it is that Paul had so many occasions to say to his young men, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of the Scriptures, to prayer, and to teaching.”[37] We wouldn’t be here, Lord, if we didn’t believe these things. We want to understand them. We want to ask for your help in working them into our lives.

Many of our circumstances are daunting. Some of us, without a word of exaggeration, would, if circumstances were difficult, just flat-out make a run for the hills. And I pray for my brethren here whose hearts are heavy, for whom this seems theoretical. The faces of their leadership rise like bad pictures in front of their mind’s eye, and they don’t know what to do.

So, Lord, help us to pray. And help us to open up your Word, that out of the fullness of that which you’ve given to us, you will help us to fulfill the high and holy calling. And we realize that all of our confidence before you is because of Christ—because of who he is and because of what he’s done.

Hear our prayers, and let our cries come to you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (1987; repr., Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993), 1.

[2] See Acts 20:17–38.

[3] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church and the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1990), 122–23.

[4] Mark 1:35 (ESV).

[5] Matthew 11:25 (paraphrased). See also Luke 10:21.

[6] Luke 11:1–2 (paraphrased). See also Matthew 6:9.

[7] See Matthew 26:39–44; Mark 14:35–36; Luke 22:42.

[8] Luke 23:34 (paraphrased).

[9] Luke 23:46 (KJV).

[10] Romans 8:15 (ESV). Emphasis added.

[11] C. Austin Miles, “In the Garden” (1912).

[12] John 14:21 (paraphrased).

[13] John 14:23 (ESV).

[14] C. John Miller, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church (Grand Rapids: Ministry Resources Library, 1986), 98.

[15] Matthew 6:10 (KJV).

[16] C. H. Spurgeon, “Our Public Prayer,” Lectures to My Students, First Series (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1875), 59.

[17] Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012), 44–45.

[18] Stott, Message of Acts, 123.

[19] Charles Simeon, “Directions How to Hear Sermons,” in Claude’s Essay on the Composition of a Sermon; with Notes and Illustrations, Together with One Hundred Skeletons; Being the Substance of Sermons Preached before the University (London, 1838), 220.

[20] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.1.5. Paraphrased.

[21] Christopher Ash, The Priority of Preaching (Fearn, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2010), 27.

[22] Ash, 29–35.

[23] Ash, 27.

[24] Ash, 28.

[25] Ash, 28. Paraphrased.

[26] Ash, 30. Paraphrased.

[27] Ash, 29.

[28] Ash, 29.

[29] Ash, 29–30. Paraphrased.

[30] See Nehemiah 8:1–8.

[31] Spurgeon, “On the Choice of a Text,” in Lectures to My Students (1875–94; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 93–94. Paraphrased

[32] Acts 19:11 (ESV).

[33] Acts 19:13 (ESV).

[34] Acts 19:16–20 (ESV).

[35] Martin Luther, trans. Frederic H. Hedge, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (1529, 1853). Lyrics lightly altered.

[36] See Hebrews 2:10.

[37] 1 Timothy 4:13 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.