How to Listen to a Sermon (1 Thess 2:13)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.

*Originally preached July 25th, 2021*

G.K. Chesterton, in his book The Everlasting Man, tells of the story of a young man who lives on a series of hills in the verdant countryside. One day, he departs on a journey that leads him, for the first time, to depart from his little hillside. After climbing out of his foothills and ascending a large mountain across the valley he looks back on his little home, only to discover that his house didn’t rest on a hillside. The rolling green hills were actually the side of an immense, slumbering giant the young man’s cottage had, unbeknownst to him, laid on top of all this time. 

Chesterton, attempting to warn his readers of the danger of becoming so familiar with the truth that it no longer strikes us as profound or strange or glorious, invites his readers to attempt to look at it like this young man looks at his home—from a distance, as if for the first time, in hopes of seeing the alarming and wondrous reality that had been slumbering beneath our feet the entire time.

My hope today is to do something like that for you. My hope is to open your eyes to the awesome reality of God’s Word communicated to you through God’s people. And through that, help you to receive God’s Word as you should. I told my wife this week that I thought I wanted to preach a sermon on how to listen to a sermon. Her response was: “Wow, that’s like cleaning the inside of your dishwasher.” I realize this may seem strange, and the application of this won’t be limited exclusively to listening to a sermon, but to anytime someone is speaking God’s Word to us.

Why preach a sermon on this?

1.     The Word: Our God Speaks. God has chosen to reveal Himself by His Word. When Moses asks God to reveal Himself, to show Moses His glory, God responds: “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD,’” (Ex 33:19). But He explains that no one can see God’s face and live, so instead He tells Moses that He will place him in the cleft of a rock and cover Him with His hand, “Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen,” (Ex 33:23). But, interestingly, when this event happens, we are told nothing about Moses seeing “the back” of God. What happens?

“The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” 8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.” (Ex 34:5-8).

When God reveals Himself He does so through His Words. Moses “sees” by “hearing.” Of course, God is a spirit, meaning He has no body, so He has no “back” or “face” (prior to the Son’s incarnation). These are anthropomorphisms; God is using the image of a body as an analogy to reveal something about Himself. To see God’s ‘face’ would be, like seeing anyone’s face, the fullest revelation of Himself. And that is something, apparently, Moses (and everyone else) cannot yet handle. There will be a day, on the other side of the grave, where we shall no longer see through a mirror dimly (1 Cor 13:12), but “shall see Him,” in the words of John, “as He is,” (1 John 3:2). 

But God’s “back” is a revelation of Himself, but a less direct one. If a child walks into the kitchen and there is a stranger hunched over the sink doing dishes, even though they may only see the stranger’s back, they will know that this isn’t the back of their parents, but someone they are unfamiliar with. Moses sees the “back of God” through the Words that are spoken to Him Moses and is, I believe, what we get when we encounter God’s Word. A true revelation of God—not the full revelation we will experience when we come face to face with God—but one the discloses who our God is.

2.     The Word Spoken: Jesus Christ. As we read the Bible we find a wide variety of content covered. There are detailed historical accounts, prophesies of judgment, promises of unremitting grace, and poetic accounts of pain, beauty, and hope. God’s revelation of Himself in His Word is not a static, flat, simplistic revelation. It is multi-faceted and varied. 

And yet, all of the many colored threads of the Word are woven together in the singular tapestry of God’s Son incarnate: Jesus Christ. Jesus, while confronting the local Bible authorities of His time chastises them: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,” John 5:39 (cf. Luke 24:27). When beginning His gospel, John describes Jesus as the Word of God: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth,” (John 1:14; cf. 1:1-3). Or, as Paul puts it, Jesus is: “the image of the invisible God,” (Col 1:15).

Jesus is the fullest disclosure and revelation of God; all of God’s Word, therefore, is a disclosure of Jesus Himself. What is God like? Look to the humble Galilean, teaching the masses, feeding the hungry, rebuking the self-righteous, warning the complacent, lifting the head of the downtrodden. See his gentle and lowly heart offering rest for the weary. See the man of sorrows bear the rude cross to calvary. See him forgive his crucifiers, hear him pray to the Father in agony, watch him die in your place. See his commitment to justice, his holiness, his unwavering hatred of sin mingle with his invincible love of sinners as he takes the curse and burden of sin upon himself to pay its debt. This is your God—ignore Him at your own peril, come to Him in faith to your great delight.

If we are to be faithful to rightly speak God’s Word to others, it must have some savor and culmination in our great, mighty, and gentle Savior.

3.     The Word’s Effect: Growth and Hardness. I remember while candidating for my position here someone asked me a question about what my plans were for helping grow the church or help our discipleship or something of that nature, and I responded with what may have come across as a glib answer: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ,” (Rom 10:17). But I was serious. If we want our faith to grow there are many things we must do, but what is essential is to feed the fire of faith with the kindling of God’s Word, and pray that the Spirit may come and ignite a blaze. Listen to the power God’s Word has: 

“…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” 1 Pet 1:23-25a

This, of course, doesn’t mean that everyone responds this way. There are individuals, like Pharaoh in Exodus or the Pharisees in the Gospels who upon hearing God’s Word respond by hardening their hearts against God. There’s an old Puritan saying: “The same sun that hardens the clay melts the ice.” God’s Word is “living and active”—it is a sword that does something to us; it either softens our hearts, or drives us further away. 

4.     The Word Sent: God’s Representatives. We receive God’s Word through our own private study, through reading of helpful books, through conversations with other Christians, small groups, etc. But there is something distinct and unique about receiving God’s Word through the authoritative proclamation of preaching. This pattern, of an individual speaking to on God’s behalf to God’s people, is the regular pattern of God’s communication to His people throughout the Bible.

Consider that passage from 1 Peter we looked at earlier: “…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” 1 Pet 1:23-25.

There are many places in the Bible where God speaks directly with His people, but the most common way that God reveals Himself to His people is through a representative. 

It is odd to consider, for a moment, that God does this. God doesn’t send podcasts down from Heaven, He sends an individual to represent Him. He wants His truth to be delivered by a person–embodied. For example, when God wants to confront King David after his great sin with Bathsheba, what does He do? Does He appear to David in a dream? Does His voice thunder from behind a cloud? No—God sends the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 12). When God wants a valley of dry bones to come alive, a picture of the creation of God’s people, does He snap His fingers and transform the bones into living persons? No, He commands Ezekiel to prophesy, to proclaim God’s Words to the dead bones, and live (Ez 37). God seems to delight in using human representatives to be the bearer of His Word to His People.

God continues this pattern by gifting teachers and commissioning them to go and proclaim God’s Word to God’s people. This is what elders, or pastors, are called to do (1 Tim 3:2; 5:17), and this is what the young pastor Timothy was to charged to do: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching,” 2 Tim 4:1-2

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” Eph 4:11-12, 15.

God’s Word is given by a representative—teachers and preachers—and then that word equips God’s people to do the ministry of speaking that Word to one another, speaking the “truth in love” to one another, so resulting in the entire Body growing.

5.     The Word Interpreted and Applied: The Spirit. Cotton Mather, a minister in New England 300 years ago explained, “The great design and intention of the office of a Christian preacher [is] to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men.” How are we to do this? Man, left to himself, does not desire God to sit on the throne of his life—we want to sit on the throne! We want to be in control. How does this happen? Sometimes we can be tempted to think that the transmission of God’s Word is something we can do on our own. We assume that if a pastor is clever enough, smart enough, charismatic enough, funny enough, passionate enough, he can do the job. We do the same thing with our own personal ministry—many of us hold back from sharing the gospel with our neighbors or speaking God’s Word to each other because we assume that you must be eloquent and persuasive and personable and super smart, and sense very few of us feel like that, we simply stay quiet—forgetting that the task of speaking God’s Word to produce change in people is humanly impossible, it is trying to stop a tank with a squirt gun. How can you do that?

Here’s how Paul understands this can happen: 

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God… Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Cor 2:1-5, 12-13).

Notice: God’s Spirit empowers those speaking God’s Word and helps the listeners receive and understand God’s Word. Do you know what is the most common thing that happens in the book of Acts after we are told that someone is “filled with the Spirit”? They begin to speak God’s Word.

I wonder if you have ever heard of the story of the conversion of the most famous English speaking preacher of the 19th century, Charles Spurgeon? In 1850 when Charles was only 15, a terrible snow storm struck while he was walking and he took shelter inside a small Primitive Methodist Church. Inside there were about a dozen people and apparently the preacher was unable to make it to the church because of the snow storm. So one of the members, a poor shoe maker, got up to the pulpit to preach a sermon on Isaiah 45:22, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” 

By Spurgeon’s own account, it was a terrible sermon. The poor man just kept repeating the text over and over again because he apparently didn’t have much else to say. He did, however, offer a simple explanation and offer of the gospel. And, at a certain point in the sermon, the preacher caught Spurgeon’s eye and cried out: “Young man, you look very miserable…And you will always be miserable—miserable in life and miserable in death—if you do not obey my text. But if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.’ Then he shouted, ‘Young man, look to Jesus Christ.’ Spurgeon recounts: “Then I had this vision—not a vision to my eyes, but to my heart. I saw what a Savior Christ was.… Now I can never tell you how it was, but I no sooner saw whom I was to believe than I also understood what it was to believe, and I did believe in one moment.”

The work of the Spirit transforms the humble and modest and inadequate human words and produces a Spirit-empowered effect. Suddenly, God is speaking to His people through our words, calling them to repentance, summoning them to faith, resurrecting the dead. Our words become God’s Words through the supernatural work of the Spirit. This makes sense of passages like 1 Pet 4:10-11a, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God.” 

“Historically, church leaders and scholars have taken this as a comment on preaching. Chapter 1 of the Second Helvetic Confession famously says, “The preaching of the word of God is the word of God.” Earlier, Martin Luther said, “Every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth . . . and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor’s and preacher’s but God’s.” Similarly, John Calvin said, “When a man has climbed up into the pulpit . . . it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.” So preaching is God’s Word in some sense, yet the preacher’s words are human, too, and therefore often garbled, weak, or even false. But the Spirit “makes the broken human words become . . . a living word of God to the hearers.” …At best, when a congregation hears Christ proclaimed, according to the pattern of Scripture itself, they hear more than explanation and application; they hear Christ himself, imploring them to believe and to live by grace.” (Doriani, REC, 1 Peter).

Application: How can I receive God’s Word? How can I speak God’s Word?

1.     Be filled with the Spirit. Paul commands us in Eph 5:18 to not be drunk with wine, but to be filled with the Spirit. If God’s Word is received and declared via the Spirit, then we must be Spirit-filled people. Sin dumps mud on the eyes of our heart and blinds us from seeing rightly, so we need fresh renewals of God’s Spirit day by day to help us. This means we must pray regularly. A good prayer could be taken from Ephesians 1, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,” (Eph 1:17-18). 

2.     Be discerning. Just because someone stands in a pulpit or claims to be a spiritual authority or speaks with conviction doesn’t necessarily mean that they are speaking God’s Word. “Test all things, hold fast to what is good,” 1 Thess 5:21. We must know our Bibles well enough to know when someone has begun to deviate from or wrongly interpret or apply God’s Word, even if that person is a pastor of the church. God’s Word—not pastors—has the final authority. 

Just because I am a pastor does not mean that everything I say has the effect of God speaking to His people. My authority to speak, “Thus saith the Lord,” is entirely dependent on my staying under the umbrella of God’s Word. As soon as I deviate out from under that covering, I have no right to tell anyone: this is God’s Word on the matter. I can give opinions and thoughts and perspectives, but I no longer have that same ontological authority I have when I am under the text.

3.     Speak the truth in love. God gives the spiritual gift of teachers and preachers to the church in order to, in the words of Ephesians, “equip the saints for the work of the ministry,” (Eph 4:12). This ministry looks like this: “Speak the truth in love to one another.” We do not simply receive God’s Word and then hoard it to ourselves. We receive God’s Word in order to share its abundance with others, to speak the gospel to our non-Christian friends, to encourage a brother who is discouraged, to warn a member who is wayward, to pray for one another as we ought to. God’s Word cascades into God’s people through God’s representative, but then is intended to reverberate around, back and forth between all of the members. 

4.     Receive God’s Word as God’s Word. “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers,” 1 Thess 2:13. What is your posture towards God’s Word? Do you receive it as what it truly is? Is it a nice opinion to consider, or does it settle the matter? How do you approach our corporate worship?

Conclusion: the trinitarian nature of revelation. The Father speaks, His Word spoken is the Son, the Spirit interprets and applies the Word.

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