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What is a Good Sermon?

March 27, 2022

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Pastor Peder Kling

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Sermon Passage: Acts 13:13–52

The sermon begins at minute 56:55. Unmute to listen.

Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)

Begging for God’s Word

In our evening services, we’ve mentioned Amos 8:11 a number of times as we’ve considered the ministry of Elijah in the Old Testament. Before reading Amos 8:11, let me explain the situation that makes that verse applicable to Elijah. Elijah was, in many ways, a prophet of judgment. He shows up in 1 Kings 17 without any sort of introduction. In one and the same verse, (1) his name shows up for the first time in our Bibles, and (2) he pronounces a deadly famine over Israel. Then, he leaves Israel. I ask you, what’s worse—a situation where God removes physical food from his people, or a situation where God removes his prophet from his people? The Old Testament prophets, you may remember, were God’s spokesmen. To remove the prophet is to remove God’s word. So in this light, we’ve often been reminded of what God said in Amos 8:11—

 

 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD,

“when I will send a famine on the land—

not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,

but of hearing the words of the LORD.”

 

A famine of hearing the word of the Lord. What’s worse—not eating food for a few days, or not feeding upon God’s word? 

 

How many of you have begged for food? I don’t mean like a poor person on the streets—although, perhaps you’ve done that too. I’m thinking like—have you ever begged your husband for a late night ice cream run? (If you’ve been pregnant, you have.) Have you ever begged for a steak dinner? We love food. Kids—have you ever begged mom or dad for dessert after dinner?

 

The question before us, this morning—have you ever begged to hear God’s word, as the people in Antioch did in verse 42? Did you catch them begging for more preaching? His word is precious, folks. The argument in Amos 8:11, there, is that a famine of hearing God’s words is worse than a famine of food. Living a life without God’s word is worse than starving from hunger, and being left out in the streets for dead.

 

It reminds me of one of my favorite Martin Luther stories. During Luther’s day, there was a horrible famine of “hearing the words of the LORD”, due to the Roman Catholic’s corruption at the time. However, Martin Luther discovered God’s word. He taught it, preached it, published it in books—and, there was far more demand than there was supply. People ate it up. On his journey to the diet of Worms, shortly after his books began to circulate, we’re told that the town of Erfurt received him with such enthusiasm that they threw a party for him, and asked him to preach. The church was so packed that people supposedly broke windows to get out of the building, due to the hysteria of the overflow. Luther blamed the chaos on the devil.

 

That’s the effect faithful preaching has on hungry souls. We see that in our passage, this morning. In our passage, we read the first of Paul’s sermons recorded in Scripture. Speaking to the small contingent of Jews in a very pagan city, Paul preaches the gospel to them. Their response is beautiful. Verse 42— “As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath.” They begged for the word. 

What's A Good Sermon Worth Begging For?

This morning, I want to figure out what might make us beg to hear more preaching as these Jews did after hearing Paul preach—or, as the folks in Erfurt did when Luther came to town. What sort of sermon invokes that response from people? What is a good sermon worth begging for? That’s what I hope to see, this morning.

 

Now the goal, here, is not to make you all out into preachers through a lesson on preaching. The goal, here, is to help us understand the power of faithful preaching, and why we should desire it every week. I’m not going to give you an outline, here at the beginning. I’m going to walk us through the passage, and we’re going to discover together what faithful preaching looks like, and what it does to people. So, let’s just dig right in and start making some observations.

 

A Good Sermon Tells God’s Word

Now, our first observation about Paul’s sermon isn’t even found in Paul’s sermon. Take note of exactly what situation Paul was in when he began to preach. You’ll see that in the first four verses of our passage, starting in verse 13—

 

13   Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, 14 but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. 

 

Just to be clear—this isn’t the Antioch in Syria, where Paul began this missionary journey. There were a number of cities in Rome named Antioch at the time. This one was off the northern shores of the Mediterranean, quite a ways inland. This was the region of Galatia—so, this story describes Paul planting the church in Galatia (which we know well from his letter to the Galatians). Just some background information, there, if you like that sort of a thing. But halfway through verse 14, we get more to our point—

 

And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” 16 So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said:

 

That’s the situation which sparked Paul’s sermon. What does that mean about good preaching, folks? It means it’s “a word of encouragement” (verse 15)—and, that’s probably the most broad description of preaching we’ll see this morning. Good preaching is supposed to encourage you—and, not some diddly, fluffy, hallmark sort of encouragement. We’re talking about actually bringing the Word of God to God’s people for their encouragement and strength. 

 

Do you see God’s word mentioned in this situation? Paul was in a Jewish synagogue—and in a Jewish synagogue, the word of God stood central. That much is clear. Verse 15 describes that Paul was invited to preach—“after the reading from the Law and the Prophets”. Do you hear reference to almost a liturgical process, there? We do the call to worship, the congregational Psalm, among other things in our services. Jews read a section from the Law, and a section from the prophets every week. Then, they’d have someone stand up and give a word of encouragement, most likely a message rooted in what was just read. 

 

That’s the situation Paul was in, here. The rulers commended him to give “a word of encouragement”—and no doubt, it was assumed that he wasn’t giving a motivational message that had nothing to do with the law and prophets that were just read. He was expected to explain God’s word to God’s people, for their encouragement and strength. 

 

So, that’s the first mark of a good sermon for us, this morning. It tells God’s word to God’s people, for their encouragement. Now, before we go onto the next mark of good preaching this morning, I want you to notice one description of Paul’s preaching mentioned in verse 44 that falls in with this—only, it makes it more personal. In verse 44, after Paul had already preached, we’re told about the next Sabbath. “The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the Word of the Lord.” That’s how Acts describes Paul’s preaching, here, and “the Lord” is describing the risen Lord, Jesus. That’s a reference to the ascended, risen Jesus—not “God” generically. 

 

But what does that actually mean? “The word of the Lord”, or “the word of Jesus”—what’s Acts trying to say about Paul’s preaching, here? You could render this as saying “the word about the Lord”. That’s possible. We talk like that all the time—“the word of truth” is the word about truth, containing details about the truth. It could go that way here, as well. Paul is preaching about the Lord as he describes Jesus as the crucified, risen and victorious Lord who forgives the sins of his people.

 

It could also mean something much more powerful, more personal. “The word from the Lord” is also possible. We talk like that, too. If we say something like “The word of the King”, we’d mean “the word from the king”—his word, as he’s speaking. If that’s what Acts means in our passage, then Paul isn’t just preaching just telling—or describing—God’s word to God’s people. No—Paul is actually communicating “the word of the Lord”—or rather, Jesus is speaking through Paul from his throne in heaven. 

 

This is preaching, folks. To say that Jesus is speaking through preachers from his throne in heaven totally fits with how the New Testament describes preaching. The apostle Peter commends pastors and teachers in the church that when they speak, speak “as one who speaks the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). 

 

It really is significant that verse 44 describes Paul’s preaching as the “word of the Lord”. There’s an old, somewhat provocative adage in our Reformed circles that goes all the way back to the 16th century that says “the preaching of the word of God is the word of God”. God doesn’t stop speaking the preacher finishes up the scripture reading, folks—and how much more true now that Jesus is communicating himself to us through the power of his Spirit, as he’s pleased to use even fallible preachers like myself to accomplish his purposes.

 

Now, does that make you itch to hear more preaching? Don’t neglect this uniquely powerful means of grace, as Jesus himself is uniquely committed to communicating to you, through his Spirit, through preachers who root themselves in Scripture and prayer, and the power of the Spirit, and the forgiveness of Christ.

 

So, a good sermon tells God’s word—even Jesus’s word, and that word ought to be “a word of encouragement”, as Paul was tasked to do. It certainly encouraged the people—they begged to hear more. What else do we see in Paul’s sermon, that’s telling of a good sermon? 

 

A Good Sermon Tells God’s Story

Look at the way Paul preached to this Jewish audience. He brought them into what God was doing among them by telling a story that they knew all too well. He told them the story of Israel—starting with the Exodus from Egypt, moving along through Israel’s time in Canaan. He even tells them how long that took—“all this took 450 years”, verse 20. That’s 400 years in Egypt, and 40 years in the desert, and then 10 years of conquest. Then, he tells them about David—and, that’s where he takes his bee-line to Jesus. Verse 23, “of this man’s [i.e., David’s] offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus…”. Now, we’re going to get to exactly how Paul unpacked Jesus in this story soon. For now, I just want you to notice that Paul tells them this story. They knew this story. This story was the heartbeat of Israel’s identity, and life, and culture. Paul goes through the story again.

 

I was talking with Pastor Tom Trouwborst this week, and he reminded me that “the gospel is a story, not an idea”. Isn’t that right? It’s a story, folks—and, it’s a true story. It really happened. It’s not some fancy idea you can fiddle along with for entertainment. It’s not a theological or philosophical soundbite. It’s a real, true story with real life implications, and with a real Jesus ruling from heaven today—and good preaching takes pains to lay it before us as a story. 

 

And, we should recognize that the gospel is the story—it’s not just the story of Israel that made it’s way to Christ. It’s certainly that—but it’s much, much more. It’s the story that makes the world go round with God’s real and substantive hope, power, truth, and glory. It’s the story of a drug addict being completely powerless over his misery, and then encountering the risen Lord for an actual transformation from the inside out. It’s actual guilt that people experience lifted from their souls, bringing peace they never thought imagined. The gospel is involves actual freedom and joy and power that comes from a clear conscience before God. 

 

I love how John ends his gospel—" Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” I think John was serious—hyperbole to make a point, maybe. I don’t know. John had seen Jesus perform thousands of miracles (by my estimation) based on how the gospels describe his public ministry. And do you know what each of those miracles are? They’re a story with real consequences in real people’s lives, as they met the real, and powerful, and living Jesus. He’s still writing stories from his throne in heaven. This isn’t an idea, folks. 

 

We need stories, not ideas. Stories communicate something real. Ideas are fun to bounce around in a philosophy classroom. Stories target the heart—they wound and humble people to heal them.

 

Think about how Nathan wounded and healed David when David sinned against Bathsheba. You probably remember how David stole a man’s wife, slept with her, and then killed the man. It’s the darkest moment in David’s life. Nathan, God’s prophet charged with bringing God’s word to David, draws David in with a story of a rich man stealing a poor man’s lamb. David’s anger burned as he was brought into the story, and David said “the and who has done this deserves to die!”. Nathan jumps to the point, “you are the man!”, and then explains the serious consequences to David. But, here’s the power of the story. David didn’t get his own verdict. This story—as all of God’s stories—reveals the unimaginable, unthinkable mercy of God. When David was quick to kill the proverbial rich man who stole the sheep, God was quick to stay his hand upon David. David says in deep sorrow, “I have sinned against the Lord”, and Nathan responds, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” 

 

Stories draw people in, cut them down, and build them up with God’s unthinkable mercy and power—God designed it that way. He’s the great storyteller. He gave us his written Word—almost half of that word is in the form of narrative, story. God knows the transformative power of story, and so did Paul. as he told the story of “our fathers” (verse 17). This was their story—it was real and personal to them, as Paul was speaking.

 

Good sermons tell God’s word, and good sermons tell God’s word through story. 

 

A Good Sermon Tells God’s Initiative

Here’s another one, and this only elaborates on what I’ve already said. Good sermons tell God’s initiative in salvation. 

 

Look at how Paul tells this whole story. Verse 17—“The God of this people chose our fathers and made the people great… and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he put up with them…”. He was patient—he could have destroyed them, you know. He chose them. He made them great. He led them out of Egypt. He put up with them.

 

Throughout all of Scripture, whenever a story is told, it’s told in a way that makes it clear to everyone that God is the great storyteller, the great orchestrator, the providential protagonist throughout all of history. Even Genesis 1, when God made the heavens and the earth. If you read through that one chapter, do you know how many times “God” is mentioned? “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth”. From that point on, grammatically, it would have made sense to just use the pronoun “he”. So it might read—“and he said “let there be light’ … and he saw that the light was good. and he separated the light from darkness”. Is that how the story is told? Five times, we see the word “he”. Thirty-two times, we read the word “God”. Who made the earth? Who started this story? Who takes initiative? God does.

 

God takes initiative—and, he tells us that in his word, repeatedly, through story. How did Jesus talk about this? He tells the story of a shepherd and his sheep. John 10:14—

 

14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

 

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Wouldn’t you like to be one of those sheep, being cared for by a good shepherd who calls you with an irresistible voice of protection, comfort, joy, provision, and salvation? If you receive Jesus by faith, you are that sheep.

 

A good sermon tells God’s initiative. And—by the way, that’s for our encouragement. If the good shepherd story didn’t move you with any sense of encouragement, I’m not sure what will. God’s initiative is one of the most encouraging realities of the Christian faith there is. If he doesn’t take initiative, we’re left to ourselves to save ourselves—we’d be no different than any other of the world’s religions. Enslaved to yourself, rather than enslaved to God whose initiative purchased your redemption from this world, to himself. 

 

When Jesus says “take my yoke upon you… and you will find rest for your souls”—Jesus is saying that this world demands that you perform for your own salvation, happiness and joy. You can take that yoke of slavery upon yourself, and strive for your whole life in fear and anxiety that you’ll never be enough. Or, you can take Jesus’s yoke—he’s a master who takes initiative. He works good works into you, as Philippians 2:12 tells us, as we are working out our the salvation that he’s working into us. He take the initiative, we receive him by faith, and we serve him in his strength, his grace, his freedom. 

 

The Prince of Preachers on God's Initiative

Let’s take a quote from the “prince of preachers” this morning, as we’re taking time to consider the matter of preaching and sermons. Charles Spurgeon was considered the “prince of preachers” in his day—and, the title has stuck around. The last words he spoke in his last sermon expressed his gratitude to God who led him like a faithful captain along 40 years of preaching ministry. God was before him, taking charge, saving souls—it wasn’t ultimately up to Spurgeon. That made Spurgeon happy—

 

You will find sin, self, Satan, and the world to be hard masters; but if you wear the livery of Christ, you will find him so meek and lowly of heart that you will find rest unto your souls. He is the most magnanimous of captains… He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold he always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders. If he bids us carry a burden, he carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yea lavish and superabundant in love, you always find it in him. These forty years and more have I served him, blessed be his name! and I have had nothing but love from him. 

 

What would make a preacher say that? He had seen Jesus show up. He saw Jesus use him, equip him, strengthen and encourage him. Spurgeon had 40 years of stories to tell about how Jesus takes initiative—and, that’s our hope. It’s encouraging to know God is before you, saving you. That was God’s word of encouragement to the Israelites—“I’ll go before you”. The same is true today, in Christ, as he leads us and equips us through his blood, and with his Spirit and word.

 

So, good preaching tells God’s Word of encouragement, it tells God’s Story, it tells God’s initiative. When Paul was preaching to these Jewish people, he reminded them that it was God initiating the course of Israel’s history forward to Jesus. 

 

A Good Sermon Tells God’s Promises

What else does Paul’s sermon tell us about good preaching? Briefly, I’ll just mention that it tells God’s promises. Verse 23, “Of David’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised”. Then verse 32, “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus”. 

 

Now, what’s the obvious assumption about talking of God’s promises? God’s promises assume everything we’ve talked about—they assume God’s word, they assume God’s story (promises don’t come out of nowhere), and they assume God’s initiative. People who take initiative take initiative through making promises. They say, “yep, I got that, consider it done”. Then, they do it. God wrote his story by making promises, and then fulfilling them. God promised Jesus’s arrival to Adam and Eve in the garden. He promised Jesus’s arrival to Abraham, to Moses, to Israel, to David. In his sermon, Paul especially leans into the promise God made to David—that one of King David’s descendants would rule on the throne of Israel forever. Now, we could get into some of the technicalities about that promise, and why Paul appeals to Psalm 2, and Psalm 16, and Isaiah 55:3, and Habbakuk 1:5 throughout his sermon. I’ll just leave it at this—all of those promises that Paul quotes are reminders that God’s initiative, and God’s promises, get things done. God promised his people an eternal king who save his people, and God made good on his promise. God always makes good on his promises—and, he’s made a lot of them in his word. It makes a preachers job easy, you know.

 

Good preaching announces that all of God’s promises are fulfilled in Jesus—every one of them, that he has ever made to his people. If we’re reading the story, we’ll know there’s a lot of them—promises that, if received, would encourage us, strengthen us, and give us unwavering hope in all situations.

 

 A Good Sermon Tells God’s Forgiveness and Freedom

Of course, this leads us to the next mark of a good sermon. A good sermon certainly tells of God’s promises—but especially his promises of forgiveness and freedom. Look at the defining moment in Paul’s sermon, in verse 38. This is it—this is what all of his preaching, his story-telling has been building up to. “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” 

 

That’s big, folks. Forgiveness of sins, and freedom. I think it’d be appropriate to see the connection between the two, there. In Christ, you have forgiveness of sins, and therefore freedom. Forgiveness leads to freedom, it opens up freedom. For these Jews, that especially meant freedom from the law of Moses (as Paul expressly mentions in verse 39). 

 

They were free from the law of Moses—they were no longer responsible for attaining fellowship with God through religious ceremonies. God took the initiative, God fulfilled the law through Christ, and God forgave them. All that’s left, brothers and sisters, is forgiveness and freedom.

 

Today, in Christ’s forgiveness, we have freedom from guilt, freedom from God’s wrath, freedom from the sting of the curse—death can’t even harm you, much less a wobbly economic or global situation. We are free to die, free to be persecuted, free to give every breath in service to God and one another—even joyfully. We’re free to pray anytime we want—we pray to God as our Father! You don’t even see that in the Psalms! That’s a freedom in Christ, as God has adopted us into his family through Christ, and instructs us to pray to him as children speak to their father. The freedoms and privileges go on and on, folks, as you immerse yourselves into Christ’s forgiveness and fellowship.  

 

Would you Beg for That Sermon?

Now, imagine hearing all this in one sermon—(1) the Words of Christ spoken to you through his Spirit, (2) the story of Christ unfold from Genesis to Revelation, (3) the initiative of Christ to be your good shepherd and savior, (4) the promises of Christ, and the (5) forgiveness and freedom of Christ. If you heard all that, and really believed it to be so, would you beg to hear more? Would it encourage you? 

 

Or, to put it another way—good preaching tells (1) God’s word, (2) God’s story, (3) God’s initiative, (4) God’s promises, and (5) God’s forgiveness and freedom in Christ. I pray this would ever grow upon our souls, and change us from the inside out.

 

Now, let me close with one more, brief observation.

 

A Final Observation on Preaching

A good sermon separates the sheep from the goats. It separates the disciples from the rebels. Consider how the Jews who rejected Paul were described in verse 47. They hated his preaching. So, Paul tells them that “you thrust [the word of God] aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life”. That’s powerful. They judged for themselves unworthy of eternal life. They didn’t want it, and they’ll be responsible for their decision for eternity.

 

But, the sheep don’t just receive the word. They want more—notice how the word inspired conversation. It inspired actual discipleship outside of the sermon context. Verses 42–43, immediately after Paul was done preaching, we don’t only hear that they begged to hear more next week, but that they followed Paul around asking questions and pursuing to grow. Good preaching, as we’ve described, gets people excited to live in the Word of God together through the whole week. His word is our life, folks. We’ll die as a church if we only tend to it on Sunday morning. Let’s tend to his word together, beg for it, and find unending encouragement and strength from it.

 

Let’s pray. 

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