I have just finished Old’s first volume and made a start on the second where he explores preaching in the Patristic period.  Really good stuff.  But I want to continue to make a few posts from his coverage of preaching in the biblical period.  Today we look at Ezra’s great exemplary exposition  in Nehemiah 8.

Old draws out three lessons about the reading and preaching of Scripture at this time, to which I have added my own fourth.

1. The reading is “very specifically from ‘the book of the Law of Moses’ ” (p96)   Old points out that what made Israel what it was was its hearing and understanding of God’s law.   “…the systematic reading through of the Law is essential to the worship to the restored Israel.” (p97)   We need to to reaffirm the New Testament parallel of that today – what makes the Church what it is is the hearing and understanding of God’s Word.   The Church, like Israel of old, was called out ‘ek kaleo’ hence ecclesia) from the nations for this very purpose.   The reading and preaching of the Scriptures must be the very centre, heartbeat and focal point of the gatherings of God’s people.  It’s not a side-show or an optional extra.  It is on of the things that distinguishes a true church from a religious organisation.

2.  “reading is clearly worship”.  (p97)   There’s a good old Scottish Presbyterian tradition that the beginning of a service is marked by the church officer, the beadle, bringing in the Bible and placing it on the pulpit.  That is the point at which worship begins and the Minister enters the church.   Worship today has become synonymous with praise and singing but in many people’s thinking the reading and preaching of Scripture is not worship as such.

3. “after the Scriptures are read they are explained…the point of the sermon was to make clear the reading of the Scriptures.”  (pp98-99)     “Preachers were not asked to be historians or even moral philosophers, but to be interpreters of Scripture.” (p94)   After the proclamation comes the explanation.   Part of the job of the Levites was to read from the Book of the Law so as to help ‘making it clear and giving the meaning’.     That would mean more than just explanation.  Many of these returnees were now Aramaic speakers and needed the original Hebrew translated for them.  But it is certain that the Levites were doing far more than simply acting as translators.  They were engaging in one of the most vital parts of exposition – exegesis – unpacking the actual words of the text so that the listeners were left in no doubt as to the meaning of the words of Scripture.

There is a great example in the New Testament of what exegesis is.   In John 1v18 we are told that “No one has ever seen God;  the only God, (i.e.  Christ) who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”   The phrase ‘made him known’ is a translation of a Greek word from which we get exegesis and it can mean ‘to declare’, ‘to make known’ or even ‘to draw out from’.   Jesus exegeted God – he made known to us what would otherwise have been unknown.  Jesus took the truth that is in God and all that is in God’s heart, hidden from our sight and understanding and revealed it to us by, in his case, becoming the very embodiment of it.  The task of the preacher is to do no less than that – to take the Word of God and draw out from it the meaning as it is found in the heart of its author – God himself.

Stott succinctly defines this task as  “The expositor prizes open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed.”[1]

4.  The Scriptures were applied.    Part of the ‘making it clear and giving the meaning’ was helping the people understand the relevance of these ancient texts for their present day lives and situations.   “There was more to this than making the people understand the actual words that were being read.  They needed to understand the sense, that is, they needed to know what that particular part of the Word of God had to say to them in their day and in their circumstances. Only then could the people take the Word away with them and put it into practice.”[2]

Perhaps the evident spiritual state of the people on this momentous day – given their appetite for God’s Word (v1), their attentiveness to God’s Word (v3), and their attitude towards God (v5-6) – made them more intuitively sensitive and responsive to what God said to them through the Word.   Certainly the reaction and response was striking and dramatic – weeping (v9) and a desire for further detailed instruction and obedience (v13).   We mustn’t forget either that this great feast of exposition went on, in one form or another for seven whole days (v18).

This was not some cold, turgid, dry as dust reading of an ancient manuscript that left the listeners unmoved and cold.

  • here is expository preaching that clearly teaches the mind as it gives teaching and instruction.
  • here is preaching that powerfully touches the heart, stirring and affecting deep emotions.
  • here is preaching that targets the life, eliciting a desire to be absolutely clear in knowing what God desires and then is keen to set about being obedient.

Spirit empowered, biblically faithful preaching will always affect men and women intellectually, emotionally and volitionally.