I am very grateful to my good friend John Shearer for answering my Questions for Expositors this week.  John has pastored churches in Northern Ireland and Scotland and is currently pastor of Musselburgh Baptist Church, near Edinburgh.   In May, John was one of the speakers at the Basics Conference at Parkside Church.

1. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching? First of all there was early on in my Christian life the kindling of a desire to preach.  It was a couple of years before I was ready to have a go for the first time, but when I did I enjoyed it.  Not so sure if other people enjoyed it, but they certainly encouraged me to keep at it.  My home church didn’t give me a great deal of opportunity to begin with, but any comments made gave me to believe that there was a gift there to be developed and so I took every opportunity that came my way.

2. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it? Yes, I am sure it is. I try to crystallize it first of all by simply working hard to bring out what the text is actually saying in context. I might then consult whatever resources I need to in order to make sure I am on the right lines.  I might then start looking elsewhere for similar scriptural example[s] or perhaps look elsewhere for illustrations in order to clarify and amplify the theme against the backdrop of todays world and then look at how best to go about application.

3. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid? I think that while any preacher may have role models, his style should be his style and not somebody else’s.  If preaching is truth coming through a personality, every preacher needs to be himself, but then he needs also to forget himself as he gets on with the business of preaching Christ and Him crucified.

4. What notes, if any, do you use? I have always used full notes since I began to preach over 45 years ago.  It doesn’t restrict me in anyway nor do I feel embarrassed about it when I hear of others who can almost do it with a few headings.  It keeps me on track so that I get to my desired destination!!  I was greatly encouraged years ago when I sat in the balcony of a church and was able to look down on the pulpit to discover that a very well known and highly respected preacher had the fullest notes possible.

5. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid? The list of dangers is endless.  For example, he needs to be careful he doesn’t preach at his people and flog them instead of feeding them.  He must labour in the word and doctrine and not be lazy and live off the backs of his people.  He needs to watch that he doesn’t ride his own hobby horses instead of seeking to preach the whole counsel of God.  He needs to make sure that he doesn’t fail  to encourage his people. But perhaps the greatest danger of all is personal pride.  The temptation to pride is never far away, and you don’t have to be famous or to preach to crowds to be troubled by it.

6. What are the 5 books on preaching that have been most helpful to you as a preacher, with perhaps a few words by way of comment about them?

  • Lloyd Jones – ‘Preachers and Preaching’.  It makes me feel I have such a long way to go.
  • John Stott – ‘I believe in preaching’.  Such a practical and thorough look at the whole subject from someone who commands respect the world over.
  • Stuart Olyott – ‘Preaching pure and simple’ and ‘Ministering like the Master’.  He practices what he preaches and has the wonderful gift of making things simple for ordinary guys like myself.
  • Eric Alexander’s ‘Lecture on Biblical preaching’.  So much is covered in such a small compass.
  • And of more recent times, ‘The Priority of Preaching’ by Christopher Ash.  This book is a great encouragement based on Scripture for those who are called by God to preach Scripture.

7. Which preachers, living or dead, have had the greatest  influence on your own ministry? Without doubt Martyn Lloyd Jones.  I only heard him three times and it really was theology coming through a man on fire.  Derek Prime who I always felt was the very embodiment of the message he preached.  Noel McCullins, the Pastor in my home church who first introduced me to expository preaching, encouraged me to preach the word in a consecutive and systematic manner, and who reasured me that if I did so I would never run short of seed to sow.

8. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers? I would encourage them to develop their reading habits and guide them in what to read.  If there are any conferences or courses available, I would recommend that they seriously consider them.  I have also vacated the Midweek Meetings in our church in order to give them opportunity in front of the church.  And when they come through that route I have then given them the pulpit on occasions on a Sunday evening.

9. What advice would you give to a young man who is wondering whether God is calling him into a preaching ministry, firstly in terms of recognising the genuineness of a call and secondly in acting on it? I would advise him to take whatever opportunities come across his pathway to preach.  If there is a kindling of desire and a longing to discern and develop the gift God is giving him, I would encourage him to go forward in fellowship with the leadership of the church.  I would also tell him that if there is anything else he can do besides preaching then he should go and do it.  Only if the fire burns and is not going out, but is getting hotter, should he press on to be the best preacher he can be for God.

10. Is good expository preaching something that is ‘caught’ or ‘taught’;  where is the balance between the two? I think it is both caught and taught.  We all need role models who show us how to do it and who can teach us, but you can’t do it if you haven’t got the gift from God to do it no matter how many lectures you attend.  I saw how to do it in my pastor.  I wanted more and more to do what he was doing.  I was then given opportunity to preach and for that gift to be tested.  And then in fellowship with the leadership of the church it was caught and taught more and more through their example and encouragement and the tools for the trade were eventually put in place.

11. What is the secret of perseverance in a preaching ministry? Preach the Bible and you will never run short of seed to sow, and at the same time you will whet the appetite of your people for more of the same – even those who are young people!!  Keep your eyes on Him who is invisible and make it your goal to please Him – you certainly won’t be able to please all of the people all of the time.  Learn to do the basics well and never forget that you are what you are by the grace of God. A healthy prayer life and a daily walk with God cannot be over emphasised when it comes to keeping on keeping on.

12. What is the secret of freshness in a preaching ministry? Read as widely as you can.  Listen to other preachers who have stayed the course and see how they go about things.  Keep on breaking fresh ground in terms of exposition and keep a balanced approach to handling the different genres of Scripture.  Present you body as a living sacrifice to God every day and seek every day to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  I can’t live without having a daily quiet time, not because I am dependant on a quiet time, but it is through that discipline I meet with God as one who preaches to others, to hear what He has to say to me.

It’s nearly two months since I posted on memorising scripture as a discipline in itself but also as part of sermon preparation (here).   It’s nearly two months since 119v7.com went live, encouraging the memorising of longer passages of Scripture, rather than just isolated texts, important and necessary as that is.

I thought I’d flag it up again by way of mentioning that we currently have about 60 people from all around the world memorising passages of Scripture and in the last 7 weeks or so have learned Psalms 1 and 19, 2 John and this week will complete 3 John before moving on to Jude.  Each day I post a short meditation on the memory verse of the day; an aid to memorisation as well as reinforcing the necessity of understanding what we are learning by heart.

A couple of days ago I cam across this post by John Piper on the Desiring God blog and thought I’d share it here.  I’ll admit I don’t agree with everything Piper says here, but I do like the general thrust of his words.

How do you keep from forgetting Scripture after you’ve memorized it? I don’t. But practically, what can you do to keep it as long as you can? There is only one word. Review.

Review, review, review. There is no way to memorize Scripture that keeps you from losing it. Some people don’t lose anything. Some people have traps in their head that just hang on to it. But only 1 in 10,000 people can do that. Average folks like me have to work real hard to memorize the first time, and then recurrently review to keep it. So I memorize verses every day, and I forget them every day.

This morning I re-memorized a verse. I finished Deuteronomy and ran across a verse that I memorized years ago. Maybe I memorize it once a year, because I read the whole Bible once every year.

The verse is Deuteronomy 33:26. “There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, and through the skies in his majesty.” So, I’ve got it memorized. I probably will forget it in a week. That verse is hard for me to remember.

I’ve memorized that verse probably five times in five years. I forget it because I don’t use it as often as some verses. So, I jot it down on a little piece of paper and carry it in my pocket, pulling it out during the day once or twice. If I try to nail it so that it is useful for me over the long haul, I keep it and review it.

A practical thing I would suggest for people to do, is decide what cluster of text they want to always be at their disposal. For me I could name Psalm 46, Psalm 23, Psalm 1, Romans 8, 2 Corinthians 5:21, a cluster of texts surrounding justification, 1 Peter 4:11—”let him who serves serve in the strength that God supplies, that in everything God may get the glory through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the dominion forever.” This is the most quoted verse as we move into worship at Bethlehem.

So for my soul, for the warfare of my life, and for ministry in hospitals and counseling sessions, I want a cluster of texts at my disposal. Decide what those are, put them on a piece of paper, and review them until you have them down. I’ll give you a little story.

My first or second year of pastoring I was called to the hospital—quickly. I went without my Bible. Rollin Erickson’s wife just had a heart attack. I walk into a room of probably 20 family members that didn’t know if she was alive or dead—as she is in surgery. Rollin gave me a big hug and said, “John, give us a Word from the Lord.” Now, if I had my Bible I would have opened it to a Psalm or something. I didn’t have my Bible, and for whatever reason at age 35 my mind went blank.

I felt so humiliated. It was horrible. Here are 20 people, and the husband of a dying woman says, “Give us a Word from the Lord.” I can’t even remember what I said. I probably said, “Let’s pray,” and tried to paraphrase some Scripture. I went home and got on my knees that afternoon. I said, “Lord Jesus, that will never happen again.” I opened to Psalm 46—”God is our refuge and strength.” I have been able to quote Psalm 46 verbatim for the last 28 years. I decided that Psalm 46 is going to be in my head because it is so useful all the time.

The answer is, review. But don’t try to do that with every verse you learn. You should be learning hundreds of Bible verses by heart, and forgetting 90% of them. But then you get to them again and relearn them, and they are still with you because you learned them once. Somehow they will function to get out into your life.But really nail down a cluster of soul strengthening words.

On May 31st 1792 William Carey preached his famous “deathless” sermon on Isaiah 54vv1-2 to a meeting of fellow Baptist Ministers in Nottingham, England.   One of those present, Dr Ryland, commented afterwards: “If all the people had lifted up their voices and wept…it would only have seemed proportionate to the cause; so clearly did Mr. Carey prove the criminality of our supineness in the cause of God!”  After initially being reluctant to respond, the next day Carey’s colleagues agreed to act and the Baptist Missionary Society was formed.   There is not doubt that the task of world mission was given a kickstart by that sermon in Nottingham that lasts even to this day.


Being the son and grandson of Baptist missionaries and having being brought up in India, it is perhaps not surprising that Carey has been my lifelong hero.  One of my childhood memories is visiting Serampur with my parents and seeing Carey’s desk and College etc.

One of my treasured possessions is a photo from Carey Church in Calcutta showing their first Minister, William Carey, and some of his successors, among them, Rev William Eadie, my Grandfather.

The southern Baptist, B H Carroll wrote of Carey’s sermon that day: “William Carey…preached his great sermon, ‘Expect Great Things, Attempt Great Things’.   From the top of that sermon, if you were to sight backwards on a dead level, no other sermon will be high enough to cross the line until you strike Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost.

Shortly afterwards Carey published his work entitled “An enquiry into the obligations of christians to use means for the conversion of the heathen”, the Operation World of his day.  You can read it here

Here are some other useful Carey resources:

Recommended Books:
William Carey by S. Pearce Carey (edited by Peter Masters),  The Wakeman Trust
Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey by Timothy George, Christian History Insitute
Travel with William Carey: The missionary to India who attempted great things for God by Paul Pease, Day One Publications

William Carey: God’s Plodder. A 26 minute documentary on William Carey, written by Dr. James Ray.
Candle in the Dark: The Story of William Carey A 97 minute DVD Christian History Institute

Questions for Expositors

Over at Unashamed Workman, my friend Colin Adams has just started a new series of  ‘10 Questions for Expositors’ – a series not to be missed.  Colin’s first ‘victim’ is Melvin Tinker.

I am unashamedly borrowing from Colin’s idea and, with his kind permission, am beginning a similar series myself, asking a slightly adapted series of questions of gifted preachers with the first one appearing next week.

In the meantime, starting tomorrow, I am going to re-post the answers given by Dr Steven Lawson of Alabama on my old blog a couple of years ago in answer to the ‘10 Questions’.

Word Pictures

In a previous post I referred to the thrill and joy of painting word pictures from Scripture in preaching and I thought it would be helpful to post a weekly word picture that might be of help and inspiration to others.  It is something that has become a rich and exciting part of my own preparation and I strongly encourage students of preaching – as well as those more experienced – to take time in their preparation to do some detailed study of individual key words and paint some pictures for your hearers and build up a portfolio of these pictures that you can use as the years go by.

In recent years I have spent more time in Psalm 119 than any other single passage of Scripture, so the first few word pictures will come from my study of that amazing Psalm.

Let’s begin with v25, which the ESV (my version of choice) renders as

“My soul clings to the dust”

Other versions have:

NIV: “I am laid low in the dust”

NLT: “I lie in the dust, completely discouraged

AV and NASB have variations of cleave or cling

Incidentally, it was this verse among others that moved moved me from NIV to ESV because of the weakness of the translation, being dynamic rather than equivalent.

The Hebrew word, rightly translated as cleave or cling, is the word  dabaq (pronounced daw-bak) and means to cling to, to stick to, to be glued to.  It occurs more than 60 times in the Old Testament including 2 Samuel 23v10 and Jeremiah 13v11.  The first occurrence is in Genesis 2v24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and dabaq hold fast to, cleave to, be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”   The word speaks of a close connection, a joining together, such a close clinging that the two separate identities can be said to become one.

The same word is used in exactly the same way in Psalm 44v25 and in the messianic Psalm 22v15: “my tongue dabaq sticks, clings, to my jaws”

What a graphic picture of deep, spiritual, emotional depression, desolation and despair the Psalmist (whoever he was) paints for us.   He says, in effect, ‘I feel like dirt; I am stuck to the ground with the crushing weight of trouble and grief; I am crushed, devastated and discouraged. I am glued to the ground and I can’t get up.’

Here is the believer who is not just having a bad day, or suffering from ‘the Monday blues, or feeling a bit down in the dumps.   Here is a believer in the depths of despair and spiritual anguish.   The depth of the emotion is, in some ways, paralleled in v28 which will be next week’s word picture.

You can see how weak the NIV ‘laid low in the dust’ is when you paint this picture and you can see the potential for making the emotional agony of the believing Psalmist come alive to the congregation.

Please send me word pictures you have painted!

Preach the Word

In 2007 and 2008 I was involved, along with the Elders at my home church, Harper Memorial Baptist Church, Glasgow, in organising and leading a series of workshops for expositors.   A number of gifted Guest Expositors – Dominic Smart, Derek Prime, Peter Grainger, Colin Dow,  Colin Adams, Sandy Roger, Geoffrey Grogan and Willie Philip shared from their own experience and I ran a series of training sessions, ‘Preparing to Preach’,  working through the stages of getting from text to sermon.

I’ve added a new page to this site with links for all the mp3s, pdfs, and powerpoints from the sessions.  You can access this new page at the top of the site or clicking the logo below:

Allegorical Preaching

Last week I posted an inital comment on allegorical preaching, and I thought I’d follow it up with a word of explanation.   This approach to biblical interpretation goes back to the earliest days of the church and, so it goes, arose from a desire on the part of Greeks to reconcile their philosopy and theology.   If they took the Scriptures too literally it would conflict with their philosophy and so they had to come up with another way of interpreting scripture.

One of the chief proponents of an allegorical approach to the biblical text was Origen who developed a three-fold view of Scripture as having three layers that needed to be penetrated and understood – literal, moral and spiritual; the ultimate meaning being the spiritual one which lies beneath the plain meaning.  Each point of a passage needs to be analysed and interpreted in order to uncover the hidden spiritual meaning.

A good example of this would be the one given by Paul Tan in his book The Interpretation of Prophecy where he gives Pope Gregory the Great’s interpretation of the Book of Job:  “The patriarch’s three friends denote the heretics; his seven sons are the twelve apostles; his seven thousand sheep are God’s faithful people; and his three thousand camels are the depraved Gentiles.”

This method is both inadequate and dangerous  for the following reasons:

  1. At its core is the flawed assumption that God does not really mean what he says in the plainest of language
  2. It denies the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture
  3. There are no limits in this method, and this is evidenced in a great variety of contradictory theological positions among allegorists
  4. Scripture is interpreted apart from its grammatical-historical meaning;  what the author was plainly communicating is almost totally ignored and what the interpreter wants to say is imposed on the text


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