Thoughts on Preaching and Robinson Crusoe

I often use mnemonic devices to help me with vocabulary. One I’m particularly proud of is the image I used to remember the Greek word for “I am preaching”, ke̅russo̅. I imagined the stranded Robinson Crusoe, preaching to his flock of goats. I read the book—probably an abridged version—when I was a kid, so I can’t remember if this was an actual scene in the book or something that my brain came up with to help me memorize the definition of the word. Either way, it seems fitting because I can just about guarantee that, were I stranded on a desert island and isolated from other humans, sooner or later the goats would be hearing expositions and exhortations from Scripture. I love preaching God’s word that much.

Admittedly, I’ve not always thought about this love in the right way. At times I’ve loved preaching because it gave me opportunities to demonstrate what little intelligence or wit I have. At others I’ve loved the exhilaration that comes from receiving affirmation from those who heard me. But I think preaching to goats, who are neither enamored by the preacher’s intelligence nor able stroke his ego with affirming words, would surely test this love. This experience would probably clarify something essential to biblical preaching: Who am I preaching for?

The commendable preachers of Scripture weren’t preaching for themselves, to be seen as wise or intelligent, to receive money or fame. They preached for the glory and fame and worship of the Lord Jesus. They preached when the likely outcome was bodily injury, social ostracization, imprisonment, or death. When their audience was goats, (in the Matthew 25 sense), those who listened patiently but refused to allow the message to have any true impact on their lives and loves. And they did it gladly.

“After calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” (Acts 5:40–42, NASB)

Ultimately, this willingness to preach regardless of the outcome reflects the biblical understanding of the calling to preach, summed up beautifully by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 3:8—“To me, the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.” The preacher knows that it is a grace, a gift, to proclaim the truth about Christ. He knows that it does not rest on him, a dirty castaway, but on the God who first saved him, and now enables him to declare his truth.

I love preaching because it brings me joy to share with others the unfathomable love of Christ that has captured me and compells me to preach. To study Scripture and search its depths in prayer and with help from God’s Spirit Himself. To wrestle with texts, to organize thoughts, and write line by line explanations and applications. To lift Jesus up, set Him forth, and hold Him out for careful, prayerful, worshipful reflection. It is God’s grace to me that I get to do that.

So like Crusoe in my mnemonic device, were there no one around to hear it I couldn’t keep it in, nor would I try. I’d sound like a madman preaching to goats and trees and the ocean itself. With the Psalmist I’d say, “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; Let the sea roar, and all it contains; Let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy Before the LORD, for He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 96:11–13).

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Far Be It From Me: The Scandal and Sin of Pastoral Prayerlessness

There are many ways to fail as a pastor. Moral lapses, theological error, and spiritual apathy are just a few of the more obvious ways we can harm the congregations we serve. But there is perhaps one failure that gets overlooked. We can build successful ministries, influence people with biblical truth, and give the general appearance of faithfulness without anyone ever knowing that we are prayerless men. But this is to our shame. Do we truly believe that we can properly care for the people of God without bringing their names and burdens before Him in prayer? Our prayerlessness indicates we do. More than that it underlines the reality that we have drifted from the biblical and historical view of what it means to be a pastor.

Two stories from 1 Samuel demonstrate how seriously spiritual leaders (prophets and priests) took their responsibility to pray for the people in their care. The first comes from Samuel himself. After anointing Saul as king over the people, Samuel tells them they have committed evil against YHWH by asking for a king to rule them (1 Sam. 12:12–18). The people recognize their sin and say to him, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, so that we may not die” (12:19). Samuel’s response is telling, especially when he considers his role in their future obedience: “Far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; but I will instruct you in the good and right way” (12:23). For Samuel, prayer for the people is such a vital part of his role that to abandon the practice is unthinkable. More than that, to neglect this prayer is “sin against the LORD”.[1]

A second story comes later in the book after YHWH has rejected Saul and chosen David as king. David was on the run from Saul and came to Nob where Ahimelech the priest gave him the consecrated bread for food and Goliath’s sword (1 Sam. 21:1–10). When Saul hears that Ahimelech has aided the fugitive David, he sends for all the priests and interrogates them on the charge of treason. In his paranoia, Saul accuses the priest of giving David food and arming him with a sword, as well as having “inquired of God for him”—that he sought to determine God’s will and seek His help for David’s mission against Saul. Ahimelech’s answer again demonstrates how essential this prayer was: “Did I just begin to inquire of God for him today? Far be it from me!” (22:15). Ahimelech’s intercession for David was not unique, but rather a normal part of his role as priest that he was bound to carry out.[2]

Turning to the New Testament, we again see the central role of prayer when we examine the Apostle Paul’s relationships with the churches to whom he wrote. He tells the Romans, he “unceasingly” mentions them in his prayers (Rom. 1:9), as he does the Ephesians (Eph. 1:16) and Philippians (Phil. 1:3–4). That these prayers are made “unceasingly” indicates the importance Paul attributes to them—as if they are essential for the churches’ growth in Christ. Beyond Paul’s personal example, we have the instruction in James for the elders to pray for the sick that they might be healed (Jas. 5:14). The prayers of pastors for their people are essential to God bringing about His healing purposes in their lives.

With this quick biblical picture in mind, it is no wonder that, “For the majority of Christian centuries most pastors have been convinced that prayer is the central and essential act for maintaining the essential shape of the ministry to which they were ordained.”[3] Indeed, Derek Prime and Alistair Begg argue that it is the “principal and main work” of pastoral ministry since it is the first way we exercise care for our people and the first step toward an effective teaching ministry.[4] If Scripture and historical practice tell us prayer for our people is central to fulfilling the ministry to which we’ve been called, it is truly a scandal when we neglect it. Far be it from us that a day should come when we fail to lift up the names and needs of the people entrusted to our care. God help us all be men of prayer.


  1. See Ryan Fullerton, “A Call for Pastors to Pray for Their People,” 9 Marks Journal (Spring 2016): 7–11. I am indebted to this article for prompting my reflection on this topic. See the journal for other helpful articles on making prayer a priority in your life and church, https://9marks.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/9Marks-Journal-Spring–2016.pdf.  ↩

  2. Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, vol. 7, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 229.  ↩

  3. Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 26.  ↩

  4. Derek J. Prime and Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004), 65.  ↩

Belief and Love

Belief and Love

In a time of outspoken atheism and decreasing religious affiliation, Christians might be tempted to highlight the distinction between those who believe in God and those who don’t.

On first glance, this approach seems helpful. At work the believers know who they can greet with “Merry Christmas”or “Happy Holidays,” while students know who to group up with to discuss the new Hillsong CD. While I’m all for Christians encouraging one another, and for avoiding needless confrontation as we seek to be good neighbors (Rom 12:18), on closer inspection this distinction actually misses a more important one: those who love God and those who do not.

For one, Scripture indicates that, in one sense, belief is a relatively insignificant factor in determining one’s standing with God. As James puts it, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). In other words, if we maintain a spreadsheet exclusively divided between “belief” and “unbelief,” the demons go under “belief.” That’s not helpful.

The more important category is “Those-Who-Do-Something-With-Their-Belief,” or those people for whom belief takes root and overflows into a life of devotion to Christ. They are those who love Jesus and “keep his commandments” (John 14:15). Indeed, “this is the love for God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3). More significantly, it is not only those who do not believe who are condemned (as the belief vs. unbelief distinction might imply). Paul puts a fine point on it: “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed” (1 Cor 16:22). Let us not delude ourselves into thinking that mere belief is enough; “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

One Warning: If we were to change the way we think by shifting from belief to love as the distinguishing characteristic between the church and the world, we would have to face a startling reality, some of us may find ourselves in an unexpected column. Lord, help us love you, “not with word and talk, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).

God’s Purifying Work

By c. 740 BC the wickedness of Judah, particularly its political and religious center in Jerusalem, had become unbearable for the Lord. When God looked at his people what he saw was not the child he had raised to walk in his ways, but a rebellious and wayward son (Isaiah 1:2-3). They were sick, infected with a disease that spreads more quickly than any other and with more devastating effects, (i.e., sin) (1:5-6). Their religious and moral life had deviated from the ways of the Lord so much that he referred to them as “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah” (1:10). The problem wasn’t their lack of religious observance, they kept that up just fine and it had become unbearable to the God who ordained those sacrifices and festivals (1:11-16). At issue was the blood of the innocent and helpless on their hands; what God desired was their pursuit of justice (1:1-17).

In what can only be seen as a public “dressing down” of his people, God offers the promise that their sins can be cleansed (1:18). If they will return to him by becoming obedient they will receive his blessing, but otherwise they can only expect destruction (1:19).

Yet even this destruction is redemptive. As the image below shows, Isaiah 1:21-26 (NIV, 1984) lays out the situation as God’s sees it, his plan to “purify” them, and his ultimate purpose in this work.

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The passage centers on verse 24-25a and God’s vengeance on his enemies—his people! He will right every wrong, and true justice will reign. In this way God brings genuine restoration and renewal so that righteousness and faithfulness become the very identity of those who are unrighteous and unfaithful.

In a generation marked by unrighteousness and unfaithfulness even in the church, we would do well to thank God for his purifying work. Judgment on the church is not for our destruction, but for our sanctification.

“Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God” (1 Pet 5:16-17).

The Pastor’s Call to Evangelism

Here are two juicy quotes on the pastor’s call to evangelism from John Owen’s “Sermon V,” delivered on September 8, 1682 at the ordination of a man to the ministry. The whole sermon is worth reading.

“Christ hath not appointed his ministers to look unto themselves only; they are to be the means of calling and gathering the elect in all ages: and this they principally are to do by their ministry” (460).

Our work is the same with the apostles’; the method directly contrary. The apostles had a work committed to them, and this was their method:— The first workcommitted to the apostles was the convincing and converting sinners to

Image Credit: Banner of Truth Works of John Owen
Image Credit: Banner of Truth Works of John Owen

Christ among Jews and Gentiles, —to preach the gospel, to convert infidels;—this they accounted their chief work…And then, their second work was to teach those [who were] disciples to do and observe whatever Christ commanded them, and to bring them into church order. This was their method. Now the same work is committed unto the pastors of church; but in a contrary method. The first object of our ministry is the church,—to build up and edify the church. But what then? Is the other part of the work taken away, that they should not preach to convert souls. God forbid” (460-461).

From The Works of John Owen, Volume IX (Repr., Banner of Truth Trust; 1965), 452-462.