When it comes to preaching and teaching the Bible, we all fall short. Who hasn't quoted the wrong reference or (worse) read the wrong passage of Scripture altogether? Who hasn't, in the heat of the moment, accidentally gotten tongue-tied and credited Paul with the words of Peter? You may even find yourself creating a homiletical mountain out of an exegetical molehill.
Everyone makes mistakes, but for all the mistakes preachers can (and do) make, here are 10 that we should do our best to avoid at all costs.
1. Thou shalt not put words in God's mouth.
God is more than capable of saying what He means and meaning what He says. He doesn't need our help to add to or take away from His Word. We have no business saying God said something He didn't say. That's why we must handle the Word of truth accurately (1 Timothy 3:15). If you've ever been misquoted (in conversation or a newspaper), you know how frustrating that experience is. Imagine how the God of the universe must feel when one of His messengers misquotes Him. We need to be sure to get the message right!
2. Thou shalt prepare and preach every message as though it were thy last.
Even if it is only to a small Sunday night crowd, the preacher never should take his or her responsibility lightly. Why? Because it very well may be the last sermon you ever preach or the last sermon someone listening ever hears. Furthermore, we don't know what God's Spirit has been doing behind the scenes. A rebellious teenager or wayward spouse may be on the verge of repenting and trusting Christ. The listener's need is urgent; therefore the preaching should be urgent.
Preaching is not a playground for frivolous fun but a battlefield for gutsy warfare. It is where the very issues of life and death, heaven and hell, hang in the balance. As the great Puritan theologian and preacher Richard Baxter once eloquently said, "I'll preach as though I ne'er should preach again, and as a dying man to dying men." We should seek to do the same.
3. Thou shalt not present the Word of God in a boring and non-compelling manner.
Newsflash: If people are falling asleep during your sermon, it's not God's fault. If God's Word is sufficient to transform lives, isn't it also sufficient to keep people's attention? Don't get in the way of the transforming power of God's Word by letting it become boring. To preach and teach the Bible in a boring and unpersuasive manner is, I believe, a sin.
This is not to say every preacher has to be dynamic, witty and entertaining. It does mean, however, that every preacher should see him or herself as God's messenger and spokesman for that moment. He or she must plead passionately and desperately with those listening to hear and heed God's Word.
4. Thou shalt always point to Christ in thy message.
Seeing that Jesus Christ is the focal point of every passage, it stands to reason that He should, therefore, be the focal point of every sermon. As Dennis Johnson writes, "Whatever our biblical text and theme, if we want to impart God's life-giving wisdom in its exposition, we can do nothing other than proclaim Christ."
The most humbling experience of my seminary years was related to this. In one of my preaching classes, I had to give several sermons in front of my peers and professor. The first sermon I preached was well-received and complimented. So after the second sermon (from the Old Testament), I sat down arrogantly waiting to hear "the showers of blessings" and compliments about how well I had done.
My professor, Greg Heisler from Southeastern Seminary, said, "Tyler, that message was passionate and challenging … but you made one huge mistake." He continued, "You could have preached that message in a Jewish synagogue or a Muslim mosque and [the congregation] could have said ‘Amen!' to everything you said. You never once mentioned Christ in your entire message." He left me with this challenge: "You need to be sure that every time you preach—even from the Old Testament—that if a Jew or Muslim were in the audience that [he or she] would feel extremely uncomfortable."
Remember, we are not simply theistic preachers; we are to be distinctly Christian preachers.
5. Thou shalt edify thy hearers to faith and obedience.
It's like the old hymn: "Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey." Regardless of the passage, the goal of every sermon should be to remind people that whatever the issue or doctrine at hand God and His Word are reliable.
When God gave the Ten Commandments, He didn't begin by barking orders at the Israelites. In fact, the Ten Commandments don't start with commands. They begin with the reassuring words, "I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt …" (Exodus 20:1). In other words, God reminded them, "You can trust Me; that's why you should obey Me."
The real motivation for Christian living is not "I have to obey God," but it is "Given everything I know to be true about Him, why wouldn't I obey God?" A good sermon will help people to think and live that way.
6. Thou shalt not be one kind of person and another kind of preacher.
This is the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde syndrome of preaching. On the one hand, this means you can't live like the devil Monday through Saturday and expect to preach with the tongue of an angel on Sunday. Paul told Timothy: "Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these [sinful] things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work" (2 Timothy 2:21). Every preacher must seek to be a "clean vessel" which is "useful to the Master."
This also means you shouldn't try to be someone else in the pulpit. As Phillips Brooks once said, "Preaching is truth through personality." God only made one Charles Spurgeon, one Adrian Rogers, one John MacArthur and one John Piper. Don't try to imitate other preachers; be yourself.
Listening to such great preachers is like watching a grand Fourth of July fireworks display. You sit back, relax, watch and "Ooh" and "Aah" with everyone else. You should be amazed at it and enjoy it, but you shouldn't go home and try to duplicate it in your backyard. You can't. There's no sense in trying. The same is true with preaching. When you preach, be yourself.
7. Thou shalt not open a commentary until thou hast read the passage 100 times.
This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it's an important reminder. Which would you rather eat: Grandma's made-from-scratch, warm, fluffy biscuits or a frozen biscuit that's been nuked in the microwave? Reheated food is never as good or fresh. The same is true with sermons.
The biggest temptation, I think, for the current generation of preachers is to jump directly into the commentaries or click over to the sermon Web sites without thoroughly meditating on the passage first for him or herself. As Robert Smith once commented, "There are far too many preachers who preach only from the neck up." The truth is most powerful when it is from the lips of a person whose heart and mind have marinated extensively on God's Word.
8. Honor thine context above all else, so that it may go well with thee in thy message.
The battle cry of the soldiers of the Texas Revolution was "Remember the Alamo!" The battle cry for today's preachers should be "Remember, context is king!" I often tell people they don't need to know Greek and Hebrew to teach the Bible well, but they must know the context well.
The role of context in preaching and teaching cannot be underestimated or overstressed. Without context, I could preach a sermon that said, "... and [Judas] went away and hanged himself" and the Lord Jesus said, "Go and do the same." While there may not be anyone promoting suicide from the pulpit, if we don't pay close attention to context, the result may be spiritual suicide. Don't ever lose the context.
9. Thou shalt make the point of the text the point of the message.
The title of John Stott's timeless book says it all: Between Two Worlds. The preacher of the Word of God finds him or herself with one foot in the biblical world and one foot in the modern world. It falls upon the preacher to straddle these two with balance. Don't ever forget that what God said 2,000 or 3,000 years ago is exactly the same message people need to hear today.
Some will argue, "Yeah, but what about all the history, culture and differences in language from biblical to modern times? My people don't understand all that stuff." Well, guess what? You should teach it to them.
Don't dumb-down the Bible; smarten-up the people. The Bible is the most relevant thing in the universe because God is the most relevant Being in the universe.
10. Thou shalt preach and teach doctrine above all else.
Many churches are weak and lifeless because they have spiritual anemia. What they lack is doctrinal iron in their bloodstreams. All week long, people hear messages from other people. "What people need," as Robert McCracken once said, "is to hear a word beyond themselves." Doctrine feeds the soul. It reassures the faithless. It matures the child. It's what keeps churches healthy and alive. Without it, pastors speak without preaching, and churches sing without worshiping. Preach doctrinally rich sermons!
The great problem in today's pulpits is not a lack of preaching but an abundance of dreadful preaching. This is largely because many preachers are not as careful and mindful of the task as they should be. Not only does the church need us preachers to keep these Ten Commandments, but more importantly God and His Word deserve the effort required.