Posted On April 14, 2021

The Centrality of the Word in the Life of the Church 1

“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1st Timothy 4:13).

John Calvin is considered one of the primary influences of the Protestant Reformation. Today we cannot consider his whole life but here’s one important story from his life that highlights the central place the Word of God is to have in the local church.

In 1536, John Calvin decided to move to Strasbourg, which is located in southwest Germany. However, as the war between Francis I and Charles V raged on, it prevented John Calvin from going to Strasbourg. Instead, Calvin was forced to stay in Geneva, located in Switzerland, where he intended only to spend one night. Being in the city of Geneva, he was noticed by others as the author of his famous book, The Institutes of Christian Religion. One man that met him there was William Farel, a man who led the Protestant Reformation for ten years.

John Calvin began his ministry in Geneva, first as a lecturer, then as a pastor. With Farel, Calvin started the task of bringing the life and practice of the Church in Geneva into submission to the Word of God. Among the reforms Calvin brought was the exercise of church discipline at communion, which didn’t sit well with the well-known citizens of Geneva, many of whom were living sinful lives. All of this led to the crisis of Easter Sunday, April 23, 1538, when Calvin refused to administer Communion to the leading people in the congregation, who were living in rebellion against God while professing faith in Christ. All of this caused tensions so great that Calvin and Farel were both forced to leave Geneva. Calvin headed to Strasbourg, where he intended to focus on his writing. Then he met Martin Bucer, who insisted on having Calvin preach the Word, which eventually resulted in him becoming the pastor of nearly five hundred Protestant refugees from France.

While in exile in Strasbourg, Calvin was given freedom to write and he was enormously productive, writing his commentary on Romans and enlarging the work of his Institutes of Christian Religion. Even so, with Calvin’s departure from Geneva, the Roman Catholic Church aimed to return to Geneva. Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto wrote an open letter to the people, inviting them to return to Roman Catholicism after Calvin’s departure. The leaders of Geneva appealed to John Calvin to respond, which he did with the reply to Sadoleto—a compelling defense of the glory of God in the gospel of grace. That response was later considered the greatest apologetic work for the Reformation. Also, during this time, Calvin married his wife, Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children.  Calvin was then called back to Geneva on September 13, 1541, and immediately resumed his exposition of Scripture––right at the verse following the last one he had covered before his exile. Such a continuation was a bold statement of what place verse-by-verse sermons would hold in his ministry.

The Need for Corporate Bible Reading of the Word of God

Calvin’s example in the above anecdote is significant. He did not yield one inch of his convictions, and the Lord blessed his efforts, using him to write books, preach sermons, reach people all over Europe and many other parts of the world. What Calvin understood was the central place of the Word of God in the ministry of the local church.

“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1st Timothy 4:13). Paul’s answer here gets to the heart of why Calvin left Geneva and why he returned. Before we dive into the passage, let’s take a very brief tour of the context of 1st Timothy.

Paul opens his letter in the first two verses of chapter one with a greeting as he always gives. In 1st Timothy 1:3-11, he gives an explanation and warning against false teachers. He continues in chapter 1, verses 12-20, explaining that Jesus came to save sinners. In 1st Timothy 2:1-13, he encourages Christians to pray for government leaders and gets into critical teaching on biblical gender roles. In 1st Timothy 3, Paul explains the place of biblical elders and deacons in the local church, along with addressing behavior in the local church. In 1st Timothy 4:1-5, he identifies false teaching. And in 1st Timothy 4:6-16, the apostle explains how Timothy should be shaped by the Word and the gospel in his life and conduct.

Teaching the Bible begins with reading the Bible. This applies to private study, of course, but the Greek word used here for reading (anagnōsei) refers to the public reading of Scripture. This held a central place in early Christian worship. It was one of the practices the first Christians carried over from Jewish worship. When Jesus visited the synagogue in Nazareth, for example, he read the Isaiah scroll before he began to teach (Luke 4:16–21). By the time Paul was writing to Timothy, public readings included not only the scrolls of Moses and the Prophets, but also the letters of the Apostles.

The public reading of Scripture was necessary in the early Church because books and parchments were scarce. For many Christians, public worship was the only opportunity to hear the Word of God. This is how Justin Martyr described a worship service from the second century:

“On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”

Subsequent history shows that the work of the gospel flourishes wherever the Bible is read. This is why the disappearance of Scripture reading from some evangelical worship services is so alarming. It is good for churches to read from both the Old and New Testaments, and to have a reading from the Gospels, or perhaps a reading from the Psalms. However it is done, the Word of God—from the Old and New Testaments—is still to be read in all the churches.

The Scripture is not only to be read, but it is also to be explained, as it was in the days of Justin Martyr. Thus, Paul commands Timothy also to devote himself to the exhortation and teaching of the Word of God (1st Timothy 4:13; cf. 1st Timothy 6:2). The first term the Apostle uses (paraklēsis) in 1st Timothy 4:13 is the word for exhortation. It means to encourage or to persuade, but it refers to Bible exposition, as can be seen from Paul’s visit to Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:14-15, “On the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 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 exhortation for the people, say it.’” 

Paul proceeded to preach salvation in Jesus Christ from the Old Testament Scriptures in Acts 13:16-41.  What the Bible means by a “word of exhortation” is a sermon.

The second term the Apostle uses in 1st Timothy 4:13 is (didaskalia) is the word for teaching or instruction. Timothy was to catechize God’s people in Christian doctrine. This may have included private instruction, but it also refers to the public explanation of apostolic teaching. Hughes Oliphant Old explains, on the basis of 1st Timothy 4:13, that “early Christian preaching had a strong didactic flavor. Preachers were supposed to move the heart and will, but they were also supposed to teach…The reading and exposition of Scripture, the admonishing of the congregation, and the teaching of the Christian way of life were all integral parts of the ministry of the Word.”

Bible exposition is essential to the health of the church. Paul did not tell Timothy to replace the sermon with a drama, or to give the Ephesians five steps to a happier life. He told him to teach the Scriptures. This is because Bible exposition has always been at the heart of biblical worship, at least since the days of Ezra.

In our local churches, the Bible is to be read; then it is to be explained and applied. The systematic exposition of Scripture—also known as an “expository sermon”, which makes the point of the sermon the point of the sermon—remains the most effective means for the conversion of sinners and the growth of the people of God. It is the most effective means because it is God’s chosen means.

I’m touching here today on an important subject the centrality of the Word of God. We often like to cite Romans 12:1-2 on the subject and it says:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Romans, like all of Paul’s epistles, would have first been read aloud to the Christian Church at Rome. The phrase “transformed by the renewal of your mind” in Romans 12:2 is not only individual but corporate, since Paul’s goal in the context of this epistle in Romans 12:1–15:13 is to give instructions on the practical outworking of the mercy of God as the people of God “do life” with one another. Corporately, through the preaching of the Word of God, the people of God are transformed by the grace of God, so they may worship Him by offering their whole lives to Him in adoration and praise.

Another reason for the public reading of Scripture is that the Bible was meant to be read aloud. Long before Scripture was spread through the written form, it was transmitted orally. The Greco-Roman culture was an oral culture, and literature in the ancient world was spoken. For example, while the New Testament epistles were written down, they would have been read aloud to the congregation and only then spread around to the other churches through the known world.

Hearing the Scriptures is different than reading it alone privately. I often listen to the Scriptures on the YouVersion app on my cell phone in the mornings while I’m getting ready for work. I find hearing the Word opens new vistas of biblical understanding for me, which helps me in my reading of the passages I’m listening to or reading that day. Hearing the Word and reading the Word are both critical, and both are equal in their importance. Hearing the Word, whether on the YouVersion app or read aloud in the local church, can help the people of God to receive the His Word together. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith is right when it says, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.”

Listening to Sermons in Church

Now that we have some idea of why Calvin was so committed to verse-by-verse preaching, and why it’s so central to the life and health of the local church, let’s discuss how we are to “sit under” a sermon. After all, it’s wonderful to hear the Word preached, but we need to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.

Going to church each Sunday and sitting under godly, loving, biblical, and practical preaching, week in and week out, should be enjoyed as a privilege by God’s people. While some people, like myself, learn best by sitting and listening, I know many people get more out of sermons by taking notes. When I’m listening to a sermon, I try to always do the following three things:

  1. Open my Bible and follow along as the pastor preaches the Word.
  2. Listen for critical ideas and points.
  3. Learn to interpret the biblical text from the pastor/preacher’s example.

Open Your Bible

First, open your Bible and follow along as the pastor teaches the Word. Whether you have a Bible app on your phone, or you have a physical copy of God’s Word, always be sure to have your Bible open so you can follow along as the pastor is preaching. Paul commended the Bereans, because they checked to see if what he was saying was biblical, and the Thessalonians, for how they received the Word of God.

As Christians, we should be known for our love for God. A real love for God will produce a love for His Word, His people, and His Church. We are living in a time when biblical illiteracy is on the rise. By opening your Bible during the week on your own, at Bible study, and on Sunday at your local church, you can grow in your knowledge, understanding, and application of God’s Word.  This is why following along as your pastor preaches the Word is so important—it will help you see what your pastor sees in the text, which will help you to learn how to read the Bible well on your own.

Listen for Key Ideas and Points

Some pastors provide an outline/notes for you to follow during the sermon. If this is the case, I encourage you to follow along with the outline (and fill it in, if applicable) as the pastor preaches. This outline is a crucial tool to help you take notes. If the pastor does not provide an outline, however, it is a good practice to create one of your own (or make basic notes) during the sermon.

While you’re listening to the sermon, look for critical ideas. These may be points that the pastor brings out in his sermons, or they may be thoughts brought to mind by the Holy Spirit. These are valuable insights to write down because they may encourage you or others later in the week or further down the road.

As a Bible teacher, sometimes I’ll repeat something a few times to help the listener understand how critical it is to the whole message. Those key ideas may be the ones the pastor mentions, but they may also be something else in the passage that is helpful to you. You never know when those thoughts will have an impact later on and how they can be used by the Lord to minister to others.

Learn to Interpret the Biblical Text from Your Pastor’s Example

One of the main objectives for faithful verse-by-verse preaching is that, week after week and year after year, people get to see how the pastor reads, understands, and interprets the biblical text. This is one of the primary reasons why verse-by-verse expository preaching is so relevant.

As Christians, we should be known for handling the Word of God well. The faithful pastor preaches the biblical text to help people see how he got the points he did from the Scriptures under consideration. In other words, the faithful pastor exegetes the biblical text to help the people of God see what the passage teaches, by drawing it out in helpful ways so people can learn to interpret the passages themselves. The goal of verse-by-verse preaching is to help Christians love the Lord, to grow in the knowledge of the Word, and become more like Jesus by learning to discern the Word of God rightly.

Maybe you’ve never considered listening intentionally to a sermon or note-taking. In every sermon, there will be points that you’ll find more helpful than others. I encourage you to listen well, and take notes if you want, whether that’s on an outline provided, a notebook you bring (or other note-taking device), or just mentally (although, let that method be a last resort). As you do so, you’ll find that you will remember more of the sermons you hear.

Listening well and taking quality notes during the sermon is a means to an end. That end is our growth in Christ and understanding of the Bible. You leave church each week sent out on a mission by God to make disciples of the nations for the glory of God. Listening well to what is being taught to you with an open Bible, while jotting down key ideas and watching how your pastor interprets the Scripture, will help you to grow in your knowledge and application of the Bible.  This will, in turn, help you to grow in the grace of God.

Practical Encouragement to Love the Lord and One Another

In 2nd John 1:4–6, the apostle writes, “I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father. And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.”

John’s point here is relevant to our discussion about listening to sermons because his goal is for the people of God to “walk in the truth just as we were commanded by the Father”[i] so that they would love one another. The “walking in the truth mentioned by John carries with it the command to live in a manner pleasing to the Lord. The “commandments” they have “heard from the beginning” must constantly steer the life of the people of God, so they are guided by—and display—the love of God. At the outset of 2nd John, he uses the word “truth” because Christians are to be in close communion with Jesus, who is the truth. Christians are to be people of the Word, and to be shaped by the Word, so they will be able to spot counterfeits and deceivers.

This week I encourage you to read, study, and apply the Bible to your life, so you can “know the truth because the truth abides in us and will be with us forever.”  The person and work of the Lord Jesus are the foundation upon which the Christian life and ministry are to be grounded.

The content of the gospel, according to the apostle in 2nd John 1:3, is “grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth, and love.” One of the primary fruits of such love for the content of gospel truth is love, which is echoed by Paul and Peter, who join truth with love. By growing in love for biblical truth, every Christian will grow in love for the Lord and others around them. The goal of all this is to hunger and thirst for the righteousness, which Jesus alone provides in His finished and sufficient work. This is why Christians aren’t only concerned with listening to a sermon well, but with consistently applying their growth in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus.

As we wrap up this article, I want to exhort you with how your week should be centered on the Word and have your life pointed towards the worship of the Lord all for His glory.

  • Sunday: Should be centered on the worship and study of God’s Word.
  • Monday: Prioritize the reading and study of God’s Word. Rise early to spend time with the Lord and to spend time in prayer. See your vocation not only as a vehicle to make money, but as a means to spread the gospel and make disciples. Spend time with your family. At night, sometime before bed, review your day. See where you can grow, repent of any sin, and cast yourself upon the perfect spotless righteousness of Jesus.
  • Tuesday: Rise again early to spend time delighting in the God who delights over you in Christ by spending time in His Word. Spend time praying for your pastor and elders and government officials. See today as an opportunity to share Christ with others. Find someone in your workplace you can encourage and invest in. Spend time tonight with family and, at some point, review the day with what you learned and where you can repent and keep short accounts before the Lord.
  • Wednesday: Another great day to spend with the Lord in His Word and in prayer. Keep seeing your job as an opportunity to invest in others with the gospel by using your skills and talents for the glory of God. Spend time after work with your family. Review your day and repent as needed, keeping short accounts with the Lord.
  • Thursday: Spend time today praying for your pastor, elders, and for government officials again. Continue to use your skills at your job to point people to Jesus and to make disciples. Spend time after work with your family. Review your day and repent where necessary always keeping the goal of keeping short accounts with the Lord and others.
  • Friday: As your work-week draws to a close, let your daily prayers focus on your co-workers and those you are discipling. And, as usual, spend time with your family. Finish off your day by reviewing everything and repenting where necessary, keeping short accounts with the Lord.
  • Saturday: Well, we’ve made it through the week! Awesome! Spend time this morning with the Lord thanking Him for His help in getting you through the week. Focus your heart and mind on readying yourself for Sunday morning. Review last week’s sermon and pray for your pastor’s message that he’ll be delivering tomorrow.

Just remember to enjoy your time in God’s Word, every day.

Reference:

[i] 2 John 4.

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