SOME THINGS CAN BE seen only from a great height. Go to the highest point in a city and what do you see? Sweeping vistas that both delight and inform. “Wow, look how far the city stretches out.” “Oh, that’s how the street system works.”
If you are anything like me, you love these views. When out-of-town friends visit, I like to take them to the roof of our church building. Looking out, we can see the Capitol Hill neighborhood as well as numerous landmarks of both Capitol Hill and the city of Washington. The view reminds me of the unusual community God has placed us in. And by this view we are thrilled and challenged and inspired.
Back in college, I enjoyed reading my Bible and praying out on a dormitory fire-escape that had a good view of the campus.
The window seat on an airplane is also a must for me. “That’s Chicago!”
“Look at the Grand Canyon!” “Did you have any idea this area had so many lakes?”
I remember the first time I flew back to America with my family after living in England for a few years. Once the airplane was over the American landscape, I peered out the window and was reminded of how vast and unpeopled the American continent is, especially compared to the quilt-work cultivation you see when you glance out the window over Great Britain. Seeing the two landscapes from a great height put them into a different perspective and gave me a far richer understanding of them.
That is what I hoped these “overview sermons” would do for my congregation, and what I hope they will do for you.
When you compare these sermons to most sermons you have heard, I think you will find them unusual. Sermons typically come in a couple of varieties. Some people preach topical sermons, which focus on a particular topic such as money, parenting, heaven, or repentance. The sermons in this book are not topical in that sense.
Other people preach expositional sermons. An expositional sermon takes a portion of Scripture, explains it, and then applies it to the life of the congregation. The sermon text might be something like “Honor your father and mother” or “Jesus wept” or Ephesians 2:1-10 or Psalm 23.
The sermons in this book are more expositional than topical, but they are expositional with a difference. Rather than looking at particular Scripture passages through a microscope, we are looking down from an airplane.
Some expositional preachers may feel that their seriousness in preaching God’s Word shows itself in how many years they spend in one particular book. Maybe you have heard someone say, “Our church just spent eighteen weeks in Jude!” or a pastor testifying, “When I arrived at the church two-and-a-half years ago, I began in Matthew chapter 1, and we are just now getting to the Sermon on the Mount.” Then, of course, there are the Puritan ministers like Joseph Caryl or William Gouge, who spent several decades in Job and Hebrews, respectively! Can you imagine being in Job on Sunday morning for decades?
Do not misunderstand me. God’s Word is inspired and worth a lifetime of study. We can legitimately preach for decades on any book of the Bible. God’s Word contains beauties to be seen through careful consideration that the more impatient among us will never see. I do worry that such preaching runs the danger of becoming topical preaching under the guise of expositional preaching. It can also deprive people of learning about all the different parts of God’s Word.
There is another kind of expositional preaching that is, I think, more rare, but that also serves the church well. This is what I call an “overview sermon,” like the ones contained in this volume. An overview sermon attempts to give the burden of one particular Bible book in a single message. If a typical expositional sermon makes the point of the biblical text the point of the sermon, an overview sermon simply makes the point of a whole book the point of the sermon. I have preached these sermons based on the conviction that aspects of God and his plans can be seen most clearly not only when studying the microscopic structure of one phrase in one verse but when examining a book as a whole.
Now, preparing these sermons is more difficult than preparing a sermon on smaller portions of Scripture. But like an invigorating hike up a mountain, they provide views that are rarely seen, views breathtaking in their beauty and stunning in their usefulness. I cannot remember when I first thought of preaching sermons like this. It may have been when I was discipling a recent Muslim convert and asked him to teach me the book of Hebrews in three meetings (I thought he would learn it better by teaching me). At each meeting, I would read a sentence or two from Hebrews and ask him where the verse fit into the book’s argument. I did not so much care if he could tell me chapter and verse references; I was more concerned about whether he understood the overall flow of the book, and how any one idea from the book fit into that flow.
As we worked through Hebrews this way, I found that an overview was beneficial not just for my friend but also for me as a pastor. When I preach a passage like Ephesians 2, do I approach the chapter in context? That is, am I using chapter 2 in the same way Paul uses chapter 2 within his larger argument as it unfolds in Ephesians?
The Hebrews overview also got me to thinking about my congregation. I want the members of my church to become so familiar with the books of the Bible that they know how to turn there as easily as they turn to popular Christian books. So when members of the church struggle with conflict, I will encourage them to read the book on conflict resolution by Ken Sande, but I also want them to have been trained by an overview sermon to immediately ask themselves, “I wonder what James says about this situation?” When members want to learn about the Christian life, let them read C. S. Lewis and J. I. Packer; but let them also think to read 1 Peter and 1 John! When people struggle with discouragement, by all means read Ed Welch on depression; but also read Revelation! When people worry they are slipping into legalism, I hope they know to reach for Martin Luther or C. J. Mahaney on the cross-centered life; but I also hope they know to reach for Galatians. I am even happy for the congregation to read Dever on the church, but I would prefer for them to know Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians.
Obviously, I can preach this kind of sermon in my own church only sixtysix times. This volume presents the twenty-seven sermons I preached on the twenty-seven books of the New Testament (with one more sermon thrown in that I preached on the New Testament as a whole). Hopefully, these sermons are not just dry lectures; nor, hopefully, are they just random thoughts on my favorite verses from each book. Rather, I preached each of these sermons with the conviction that they were genuine expositions of God’s Word—except that the passages were a little larger than the passages I normally expound. In each sermon, I attempted to present the weight and balance of the Bible book, with applications that represent the original thrust of the book but that also applied to our congregation at the time I first preached the sermon. In recognition of how time-bound the sermons are, we have included the date on which each sermon was first preached at the beginning of every chapter. Yet in recognition of the continuing relevance of God’s Word, these sermons are offered for your consideration as well.
I hope you are encouraged by how the various Gospels hold up the life of Jesus Christ, or how Paul presents the church in 1 Corinthians, or what Peter says is normal for Christian lives in 1 Peter, or what the elderly prisoner John perceives in his triumphant vision of God’s sovereignty over the world in Revelation.
What a benefit I have known in my own life from preparing these studies! How they have familiarized me with the arguments of the various books, so that I understand each of their parts more in context! How I pray they have blessed our own congregation!
Now, we commit them to you, with our prayers and wishes that you, too, will be surprised, delighted, and edified as long-familiar books take on new aspects of coherence and power and conviction.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church
In 1858, the Illinois legislature elected Stephen A. Douglas to the office of U.S. senator instead of Abraham Lincoln. Afterward, a sympathetic friend asked Lincoln how he felt, to which he responded, “Well, a little bit like the boy who stubbed his toe; I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh.” As a pastor on Capitol Hill, I am struck every election season by how one person’s political victory is someone else’s political loss. No matter who wins an election, a vast number of people—up to half—are disappointed. People become so involved in partisan politics that election seasons can be a time of great hope for some and, just as surely, great disappointment for others.
Sometimes we can bear disappointment well. Some people are so given over to disappointment they actually seem to thrive on it. Like the character Eeyore in the Winnie-the-Pooh tales, they take comfort in looking for the dark cloud around every silver lining. For most of us, however, disappointment can feel like a sharp thrust to the heart. We do what we can just to get by.
Did you ever see the movie Shadowlands—the story about C. S. Lewis’s late-in-life marriage to Joy Davidman? In an opening scene of the movie, Lewis is sitting amid several of his students at Oxford and he refers to a piece of poetry that mentions the image of a perfect rosebud. Lewis asks what the image of the bud represents. One of the students responds, “Love?”
“What kind of love?” says Lewis impatiently.
“Untouched,” says a student.
“Unopened, like a bud?” says another student.
Another student says anxiously, “Perfect love.”
“What makes it perfect?” says Lewis, “Come on, wake up.”
“Is it the courtly ideal of love?”
Now, that is a little inside Lewis joke, because Lewis had written a thesis on the courtly ideal of love. Still, Lewis replies, “Okay, what is that, though? What is the courtly ideal’s one essential quality?”
The students are quiet. They don’t know the answer. So Lewis himself answers: “Unattainability. The most intense joy lies not in the having, but in the desiring. The delight that never fades. Bliss that is eternal is only yours when what you most desire is just out of reach.”
Well, is that true? It sounds fine as an artistic and romantic ideal, but is life like that? Is the only lasting bliss the bliss of desire rather than fulfillment? If so, how can we have hope without the possibility of actually attaining that for which we hope? After all, the pain of disappointment is acute because the object of our desires comes close and then we miss it. Whether it is a lost election, a collapsed business scheme, a disproved theory, a canceled vacation, a piece of defeated legislation, a failed job prospect, or a departed loved one, we understand what the writer of the proverb means when he says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick!” (Prov. 13:12). In other words, we cannot overlook what our hearts are set upon.
What do you set your hopes upon? If you cannot answer that question, you may not be able to benefit from the rest of this study. It is crucial for you and me both to answer that question: What are our hopes set upon? Many of our problems come from attaching our hopes to things that were not made to bear them. Some things hold out great promise but they prove to be passing fancies as life goes on. Other things are actually dangerous and destructive. In this old world, it is not only in politics that promises made are not necessarily promises kept.
Of course, this is where God comes in. As the one who made us, he knows how we work best. He knows what we should hope for, and he has set those very things in the Bible so that we can fix our hopes upon them. In the companion to this volume, The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made,2 we looked at the “big picture” of the Old Testament. Now we will do a similar overview of the New Testament.
In the Old Testament, we saw that God created the earth and then patiently bore with a people who rebelled against him. Beginning with Abraham, he chose a special people of his own. Those people, the nation of Israel, waxed and waned for almost two millennia until their once high hopes almost vanished when their nation was crushed a final time by an alien invader—the mighty Roman Empire. When this final defeat occurred, they felt disappointed to the point of heartsickness and despair. Would their deliverer never come? Would they never be restored to the fellowship with God for which they longed? Would the world never be put right?
The New Testament tells the story of how all the promises made in the Old Testament were actually kept. And as we understand what God is doing in the grand scheme of history, our own disappointments and hopes will begin to fall into perspective.
In order to view the whole New Testament, we will look first at Christ, then at God’s covenant people, and finally at the renewal of all of creation. Think of three concentric circles. First, we focus on Christ; then we expand outward to the new covenant people; and, finally, we take in all creation.