If We Read Our Bibles, Why Do We Need Sermons?
If we read our Bibles, why do we need sermons? It’s a question from a listener to the podcast named Lucia. “Hello, Pastor John and Tony, I’m a high school student and have been blessed by many of your sermons and podcasts. I have a question. I know there was an old episode titled ‘If I Listen to Sermons, Why Do I Need to Read My Bible?’ I want to ask the reverse question: If I read the Bible, why do I need to listen to sermons? I feel like many people emphasize reading the Bible, saying it’s our direct way to have a relationship with God, whereas when you listen to sermons, you may be listening to someone else’s relationship with God.
“Also, I know that powerful sermons can make you feel emotional, but I hear that our faith shouldn’t be based on emotions. What I mean by getting emotional is hard to explain — but the inspiring feeling where I feel God’s love, how great he is, and feel motivated to change. But once those emotions in me die down, I’m not sure where to go next. Do I read the Bible more? Or do I listen to more sermons to help me feel something again? But I digress. My main question is, Why listen to sermons if we all have the Bible to read on our own now?”
Let me try to answer this question in two stages. First, I’ll try to show from the New Testament that it is God’s plan and design that, besides the infallible word of God in the Bible, the church is to be led, underneath that infallible word, by fallible elders — sometimes called pastors or overseers or teachers — who are gifted to lead and to teach the flock. And then second, we ask the question why: Why did God set it up that way, so that the ordinary members of the church, who have in their hand an infallible Bible, should listen to and respect and esteem and follow and rejoice in the ministry of the word through fallible preaching?
Shepherds for the Flock
So, step one: God’s plan. Just this week, I was preparing a Look at the Book session on 1 Thessalonians 5:12–14, and I was compelled to address this very question before I knew that this question would be asked. And here’s what that text says: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”
Here’s a group in the church that leads and teaches. And then I think verse 14, the next verse, turns to address those very teachers like this: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
I drew out from that text the obvious point — namely, here’s the infallible apostle writing to the Thessalonians and handing off a large measure of responsibility for the ministry of the word in the church. He’s handing it off to fallible people. He’s telling the teachers how to minister the word, and he’s telling the members how to receive the word and how to respect the teachers.
Then consider 2 Timothy 4:1–2. This has been huge in my life as a pastor and preacher. Paul says to young Timothy, whom Paul had left behind as a pastor in Ephesus, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word.”
“By means of good preaching, Bible reading itself becomes increasingly fruitful.”
That’s just such a clear command to Timothy: “Preach. Herald the word.” In other words, the question is not whether the believers in Ephesus think they need to listen to Timothy when he preaches, since they have access to the infallible letter of Ephesians. The question is whether God, in his perfect will, is telling them to listen to Timothy preach the word. He’s saying, “Timothy, preach the word.” And God intends for people to hear the word preached if he commands his pastors to preach the word.
Here’s just one more passage: Ephesians 4:11–12. Christ “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
So, what’s clear in this passage is that the risen Christ intends for churches to have pastors and teachers that, through their preaching and teaching, equip the saints to do the work of the ministry and build themselves up in love and faith. That’s the divine plan.
Five Reasons for Preaching
Now, the second step of my answer is, Why? Why does God do it this way? Why does he plan for there to be fallible (and I’m talking about myself there, John Piper) human teachers and preachers in the church, who teach and preach to the people on the basis of God’s infallible word, when the people have that infallible word right there in their hands? And here are five reasons that I see in the Bible.
1. Pastors are uniquely gifted to teach.
Preachers and teachers, according to 1 Timothy 3:2, are to be gifted — or apt or able — to teach, which means that they should have the time, the inclination, the skill, and the spiritual discernment to see things in God’s infallible word that many ordinary folks just don’t see.
2. Sermons help us read the Bible better.
In their teaching and preaching, pastors demonstrate for the people and model for the people how to see those very things in reading the Bible that they don’t ordinarily see for themselves. Preaching is based on the word of God, and good preaching shows from the very text of the word of God where the teaching is coming from, so that the people who are listening can see it for themselves. And in seeing it for themselves, through the preaching of this pastor, they learn how to see it for themselves. And so, by means of good preaching, Bible reading itself becomes increasingly fruitful.
3. Preaching awakens new affections for God.
Faithful biblical preaching is what I call expository exultation. The word expository implies teaching and explaining what the Bible actually means. And the word exultation implies that the preacher himself feels and communicates the worth of what he’s seeing. So, preaching is the communication of both seeing and savoring the reality in the text. This means that those who listen to such preaching, over time, will not only have their heads stocked with new thoughts, but will have their hearts awakened to new affections for God and his word and his ways and his people.
“God’s plan is that people are saved through the preaching of the Bible, not just the reading of the Bible.”
We might think that the Bible itself should be enough to awaken all the affections and emotions that Christians ought to feel. Well, the plain fact is that that does not happen. God has planned that we be inspired and encouraged and humbled and thrilled by the things of God, which we see more movingly through faithful, Spirit-filled preaching. That’s why he says to those teachers in Thessalonica in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, “Encourage the fainthearted.” Encouragement happens in preaching. That’s a change of emotions and affections. Affections are changed, not just minds, through God-ordained preaching.
4. God saves through the foolishness of preaching.
God has ordained that the eyes of the spiritually blind be open and that salvation come through the foolishness of fallible human preaching. First Corinthians 1:21: “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”
We might imagine, in our own heads, that all the world needs are Bibles dropped from airplanes into people’s lives. Well, we can imagine all we want. But God’s plan is that people are saved through the preaching of the Bible, through the preaching of biblical truth, not just the reading of the Bible. The foolishness of preaching is appointed as one of the important means of saving sinners.
5. We need to hear the word from other believers.
Behind all four of those previous points lies the truth that God intends for the church to be a mutually interdependent body of believers. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you. I’ve got my Bible. I don’t need you.” That’s from 1 Corinthians 12:21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’”
In other words, God has determined that Jesus Christ, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, will get more glory through the Christ-exalting, Spirit-dependent, word-saturated, mutual ministry in the church than he would if people only read their Bibles, rather than needing to hear other believers speak the word into their lives. That’s the bottom line: Christ is more glorified through doing it God’s way than by forsaking God’s way while presuming to love the Bible.