Hearing Sermons


Acts 17:1-15

Text Comment

v.3

The primitive preaching was, in the terms of the modern alternative, transactional more than interpersonal, that is, it focused more on the objective realities of sin, guilt, Christ’s atonement, and the eschatological realities of judgment and eternal life (with a concentration on Christ’s two advents) than on human desires for happiness or satisfaction of some kind. It did not ignore those interests at all, but treated them as subsidiary to and subsequent to the great events of salvation. Today, it remains a strong tendency of the Protestant traditions to give account of one’s faith more in terms of present experience (new birth, faith, walking with God) than in terms of the great works of God in salvation (atonement leading to justification). The great reference points in the daily life of a Christian should always be Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and the Second Coming.

Here is Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 giving a summary account of the Thessalonians response to his preaching: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”

v.5

So often in the NT the motive of Jewish opposition to the work of the gospel is said to have been jealousy. Paul encountered this Jewish opposition everywhere he went and spoke of it openly. Here he is in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16:

“For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit.”

This kind of speech would be regarded as anti-Semitic today, but Paul, of course, was a Jew himself. It was not a racial judgment that he was making, but a spiritual one. The question is not whether Paul was an anti-Semite, as many people now accuse him of being and those who follow his teaching, but whether the history as reported in the NT is true. If so, then clearly what Paul says here is simply the facts of the matter.

It is always a difficulty for us to balance a godly tolerance and charitable spirit with a loyalty to the truth. But there is enough plain speaking and the making of judgments about people in the Bible to prove that this kind of speaking is necessary. The end of such firm, unbending, sharp-edged language will always eventually be also the end of loyalty to the truth, to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Christ and his gospel have their adversaries who speak and work against them. The question is whether they also have their champions who stand up for his truth however difficult or unpleasant that may prove to be.

The trick is to speak this way, but to speak just as much and just as convincingly and with just as much conviction the love that believes all things, hopes all things, keeps no record of wrongs, etc. As you know, our frailty and sinfulness inclines all of us to prefer one kind of speech to another rather than, as Paul, to be a master of both!

v.10

Here is F.F. Bruce: “Under these circumstances, the Thessalonian [city officials] appear to have behaved very sanely. The charge naturally alarmed them; the provincial authorities would not be pleased if they seemed to treat such serious accusations lightly. But the evidence for the charge was scanty, and the men against whom it was really brought could not be found. Jason and his companions were made responsible for seeing that Paul had to leave the city and that his friends guaranteed that he would not come back — at least, during the present magistrate’s term of office. It is probably with reference to this situation that Paul, some weeks later, wrote to assure the Thessalonian Christians that he greatly desired to go back and see them, but ‘Satan hindered us’ (1 Thessalonians 2:18).” Once again, no deliberately provocative behavior on Paul’s part. He was told to leave and he left.

Now we are clearly given a signal in v. 11 that there is something in the Bereans’ behavior that we ought to imitate; when the Bible, and the Holy Spirit in the Bible, pays folks a compliment, we want to sit up and take special notice: these folk were of noble character. Why? Because they received the message that Paul brought with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true! Remember, Luke is giving us in his church history, representative facts, the pieces of the story that help us to know not only what happened long ago, but how we are to live as Christians and as a Christian church in our own day.

And what the Bereans give us, the Holy Spirit tells us, is an example of the right way to listen to Christian preaching: with eagerness, carefulness, consideration, and a readiness to believe and obey all that comes from God in that preaching. True, Paul was no ordinary preacher. But, there are many reasons to accept that in his preaching of the Word Paul the apostle was a forerunner of every Christian preacher and that, with a few necessary changes being made, what can be said about his preaching can be said about all Christian preaching, as we would argue as well of the preaching of the OT prophets and of our Lord himself.

All through the Bible, the Word of God is preached, or proclaimed by men appointed to the task. It is read, it is explained, it is applied. That is, in fact, a simple working definition of Christian preaching: the exposition or explanation and application of the Word of God. Paul, of course, was not here in Thessalonica reading the Bible to these folks and explaining what he read. He was telling the Christian story, the history of Christ and salvation which is now written down in the NT, and explaining that to the people, but in each case it is the Word of God, the truth of God that is preached.

One evidence of the genetic relationship between Paul’s preaching and that of later Christian ministers is that the same words are used for the preaching of both. What Paul did he told others, such as Timothy, to do as well. He calls himself a preacher, or herald and commands Timothy to be the same (2 Timothy 4:2).

It is for this reason, and many others to be sure, that, from the beginning, the apostles and especially the Apostle Paul were taken to be the pattern for Christian ministers of the Word, Christian preachers. And it is because the prophets and apostles had so high a view of their own preaching — as heralds, spokesmen for God himself, authorized to speak on his behalf — and such a high view of preaching’s role and its authority that Christianity has ever after placed such an emphasis on preaching.

The Second Helvetic Confession (1566): “praedicatio verbi divini est verbum divinum.” This was Calvin’s doctrine. He said that the preaching of the Word of God was the Word of God for three reasons. First because it was an exposition and interpretation of the Bible which is the Word of God; second, because the preacher has been sent and commissioned by God as his ambassador with authority to speak in God’s name; and third, because in that preaching God himself speaks, the Holy Spirit using the human words to communicate himself to the soul.

You have this taught explicitly in the Bible though, in some cases, the point is obscured in translation. In Romans 10:14, for example, Paul speaks of the voice of God as it is conveyed in preaching — not his own preaching, particularly, but all Christian preaching. The NIV has Paul saying, “How then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” But that is not what Paul wrote! He did not write, “how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard,” but “how can they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” In other words, the NIV translation suggests that preaching brings to men a word about Jesus, while Paul wrote that preaching brings Jesus and his voice directly to men. C.E.B. Cranfield, the finest of modern commentators on Romans, writes, “[Paul’s way of speaking] indicates that…the thought is of their hearing Christ speaking in the message of the preachers.” To take it as the NIV does, Cranfield says, “Is not really feasible” from the point of view of Greek grammar. [vol. II, 534] (The same confusion in translation is found in the NIV’s translation [and that of other ETs] at Ephesians 4:21.)

This view of preaching is what led to such high views of “hearing” preaching. So Martin Luther says, “Yes I hear the sermon; but who is speaking? The minister? No, indeed! You do not hear the minister. True, the voice is his, but my God is speaking the Word that he preaches or speaks.”

And so the example of the Bereans. These folk weren’t even yet Christians, yet they were hanging on Paul’s words and examining the Scriptures to confirm that what he was preaching to them was, in fact, the Word of God. This is noble! This is clearly the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in them. All Christian congregations are not so!

You, being a congregation yourself, might not like what is said about congregations in books by preachers about preaching! George Herbert, the great Anglican minister of the 17th century and great English poet, wrote: “The people that commonly sit under the pulpit are usually as hard and dead as the seats they sit on, and need a mountain of fire to kindle them.” [Cited in Scougal, xxv.] I am very happy to say that that has not been my experience of you through the years. Not only your attentiveness, but the eagerness with which you come back on the Sabbath evening for another sermon has always been a great encouragement to me, a source of pride, and something of which, I confess, I sometimes boast when I travel through the church.

But, even of you, perhaps especially of yourselves, there is this that must also be said. As Thomas Shepard once said of himself, so you must say of yourselves, “My mind is a bucket without a bottom.” [This and what follows from Whyte, Thomas Shepard, pp. 195-198.] Now, you children know what he was talking about and what he meant when he said that. He was talking about what happened to him far too often when he came to church and heard the Word of God read and preached to him. You know what a bucket without a bottom would be. If you went to a well with such a bucket in your hand, you could let that bucket down into the well and draw it up all your lifetime long and never carry any water with you back to the house.

And that is the case with multitudes who go to church every Lord’s Day and it is true of all of us too much of the time. We have plenty of the Berean spirit with regard to many things — the stock market report, or the box score, or the film review, but too much of the time we sit down and hear a sermon and rise and go away the same people we were before.

This was the case with Jesus’ own hearers, who came to hear his perfect sermons. Finally Jesus told a parable about them, where he said that he could see the wicked one coming and stealing the word out of their hearts even as he preached it to them; he could see the thorns choking the good seed as fast as he could sow it. Their minds were like buckets without a bottom. And Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day they come, and too often we come, with our bottomless bucket in our hands.

And I have the experience of this myself as your preacher. There are some in this congregation to whom I have, in my own poor way, sought to preach both faith and duty for now many years and I’m not sure they are any better for all of my preaching to them. Then, there are people here, and not entirely ungodly people, who seem not to be changed much by all the preaching they hear. I have worked to be the Lord’s voice to them to bring conviction, illumination, inspiration, faith, hope, and love; I have preached in words as plain as I could make them; I have sometimes felt like calling out their names from this pulpit so that there would be no possible misunderstanding of my meaning. But all of this to no observable effect. And on others, in many cases, to very little observable effect. But back they come again the next Lord’s Day with their bottomless bucket. Oh, yes, I am speaking to you and not to your neighbor!

Just think with me for a moment, brothers and sisters, what our lives would be, what they might be, if only we heard every sermon as the Bereans heard Paul’s sermons. If only we heard the Word so gladly and then considered it carefully, comparing it with the Holy Scripture as a whole — not only to verify its truthfulness, but to confirm its importance to us, the vital necessity of our faith and obedience in the face of the Word. If every sermon set us hard at work in some way seeking after God and his will in our lives.

Remember well, now! The difference was not in Paul. His sermons were the same in Thessalonica as in Berea. The difference lay with the Bereans and their hearing of his sermons. There was no greater preaching than Jesus himself, but most of his congregations came to hear him with buckets without a bottom. Only you can take a sermon and make something genuinely holy and important out of it, and every sermon that is at all faithful to the Word of God has plenty in it for such a hearer as the Bereans were.

And when your son or daughter looks up to you and asks if that was a good sermon you just heard in church, say to him or to her, at least until they are old enough to judge for themselves, what John Keble’s father told him when he was a boy, “My son, all sermons are good.” [Whyte, James Fraser, 52-53]

The Puritans used to stress the great importance of hearing sermons and the way in which the preached word ought to be heard. Here is Richard Baxter [Christian Directory, Works, vol. I, 473, 475]:

“Make it your work with diligence to apply the word as you are hearing it…. Cast not all upon the minister, as those that will go no further than they are carried as by force…. You have work to do as well as the preacher, and should all the time be as busy as he…you must open your mouths, and digest it, for another cannot digest it for you…therefore be all the while at work, and abhor an idle heart in hearing, as well as an idle minister. …call up all when you come home in secret, and by meditation preach it over to yourselves. If it were coldly delivered by the preacher, do you…preach it more earnestly over to your own hearts….”

So what are the parts of the faithful hearing of sermons? How may we be like the Bereans?




  1. Listen not to the preacher but to God in his Word. [No excuse for bad preaching, of course; but it is his responsibility to preach the Word faithfully and with interest and point, yours to listen for God’s voice in the Word.




  1. Seek not a “blessing” but the truth. It is possible to be “blessed” all the way to hell. Sometimes the truth is painful, sometimes difficult, sometimes it brings trouble and hardship and struggle. But it is the truth that sets us free, the truth that sanctifies us.




  1. Intend not only to hear but to obey. That is, one listens with a view to what one will do himself, herself with this truth. It is this that leads to careful consideration of what the truth one is hearing means.




  1. Pray as one hears and after. If God is speaking ask him to make clear his meaning to you and to give you grace to believe and obey.




  1. Do not keep what you hear to yourself. Thomas Watson wrote:


“One reason why preaching the Word on a Sabbath does no more good is because there is so little good conference. Few speak of the word they have heard, as if sermons were such secrets that they must not be spoken of again.” Conversation helps retention and drives the application home to the heart.


Do you see, by the way, how all of this requires and is made so much more effective and powerful by the keeping of the Lord’s Day holy. The problem with TV football is that it drives the impression of the Word of God right out of your mind. What passions the Word of God caused to rise in your heart are swept away before these new passions. And do you not see how all of this is helped if you come again to the Lord’s House on a Sunday evening to hear the Word once more. The death of the evening service in our time is, I fear, proof of two things: a growing disinterest in hearing the Word of God preached on the part of God’s people and a growing disinterest in preaching on the part of the Lord’s ministers themselves. And that means preaching is growing weaker in our day — bad news for the church of God!


The story is told of a Highland woman, Gaelic speaking, who did not know English and yet she returned again and again to hear William Burns during the revival days in Scotland (1840s). She was asked why she went to hear preaching in English when she couldn’t understand English. “Oh,” she said, “I can understand the Holy Ghost’s English.” When God’s people are thinking and feeling rightly about things, they love the preached word.


Shorter Catechism #90: “How is the Word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation? That the word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation and prayer; receive it with faith and love; lay it up in our hearts and practice it in our lives.”


Put it negatively. Do you wish to answer for all the truth you have heard and done nothing with? Or, better, put it positively. Just imagine our Christian lives, our devotion, our obedience, our prayer, our witness, our love and happiness before God, if only we made the fullest use of every occasion when the Lord spoke to us through his minister’s preaching of his holy Word!