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To the End of the Earth (40): How to Listen to a Bad Sermon

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Apr 15, 2007

Acts 17:10-15

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The Lord's Day Evening

April 15, 2007

Acts 17:10-15

To the Ends of the Earth

How to Listen to a Sermon

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now, last Lord's Day I didn't quite get to where I was intending to get to. We got delayed, you and I, in the sights and sounds of Thessalonica. And Paul, as we have seen now so many times… (who would want to follow the Apostle Paul?)…once again Paul is in trouble, and once again a rent-a-mob, you remember, from the city try and get him and Silas; and unable to find Paul and Silas, you remember, they captured Jason, in whose house Paul and Silas evidently were staying during their time in Thessalonica. They drag Jason before the civil magistrate, and bail is posted in lieu of safe conduct and safe passage for Paul, if he would behave himself in the city.

And obviously Paul and Silas feel now that they have no other recourse than to leave the city, and they leave the city by night and head more than a day's journey, fifty miles or so, to the city of Berea. And Paul isn't in Berea very long before once again he has to leave, and this time it looks as though the believers in Berea send him on a Mediterranean cruise! It isn't, of course, but it certainly looks like that. At the end of Berea, they send him by ship, by boat, to, of course, Athens. And we’ll come to that section next Lord's Day. But I made a brief reference to Berea last Lord's Day evening, and when I got home (in this tendency of preachers to self-examination and sermon examination), I felt that I hadn't done justice to what is a very important text in the Berean passage. So we're going back a little tonight to properly visit this city, this important city in Paul's second missionary journey, of Berea.

I need to explain the title. I think this is the first time I've had so many of you in advance of the sermon comment on the title. I have to tell you, I don't give much attention to titles. I'm not always sure who reads titles of sermons, but now I understand a great many of you do! And I promise from now on I’ll give it much more thought. This was a hastily cobbled title on Monday morning when I was called from the church, and I was in class at the seminary. I said…at first I wanted to say “How to Listen to a Good Sermon,” meaning Paul's sermon, of course. And then I thought, “No, people will think I'm referring to my sermon, and that I'm congratulating myself.” So I said, “No, ‘How to Listen to a Bad Sermon,’ then.” Because the theme I want us to consider tonight is how to listen to any kind of sermon, good or bad. What is the basis upon which we listen to a sermon? Because that is the theme that comes to the surface here in Berea.

Now with all that by way of introduction, before we read the Scripture together, verses 10-15 of Acts 17, let's come before God in prayer.

Our Father, we do especially remember tonight our senior minister. We thank you for him, for all that he means to us, for all that he gives of himself to us, and we pray especially for Your rich blessing on his address this evening, and that you would own it; that You would come down by Your Spirit and make Yourself known, that there might be a sense of the glory of God in all that is done. And we pray that You’d keep him awake on his journey home, and keep him safe, and keep him from harm to himself, and perhaps even to others.

And our hearts, too, Lord, break at the news of John Anderson and his wife. We cannot begin to imagine…yet there are some here who can, and who empathize from experiences of the loss of little ones. We pray for them tonight that You would keep their hearts from breaking; that You would send Your angels to protect them through the watches of the night; that You would grant that they would be surrounded by extraordinary measures of love and compassion and care and help and sustenance, and in the midst of all their sorrow that they might be enabled to find You.

Lord, we pray now for Your blessing on this word. Help us once again, Holy Spirit, to know Your blessing as we read it, as we ponder and study it together, and as we endeavor to live it. Come, O Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's holy word:

“And the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea; and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there likewise, agitating and stirring up the crowds. And then immediately the brethren sent Paul out to go as far as the sea; and Silas and Timothy remained there. Now those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.”

Amen. May God bless to us that reading of His holy and inerrant word.

All of a sudden you notice Timothy is in Berea. There was no sign of him in Thessalonica. He was of course in Philippi, in the previous city, and one conjectures therefore that Timothy must have remained behind in Philippi and may not have even gone to Thessalonica at all, and went straight to Berea…possibly also Luke. You remember Luke had joined them in Philippi. He will pop up again shortly, because of the first person plural, the so-called “we” passages, and possibly Luke is here, too. So you have Paul and Silas and Timothy, and possibly Luke, in this city of Berea.

Luke tells us that these Berean Jews were of a different character to those in Thessalonica, because he tells us in verse 11 that they were

“…more noble-minded…for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”

It seems to me that what is taking place here in Berea among these Berean Jews, some of whom become believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, it seems to me that we're given a paradigm as to how to listen to the word of God, as to how to listen to the proclamation of the word of God, how to listen to a sermon. And Luke tells us three things. He tells us that they received the word; he tells us that they researched the word, they examined the word…they researched the word; and thirdly, that they responded to the word. They received the word, they researched the word, and they responded to the word.

I. The Berean Jews received the word with eagerness.

He tells us that these Berean Jews received the word. They received it with great eagerness, Luke says. There was anticipation about what Paul was going to say, not just that they were eager to hear Paul, but that they were eager to hear the word that Paul preached. There was a sense of occasion; there was a sense of anticipation. It wasn't routine. It wasn't half-hearted. It wasn't out of a sense of mere obligation–it was the Sabbath once again, and they had to be in the synagogue, and they ought to be listening as the sermon is being proclaimed, and when Paul is expounding the word of God. No, they were eager. And when Paul is expounding the word of God, no, they were eager to hear it.

It always amazes me how full of anticipation we can be about certain things…events, you know, that are in the future — a football game or a baseball game, probably. That doesn't fill me with a great deal of anticipation, you understand, but it would probably be something else for me. It would be a concert, say. And if I was heading to New York or Seattle or Chicago or Berlin to hear some famous pianist or soprano or whatever, I'd be full of anticipation. I'd be telling all my friends about it, and I would certainly be telling them afterwards what I thought about it. And I would do some research, and I'd want to buy a program, and I'd want to study all the why's and wherefore's, as you do, so many of you, about the marvelous, wonderful game of football! And there's not a note of irony in what I'm saying now! One day you can be so thrilled and so excited about it, and you genuinely are; and you love the game, and you love all about it, and you love all the details, and you like to talk about the specifics, and you like to replay certain actions and certain things in your mind (and some of you have this phenomenal ability to recall a play that was twenty years ago!) and you can tell me about where they were. [I have to tell you that when Ligon was giving his illustration last week about Clemson, I turned to my wife as Ligon was explaining it, and I said, “Is that bad?”]

Why are we not like that about sermons? Not about sermons per se, but about Scripture, about the word of God? This is God's word, every jot and tittle of it. It's

“…given by inspiration of God and profitable for doctrine and reproof and correction, and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work.”

These Bereans were filled, Luke says, with eagerness…with eagerness to hear the word. You remember how Paul preaches. He tells the Corinthians, “We preach not ourselves,” he says, “but Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves as servants for Jesus’ sake.”

I think this is an enormous challenge to me. I listen to sermons, and my wife tells me I'm a terrible listener to sermons. And you can so easily develop terrible habits when you’re listening to sermons of fidgeting or not paying attention, of looking at your watch every couple of minutes, or letting your mind wander, or allowing a thought to come into your mind. And you can trace it…just let that thought go down all the corridors of your mind, and suddenly maybe ten minutes has gone by and you haven't heard a word. Oh, you know preachers can see that! Amazing what you can see, you know, from this height! And when those eyes begin to sort of close…I've been there! I know exactly what it is! Now when you’re exhausted and when you’re tired and those eyes…oh! How difficult it is just to keep those eyes open! And you fix your gaze in this resolute stare on the preacher, but you know there's nothing in between the two ears. Everything is fast asleep.

It doesn't just occur naturally. You know, like everything else, we have to train ourselves. Some of these things, I have to say, about music, it's sort of instinctive. I don't have to make myself. I get full of anticipation and excitement. But some things we have to prepare ourselves for. Some things we have to train ourselves for. It requires preparation. It starts on Saturday night. Oh, guard your Saturday nights, so that on Saturday night one of the things that you should do is pray: pray for the preachers, pray for the sermon, pray for those who teach in Sunday School. Ask God to come down. Ask the Holy Spirit to descend, to empower, to teach us, to instruct us so that the word of God might go forth and be disseminated.

Take notes. Now, this doesn't apply to all of you. I understand that. This isn't a directive–you know, do this or else! Because some of you are more than capable of concentrating without taking notes, and in fact some of you have told me that taking notes is a distraction. I understand that, and I'm very sympathetic with that. For me, if I'm not taking notes I can't concentrate. That's just me. And one of the things I like to do when I'm listening to a sermon is to take notes. I try to bring a notebook with me, or I scribble in my Bible. I love to see Bibles that are scribbled all over! I'm thrilled when some of you have come up to me and you've said about a sermon that you heard preached in this–well, not in this auditorium, but in this church–15, 20, 25, 30 years ago and you've got a note about it in the margin of your Bibles, because those sermons continue to live. Those pieces of instruction continue to have effect, and they’re not forgotten. You can constantly go back to them and be reminded of them.

They received the word, Paul says. They received the word with great eagerness.

II. They examined the word…they researched.

But secondly, they researched the word. Literally the word that Paul uses here is that they examined the Scriptures. Actually it's the same word that's used elsewhere–of Jesus, for example on the Emmaus road, when it says that Jesus opened up the Scriptures to them. They opened up…they did research. They went and examined the Scriptures.

Now, how did they do this? You know they didn't have a Bible like you have. Of course, if you have a Bible, let me encourage you to bring your Bible. It's hard to listen to a sermon if you don't have a Bible. It's hard to follow the in's and out's of a sermon when the preacher is referring to this verse or that verse if you don't have a Bible…unless you have an absolute photographic memory, and you know Genesis through Revelation off by heart. It's one of the distinctive marks–you know that–of the elect, that they have a Bible! And an open Bible, and a marked Bible! It should be the book that you love the most. You love it more than your necessary food–“Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation day and night,” the psalmist says. Is that you tonight? That you love God's law, and you love it more than anything…more than your necessary food?

But how did these Bereans search the Scriptures, because they didn't have a Bible? There was no printing press… that was in the fifteenth century. They didn't have a copy of the Bible in their homes. Very few people had copies of the Old Testament scrolls. It was very, very expensive to obtain copies of the scrolls of the Old Testament. It was a laborious work that would take months and even years to accomplish. So what they did, of course, was every day after the Sabbath day, they went back to the synagogue, and there in the synagogue there evidently was a set of scrolls of the canon of the Old Testament as we know it, and they did research. They went as a group of people. They ransacked these scrolls, asking perhaps questions of the rabbis, asking questions of themselves.

Now it says to us a number of things tonight. It says to us first of all, this marvelous, marvelous doctrine that emerged at the time of the Reformation, the priesthood of all believers, that anyone can go and research the Scriptures. You know nearly for a thousand years, during the medieval period, for a thousand years the Bible was a closed book. The only Scripture that you would ever hear in a medieval account of the mass was of course in Latin, and very few people understood Latin. It was a closed book, and deliberately closed. It was the view that only the priests themselves, only those who were specially trained could ever interpret the Bible…that it was a dangerous thing to let the Bible into the hands of the people.

But you know, these Bereans, they’re going and they’re searching the Scriptures for themselves. They’re ransacking the Scriptures, and it's a confirmation to us of this marvelous doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. I love the sound - it's a holy sound - of the rustling of the leaves of Scripture during a sermon. It's a beautiful, beautiful sound when I hear somebody turn over a few pages of Scripture, because they’re tracing something, they’re checking whether this is so or not.

It also, of course, underlines another wonderful truth. It's a very important truth. It's a truth that came out especially at the time of the Reformation: the truth known as the perspicuity of Scripture. That is to say that all of the principal, cardinal truths of Scripture can be understood by ordinary Christians without any great learning through the ordinary means of grace. Check your Westminster Confession sometime, that opening chapter…the marvelous statement that the ordinary truths, the cardinal truth, the principal truths of Scripture can be discovered by every Christian through the ordinary means–through listening to sermons, through going to Sunday School, through asking questions, through reading good books, through reading the Bible for yourselves and checking one verse against another.

Do you know how ignorant the modern church is? As to the most fundamental things in Scripture, the latest Barna report says that 82% of those who call themselves evangelical believe that the Bible teaches that God helps those that help themselves; 63% could not name the four gospels; 58% could not name half of The Ten Commandments; 58% could not say that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount; 52% did not know there was a book in the Bible called Jonah; 48% did not know that there wasn't a book in the Bible called the Gospel of Thomas.

Well, here are these Bereans, and they are ransacking the Scriptures. They are men of one book. They are men of the Scriptures; they’re studying it and ransacking it.

But you notice what Luke is saying to us? What is their preoccupation? It's not Paul; it's not Silas; it's not Timothy; it's not who was preaching so much. (Now you understand, of course, that in other cities that had been the big concern. It was Paul, and who he was; what right had he to speak in the first place?) But the preoccupation of these Bereans was not who was saying it, but what was being said. They were researching the Scriptures to see if the things that Paul was saying were true.

Now, largely, of course, Paul had been preaching Jesus and the resurrection. He’d been preaching the life of Jesus of Nazareth. He’d been preaching about the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. He had been preaching about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He’d been calling men and women to faith and repentance, and what these Berean Jews were doing was going now to the Scriptures–the Old Testament Scriptures, of course–and examining and checking and verifying that the things that Paul was saying were actually in conformity with what the Old Testament had been teaching.

What kind of questions do you think they might have been asking? Well, let's go beyond that. What kind of questions should we be asking? We’re a stage further than the Bereans were. We not only have the Old Testament Scriptures, but we have the New Testament Scriptures. We have the complete canon of Scripture. What kinds of questions ought we to be asking as we research and ransack the Scriptures?

Well, they are questions like these:

1. How much of this sermon is actually Scripture? I mean, is this sermon the pontifications of a man? Are they the vain philosophies of the world? Are they full of the current fashionable therapeutic ideas of our modern society, or are they in fact an exposition of the Scriptures?
2. How much Scripture is in this sermon? That's a good question to ask. Is this sermon being preached in such a way that it is reflecting the unity of Scripture; it's not trying to tear Scripture apart, it's not setting one text against another? It's not saying that there is one text and everything else has to be understood in terms of this one text. It's asking questions about the unity and the coherence of Scripture.
3. Is this sermon teaching about sin? And about grace? And about the gospel? And is it encouraging holiness not as a means of obtaining grace, but as a means of gratitude for grace that has already been received?

Do you know one of the most fundamental questions that we need to ask about any sermon–and I think it was the fundamental question that lay in the minds of these Bereans–and it's this question:

4. “Who is big in this sermon? Who is big in this sermon? Is it the preacher? Is it Paul?” You know that's the attitude that prevails in Corinth, isn't it? Do you remember what they were saying in Corinth? “I am of Paul; I am of Apollos; I am of Peter.” And then there were those super-spiritual ones who weren't for Paul, Peter, or Apollos; they were for Jesus. And it's not about a preacher. It's not about a man.
5. Is the Savior big in this sermon? It's about the God-man. It's about Jesus Christ. You know, that's the question that we need to ask ourselves all the time, and I think if you’d been listening to Paul preach in Berea you’d have heard about Jesus. It was full of Jesus. It was full of Christ. It was about the life of Christ, and the death of Christ, and the resurrection of Christ, and the ascension of Christ. It was about the beauty of Christ. I think Paul preached Jesus in a way that made Him beautiful and attractive and winsome; that you couldn't help but say “I want a relationship with this Person, because He restores me, He beautifies me, He answers my deepest need, and my deepest need is my sin and my guilt.” Who is big in this sermon?

III. The Bereans responded to the word.

You see, Luke is saying to us they received the word, and they researched the word, and they responded to the word. It's a fearful thing, you know, to hear a sermon. It is. You know the Bible says that we will have to give account for every idle word that we utter, but we have to give an account for every idle word that we hear, too. And we have to give account not just for idle words, but for Bible words and preached words, and exhortative words.

Do you remember when Paul writes to Timothy? He says that he’d known the holy Scriptures from his youth because “the Scriptures are able to make you wise unto salvation.” They can tell you how you can get saved. They can tell you how to get to heaven. They can tell you how to avoid hell. They can tell you about the new birth. They can tell you about grace. They can tell you about Christ. They can tell you about so many things. They can tell you the way of salvation.

“All Scripture is given by the out-breathing of God, and is profitable for doctrine and reproof, and correction, and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work.”

One of the great exhortations of Scripture is “Be not hearers only.” Isn't that right? Beware of being a sermon-taster. You know, you have these parties–you do, you know, and you taste various things…cheeses. And you can compare one with the other, and you can develop that. I have developed that; I know what I'm talking about here. And you begin to compare one sermon to another, and sometimes one preacher to another, and you can miss the very voice of God that is speaking to your heart and to your soul about your sin, and about your need, and about your repentance that needs to be done, and about encouragement that needs to be received, and about works that need to be done, and about a Christ that needs to be glorified, and about a life that needs to be lived in a city that is set upon a hill that cannot be hid.

Beware of just being hearers, because we're meant, you and I, to be doers of the word also. Because as these Bereans — and isn't it a marvelous thing? Doesn't it take your breath away? As these Bereans were going to the synagogue…and you can imagine in this little city of Berea that everybody else is going to their daily work, and these people are probably going early in the morning and they’re going to the synagogue, and they’re unraveling these scrolls…I've been trying to imagine what that would have been like…reading these scrolls and asking question upon question. But it dawns on them by the power of the Holy Spirit. Some of them are convicted and convinced that what Paul has been saying is true: that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who takes away the sin of the world, and that the answer to my sin and guilt is to be found only in Jesus Christ. And I think there came a moment, you know…perhaps it was in the very synagogue that some of these men began to look at themselves and it dawned on them that they needed to close with Christ. They needed to embrace Christ as the Messiah of the Old Testament, and to know the joy of sins forgiven and peace with God. Luke says in verse 12, “Many of them therefore….” Do you notice that? As a result of what they’d been doing, searching the Scriptures, “Many of them therefore believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.”

Isn't that a beautiful thing? You know, when you are convinced that something is true...and true not because a preacher says it, but true because God says it…when you become convinced in your conscience that something is true, you have got to act on it. You have got to act on it!

My friend, did you come in here tonight at the invitation of a friend or a relative, and you are searching? You are searching for answers, you are searching for the meaning of life, you are searching for reality. Perhaps you don't even know what you’re searching for. And maybe you've come tonight and here is this message again, and you've heard it before, this message about Christ, this message about Jesus; this message that says, “Come unto Me, all ye that are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Now my friends, if you’re not convinced that that is true, then I plead with you tonight, go home and open up your Bible and read it for all it's worth, and don't stop reading it until you come either to a realization and a conviction that it's all a pack of lies, or else you come to the conviction that it is actually true–that what the Bible says is actually true. And when you come to that realization, you have got to act on it! You have got to act on it! Believe, then, in the Lord Jesus Christ, and, my dear friend, I tell you from the Scriptures, you will be saved.

May God bless His word to our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You again for the Scriptures, and thank You for this inestimable gift that You've given to us: the very word of the living God that we hold in our hands. Forgive us, Lord, that we treat it so lightly. Far too much time goes by when we fail even to read it or think about it, or meditate upon it in our hearts and in our minds. Help us to fall in love with the Bible all over again, and this we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.