As a small circle of fellow Believers stood on the Mount of Beatitudes in Israel, I witnessed a powerful and moving experience that gave me some new-found clarity. They all simply read the Sermon on the Mount together. I saw each person taking their turn to read one verse at a time, and realized Jesus’ sermon was being revealed not only verse-by-verse, but voice-by-voice. This only took 15 minutes.
An experience that answered a question that had been troubling me for many decades.
I love to teach the Bible. To be honest, when I get started, it’s hard for me to stop. Early on in my public teaching ministry, I would have one of my boys sit in the back of the church just to flash me a reminder of when the 60-minute cassette was coming to its end.
I do understand that we live in a world that daily experiences information overload. Therefore, I have wondered what the attention span of the audience in an average church meeting is. Given the millions of sermons presented each week in church fellowships around the whole world, I can imagine that there is no definitive standard to my initial question. One famous Bible expositor simply explained that a sermon should last:
“As long as it takes to cover the passage adequately! I do not think the length of the sermon is as important as its content. The important thing is to cover the main points so that people are convinced of its truth and comprehend its requirements. If you have nothing worthwhile to say, even twenty minutes will seem like an eternity to your people.”
I recognize that the brain can only absorb what the seat can endure. But the general population of churches today seem to have a kind of attention deficit syndrome that may not be directly triggered by the comfort of the seat they are in. Thus, there is a perceived requirement for shorter and shorter sermons. At this point, I might argue just as you cannot expect a perfect souffle in 5 minutes, neither can you expect a perfect sermon to be delivered in under 50 minutes. Is it really about the length of the teaching that seems to be turning people off from connecting the message of the teacher with the mission of the hearer?
The Gold Standard
The first expositional Bible study is recorded in the Book of Nehemiah, chapter 8:2,3,8. It lasted half a day.
So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law… So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.
According to Luke’s account, the apostle Paul taught all night in Troas.
Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, “Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him.” Now when he had come up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while, even till daybreak, he departed.
Notice that this record shows that Paul “spoke to them and continued his message until midnight” and then after the Eutychus experience, they “talked a long while, even till daybreak.” Now that’s a long Bible study.
In both of these examples, I see that the objective of these teachers was the education of the people. Here I can see the advantage of having one voice feeding the masses. The apostle Paul explained his educational method by stating, “I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul then concludes his justification for his teaching style in this matter by declaring, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.”
The Pulpit and the Pew
Throughout the last two millennia, the Body of Christ has had many great teachers and preachers. These wonderful oracles have left us a legacy of amazing expositions on the Bible. In one sense, the plethora of these commentaries amounts to the Christian version of the venerated Talmud, which is the primary source of Jewish religious law and understanding. Yet during this same period, we have seen the decline of Biblical literacy among those that occupy the pews in these houses of learning.
One can only suspect that this apparent lack of Spiritual competency among the general population in the Church today is a result of the ever-widening gap between the clergy and the laity (the common Christian). I believe that Jesus addressed this disparity in His letters to the Churches at Ephesus and Pergamos. To the Church at Ephesus He warns, “But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” To the Church at Pergamos, he declares, “Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.” Here we see that Jesus condemns both the deeds and doctrines of the Nicolaitans.
The name “Nicolaitans” is derived from the Greek word nikolaos, a compound of the words nikos and laos. The word nikos is the Greek word that means to conquer or to subdue. The word laos is the Greek word for the people. This is where we get the word laity. When these two words are compounded into one, they form the name Nicolas, which literally means one who conquers and subdues the people. Some Bible commentators see this as a clear indication that these early churches had already declined into a compartmentalization of the Body of Christ which resulted in the separation of some Believers from the royal priesthood spoken of by the apostle Peter.
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;
1 Peter 2:9
I know it may seem strange for some of you to consider all Christians as priests. But when you consider the true sense of the word “priest” it simply means “one who stands between God and man.” In this sense, the duty of the priest is to present God to the people and represent the people to God. I think that Jesus gives an example of this sanctified service when He told His disciples,
You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
Therefore, I believe all true disciples of Jesus Christ have the right and obligation to fully act in a manner that brings the Light of the Gospel into this dark world. The question then is how do Christians prepare for this priestly duty?
The Preparation and Purpose
The apostle Paul gave the basis and objective for authority and instruction within the Church. To the Ephesians, he writes,
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,
These officers in the Church are to equip the Saints, meaning ALL Believers, “for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” They provide the foundational structure for this great calling of God upon every Follower of Jesus. The result of this preparatory work is education, enablement, and edification. Paul concludes,
till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ--from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.
As we can see from this passage of Scripture, the whole Body of Christ needs to be engaged in the “work of the ministry.” We accomplish this by being “joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”
The Voice-by-Voice Experience
During our tours to Israel, I tell the people that I want them to have an encounter where education meets experience. The results should be a new-found excitement for Bible study. Most of our tour members arrive in Israel with the expectation that they will see wonderful sites and hear insightful commentaries. We certainly have an amazing itinerary and come prepared to share our perspectives on the various Biblical sites.
But I want them to witness something greater than just sites and speeches. I want them to have a life-changing experience in the Land of the Bible.
During our few days in the Galilee region, we visit many sites familiar to most of our tourists. But when we reach the summit of the traditional Mount of Beatitudes in the northwestern area of the Galilee, rather than turning into the Byzantine compound at the top, we divert alongside the fences and disembark from the bus. As we overlook the natural amphitheater-like valley before us, I gather the people into a circle, ask for volunteers, and prepare them for their mission.
These brave few are assigned the task of reading the whole Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters five through seven. I explain that this is the longest recorded sermon of Jesus during His earthly teaching ministry. With each reading one verse at a time in turn, these travelers undertook an adventure that would set them on a course of discovery which would ultimately link education with experience.
Every time we do this on our tour, I honestly believe that something special happens. As the people read, there is a real sense of unity and community that suddenly emerges. It is noticed by both the readers and the listeners. I witness an orchestration by the Holy Spirit that brought together an understanding of this teaching of Jesus that didn’t need any explanation. It is a complete package that flows with each familiar verse sequentially nestled in perfect context. It is like the Holy Spirit was using the voices of these volunteers to speak the Word of God to the People of God to understand the Will of God. It is truly a powerful experience. This experience is what I have been looking for my whole life.
The Practice of Prophesying
There has been a lot said lately about the gift and work of prophecy in the Church today. For many, it is a mystical experience that is carried out by very specially anointed people. A careful study of the Scriptures reveals that there are two manifestations of this type of utterance: foretelling (declaring the future) and forth-telling (declaring the Word of God). Given this second definition, I understand that every time I read aloud the Scriptures in a public place, I am, in a sense, prophesying before those that are hearing the Word of God.
When the apostle Paul was correcting the charismatic Church in Corinth, he addressed public prophecy in this manner. “For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged.” I seriously doubt that the Corinthian Church had many people vying to predict the future (foretelling). Rather, I think Paul was addressing the issue of the people wanting to speak the Word of the Lord (forth-telling) in a disorderly manner.
The Home Group Advantage
If I can take the experience we had in Israel and tie it to the teaching of Paul where he says, “For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged,” then I can see an exciting exercise for every small group gathering of Christians. We could witness the fulfillment of seeing the Body of Christ “joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”
Here is where you can personally experience what Jesus promised to every Believer.
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.
1 John 16:12-14
Jesus offers us the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth. By this we gain access into the thoughts and intentions of the Author of the Bible. If we feel that we lack the necessary wisdom to apply the knowledge we are being given, the apostle James reminds us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”
In this type of fellowship, the idea is simple. You begin with prayer. You choose a book of the Bible. Then each person takes their turn to read one verse at a time. This is an occasion to allow the text alone to reveal the context and, thereby, its primary meaning. Then You encourage a discussion among the readers on what verse or verses spoke to them personally.
In preparation for this type of fellowship, I recommend that each participant read the upcoming book at least once a day during the preceding week. This allows each person to be familiar with the text, and it allows the Holy Spirit to prepare their hearts and minds for the shared experience of discovery from the Word of God.
I would also suggest that you avoid sermonizing from the text or mentioning the commentary of a favorite teacher. This is when you just allow the simple reading of the Bible to be enough. The table below gives a suggested list of books to read together as a small fellowship.
If you read these 33 Books of the Bible, you will cover half of the books of the Bible. After completing this list, see what portions of the larger books you can take on in your journey through the entire Bible.
At this point, I need to add a word of caution. This exercise should be an intimate fellowship of Believers gathering for the edification of everyone attending. I also hope to make it clear that I am not advocating that your group become so intimate that its members stop attending larger church meetings. After all, in these troubling times, we all need as many contacts with the greater Body of Christ as we can comfortably get.
The Best Sermons Project
To listen to an example of one of these reading sessions we had in Israel, please follow the Link below to listen to the “Best 15-Minute Sermon” as read by the B.A.S.E/K-House Tourists. It will give you a sense of just how simple yet powerful this experience can be.