This past weekend, we began a new sermon series at Grace in the Gospel of Mark, but it’s not merely a series in the book, it’s a series through the book. We started with Mark 1:1 and we will, Lord willing, preach straight through until the end. Verse-by-verse, expository preaching through entire books of the Bible makes up the primary, regular preaching rhythm within our faith community, and I want to take some time to tell you why.
To start, I want to be clear. We don’t think we’re holier or more spiritually mature because we do it, and there is no secret verse in the Bible that commands it. There is certainly nothing wrong with doing a topical sermon series (as long as it still dependent upon and shaped by the Word of God), and in fact we will do one or two short topical series per year at Grace like Advent and our Vision Series. Further, I have friends and family in ministry who are far more experienced and gifted than I am that do topical series faithfully and effectively throughout the year. But at Grace, we have the growing conviction that a verse-by-verse series is an effective way to equip the saints in our church for the work of the ministry that will prayerfully grow us into the likeness of Christ (Eph 4:11-15). Here are 3 reasons:
1. It Ensures the Sermons are Contextual
Verse-by-verse preaching helps to ensure that each and every word is proclaimed in its full context, and therefore we can more clearly understand the meaning of texts and its application for our lives when we see how it fits in the scheme of the entire book. The Biblical authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, did not write with the expectation that just a verse or even a batch of verses would be read without an understanding that it’s part of a bigger work.
What can happen when verses and passages are taken without the greater context and understanding of the entire book, is that it may lead to surface level and sometimes flat out wrong applications. Much like how someone can’t best explain a scene of a movie without knowing the rest of the film, so a verse or chapter cannot be fully understood without knowing the context of the book. Couple classic examples:
a) If you were to ask a Christian what their favorite verse in the Bible is, one of the most popular responses is Jeremiah 29:11 where the prophet says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”. That’s a fantastic verse, but the problem is that it’s often personalized to say this means God will guarantee worldly success for me and because of this verse, I will get the job I want, spouse I want, I’ll get into the college I always dreamed of, and I’ll be able to buy the house I always wanted with the indoor pool.
The problem with this application is that God is not saying this to an individual, he’s saying it to the nation of Judah and they’re being told this on their way into exile where they will be under the power of Babylon for the next 70 years. Most the people hearing this, including Jeremiah himself, will not survive the exile and will be long gone when this promise will come to fruition for the nation of Judah as the following generations return and reestablish themselves in Jerusalem. This is a corporate promise for God’s people that God will not forget them and that despite a hard life in exile, He will not forsake them. And listen, it’s still a fantastic verse, it’s just that the application is not that you’re going to get a job offer with an incredibly lucrative salary in the next week. In fact, I would argue that the true covenantal meaning is far better than the surface level, materialistic meanings we attach to it. It’s not that we aim too high, it’s that we often aim too low.
b) Another popular verse in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”. Again, I love it, but when the personalized application is that you’re going to make it to the NFL as a linebacker despite being 5’9, 155 pounds – it gets a little distorted. This is not that you will be able to do anything you put my mind to if you just work hard enough, it’s Paul saying that he knows both what it’s like to be empty and brought low, as well as knowing how to abound in fullness, and so regardless of the circumstance he finds himself in, he knows he can endure because his strength comes from Christ – not his circumstance. That means that even if my New Years Resolution was to become the lead on a Broadway play in 2018 and I got this verse tattooed on my chest, it still just ain’t gonna happen. Now don’t get me wrong, go ahead and get Philippians 4:13 tattooed on your chest, I’m good with that, just know that the joy in this verse is that whether you have much or whether you have little, it’s Christ who will sustain you. Again, I’d argue the true meaning is far deeper and richer than the surface level one many attach to it.
2. The Main Point of the Passage is the Main Point of the Sermon.
This is a major element of expository preaching, and this one may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often a preacher takes a single verse and uses it to preach a completely different message from the intention of the author. This is not a problem only with topical sermon series, and I’m not exempt, as I can look back on many sermons where I admittedly have taken verses and used them to fit into a series topic that I had chosen. It doesn’t automatically mean that when preachers do this, they proclaim falsehood or heresy, it just means that when the main point of a sermon wasn’t the main point of a passage, it’s a slippery slope of manipulation that may slide into half-truths or extra-biblical truths.
On the contrary, when you go verse-by-verse through a book, there is no pressure to make a passage fit into a topical series theme. Preachers are free to proclaim the text as is, to do the hard work of determining the author’s main point and then working to creatively and passionately convey that meaning to the church in such a way that it reaches their hearts.
3. The Pastor is Accountable
The third reason why we have the growing conviction that verse-by-verse preaching through whole books of the Bible is best is that it serves to keep the preacher (in Grace Church’s case – me!) accountable. Otherwise, I get to pick and choose texts and topics week by week that I think we need to hear (and am confident in my ability to preach). The problem, to say the least, is that what I think we need to hear as a church week in and week out may very well not be what we actually need to hear. More often than not, it would simply just be what I want us to hear, and that could go badly, not to mention, my own flesh and fear would keep me from touching on certain topics that I would rather skip and turn a blind eye to. By preaching verse by verse, it will be harder for me to avoid the difficult topics, because it is my job to faithfully and boldly preach whatever text is next up.
A book to preach through is selected not by random choice, but by the leadership praying about and trusting in the guide of the Holy Spirit to lead us to a book that will be profitable for us in a given season. At Grace, we try to preach books both in the Old Testament and New Testament of all different genres. In the past 3-4 years we’ve done a verse-by-verse series through Romans, Joshua, Ephesians, Genesis, 1 Peter, Psalms, and Habakkuk. And now, we start with Mark.
At the end of the day, Grace Church, I vow before the Lord – for it is only to Him that I will ultimately be held accountable by – to preach the whole council of God and to be fully tethered to His Word. I am not better or on a pedestal because of verse-by-verse preaching, and I don’t think I “cracked the code”. It’s important to reiterate that it’s certainly possible to be contexual, well-meaning, and accountable within a topical series as well, but we have the the growing conviction that verse-by-verse expository preaching will best equip us together to carry out the mission of making disciples for the Glory of God. Let us run the race that has been marked out before us, and I believe God has a lot to teach us in Mark, if only we’ll receive it.