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The Expository Pulpit: A Reminder from Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs

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R. J. Coates and J. I Packer once wrote, “A well-worn Bible is an impressive if not a beautiful sight.”1 Faithful Christian living is largely a matter of looking to God’s Word and humbly submitting to what we hear and see there. This is the reason the mission of Truth For Life is “to teach the Bible with clarity and relevance.” We believe that God has ordained that by means of biblical teaching and preaching, “unbelievers will be converted, believers will be established, and local churches will be strengthened.”

The Puritans understood this well. As we read their writings, we often stumble across profound reminders of Scripture’s role in the Christian life. Their language is often stirring and challenging (in multiple ways), and they have a way of warming the heart unexpectedly. Once such piece of writing is Jeremiah Burroughs’s Exposition of the Prophecy of Hosea, a series of his sermons that were transcribed and later published. As he opens with his observations on Hosea’s first verse, Burroughs extols Scripture and declares its proper place at the heart of the believer’s worship.

“The Word Is Near You”

Burroughs begins his sermon and series by reminding us why the Scriptures play such a central role in the Christian walk:

In the Scripture the great God of heaven has sent his mind to the children of men; he has made known the counsel of his will, and opened his very heart unto mankind. The Bible is the epistle that God has sent into the world.

To put it another way, in Scriptures we have God’s very words revealing God’s self. And more than that, they are God’s words to us, revealing Himself to us. They were written under the direction of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), they were written so that we might believe (John 20:31), they are active in addressing us (Heb. 4:12), and they are effective in sanctifying and equipping us (2 Tim. 3:17).

The Bible is the epistle that God has sent into the world.

Yet for many of us, our familiarity with Scripture has seemingly dulled its brilliance and beauty. Burroughs challenges this sense of familiarity with an analogy:

Did we but hear of a book dictated immediately by God himself, to show the children of men what the eternal counsels of his will were for conducting them to eternal happiness, and his thoughts and intentions concerning their everlasting condition; did we, I say, but hear that there was such a book in the farthest part of the Indies, should we not rejoice that the world was blest with such a mercy? What strong and vehement desires should we have to enjoy but one sight of it before we died! We should be willing to venture upon any hazard, to pass through any difficulty, to be at any expense, that we might have but a glance at such a book as this.

Many Christians today express a strong desire to hear from God. Many say, “If He would only explain this or that thing, then I would really be able to obey Him and serve Him.” Many look to devotional methods or Christian bookstores or modern-day “prophets” in an effort to “hear God’s voice.” Yet how many, in their eagerness to hear God, have overlooked God’s perfect provision?

Burroughs reminds us that God has spoken, and His words are already in our possession:

My brethren, you need not say, Who shall go to the farthest part of the Indies to fetch us this book? who shall descend into the depth, or go to the uttermost part of the earth, to gain us a sight of this book of Scripture? for, behold, the word is nigh unto you, it is in your houses, and we hope in your hearts.

All the astonishment and wonder that we might have at hearing God’s own voice speaking from the burning bush we ought—by faith—to have equally in the Scriptures that He has given to us. God’s Word is already in our hands.

This conviction is at the heart of expositional preaching. In the church, pastors preach the Word because it is God’s Word. And it is in the preaching of the Word, as much as in reading it and taking it to heart, that we come to hear and understand what God says to us. As Burroughs writes, “In this exercise”—that is, in the act of preaching that he was undertaking at that moment—“it is to be in our mouths, not only to tell you what it saith, but to explain to you the mind of God in it.”

The role of the preacher, in other words, is to teach the Bible with clarity and relevance so that people may hear, believe, and obey the very words of God to them.

A Dangerous Task

When a young boy asks his parents for his first pocketknife, his mom and dad have to consider whether he is ready to show the kind of care that is necessary for such a tool. There is great potential for harm if a sharp blade comes into a child’s possession before he is ready for it.

It is common for Christians who are going into surgery to pray for the wisdom and skill of their doctors. How common is it that Christians would pray the same for the men who treat their souls?

The Scriptures are similarly dangerous. They are “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). The Bible is not a spoon on which pastors present a soft porridge. It’s a scalpel that makes incisions. It needs a careful and steady hand.

It is common for Christians who are going into surgery to pray for the wisdom and skill of their doctors. How common is it that Christians would pray the same for the men who treat their souls? Burroughs, as a preacher, knew he needed such prayers, and so he asked for them:

Because the authority of Scripture is supreme, we desire the prayers of you all to God for us that his fear may fall upon our hearts, that seeing we are men full of error and evil, yet we may not bring any scripture to maintain any erroneous conceit of our own heads, nor any evil of our own hearts: this we know to be a dreadful evil.

Preachers, we know, are not infallible, and because it is the Word of God they are dealing with, the stakes are high. As we sit under their preaching—as we go, so to speak, underneath their knife—they need our prayers so that they may present themselves as men approved, “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) and faithfully presenting to us the Scriptures.

A Reverent Attention

If there is going to be effective teaching of the Word of God, then the people need to gather under it and with the desire to hear it. As Burroughs begins to preach on the prophet Hosea, he turns his congregation to Nehemiah 8 to see an example of a people receptive to God’s Word:

Now we expect from you which is said of them, ver. 3, “And the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law,” when it was read and expounded. And truly that attention which now you show promises that we shall have an attentive auditory.

It is the part of the congregation to listen attentively to the presentation of the Word. There’s no doubt that listening is difficult. Our minds wander, and no one can give their full attention to the pulpit at all times without distraction. Yet if we want to hear God’s Word, we need to set out purposefully to listen and to practice the discipline of listening so that we may hear.

Burroughs goes on, commenting on the people of Israel’s standing to show respect as Ezra read the Scriptures (Neh. 8:5):

Let us have … further a reverential demeanour and carriage in the hearing of the law, as it becomes those who are to deal with God. … We do not expect the same gesture from you [i.e., standing throughout the sermon], but by way of analogy we expect a reverential demeanour in your carriage during the whole work.

Reverence is entirely appropriate to people who hear the Word preached with faith that the Word of God is being presented to them. Moses didn’t prop his feet up before the burning bush; he took off his shoes. Isaiah didn’t slouch before God’s glory in the temple; he fell with his face to the ground. We likewise ought to show God honor in how we carry ourselves and thus also remind ourselves of the gravity of what we are doing as we sit under the faithful proclamation of God’s Word.

“A Scripture Frame of Heart”

Finally, Burroughs describes a disposition necessary to teach and to receive the Word:

To the interpretation of Scripture, a Scripture frame of heart is necessary, a heart holy and heavenly, suitable to the holiness and heavenliness which are in the word. … It may be said of the spirituality of Scripture, nothing but a heart filled with Scripture spiritualness can set forth its excellencies.

In other words, the key to interpreting Scripture rightly is that we are Spirit-taught. “This,” says God, “is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2). Burroughs refers to this verse when he says, “What frame of heart is a Scripture frame? … Come with hearts trembling at the word of God; come not to be judges of the law, but doers of it.”

We need to pray for one another that God would give us humble, contrite hearts; that we would tremble at His Word, lest in proclaiming it we would promote ourselves and our own opinions, and lest in receiving it we would harden our hearts.

As we go again to the Word this week, we can share in the prayer of Burroughs for his own congregation:

And now the work we have to do is, to open the difficulties and to show you the Divine truths contained in this portion of Scripture. May they spring up from the fountain of life itself, and be presented to your minds with freshness and power.

This article was adapted from the sermon “The Word of God Is…” by Alistair Begg.

R. J. Coates and J. I. Packer, “The Use of Holy Scripture in Public and Private,” in Beyond the Battle for the Bible, by J. I. Packer (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone, 1980), 62. ↩︎

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