Through his preaching and writing, John Phillips has become a beloved resource for thousands of preachers. A gifted expositor of scripture, Phillips is becoming known to a new generation of preachers through Kregel’s publication of his “Exploring the Word” series of expositional commentaries. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently visited with Phillips on the occasion of the publication of his newest book, containing a series of expository sermons based on the cross.
Preaching: Your new book – The View from Mount Calvary (Kregel) – is on the cross. Why is it important to preach the cross?
Phillips: Well, it is the very essence and heart of the gospel. Paul says, woe is me if I preach not the gospel. The cross is at the very center of everything. Glory in the cross, glory in the cross.
The cross is the message we have for a lost world. We have no other message. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. He was buried, rose again the third day according the scriptures. That’s the gospel. That’s all about the cross. Thank God we glory in the cross.
As Paul is writing to the Corinthians, he says, “I’ve made up my mind I will preach nothing among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” He’d just come from Athens and he had adapted his message to his audience in Athens, the intellectuals, and the result of his testimony on Mars Hill was almost negative. He came down from that experience and said never again – I will preach the cross now. I’ve tried using their own arguments, but we have to do better than that. So we preach the cross.
The book itself has twenty-four chapters on the cross. The first deals with the Lamb that was slain from before the foundation of the world. The cross was in the mind of God before ever the rustle of an angel’s wing, just the silence of eternity. When God decided to act in creation, create other wills in the world besides his own – in essence, when He decided to act in creation – at the same time, He knew He would one day have to act in redemption. That’s why the cross. To the Jews a stumbling block, foolishness, outrage; to them that believe it is the power of God, the wisdom of God, contrary to this world’s wisdom.
Preaching: In the new book, are there some particular favorite passages about the cross that you enjoy preaching?
Phillips: There are two chapters on the burnt offering and the sin offering and the trespass offering. A spiritually educated person would delight in those chapters; the average person wouldn’t even know what you are talking about. I tried to make it understandable, but it is foolishness to the Greek, Paul says.
One of my favorites is an exposition of Genesis 22 where Abraham takes Isaac to Mt. Mariah to offer him as a burnt sacrifice. In the New Testament he is called his only begotten son. That’s how Isaac is introduced; he was Abraham’s only begotten son, the very language arrests us. To picture the old man bent with his years and then Isaac staggering along now, the servants have gone, just he and his father together. Together, he says, together. They came to a place. That place had been in the heart and mind of God from before time began. And milestones along the way – you can picture the Son of God saying to His Father: “There it is Father,” as He raised up those mountains of Judah, and shaped out the place called Calvary. He said, “There it is Father, that’s the place.”
You have to learn to use your imagination in preaching. That’s one big lesson I’ve learned about preaching. Make it interesting. So you see him making his way to the place called Mt. Moriah. The name means “foreseen of Jehovah.” So, it’s all foreseen. And as he said to the two witnesses – the young men that carried the wood – the burden was to be taken off of them and put on to him. He said, “I and the lad will go yonder and worship and return to you again.” Abraham by that time had said: well I’m going to have to kill him. But there’s no problem, God will raise him. That’s why he could do it.
In that whole chapter God was saying to Abraham: I want you as a human father to take your son, your only beloved, and offer him up so that in the ages to come people will be able to understand in some measure what it meant to God to take His only begotten son to the place called Calvary to offer Him up as a burnt offering. It is a marvelous chapter to preach from.
There are many other chapters of a like nature. There’s a verse in Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations that says, “Is it nothing to you all ye that pass by? Behold and see if there be any sorrow likened unto my sorrow of which God has afflicted me.” You can take the words right out of the lips of Jeremiah and put them right on the lips of Jesus. It was tailor made for him to say that. A lot of preachers don’t use any visual aids at all. All my visual aids are spoken ones. I’ve learned how to tell a story and how to make a passage come to life. My days are coming to an end, but they’ve been great.
Preaching: As you think about the preaching of the cross, are there particular challenges of which preachers should be aware?
Phillips: There are theological implications to what I’ve already said. The Lamb “slain from the creation of the world” occurs a number of times. The Holy Spirit is emphasizing the fact that here is a mystery. When the mystery of iniquity raised its head in the old world, before the foundation of the world – something happened before the foundation of the world. That goes back beyond Genesis 1 verse 2; goes back beyond that. The book opens in a chaotic condition in Genesis 1. So it’s a mystery why God should have chosen this particular way; it was the only way, obviously, to deal with the mystery of iniquity which raised its head in the universe.
It did not begin on earth, it began in heaven. Sin was not something that was born and created in the heart of Adam and Eve. It was imported into the Garden of Eden. That is a mystery the average person would take exception to, things like that.
Preaching: You talked about making preaching interesting using imagination. How do you go about doing that in your own preaching and writing?
Phillips: I use imagination for illustration. I’m not trying to create a document, just trying to paint a picture so you can see. And here I see Abraham going into the First National Bank of Ur. I’m going to tell them a story – a story based on fact. He goes into the First National Bank of Ur and the manager comes out. I worked with a very large British bank when I was a lad coming out of high school, then years later I worked for a large Canadian bank. So, I know what happens when the richest man in town comes in. The bank manager comes out, people are getting interested.
“Well, hello Mr. Abraham, how are you? Delighted to see you. Have you got any nice, fat deposits for us today?” You build a picture and you build a pace. Then you build the interest. You could say it in dull, prosaic terms, but I choose, rather, to paint a picture. Create a bit of dialogue. I’m painting a picture. So the rich man Abraham comes in, the bank manager is delighted to see him. “A big, fat deposit for us today Mr. Abraham? We’re always so happy when you come into the bank.What can I do for you today?” He says, “You can close my account.”
“What have we done? Why are you closing your account? You’re leaving town?”
“Yes, I’m leaving town.”
“Why are you leaving town? Where are you going?”
“I haven’t any idea. You see Mr. Bank Manager, today God spoke to me. The living God, the true God, the God who created the universe, the God of heaven, high heaven above, that all the world beneath heeds. He spoke to me and he gave me a vision of a place and he gave me a vision of a person. And I’m stepping out on faith. He told me to abandon my old way of life, and step out by faith, take everything I have.”
So you just practice being interesting.
Preaching: You’ve been preaching for a lot of years and have spoken to a lot of churches and pastors. What have been the great influences on your preaching?
Phillips: Stephen Olford would be one, of course. Stephen and I grew up in, we were young people together in the same village, same town, same church. He had a great impact on my life.
I was brought up amongst a group known as the Plymouth Brethren. They’re not well known in the United States, but they were quite well known in Britain when I was a boy. They were men who loved the Book. They had a lot of faults, but they loved the Book. And they preached Christ. They saw Christ everywhere in the scriptures. They were great on typology. They could see Christ in the offerings. They could see Christ everywhere they opened the Bible. They saw Christ when they saw Boaz to Ruth when he asked her to marry her according to the law. I just picture some more dialogue:
“Well, Ruth, I love you very much. I’ve loved you since the day I saw you standing over there amongst the sheaves.” He said, “I can’t do what you say yet because there is another man, a kinsman-redeemer, another one closer of kin than I am.” And he said, “Before I can pay the price of your redemption, I have got to go and deal with the law which has its rightful claims.”
Everywhere I look, I remember as a boy, was that old fellow who used to preach Christ. He always got up when there was a break in the service to read Isaiah 53. He didn’t have anything to say about it, he just read it. That’s just my background – I was raised among people who loved the Book and taught the Book. Some of them had crazy ideas, but most of them were pretty solid. And I had a strong foundation in the inerrancy of scripture and the magnificence of scripture.
One book that helped me enormously to cultivate the imagination was a book by a Scottish preacher named Alexander Whyte. All through his preaching he introduced this story telling thing, what’s called typology work. The Old Testament illustrates the New Testament. So I had a rich heritage. I built on it. I built on it one book at a time, one chapter at a time, one verse at a time.
When I first went preaching full-time for Moody Bible Institute, the very first time they sent me out on a week’s meeting, I realized I had one thing that God had given to me and would hold me accountable for it and that was time. Imagine the amount of time the average preacher spends in front of a TV set. I made up my mind, God help me I’m not going to waste this time. And I started to write. And I’m going to keep on writing. I don’t care if anybody reads it or not, I’m going to write.