John MacArthur, Jr., is president of The Master’s Seminary and pastor-teacher at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA. A renowned champion of biblical inspiration and authority, MacArthur has written many books and recently served as editor of the MacArthur Study Bible, published by Word Books. He is widely known through his national radio ministry, “Grace to You.” He was interviewed during the recent International Congress on the Bible hosted by his church.
Preaching: Since you are now the editor of a major study Bible, let’s start by talking about that Bible project. I’d be curious about what led you to get involved in a project like that.
MacArthur: In all honesty there was a time when I thought about the possibility of doing that because my passion is exposition of scripture. My passion is to make the Word of God clear to people. And I thought the commentary series would sort of suffice, which is like a 30 year project or turning out to be nearly that! But the guys on my staff came to me one day — and the guys that are around me know me best — and they said, “John, you need to think about someday getting all of your stuff condensed down into a single volume and maybe think about a study Bible.” I basically said, “I will never do that.”
Then some people at Word Books came to me with this proposal at about the same time the guys were saying this is something that you ought to think about. And if I had really known what was involved, I would probably would have said no, because I had no idea what was going to happen when we said yes. Once they presented it to me I thought, “Well, everybody feels I should do this. I have a seminary faculty here I can run all of this through,” and I said yes.
I had a guy who was going to edit a lot of my New Testament material. He did none of it and handed it back to me six months later. I just got swept up in the thing. In the end I am really thrilled for the privilege of having done it.
Preaching: As a preacher, an expositor, what kind of unique perspective does that give you as you are going into a project like this?
MacArthur: I’m not primarily concerned with getting entangled in systems and I wasn’t concerned with getting entangled with critical things. I didn’t want it to be superficial. I just really wanted to clarify the meaning of the text and the flow of the book. I was thinking more of not just a practical application, but of understanding its applicability. I stopped short in writing a study Bible of application. But I hope I got at least to the point of comprehension and understanding so the person says, “I understand what’s that saying. I understand what that means.” Not only in the individual sense of this text, but by cross referencing and cross referencing footnotes. I can see it in the bigger context and the bigger picture.
My goal was to make the Word of God understandable. And that’s what I really do every week of my life, basically. The challenge here was I can do it in a paragraph a lot easier than I can do it in two short sentences. You are battling this need to summarize and condense and choose your words very carefully, and when you are doing 25,000 like that the process gets very burdensome. That was really a challenge. But I didn’t want any theological system imposed on it. I just wanted to let the Word of God speak. The word dispensations is in there only once and it’s in the Bible text. I tried to avoid anything that would look like a shadow from outside the scripture sort of cast over it. So I just let it speak in the flow of the argument of the book. It is very important to establish introductory material at the front of every book which was honest and legitimate and once you’ve done that then you have established a certain theme, a certain flow. As a pastor I was thinking of how my people will be able to understand the meaning of the scripture in a way that could be applicable.
Preaching: You mentioned last night in your message (during the Congress) somewhat facetiously that having gone through all of these passages and gathered all this information, you are inundating your people with new pieces of information.
MacArthur: It is leaking out all over the place!
Preaching: Do you sense any changes in your preaching — anything that you might be doing differently having gone through this project? How has your preaching been impacted?
MacArthur: I think my preaching has been impacted because my mind has been so immensely enriched with the biblical data that I wasn’t as familiar with. You know as you go through years preaching, you build a sort of base of familiar stuff. And all of a sudden I was flooded with unfamiliar stuff, so there was a newness and richness. I was using illustrations out of the Old Testament that I had never used, and still am. I was tapping into principles and insights that I never had before. And I think that was the richness for me, not only for the people.
People told me there is a totally new joy in my preaching, a new sense of adventure that they can sense even in the way that I preach and the passion of it. It is all fresh because it’s been informed with fresh new insights and also because I’m speaking my convictions with greater passion because I’ve had to test them from Genesis 1:1 clear to the end of Revelation 22. And so what it is that I’m still holding on to, I’m really holding on to. The people are catching some of this joy. They listen not only to what I say but they pick up the passion with which I say it. And you transfer to them not only an understanding of the scriptures but an enthusiasm and excitement about it, too. There are three people — husband, wife, and daughter — right across the aisle from us and they were all taking notes last night through both sermons. That’s pretty typical of our place here. That’s wonderfully encouraging.
Preaching: How do you go about planning your preaching? What does the planning process look like for you?
MacArthur: I’m probably not a really good guy to answer that question because my plan is to preach a book. Before I begin that book, I read a whole lot of introductory material because I really want to take advantage of the best that is available. This sends me into introductory material as well as commentaries where I can expose myself to everything: outlines, themes, variations, issues of backgrounds and all this kind of stuff. I get a feel for the book and I start poking around in it and I start developing an outline in a general flow of where I will go. And that is as far as I go. I never break it down at that point, because I find myself constantly going behind the barriers that I establish for myself.
I find that the science of preaching sort of gives way to the passion. I’ll take a passage. Eventually when I start the series I’ll break up the first part of it in imaginable paragraphs in my own mind. And I’ll start with the first unit and I’ll say, “O.K., this is a sermon unit here.” As often as not, I’ll go into the pulpit assuming I’ll preach a sermon on that and wind up with a four-week series. That is because I get into something and what starts out as a well designed sermon with an introduction, conclusion, points that all work together and wrap up fine — a well constructed sermon — becomes a very poorly constructed series. And the people are very used to that here and because I’m coming back next week it is sort of like link sausage — you can cut anywhere and you get the whole deal. So, I’m not really a very good model of homiletics!
In fact I was doing a pastor’s conference in Montreal and we had several hundred young, new pastors in the French Canadian evangelical movement, which is a first generation church — the only one in the western world. They are all first generation men; they have never been trained. So I did a seminar on preaching for five days, through simultaneous translation, and at the end we had questions. The first guy got upset: “Dr. MacArthur, we appreciate what you have taught us and we’ve been listening to your tapes and we want to know why you don’t do what you have just taught us.” That was an honest question and I just scratched my head and said, “I don’t know why, it’s just foolishness on my part.”
I find there is a certain adventure to preaching; there’s a certain captivating element. I’m not into homiletics as such. I don’t worry too much about alliteration; if it is there, it is there, if it’s not, it is not. I’m not into the cleverness of the outline. So I do tend to spill over when I don’t necessarily plan to do that. But, that is kind of how it goes and when I finish that unit however that works, I just start the next one and work my way through. I always want to stay consistent with themes, I don’t want to interpret something in chapter one that is going to collide with chapter four. So, I have to be ahead of myself in terms of having already thought all that through. There is a certain level of interpretation I’ve done at the front.
There is a certain unknown in my preaching process. So I can’t plan a year preaching or sequence unless I’m doing a special series. I just did a special series on Romans 8. Just took that one chapter and broke it down, into a series of things and gave that sequence on Sunday night. But if I’m going through a book I find it very difficult.
Preaching: How do you choose which books to preach?
MacArthur: Honestly, early on it was something that I really worked on. As thoughtfully as I could, as prayerfully as I could, and trying to assess where the church was and what was most needful. But in the process of trying to complete the whole of the New Testament, I’m running out of reasons why I’m making choices. I’m now down to the fact that I’ve only got two books left. So, I can either chose Luke or Mark. You know, eventually I sort of run out of viable options! But typically it had to do with the life of the church — where I thought the church was.
I’m doing one expositional series on Sunday morning and another one on Sunday night. I always wanted one of them focused primarily on the person of Christ which will be a gospel, the Hebrews, say Colossians, either Revelations the glories of Christ. I never wanted to be so into theology or some aspect of theology or church life or whatever that the real focus of the Christian experience, the person of Christ, somehow got left behind. So I always wanted to have one of those books be one that featured the Lord Jesus Christ. I love the gospels because it is Christ every Sunday. Lifting Him up is still what we do.
Preaching: Having done this Bible project, are there any Old Testament books that you are now eager to go into?
MacArthur: I have preached through some: Daniel, Zechariah, some of the minor prophets; I’ve given them bits and pieces of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Of course my people are living in sheer terror that I might start Genesis and try to get to all the chapters in their lifetime! Or anything else that long. I just fell in love with the book of Ezekiel, which is a very difficult book. I think I worked harder on the notes on that than any other book. I fell in love with the book of Job which I have done bits and pieces and would love to go all the way through now that I have a greater grasp for that book. I’m going to do a series on Genesis 1-3. The richness of those beginnings that I think will really be stimulating for the people and but as far as just taking one book and just marching through it, my style might make that a very long process. So I think I’ll just pick sections of the Old Testament that are most notable and work my way through those.
Preaching: What do you actually carry into the pulpit with you when you are going to preach?
MacArthur: Of course my Bible, and inserted in my Bible I carry some sheets of paper that will be about the size of the Bible page. Depending on my familiarity with the material and the structure of all that, I can have anywhere from three or four up to ten of those. And they would just be my own hand written notes. I mark them up in a certain way to draw attention to them and I don’t have to refer to them except maybe to quote a scripture or read a quote — just to sort of locate myself so I don’t go off somewhere and I can’t find my way back. I don’t memorize my sermons. I’m not particularly interested in preaching without notes.
Preaching long sermons for many years in the same place demands that you say things in a new way — that you stay fresh — and it’s very important to craft things. I’m not a great orator by any means, but I don’t want to say things that sound so familiar. Familiarity inevitably breeds contempt. You are teaching the same truths over a long period of time again and again. You have to be aware of forgetfulness — they do forget — but you also have be aware of familiarity. You can’t keep repeating things in the same way. Certainly the scriptures do this. There are great truths repeated in scripture in many places but with insights and illustrations and analogies that are new all the time. You sort of work on that. At least I do.
Preaching: How long is a typical sermon for you?
MacArthur: Fifty minutes. It’s almost predictable. If I didn’t have a clock, I would almost hit that.
Preaching: I had a telephone call a couple of years ago from The Christian Science Monitor. They were doing an article on how sermons were getting shorter. They had interviewed a bunch of New England preachers who had basically told them nobody would listen to them no more than 15 minutes. I said, “If you’re not saying anything, then even fifteen minutes is an eternity. But it is my impression that many effective preachers who are drawing large crowds preach sermons of significant length.”
MacArthur: The issue is not the length of anything. The issue is what’s there. I mean, the Gettysburg Address didn’t need to be any longer than it was. I think if you make an issue out of length, you make a major mistake. I don’t ever want to tell another preacher you need to preach at least 50 minutes. They may not be able to do that effectively. You do need to have time enough to frame your message so that it comes with Biblical impact. And that means a certain amount of re-creating. There’s a certain amount of that is necessary.
Look at the Promise Keepers rallies. These guys are going in there and listening to hour- long messages, four or five of them in a day. Of course you can’t just put anybody up there to do that. But there are people who can sustain that kind of. You are going to find that the guys that are here this week (the Congress) almost to a man tend to be long. But they are the best communicators around. I mean, Adrian Rogers, nobody complains. Tony Evans, nobody complains. They would all be in the 45 to 50 minute category. I don’t know why that is. I think the issue is what a man has to say and the power with which he says it and the way he handles the scripture and the way he handles his audience.
Preaching: You mentioned in your message last night that a preacher’s authority comes when he speaks the Word of God. One of the things that we were talking about earlier was the fact that churches that are growing today are churches where solid, biblical preaching is going on. How do you relate those observations?
MacArthur: God honors His Word, and I think if you get beyond that you’re messing around in human analysis. I mean what am I going to talk about? Marketing strategies or technique? I don’t want to do that. I really believe that God does honor His Word and it is sharper than any two-edged sword and it is able to penetrate and cut and wound, and then heal, restore and re-build like nothing else. The other common denominator in growing churches is not just the Word but it is men who are skilled at handling it.
I think God blesses His truth. You know, I think in the breadth of evangelicalism there is a love for the truth and there is an honoring for the truth of God. You see it here when the Word of God is opened and it comes to life and it penetrates. We don’t have to get a polemicist up there to demand that all of these people accept the veracity of scripture. It is conviction, I think, that is planted in the heart by the Spirit of God in the life of a true believer. The love of the truth. I just think when they hear this powerfully and clearly presented to them it has its effect, it does its work. It is powerful and you will believe. Of course that is Romans 2:13 and I think that is why those churches grow.
We all know as well that leadership is predominantly verbal. And so, leaders who can clearly articulate truth tend to be those who can motivate and who can mobilize people. And so around that strong proclamation of the word of God these men are also able to energize and ennoble the people around them, who then put their shoulder to the wheel and generate ministry. I do think it is the blessing of God and honor of His Word.
Preaching: You also commented that one of the things that you have to work at so hard is to get you’re own presuppositions out of the message. How do you do that and yet allow the divinely and inspired personality of the preacher to still have its place?
MacArthur: I think the answer to that is you get yourself out of the interpretation, you don’t get yourself out of the proclamation. I want to be out of the interpretation and in the proclamation. There’s a clear line there for me.
I remember having a conversation with a prominent Christian leader. He said what do you think of exception clause in Matthew 5: except for the clause of fornication that the man divorce his wife and she remarries she commits adultery. I said, what do you mean what do I think of it? It is there, so it is an exception. If there is fornication, then there’s grounds for divorce. He says it can’t be true. And we were walking through this area where there was a pen of Canadian geese and he said, “See those geese, we clipped their wings, we keep them here. He said one day there was a hole in the fence. They all tried to get out. That’s why there can’t be an exception clause.” He was dead serious.
I said, “Tell me this: what does Matthew 5 mean if there are no geese?” He went blank. Sort of theology by analogy. You can always find the analogy. But I think the challenge in the interpretation process is to get yourself out of it, and that is where the scholarship comes in, that is where your hard work comes in. That’s why I read probably 12 to 15 commentaries on every passage that I preach on. I really do want to be fair with it. That’s the challenge, and once I get into the proclamation, then that’s just me. I hope that people don’t ever think that you are up there trying to present your opinion. Sometimes when you are forceful they assume that. Hopefully that is not true.

Share This On:

About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

Related Posts