On June 5, 2011, John MacArthur completed a remarkable feat. He finished his 42-year journey of preaching through the New Testament verse-by-verse. In this episode of the Great Sermon Series, we will examine how John MacArthur began with a sermon that would prove to set the stage for the next 42 years of his ministry at Grace Community Church. Let’s take a closer look at what makes this first sermon so memorable.
This video is brought to you in part by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can download a free book from Southern, and learn more about training for preachers at sbts.edu/challies.
(Written by Tim Challies & Joey Schwartz; produced by Thaddeus Maharaj.)
Tim: On June 5th, 2011, John MacArthur completed a remarkable feat. He came to the end of a 42-year journey of preaching through the New Testament verse by verse. This was a mammoth achievement. It’s one that’s difficult to wrap our minds around. 42 years, week in, week out, in season, out of season, between funerals and baptisms, through the joys and the pains of pastoral life, persistently mining God’s Word for its riches. 27 books, 260 chapters, 7957 verses. How do you even begin a task like that one? You’ve probably heard the old saying, how do you eat an elephant? You know the answer. One bite at a time. It turns out the same is true of preaching through the New Testament verse by verse. How do you do it? One verse at a time. That’s how MacArthur started. One verse. But he didn’t pick just any verse. He chose to begin with some of the most shocking words in the entire New Testament.
John MacArthur: Grab your Bibles, note please Matthew 7, beginning at verse 21, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Tim: On February 9, 1969, 29-year-old John MacArthur began his ministry at Grace Community Church with a sermon titled, How to Play Church. This was a great sermon that set the stage for a thousand other great sermons. What made it so memorable? Let’s give it a closer look.
This video is brought to you in part by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can download a free book from Southern and learn more about training for preachers at sbts.edu/challies.
Even before John MacArthur was born, the ground had already been laid for him to become a zealous and faithful expositor of the Bible. His grandfather, Harry, was a gifted preacher, whose deathbed request had been to deliver one final sermon on heaven of all things. And his father, Jack, had this west coast radio ministry that lasted for over 60 years. So it’s no surprise that when young John had to decide between professional sports and a life in the pulpit, he chose to be a preacher.
Throughout the late 60’s and in the midst of the hippy culture and this new rising Jesus movement, he traveled all across the west coast. He was honing his craft, he was preaching several times a week at youth camps and at conferences. But all along, his inner desire was to preach verse by verse through the Word of God. There was only one problem, which was his age. Though some churches showed initial interest in calling him as their pastor, they shut down the possibility as soon as they discovered that he was just 29 years old. But one church in Sun Valley, California was actually looking for a young pastor. Their previous two pastors had each died of heart attacks and they gave John a call, hoping for someone who would have a little bit more stamina. But none of them could have predicted that he would be there for the next 50 years. MacArthur showed up for his candidating sermon and preached through Romans 6 and 7 for an hour and 20 minutes. In response, the congregation put this giant clock on the back wall and gladly asked him to be their pastor. So when MacArthur stepped to the pulpit for the first time as pastor of Grace Community Church, he might have been 29 years old, but make no mistake, he was a well-seasoned preacher. He was trained in the Word, and he was burning with this desire to teach the Word to a congregation that was very, very eager to hear it.
In this sermon, we see three marks that make this sermon great. And really, these are the marks that have distinguished MacArthur’s ministry all the way to this day.
First, MacArthur shows that the Word of God sanctifies the church. From the very beginning of the sermon, this is his one big point.
John MacArthur: There is no way, biblically, under the sun that the church can ever court the world. The church must be the conscience of the world. The church must be so well defined that it becomes the antagonist of the world. For those outside of Jesus Christ, this church, I trust, I pray, this church will be the most uncomfortable seat in the world, because we present a Gospel that divides. The true church of Jesus Christ is not a religious institution which welcomes everybody, it is the body of Jesus Christ, set apart under God. Uniquely married and wedded to the self-same Christ, redeemed by faith.
Tim: That’s why MacArthur chose Matthew chapter 7, verses 21 to 23 as the very first text he would deliver there as their pastor. This is a sobering call to those who call Jesus Lord, to examine themselves and to ensure that they actually know Jesus Christ in a saving relationship. MacArthur’s convinced that as long as the church is worldly, the church can’t serve the world. The church must first be holy, it must be set apart, it must be distinct from the world. And this can only happen through the Word of God. For this reason, from the very beginning of his ministry, MacArthur brings his people face to face with God’s Word.
John MacArthur: I am sure that in this church right here, there are people who come, who do not know Jesus Christ in a personal vital way. I am convinced that, because of the size of the congregation this morning, there are some sitting right here in this audience who have come to church many times but who do not know Jesus Christ. And perhaps they even have religious sensations and perhaps they even have sanctimonious emotion, but they do not know Jesus Christ. And it is my conviction that before we as a church can move together as a body, as a unit, we must become a unit and the only way we can ever be united and become one, as Christ prayed that we might be, is that when we all are real in Christ. And so I want us to carefully examine our lives this morning.
Tim: The second mark of MacArthur’s sermon is this; the Word of God sets the agenda. As you listen to MacArthur’s sermon, you may notice it’s difficult to follow a clear outline. Really, there’s only one point in the sermon where MacArthur gives even a brief overview of that outline.
John MacArthur: We’ve seen the condition for entrance to the Kingdom, we’ve seen the cry of those who are left out and here is the condemnation of those without Christ.
Tim: MacArthur starts with the condition for entrance to the Kingdom. Then at some point in the sermon, he transitions to the cry of those who are left out. But you can hardly tell when he’s moved from the first point to the second. And then for his final point, he briefly mentions the condemnation of those left without Christ. He makes an attempt at some kind of alliteration, but to the type-A listener his outline seems maybe a bit sloppy. Now you might be tempted to chalk this up to his youth at the time, but actually, this same style has continued to characterize his preaching all the way to today. Phil Johnson, who is Executive Director of Grace to You, he’s called MacArthur the greatest American expositor in the last 200 years. And yet, he also calls MacArthur the worst outliner of any well-known preacher that he knows of. Why? Because MacArthur so ruthlessly follows the path of the text, that he will not allow an outline to redirect him in any way at all. In this sermon, and in pretty much every MacArthur sermon since, the structure of the sermon follows the structure of the text. That’s why it’s so difficult to follow an outline. Because MacArthur never sacrifices faithfulness to the text for eloquence in his outline. He’s okay with a clumsy outline, as long as the exposition remains crystal clear.
Finally, the third mark of MacArthur’s sermon is this; the Word of God sustains the spotlight. Remember, this is the first time that John MacArthur is in front of his new congregation as their pastor. Now, you’d think he would probably share some kind of personal story so they could get to know him a little better. You’d think he might spice up his sermon with some funny anecdotes to begin the relationship on a good note. Or at the very least, you’d think he would do something to tell them about the grand plans that he’s got for that church. But you listen to the sermon and you’ll find pretty much none of that. What instead do you find in this sermon? A word by word walk through Matthew 7, verses 21 to 23, and 23 detailed cross-references to other scriptures. He does not pull out any funny stories. But he does pull out Genesis, Amos, Hosea, Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, 1st and 2nd Timothy, and Revelation. MacArthur begins with the Word, and he stays in the Word throughout that entire sermon. He’s convinced that the role of the preacher is not to draw attention to himself, nor is it to stay relevant with cultural commentary. The role of the preacher is to explain the meaning of the Word of God. MacArthur builds such a strong foundation of scripture that when he finally closes with an anecdote at the end of the sermon, it’s remarkably effective.
John MacArthur: There was an actor at a drawing room function who was asked to recite, and he stood up and he wanted to be gracious to his audience so he said, I’ll recite anything you’d like me to recite. And no one suggested anything, so an old preacher happened to be there. He was sitting in the back. I don’t know how he got there, he probably crashed the party, normally preachers don’t get invited to drawing room functions on a high society level, but he was there. And he stood up and he said, I’d like to hear you recite the 23rd Psalm. Well, the actor was a little shocked at that, but he’d thrown himself open, so he had to do what the man asked him to do. He happened to know it, so he said, alright, I’ll do that. So he repeated the 23rd Psalm with complete eloquence. Masterfully interpreted it. Diction was beautiful. And when he was done, there was spontaneous applause throughout the entire room.
And the actor, figuring he’d get back at the old gentlemen said, now sir, I’d like to hear you recite it. The old gentlemen hadn’t bargained for that. But because of this love for Christ, he stood up and he repeated the 23rd Psalm. His voice cracked, it broke, it wasn’t very beautiful. Interpretation wasn’t really that good. When he got done there was no applause. But there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. And the actor sensing his own emotion stood up and said, ladies and gentlemen, I reached your eyes and ears and he reached your heart. And he said the difference is this; I know the Psalm, he knows the Shepherd.
Tim: This is how John MacArthur started his journey through the New Testament. By using the Word to sanctify the church. By allowing the Word to set the agenda and by keeping the Word in the spotlight. And that’s how he’s continued his journey through the New Testament, week in, week out for 42 years until finally, he came to his final text.
John MacArthur: Well, it was February of 1969 on a rainy Sunday when I showed up at Grace Church in my late 20’s with no idea of what the future held. As I said, there were a couple of things in my mind. One was to teach the scripture verse by verse and the other was to train men. God has brought to a fruition of some kind anyway, both of those desires in ways that are way beyond anything I ever imagined. I was prepared to teach the Bible seriously, but joyfully. I was prepared to teach it verse by verse, word by word, phrase by phrase and letter by letter, if necessary because I was compelled on one great foundation by one great motivation. I believe, I believed it then, I believe it now, that when I held a Bible in my hands, I actually held the living Word of God. I believe that. I have always believed that. And my faith in the accuracy and integrity of scripture is stronger every passage of my life.
Tim: Over the last 42 years, it’s become very, very clear that John MacArthur knows the Word. He’s walked us through the most difficult passages, he’s stood boldly for the truth in the midst of controversy and he’s given us way more resources than one person could read in a lifetime. And yet, MacArthur hasn’t just reached our eyes and our ears and our minds, he’s also profoundly reached our hearts. What’s most striking, what’s most clear after these 50 years of ministry, it’s not just how well MacArthur knows the Word, it’s how deeply he knows the Shepherd.
If you’re passionate about preaching like I am, I want to tell you about a seminary I’ve grown to trust and appreciate because I know they care deeply about preaching the Word of God. I’d encourage you to visit Southern Seminary, which has been under the leadership of Al Mohler for decades now. Southern is absolutely committed to training pastors to know and defend and exposit the precious Word of God. If you visit their site, they’ll give you a free book that can serve as a resource to help you with the kind of bold preaching that we’ve been talking about here today. Simply visit sbts.edu/challies.