Why I (usually) teach systematically through books of the Bible

We have just recently finished off our sermon series in the book of Numbers. This Sunday we will be starting a new series in the book of Acts. It is our view that the usual, and best, diet for the church is to preach through books of the Bible systematically. It is not to say that it is wrong to ever preach a thematic series here and there, it is just to say that the main and usual approach to teaching the Bible ought to be systematic.

Interestingly, John Calvin took the same approach to Bible teaching. He would systematically preach through one book of the Bible and, when he had finished, he would move on to another one and preach systematically through that. In fact, Paul Levy recently noted the way Calvin finished most of his sermons too. You can see that here. I sense the Frenchman might be considered a bit ‘formulaic’ by some. Not that I am led by Calvin in all things (though you could do worse than follow Calvin) but here are some reasons why I typically agree with his approach to preaching.

I don’t know what the church needs to hear most

I was once asked why I didn’t teach more regularly on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Apparently, somebody in my congregation felt that the church needed more teaching on that issue (or, more likely, wanted me to whip them up). But I think the Lord knows better than either me or my church member. I simply replied that I would preach on that when it came up in the passage as we systematically worked through books of the Bible. It was my view that the person was asking me to emphasise the gifts of the Spirit more than the Bible does. That is to say, more than the Lord does and, therefore, more than would be helpful for us to hear.

If we want the Lord to set the agenda for the church, we must – as our usual practice – preach systematically through each book. If we routinely preach thematically or give the church a regular diet of one-off, unconnected one-verse wonders we will inevitably find ourselves picking themes and verses that happen to suit our own personal agenda. Our particular hobby-horses will find their way into all sorts sermons and the church will less hear God’s voice and more that of their pastor.

The church need the whole counsel of God

The Lord has inspired 66 books of the Bible. Each of those books has major themes and much to say. But when we continually preach one-off standalone sermons, or always thematically, we will have a tendency to land on our favourite passages or themes whilst never teaching on those things that might be a little harder or less palatable at first blush.

If the Lord never wanted us to preach on those mental bits at the end of Judges, he wouldn’t have included them in scripture. Those verses are never likely to be anybody’s favourite passage in the Bible and few would be keen to land on them to preach thematically. Likewise the really long lists of geezers who begat other blokes throughout Numbers. Not many would preach on those as a one-off nor pull them out for a thematic sermon. But when we preach systematically through scripture we are forced to consider why the Lord put them there. We miss out on the richness of God’s Word when we simply pick and choose bits to preach on. Systematic preaching means we will eventually preach every part of the Bible.

Each passage was put into a context

When we preach systematically through each book, we have to consider the context of each passage. We have to think about why each book is where it is, how it fits with the overall storyline of the Bible and how each part of the books fits together to serve the whole. When we preach thematically and continual one-offs, we often miss the context. Even if we don’t as preachers, you can be sure most of our congregation will miss it.

As we preach systematically, we bring out how the passage fits into the rest of the book and similarly how the book fits with the story arc of the Bible. Our congregation are much more likely to catch this too.