I have heard some fascinating messages delivered in the “voice” of another. One of the greatest was “Caiaphas ” by the late Dr. D. James Kennedy. I will refrain from mentioning any that I found less than Biblical, not to say well-done.
The truth is: expositional sermons in the first-person are difficult. Mercifully, the late Dr. Haddon Robinson and his son, Torrey W. Robinson, wrote a masterful guide back in 2003. It’s All in How You Tell it: Preaching First-Person Expository Messages (Baker Books, 2003). I highly recommend the book for preachers desiring to stretch themselves in delivery.
Before preaching a first-person expository message, you will need to take all of the ordinary steps for reading, researching, and writing an expository sermon. You should, of course, identify the presenting issue in the text. Locate and state the exegetical statement concerning this presenting issue. Prayerfully, skillfully articulate the expository idea (i.e., the “Big Idea,” the “proposition,”). As with any other solid expositional message, you should present an interrogatory statement of “who, what, when, or how.” Having answered the question about the expository statement, you now have a transition with a keyword. This vital component of an expository sermon binds the Introduction (presenting issue, personalization, exegetical idea, expository idea, Interrogatory) to the Main Argument (i.e., the “body of the sermon,” with is a statement of the Biblical case evidenced in the sacred text: explained, illustrated, and applied).
The Main Argument will be supported by the Closing Argument (ordinarily, recapitulation, the exposition applied in a “lived-in” illustration, and the closing appeal or charge [“So, what does the Lord require of me?”]). The components of a classical expository sermon serve the interests of delivery God’s Word, not yours. So, a preacher will study and prepare a first-person expository message in the same way as he develops any other exposition of the Word of God. However, he must add to this. There are reasons why the preacher should not frequent the genre of first-person expository sermons (we will discuss those presently). The single most significant inducement for limiting first-person expository sermons is its extra level of intense study. This new stage in your exegetical spadework is indispensable. One cannot assume the persona of a given Bible character without careful investigation. It is no small task. Unless you are contented with introducing complicated homiletical and rhetorical moves that can quickly go wrong—thereby risking your credibility and, consequently, your longevity in your pulpit—you will take the extra time needed to prepare. The additional degree of research and composition is necessary. Why? The preacher attempting first-person expository preaching must be concerned with how to express a voice in the Scripture, deliver the expositional argument, and balance accuracy with perfectly placed creativity and sermon purpose. All of these goals must be realized while remaining strenuously tethered to the text.
In the sermon example, offered after this article, a message on Peter, I conducted not only Biblical study on the subject. I consulted Bible atlases, chronologies, commentaries, and Peter in English Literature. For most practicing Christian shepherds, the work of oversight of the flock of Christ is so necessarily busy that any deviation from a well-crafted weekly schedule can create a real domino effect of conflicts. First-person expository preaching is a daunting task to do well. Don’t do it often! There are other reasons, of course:
- The First Person Expository sermon will be received as somewhat novel. While there are ways to assure the congregation that you are not “play-acting,” but really “preaching,” the practice is obscure. Obscurity in preaching is similar to making fancy dishes on Sunday. “The Coq au vin and Marseillaise bouillabaisse look divine. But what happened to the fried chicken and biscuits?” to include in your preaching schedule more than a few times in your entire ministry. If you do a series, you will likely want to limit any further first-person expository sermons for a long, long while.
- The first-person expository message will likely be quite popular. Watching a dog stand on its hind-legs for a few minutes will also win applause. But dogs don’t really walk like that. So, be careful. Novelty endangers the dignity of the pulpit. It is not about you or me. Use the first-person method sparingly. Otherwise, you risk creating an epic homiletical ego monster (the incredible, discreditable you). The Frankenstein parable is appropriate here.
There are other tips for executing the first-person message.
- Shift voices for the Main Argument only. Less is more in first-person expository preaching. Read the Word of God, with the ascription of authority. Pray the Prayer of Illumination. Begin with a summary statement of the Presenting Issue. Illustrate the Presenting Issue of the Text. Personalize the Presenting Issue (I, thou, God). Transition to the Exegetical movement. Announce the Expository Idea. Once you ask the Interrogatory, audibly, or implied, you announce the Transition with Keyword. As you come to the Main Argument, a set of dependent Biblical truths that support the Expository Statement, you are ready to assume the voice of the Biblical character (I will not explore the use of other voices, possible, but even riskier).
- Write a transition for moving from the “present dimension” (your voice) to the “first-person-character-dimension.” This can be done with just a sentence: “What if we could hear Paul explain what he was writing to Timothy in this epistle? For just a few moments, I will try to help us imagine just that.”
- Use physical movement to establish the shifting of the characters. An easy way to do this is to step back from the pulpit to assume the role immediately after you have announced your plan. Do not step forward again until you are ready for reentry into your voice. Any sequencing of motions will work well as long as you are consistent.
- Come out of character before the sermon ends. I strongly urge that you give the Closing Argument in your voice. Having the Bible character issue an appeal is stretching the genre and, in my opinion, misusing the instrument.
So, without adieu, I present the first-person sermon. I have done only two in my ministerial record of service. I offered the life of David, partly through his own voice from Scripture, in the first-person expositional method. I, later, preached a Bible message on the transformative grace of God shown to Peter. Here, then, is that second message; on Peter’s experience of God’s transformative grace and love.
“You are Simon…You Shall Be Called Peter:” A First-Person Easter Sermon
Most of you listening to my voice believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, there may be a few skeptics present. There will be many sermons today around the world centering on reasons for believing in the resurrection. And there are many, from many different points of view. One frequent reason offered for believing that Jesus of Nazareth rose again from the dead is the transformed lives of those men and women who followed Him while he walked this earth. One of those was Peter. In the life of Peter, perhaps more than any other, in the Scriptures, we can observe and even examine the transformation that happened to him. But today, in the testimony of this man, Peter, I want us to hear his voice afresh. For in the life of Peter, we come to learn that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not the end of the story—either for Him or for us. That in the resurrection of Jesus, there is a constant beginning again.Someone wrote:” There’s nothing in man that’s perfect, There’s nothing that’s all complete, He nothing but a big beginning, From his head to the soles of his feet.” Peter was a big beginning. Jesus was going to make something out of that hotheaded, big-hearted fisherman. So, today if you will listen with your heart, and believe, you will know the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ for your own life. You will know that wherever you have been, whatever you have done, the message of Easter is that through the love of Jesus Christ, this is the beginning of what God will make of you.(Read Scripture in Luke 5.1-11; John 1.40-42; John 20.1-10; John 21.1-19)
Introduction to the Sermon
I am told that there is a certain statue in St. Peter’s Basilica. It is a giant statue of Peter. This statue has a rather big toe on the big fisherman. Apparently, just about every tourist who passes rubs or even kisses this protruding appendage.We may not want to kiss a statue. But we all want to touch Peter. He is a man like us. Paul was a scholar: a legal scholar, a religious scholar, a man of languages, and refinement and culture. He was well educated. But the risen Jesus appeared to that great man, and he was transformed to become something else. Jesus effectively used Paul’s gifts. God does not throw away the man we use to be, but he begins with the earthen portion and fashions that. But Peter seems to have taken a long time for the Master to perfect. He was a man of virtue and a man of vice. A man with a big heart and a big mouth. Maybe that is why we so want to touch Peter. There are, of course, no real portraits of the man is sometimes called “the prince of the Apostles.” By the third century, drawings of Peter reveal the same thing: a large man with a great round head, balding, and a great rock-solid jaw covered with a bushy beard. He would, of course, use that jaw prodigiously! Peter seemed to have a philosophy, “When in doubt: SPEAK!” The great Apostle is written about more than any of the other twelve who followed Jesus. And He speaks more to Jesus than any of the others. And Jesus speaks to Peter more than any other—sometimes to praise and sometimes to blame. The statues of Peter in Rome, as magnificent as they are, are nothing compared to the human statue, the spiritual statue that Jesus created. There is a common theme in the Gospel accounts of Peter’s call. In Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says to Simon Bar-Jonah and Andrew, Peter’s brother, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Luke says in the longer narrative about his calling, “From now on, you will be catching men.” And in John, there is an emphasis on Peter’s name:” So you are Simon, the son of John? You shall be called ‘Cephas.'” John reminds us that Cephas, the Aramaic translation of Petros in the Greek. Petros means Rock in the English language. But note the words in all of the accounts: I will make you, from now on, and you shall be…” And so for the rest of his life, Peter was a man under construction. And like a great statue, the final finishing work for Peter came under the refining fire of trial: a trial that would lead him to an empty tomb, and back to fishing, before encountering the risen Jesus in his own life.That is my prayer today for each of us: that we will encounter the living Christ in our own lives, that the resurrection of Jesus would not simply be an event to celebrate, but a passage into a personal relationship with the risen Savior that would transform us into the men and women, the boys and girls he wants us to be.Now, Peter was crucified on an inverted cross for his beliefs around 67 AD, during the first purge of Christians ordered by the Emperor Nero. But the Word of God allows us to listen to his voice, for it tells his story so powerfully. What if we could listen to the testimony of this one who was there?” Well, I would say what the Word says. Just like your preacher who interprets and preaches the truth of the Word of God. That is what I would say. In fact, the Spirit of God moved me to use two letters I wrote. I also told John Mark about all that I saw and heard of the Master and he compiled it into his own book. And the Holy Spirit used that as well. But in all of it, yes, there is a story of my life with the Master. O, how precious were those halcyon days! Yet, how painful. For the Master made me into a new man. How did He do it? He did it with love. He did it sometimes with chastening. But He did it. For all who follow Him, He changes us. In my life, there was a growing disclosure of who He was and of who I was until at last I melted under His grace. When He ascended, He was still working on me through His spirit. I was the man who preached the first sermon after the Holy Spirit fulfilled the ancient prophecies, to make our father’s faith a world wide movement. But I also was corrected by Paul on the matter of grace. I later stood at Jerusalem and got that one right as we dealt with how the life of our Lord had to go forward. There is so much. Now, let me see. How shall I tell you this story? I need to sort this out for you today, because I know there are those like me who believe but who are still under construction. Ok, I know. Let me think about it in terms of my name. I was Simon. I became Simon Peter. And then I became Peter. It is simple, but maybe you will catch what I mean.
My name was common, like everything else about me. So that is why you like me so? Well, my little brother Andrew and I had a fishing business. A good one. I had a nice house along Lake Galilee. My mother-in-law and my wife lived with me. But I was trained in the Law, like all good Jewish boys. And I also lived under the oppression of Rome and I wanted freedom. That was my life. Just like yours. There were the small things of my life being lived out beneath the big tent of the world with all of its problems. John the Baptizer had been preaching about repentance. Many were flocking to him, but not me. I had work to do, I thought, and my work was to fish. But Andrew went and heard John the day that John said, “Behold the Lamb of God” and pointed to Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus invited them to the place where He was staying. Then Andrew came to me and told me that we had found the Messiah. I will never forget how he looked at me. He spoke my name Simon. But then He said, “You shall be called the Rock.” I began to see things I could not believe, but they happened. Water turned to wine. Jesus started taking on the religious leaders of Jerusalem, the biggest muckety-mucks you have ever seen! He spoke with authority. I saw people healed, including my own mother-in-law. I heard demons speak, in my own synagogue I heard this. I saw evil spirits flee at His command. I saw poor people and wealthy people alike come to Him and follow Him. I saw poor people and wealthy people alike try to use Him for what they wanted, but didn’t really follow Him.Once He said, “I Am the bread of life, whoever comes to Me shall not hunger and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst (John 6.35).” As Simon I was hungry. I wanted the life He talked about. I followed Him wanting it. I believed in Him. But there was still so much Simon.When I was just Simon, I believed, but I didn’t know what or who I was believing in. He was like a fish I had on a line that was unlike any other fish. No. No, the truth is that I was the fish. And He had me on His line.” “You are Simon, but you shall be…” “I will make you…” The words echo in my mind. I was a man in the making. So I will tell you how Jesus Christ changed me.
Once the Master asked, “Who do men say that I am?” I answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus said that on this “Rock” (I was very proud when he said that)”—On this Rock” —I will build My Church and the gates of Hell will not stand against it.” That was, I think, a good confession that marked a shift in the trajectory of my life. I mean, when you read about me in the Scriptures, you read that I was there at the Transfiguration, when we the Patriarchs appeared and God spoke and said, “This is My Son, listen to Him.” We were there. We heard Jesus say that I and the Father are one (John 10.30). We were there when they took up stones to stone Him. But I knew. I knew this was the Messiah. But the Simon in me was becoming Simon Peter—two men struggling to become one new man. And that was my finest hour with the Master during His days upon this earth.But I did not only tell that to Mark when Mark wrote His Gospel. I went on to tell him what happened right after my great moment in the sun. Jesus began to speak about He was going to be rejected by the elders and the chief priest and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly—too plainly for me. We finally had our Messiah and now this? I could see the iron-clad shields of Rome legion melting beneath His power! I could see the Kingdom I wanted finally coming in my way, and in my time. So, I—and I used this word when I told these things to Mark, for his Gospel—I “rebuked Him.” Is there anyone here who has ever rebuked God? Well, I did. And His words back to me reminded me that I was still very much Simon: “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Mark 8.33). Anyone here ever had God call you “Satan?” Man, it is not good for your self-image. Yeah, but I had plenty of self. Of course, the Lord knew it. And He knew how much it was hurting me. Our Lord Jesus went on to say that a man must deny himself and follow Jesus. “And whoever would seek to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me sake and the Gospel’s will save it.” I felt in my heart that I had left all. I had given it all away. I was following Him. What more did He want? What more could I give?Things got worse. And just what He said would happen began to happen. Not that I ever doubted it. He was Messiah. I knew that. But a man can believe a lot of things about Jesus and still not know Him. I found that out.For instance, on that week, the week you call Holy Week, on that day you call Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday, He began to wash our feet. There was no way that could happen. “He would never wash my feet!” But He told me that I was unclean. Not totally. But I still had filth in my life. I was Simon…Peter: Not all the way Peter.
He spoke of betrayal. The one thing I was proud of—and I was a proud man in so many ways—was that I was loyal. I was dutiful. You could trust me. So, I told him that I would never betray Him. But He said, and you all know this, don’t you, He said, “Before the rooster would crow twice, I would not only betray Him once but three times. Pride led to my fall. It is painful to speak of, but I denied Jesus. I stood up for Him, I thought, in the Garden, when I cut off Malchus’ ear. Jesus healed it. That was a wasted effort! I followed behind that night to His arraignment. A young lass, a servant girl of the high priest, saw me and she asked me if I was once of His disciples. I lied. I said that I was not. I got away. I made myself lost in the maddening crowd. But that old rooster crowed. I will never forget that sound. I felt cold. Was I trembling then from the weather or from the lie? I warmed myself by a fire with others. A second time, I was asked if I was one of the disciples. Again, I said that I was not. Something died inside of me. I denied my Lord. Then, of all things, Malchus’ relative recognized me. But I denied knowing Jesus. I swore and I cursed as I said, “I do not know this Man…” And the rooster crowed at the sound of my blasphemy of Jesus and my betrayal of His very name. The fire burned its heat on my soul and the sound of that confounded creature echoed like a demon from Hell into my very soul! I ran, I tell you, I ran! Have you ever denied Him? Have you ever denied Jesus with your words or with your life? Can anyone here relate to what I did? Somehow, my confession, all of the things I had seen and known and learned from Him, dissipated in that one moment. And then the crowing of the rooster, just like Jesus said. He knew me. He knew me better than I knew myself. I was crushed. Judas had denied him and his sorrow led him to suicide. But with me, I just ran away. But before I ran, they led me out. I saw Him but not the way He saw me. When Jesus looked at me He looked all the way through me. He looked at me and I remembered what He said I would do. Jesus was always looking at me. He looked at me and said, “You are Simon. But you shall be called Peter.” I was on my way. I had confessed Him as the Christ. I stood with Him, but in this hour I learned that my faith was so much Simon and not much Peter. In this look, I knew I was not Peter. I was a failure. I would later write:
“[Trials] come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1Peter 1.7).
And so a man who fails is not a total failure. A woman who is in the hand of the Master is not complete until Christ completes her. And He uses all things, including our own sins and our own weaknesses to bring us to a new place in life, a place where we lose our lives and find our Lord.So I was Simon. I was Simon…Peter. But how did He finally do it? How did I move to become the man who would one day die for my Lord? How would Jesus make me a fisher of men, a man called Peter?
On the first day of the week, it happened. I was locked down with the others because of fear, because pain, or maybe because of confusion. Do you know how it feels to carry guilt? To know that you denied Jesus Christ? Well, I do. And when Mary Magdalene came running to say that He was not in the tomb, I was dumbfounded. I took off running. John went with me. I was running hard, but John, who was younger, outran me. Let me tell you: I saw it. Jesus had been put in that tomb, with a stone guarded by Roman soldiers, but that tomb was empty. And then we saw it: the burial clothes. Have you ever seen the shell of a locust? That is what the sight reminded me of. There were the grave clothes and the head cloth was there and separate from the linen which would have covered His body. The winding sheets of death were neatly folded. Life had overcome death. Or had it? We went away again—in shock. But we knew. He had told us this would happen. In-between my own pride and my own desires, I missed it. Then Mary came running to us to say that she had seen Jesus alive! Later that evening, Jesus walked through the locked door, and walked through the locked door of our hearts, He walked through our fears, and He stood among us. I saw the nail scarred hands. I saw the nail scarred feet. I saw the wound in His side. And he spoke. He said, “Peace be with you.” I saw Jesus resurrected from the dead. And you say, “I too believe.” But let me tell you. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a shut and closed case. It is locked down tight. Over 500 saw Him at once. The disciples saw Him. I saw Him. But let me tell you. It is not just the resurrection that changes a man’s life. It is the heart of Jesus that lives on. And I experienced that heart of His. For I was guilty and I needed forgiveness. The joy and amazement of His resurrection was subdued by my sin. So, I became Simon again: Simon, the fisherman. And I persuaded others to join me. We were fishing, see: fishing. But all the while He was on the shore cooking us a breakfast meal. While I was out there in my pain, He was preparing to feed me. Amazing. Well, we were catching nothing. Then He called out. And I have never known a carpenter to know as much about fish as Jesus. And as soon as He told us to throw our nets on the other side, I knew it was Him. This is how I first met Him. He called out in this way when He first called me. Then our nets broke and the boat sank from the weight of the fish. This time, we caught 153 fish. The nets held and the boat held. But I broke. When I met him I fell and confessed my sins and I followed Him. But this time all I could do was dive in and swim. Oh how I wanted him. I needed to confess of my confession. I needed to come face to face with Jesus. I cannot tell you how I felt. Can you imagine the build up of guilt and pain and then to hear His voice? We had breakfast first. I was nervous. I mean there I was in the presence of the resurrected King of Glory and we were eating together! But then He turned to Me. And He does that. In the midst of the Church, He turns to you, He deals with us as His people, but He deals with each of our needs individually. And Jesus Christ turned to me. I can tell you, when the risen Christ speaks to you, when He deals with you one-on-one the white hot, searching light of His love blisters every ounce of pride away.Jesus would not call me Peter. He called me by my name Simon son of John. I began to see that all that had gone before was like chaff in the wind. I was just Simon. I was a sinner in need of grace. Then just as I denied Him three times, He questioned me three times. Do you love me like these? I had compared myself to the others in saying that I would be the one who would not deny Him, but I was a fool. You do not compare your life with another man’s in the things of God. And the word He used for love was the word agape, the word for covenant love, unconditional love. I said You know that I love you and I could not used that word. I said you know I love you, but I used a word for love like a friend. That was all I could do. I knew then that He could love like that but I could not. It had been all about me for so long. I was tired of it. He ten told me to feed His sheep. He was calling me to pastor His people. I was undone. I was not worthy. I was a sinner. He asked me again. I was hurt. He used the same word of love and I responded the same way. Again, he called me to feed His sheep. A third time He asked me. And this time He used the word for love that is a love between friends, the only word I could use. I began to see. I could not be His friend, until I accepted His unconditional love. I could not be used until I was undone with my sin. I could not be Peter until Simon was crucified. Then He said, “Follow Me.” I would later write in my letter for others, for each of you, to remember:” Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” (1 Peter 1.3)This is my story.” And this is how Simon became Simon Peter and finally Peter. God would have yet more work to be done in sculpting this Rock of a Christian. Peter would have to learn about how the Gospel was to go to the Gentiles. He would have to learn again, from of all people, the Apostle Paul, how grace is the key doctrine in the Christian life. But he learned well. And in AD 67, Peter, according to several accounts of the early church fathers, Jesus’ prophecy about Peter’s death came true. He was crucified under Nero. But, according to Eusebius the great church historian, his humility and brokenness before the Lord caused him to request that he be crucified upside down for he was unworthy of imitating Christ’s death.Yesterday, I went to an Easter Egg Hunt. And at the shout of “GO!” the children ran into the fields and scooped up all of the eggs and candy. It took only a matter of minutes, possibly seconds, and it was all over. I noticed one little boy had been beaten out. He must have been about 5 years old and was absolutely dejected. He had only two small pieces of candy in his basket. He stood, took off his little eyeglasses, and started crying. It broke my heart. I called for my son, who was in the older age group, and explained what happened. He immediately ran over and offered his candy to the tike. For many, this Easter will be like that. In one fell swoop, there will be an Easter Sunday sermon, a nice Easter meal of ham or maybe lamb, and then some napping and it will be over. So before you go, I ask you: What shall you gather in your Easter basket from this message? May you hear the voice of the Scripture that it is not enough to simply believe with our minds in the reality off the resurrection. We must believe in our hearts that we are sinners in need of a Savior, and we must hear the voice of the Savior asking each of us: “Do you love me?” Then and only then can we know the living hope that the resurrection brings.Today, let no one go away dejected. Let the Gospel of His grace and mercy fill our empty baskets and comfort our trembling souls. And then go and share what you have received with someone else who needs it. He is risen. He is risen indeed. Amen.
Eusebius, of Caesarea Bishop of Caesarea ca, and Paul L. Maier. Eusebius–the Church History : A New Translation with Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999.
Lockyer, Herbert. All the Apostles of the Bible; Studies in the Characters of the Apostles, the Men Jesus Chose, and the Message They Proclaimed. Grand Rapids, Mich., Zondervan Pub. House 1972, 1972.
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