Recent work by Volz (J Math Biol 56:293–310, 2008) has shown how to calculate the growth and eventual decay of an SIR epidemic on a static random network, assuming infection and recovery each happen at constant rates. This calculation allows us to account for effects due to heterogeneity and finiteness of degree that are neglected in the standard mass-action SIR equations. In this note we offer an alternate derivation which arrives at a simpler—though equivalent—system of governing equations to that of Volz. This new derivation is more closely connected to the underlying physical processes, and the resulting equations are of comparable complexity to the mass-action SIR equations. We further show that earlier derivations of the final size of epidemics on networks can be reproduced using the same approach, thereby providing a common framework for calculating both the dynamics and the final size of an epidemic spreading on a random network. Under appropriate assumptions these equations reduce to the standard SIR equations, and we are able to estimate the magnitude of the error introduced by assuming the SIR equations.