“Don’t preach at me” figures on the list of most popular comebacks, along with “Stop judging me.” In modern usage, to preach at someone is to set oneself up as superior, to condescendingly render a verdict on another’s behavior. It is the pop star Madonna pleading with her father: “Papa, don’t preach.”
Yet preaching wasn’t always devalued. There was a time when “preacher” was a term of endearment, a little less formal than “Reverend” but respectful nonetheless. As recently as 1996 in the film “The Preacher’s Wife,” Courtney Vance portrayed Reverend Henry Biggs, an African-American pastor who – while insensitive to his wife’s needs – was nevertheless committed to his work, selflessly serving the members of his inner-city flock. Being a preacher was cool.
So if the term “preacher” has lately fallen on hard times, why do the people of God continue to use it? To answer this question, let’s briefly look at what the New Testament has to say about preaching and its importance to the life of the Body of Christ, the church.
John and Jesus: the preaching cousins
A good place to begin is with the second cousins, John and Jesus. John went into the wilderness and took up a simple lifestyle, wearing clothes made of camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). People streamed to John and he baptized them with water as a sign of their abandoning their sinful ways. Yet the baptizing followed preaching. We don’t have a lot of detail about what John preached, but it wasn’t for the faint of heart. He urged people to produce good fruit, proof of their changed ways. He called religious leaders “snakes” (Matthew 3:7), demanded that tax collectors not collect more than they were required, and warned soldiers not to accuse people falsely or to extort money. Instead, he told them to be content with their salary (see Luke 3:7-14). John’s boldness in preaching knew no social boundaries, and he paid for his boldness with his head (Matthew 14:1-12).
Yet John was always a warm-up act for the main attraction. About Jesus of Nazareth, John testified: “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less” (John 3:30, NLT). Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus passed his test in the wilderness, resisting the temptations of the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). After this testing, what did Jesus do? He immediately began to preach: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). In fact, the kingdom of heaven and the parables Jesus drew from everyday life became the staple of his magnetic preaching. Just before returning to heaven, Jesus commanded his disciples to preach the Gospel (literally, “good news”) to all creation (Mark 16:15). We preach because it is the command of our Lord to do so.
Peter and Paul: preaching with cross and resurrection at the center
The Book of Acts records the obedience of the apostles to Jesus’ command. When the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost – a Jewish feast held annually in Jerusalem – Peter rose and preached a powerful message, climaxing with his explanation of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:31-36). By raising Jesus from the dead, God made him both “Lord and Christ” (2:36). What is to be our response to so great a vindication by God of this Jesus? Luke summarizes Peter’s words: “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’ ” (Acts 2:41). Many were cut to the heart, and three thousand were baptized that day in response.
Like Peter, Paul believed that preaching was a powerful way that God uses to capture the attention of listeners. Romans 10:14-15 speaks of those who are sent by the church. And what is their task? They are to preach:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
The content of the preaching becomes clearer in 1 Corinthians 1. Paul insists: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). For Paul, the death of Christ on a cross was the ultimate demonstration of the love of God: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). To the sacrifice of Christ, Paul later in his letter adds the miracle of the resurrection: “And if Christ has not been raised our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). The obedience of death on a cross was followed by God “highly exalting him” (Philippians 2:9). Though some mocked him, Paul never abandoned his insistence that Jesus was alive and would one day come again as judge (Acts 17:29-34). It was not a dead Jesus but the living Christ who appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and commissioned him as the apostle to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 26:15-18).
In the preaching of Peter and Paul, we realize that the cross and the empty tomb were not an add-on to the message shared by the early church. The theme of suffering and victory was at the center of their proclamation. Can this still be said of preaching in our time?
Word and Sacraments: Preaching, baptism, and Eucharist
In Between Two Worlds (p. 114), John Stott explains the relationship between the preaching of Scripture and the celebration of the sacraments:
Both quicken our faith in Christ. Both enable us to feed on Christ in our hearts. The major difference between them is that the message of the one is directed to the eye, and the message of the other to the ear. So the sacraments need the Word to interpret them. The ministry of Word and sacrament is a single ministry, the Word proclaiming, and the sacraments dramatizing, God’s promises. Yet the Word is primary, since without it the sign becomes dark in meaning, if not actually dumb.
Already in the book of Acts, the apostle Paul engaged informal discourse with believers and non-believers (Acts 20:11, 24:26), in the former case in the context of breaking bread. Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) noted in his First Apology that on Sunday Christians came together to – among other things – hear a sermon by the bishop (see “Homily,” in the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, online: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07448a.htm). The Westminster Shorter Catechism – written in the 1640s – argues that “preaching of the word” is a means of “convincing and converting sinners” and “building them up in holiness” (see reformed.org/documents/WSC.html).
When we come together to worship, the preaching of the Word of God is an important aspect of what we do. Preaching is the means that God uses to awaken faith in the hearts of unbelievers (Romans 10:17). It is also a means of grace, one way among others that God uses to strengthen the faith of believers. This crucial aspect of preaching is evidenced by Paul’s advice to Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to teaching, and to preaching (1 Timothy 4:14).
In every generation, we believe that God calls individuals – both women and men (Acts 2:18, Romans 16:3, 7, Gal. 3:28) – to the ministry of preaching. Each generation needs a new wave of preachers, spokespersons for God who – in the power of the Holy Spirit – clothe the truth of the Gospel of Christ in the idiom of our time, language that touches listeners. God needs our best and brightest to prepare themselves spiritually and educationally for this difficult and sacred task.
St. Francis of Assisi advised: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Our actions commend Christ to others, and to our actions are added the inspired commentary of preaching, words anointed by the Holy Spirit. Yet sacraments and preaching – though essential – are not the only elements of Christian worship. There are others, and it is to these that we turn in the next chapter.
Image credit: Sheri’s blog