The most important lesson I learned during my time in Bible college was not learned on campus, and it was not learned from a faculty member. During a summer break from college I was asked to help teach a group study in my home church. I was to alternately team-teach with a pickup-driving construction worker who had no formal Bible education. I was certain my theological training equipped me to plunge that Bible study class to new depths of understanding in God's Word.
My partner taught the first week, and after class I was happy to offer my "helpful" critique. I freely and generously shared my newfound theological and doctrinal insights on the passage with him, since he obviously lacked the time and the resources to elucidate these truths to our eager audience.
The next week I was ready. I jammed as much information as a fast-talking college student could into my fifty minutes of air time. With quiet confidence I assured myself that I had given the group the best expositional message on that passage they had ever heard.
Now it was time for my partner to evaluate my message and share his feedback on my seamless teaching technique. His painfully simple critique has reverberated in my mind ever since. He asked, in a slightly confused tone, "So what was it that God wanted us to do as a result of that message?"
I had no answer.
All delusions of grandeur regarding my sermon instantly drained from my heart. He had succinctly nailed the problem, and it was no small imperfection. It was a fatal flaw. Whatever I did in that hour of ministry, it fell far short of what God intended preaching to do. I realized in that instant, and have not since forgotten, that all the theological knowledge in the world is no match for a pickup-driving construction worker with just one biblical truth and the passion to see his audience transformed.
Someone has always been ready to tell the church to keep quiet. The world has never wanted to hear the implications of God's truth, boldly and authoritatively proclaimed by His spokesmen. Unfortunately, in our day, the pressure is not just from outside the church. In too many places the disdain for preaching pervades the pew just as it does our postmodern society. Though the church still tolerates a man behind the pulpit, she has become quite concerned as to what he says, how he says it, and how much of her time he takes to say it!
It hasn't always been this way. A retooling of the modern church service has been hammered out in America's seminaries over the past few decades. Up-and-coming churchmen—many with a God-given passion and an untapped gift to preach—are taught to keep their Bible lecture (if retained as part of the Sunday service) positive, palatable, trendy, and above all, short. One author read by seminarians exhorts the preacher to "limit [his] sermons to 20 minutes... and don't forget to keep [the] messages light and informal, liberally sprinkling them with humor and personal anecdotes."
A popular mantra rings, "If we are to win our generation we must redefine how church is done." Best-selling titles by liberals and conservatives warn us that it is time for the church to "change or die!" No longer is church the place where God confronts and comforts His people by means of weekly exposition and application of His timeless Word. It is now a gathering driven and shaped by the latest marketing techniques, based on focus groups and polling data.
These Sunday morning changes have been dramatic. Admittedly, the initial reaction of many has been favorable. Church is more fun. The music is better. The skits break up monotony. The multimedia looks really cool. Best of all, the sermons are definitely more tolerable. Church has changed, but has it changed churchgoers? As our culture continues its downward spiral, we have little data to demonstrate that our people in the pews are any holier today than their unchurched counterparts!
J. I. Packer unloads his bold commentary on our modern experiment when he writes, "I suspect that the widespread perplexity today as to the relevance of the New Testament gospel should be seen as God's judgment on two generations of inadequate preaching by inadequate." Note this stinging indictment does not point to a deficiency in music or marketing. It is aimed at the heart of what has been sacrificed in our pulpits in recent years. As D. A. Carson declares, "A want of biblical preaching is an announcement of death" for the church.
We are certainly not the first generation to lose sight of this precious provision of God. In Jeremiah's day, plenty of those who claimed to speak for God were willing to adjust their message and methods to accommodate their hearers' tastes and preferences. Their savvy philosophy of preaching would have qualified them as experts to lead the latest "How to Grow Your Congregation in a Modern Jewish Society" seminars. Yet God made it clear He would not tolerate the pawning of solid biblical preaching for "ministerial relevance." So disdainful was He of this practice that God commanded His people, "Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you.... For who has stood in the counsel of the Lord, and has perceived and heard His word?" (Jer. 23:16, 18).
The Bible does not call pastor-teachers to be entertainers, movie directors, or psychologists. God calls His shepherds to be preachers. He calls them to stand in the gap and skillfully proclaim His Word. In 2 Timothy 4:1-5, God explicitly calls them to preach the Word, in season and out of season. He calls them to convince, rebuke, and exhort—carefully instructing the church with great patience. He calls them to continue to do so even when a generation refuses to put up with sound doctrine. He calls them to endure hardship that may be incurred by their faithful exposition of His Word. He calls them to faithfully discharge their ministry even when congregants flock to other teachers who will say what their itching ears want to hear.
Over a century ago Edwin Dargan summarized the historic problem and offered hope.
The decline of spiritual life and activity in the churches is commonly accompanied by a lifeless, formal, unfruitful preaching, and this is partly as cause, partly as effect. On the other hand, the great revivals of Christian history can most usually be traced to the work of the pulpit, and in their progress they have developed and rendered possible a high order of preaching.
Though the church may be enhanced by a few creative, well-placed amenities, be assured she cannot survive without the consistent, accurate, and authoritative preaching that intends, in every instance, to transform its hearers. Every preacher must be fully assured that his calling to preach is essential to the health of the church, and is unmitigated by modern culture or trends in society.
If we need to be reminded of the power of biblical preaching, all we need to do is reacquaint ourselves with the explosive impact of preaching in the early church. Jesus gave only one tool to His band of former fishermen and tax-collectors, and by this preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit they subsequently turned the ancient world upside down. Not surprisingly, this tool has continued to transform entire cultures whenever it has been faithfully and persistently wielded. William Sangster writes:
Confidence in preaching is not so very hard to maintain.... If he treasures up the proofs which God gives him of the power of preaching, and if he remembers clearly what someone's preaching did for him, he will not slide into supposing that it is a useless and parasitic occupation. When he thinks on all that God has done by preaching through the years—Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Bernard of Clairvaux, Wycliffe, Edwards, Spurgeon, Hugh Price Hughes, and tens of thousands of lesser known men—he will not wave it aside as "sound and fury, signifying nothing."
We must take Sangster's counsel. Recall the effects of powerful preaching on your own life. Have you forgotten the life-changing impact of sermons you have heard? Do you continue to be challenged and changed by the preaching of your peers and the great preachers of the past?
Like many of you, it was through the means of a sermon that I first repented of my sin and put my trust in Christ. As a result of a sermon I laid aside my secular ambitions. As a result of a sermon I determined to follow Christ into professional ministry. By means of dozens of subsequent sermons God has continued to realign, refocus, and redirect my life. Who could not attest to similar experiences as the result of powerful, God-ordained, life-changing preaching? Sangster concludes:
Preaching is a constant agent of the divine power by which the greatest miracle God ever works is wrought and wrought again. God uses it to change lives. It is hard for any mortal to tell, either of himself or of others, what forces have worked upon him to issue in some dramatic change of life, but many affirm that the occasion, and no small part of the cause, was one sermon.
We must never underestimate, or by our tone or manner antiquate, the timeless power of biblical preaching. By it God transforms His people, so He calls all preachers everywhere to heed that first-century commission:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. (2 Timothy 4:1-2 niv)
Even a cursory overview of the words used by the Holy Spirit to describe our task reflects the power God has vested in preaching. There are several Greek words in the New Testament that represent the "preaching" task of the preacher. The most common word to translate into English "preach" or "preaching" is the word used in 2 Timothy 4:2 where Paul commands Timothy to "preach (kerysso) the word."
When Timothy and other second-generation preachers were exhorted by the apostles to kerysso The verb kerysso is used 61 times in the Greek New Testament. the word, they understood that a clearly mandated divine power accompanied the command. To kerysso the word of God was to proclaim it or herald it as an ambassador or royal representative. The cognate keryx is used three times in the New Testament (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11; 2 Pet. 2:5) to describe the preacher himself as God's royal representative. The importance and relevance of the message is bound up in the use of kerysso. The word conjures the image of a crowd of citizens gathering in a distant ancient village to hear from the king through the proclamation of his royal spokesman. Seen in this light, preaching must never be relegated to a secondary role in the church service. Kerysso depicts an act that is always relevant, always important, and always powerful. When the ambassador proclaims the message of the king, the royal citizens cannot be passive. They are compelled by the nature of the communique to respond!
The cognate words euangelizo, katangello, and anangello are important New Testament words depicting the power, the importance, and the urgency of our preaching task. Euangelizo Euangelizo occurs 54 times in the Greek New Testament. is found in Acts 15:35, where we are told, "Paul and Barnabas also remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching (euangelizo) the word of the Lord, with many others also." Its first cousin, katangello, Katangello occurs 18 times in the Greek New Testament. is used by Paul in Colossians 1:28 as he tells the young church that he and Timothy were called to "preach" (katangello) Christ, "warning every man and teaching every mail in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus." The third cognate is found in Acts 20:20. Here Paul recounts his ministry in Ephesus by saying, "I kept nothing back that was helpful, but proclaimed (anangello) it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house." Anangello occurs 14 times in the Greek New Testament.
All three words naturally draw our linguistic minds toward the root word transliterated "angel"—a heavenly messenger dispatched by God to take to mankind a message from the King of kings. All three connote a supremely important announcement. Euangelizo adds the idea of a "good" announcement, reminding us (most often in an evangelistic context) that the message proclaimed is good, and brings a good result when one properly responds to it.
The word didasko, commonly translated "to teach," is often found in connection with kerysso and the angello cognates. Didasko means more than just the transmission of information. In a biblical context, the word has in view an intended impact on the recipient's behavior. Note its reference in the commission of Christ at the end of Matthew's Gospel:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching (didasko) them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:19-20).
Clearly, what Jesus had in mind was much more than a dry recitation of biblical facts. He wanted them to proclaim a life-changing message—a message that would move His followers to live a life in accordance with the imperatives He had entrusted to them.
Some have categorized teaching as preaching to Christians, and preaching as gospel preaching to non-Christians. Others label teaching a non-emotional lecture that speaks to the mind, and preaching as a polished and passionate proclamation that speaks to the heart. Though there may be stylistic distinctions between modern evangelistic preaching, Sunday school lectures, and the pastor's sermon, the biblical differences are inconsequential. The words kerysso, euangelizo, katangello, anangello and didasko, along with a host of other New Testament words, all add to our understanding of the powerful, authoritative, and life-changing oration the preacher is called to deliver to God's people.
Paul was careful to point out to his students that preaching the Word should stimulate the listener to act. His instruction regarding preaching was surrounded with verbs that never let the young preacher lose sight of this goal. In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul crystallizes Timothy's command to "preach the word" with the clarifying verbs convince, rebuke, and exhort.
The Greek word elencho, translated "convince" or "reprove," is used by Jesus in Matthew 18:15 to explain how to point out a brother's sin and move him to change his behavior. Jesus said to "go and tell him his fault (elencho)," that is, "go to show him his sin and summon him to repentance." James equates exposure to preaching with a stark reflection of ourselves in a mirror (James 1:22-24). In His Word, God calls for our preaching to not only affirm what is honorable, but also expose the imperfections of our audience. We must boldly point out what needs to be changed, and then help them to change.
The second clarifying word Paul uses is the word epitimao, translated "rebuke." This word also focuses on the change of behavior Timothy should expect in the lives of his hearers. Lexicographers define the word as speaking or warning "in order to prevent an action or bring one to an end." It is the word used to describe Christ's command to the wind and the waves to cease their activity (Matt. 8:26; Mark 4:39; Luke 8:24).
Paul employs a third word, parakaleo, to describe the preaching event often translated "exhort," "urge," or "beseech." Though the use of this word is broad in the New Testament, in this context it complements the previous two verbs while conveying an intensity not communicated by them. This is implied in Paul's use of the word in 1 Timothy 1:3 when he "urges" (parakaleo) Timothy to remain in Ephesus and teach, in Ephesians 4:1 when he "beseeches" (parakaleo) Christians in Ephesus to live a life worthy of their calling, and in Romans 12:1 when Paul "beseeches" (parakaleo) the Roman Christians to offer themselves to God as living sacrifices. In each case it's obvious that Paul expects the act of preaching to make a distinct difference in the lives of those who hear.
A good sermon is one that bears fruit—a message from God that transforms believers' lives. A good sermon, once ingested by the hearer and molded by the Holy Spirit, will prompt its audience to abandon a sinful thought, value, or behavior. Likewise, it will embolden the hearers to walk down paths of righteousness previously untraveled.
We, as pastor-teachers, need to focus on our call to preach messages that change lives. Our members need to know we are going to be faithful to that call whether they like it or not—and if they cooperate with the Holy Spirit, lives will change.
Throwing down this gauntlet means we can no longer evaluate our sermons solely on the basis of theological or exegetical soundness. It isn't enough to drive home from church basking in self-congratulation because our outline was memorable, or because we were fluent and articulate. We must resist the temptation of instant gratification based on soundness of delivery, or even content. Instead, we must purpose to evaluate every sermon we preach in light of the biblical change it brings about in the lives of our congregants!
Look back again. Recall the sermons you judged as flops—even you couldn't wait until the clock struck twelve! Yet in time you came to find how God used those sermons to significantly touch lives. Evaluating a sermon on technical merit is important, to be sure, but long after we've dissected our grammar we should witness real change in the lives of the people God has placed in our hands.
Amos warned Israel of a coming famine—the kind of famine that would emaciate the human spirit, not the human frame. It was the kind of famine many churches are experiencing today. He warned:
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord God,
That I will send a famine on the land,
Not a famine of bread,
Nor a thirst for water,
But of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
And from north to east;
They shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
But shall not find it (Amos 8:11-12).
Sad to say, people are still searching for the words of the Lord. How can that be? Pastors are better trained, church budgets are bigger, and worship technology is on the cutting edge. Yet many Christians move from church to church in search of sermons that do more than affirm what they already know and stroke them for what they are already doing. Remarkably, they don't even realize the reason for their wanderings. God's people are hungry for His Word. The church has subsisted on the junk food of hollow platitudes for so long that it should not surprise us to see people come running at the sound of a dinner bell that calls them to a real biblical meal! If we want to meet the need of the hungry, we must feed them with God-breathed sermons that call for change.
I used to scratch my head when I saw churches growing without following the principles of contemporary church-growth recipes. How could a pastor preach for an hour every Sunday and unapologetically call his people to repentance? Wasn't it too much for him to expect his people to conform to the high standards of New Testament Christianity and expect the church to grow in numbers, too? Conventional church wisdom dooms such strategies to failure. A bold pulpit ministry, after all, is deemed a kiss of death. Yet week after week, inexplicably, their numbers grew.
There I was fresh out of seminary, standing at the crossroads of ministerial philosophy. I had inherited the leadership of a church that had long since seen its heyday. By now I had read all the hot books telling me how I could keep a dying church alive. In the midst of implementing these conventional CPR techniques, I faced a critical point in my own preaching ministry. I was struggling to follow a template that suppressed the very thing my own heart was longing for: God's Word, clearly taught and properly applied. I was trying to make the church relevant by following the trends and employing the gadgets, yet inside I ached to transfer to my people the life-changing relevance I found in my own daily study of God's Word.
With that realization, I had turned a corner in my own philosophy of ministry. I abandoned contemporary wisdom for an ancient call. I began to preach with the expectation of transformation. I began to present the Bible in the same way the Holy Spirit presented it to me each day—with the clarion call to understand and do what was expected of me.
Preaching with an expectation that people "do it" was a risky endeavor. At first, I thought this strategy could surely empty our little church completely! Yet I knew it was biblical. I told myself that, at worst, I'd go down satisfying the hearts of a few who would benefit from a biblical call to action.
How wrong I was—not about the strategy, but about its results! I soon realized there were more than a few thirsty hearts. I watched our people grow and mature. I watched new people flock to the church. I watched non-Christians putting their trust in Christ as a result of sermons that were neither sensitive to their eavesdropping nor aimed at the capaciousness of their felt needs. I watched my own mediocre preaching gifts being voraciously consumed, first by hundreds, then by thousands of people who were hungry—really hungry!