Edward N. Gross
I love to preach. I love everything about preaching: the preparation, anticipation, delivery, and follow-up. I love it because of what preaching is, not because I am good at it or because it is easy, or because I never mess up. I recognize that this love for preaching is a wonderful gift of grace given to me and, in turn, to the church. It is a gift for which I am responsible.
Preaching is a distinct form of communication with a distinct authority. It is not to be confused with teaching or evangelizing. Three different words are used in the original Greek for these three forms of communication. There is some overlap in them, for there is teaching involved in both preaching and evangelizing, and there should be evangelizing done in our teaching and preaching. Still, the words are not used synonymously in the New Testament (see 2 Timothy 1:11).
The words for "preach," "preacher," and "preaching" basically belong to one word group in Greek. This group in New Testament times meant "to herald," "a herald," and "the message heralded." A herald was a messenger vested with authority as an official representative of a king (or public official) who conveyed the sender's official messages. When the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture to use this Greek word in describing a preacher and his preaching, a clearly understood description was given. When hearing these words used, the people of the Mediterranean world immediately knew that a preacher was one chosen, qualified, and endowed with the right to represent Christ and proclaim his Word. Unfortunately, far too few preachers and hearers today understand this background.
Every duly authorized preacher should view himself as Christ's official herald. And those who hear him should so regard him. The Bible-based words he speaks ought to be embraced as from the King of kings and Lord of lords. They are to be submitted to and thoroughly applied.
The people's response should not be determined by how that message of Christ is delivered. It is what the herald says that is essential, not how he says it. It is a common sin among us to critique the message from God in ways far different from the example set by the noble Bereans, who "received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11).
If you have your Bibles with you and opened during the preaching, you can follow the Bereans' example. Once they ascertained that Paul's message was biblical, they received it. Few today hear the heralded message with that ready acceptance and submission. I shudder when I see sleepy, inattentive, careless hearers of God's Word. These words are life and deaththey are always relevant because they are the words of the One to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given!
I try to remind my hearers in many of my introductions that they are about to hear the words of their Master. And he expects them to listen and obey. Our people are far better served by such sober introductions than by the clever and often amusing openings that so often lead in to sermons. Can you imagine a herald of Caesar needing to get the people ready to hear Caesar's edict by telling a casual joke or a witty anecdote?
When I teach homiletics to seminary students, I do not allow them to critique each other. That is what I am getting paid to do. The practice of student critiquing is often harmful to them and the speaker, as well as sometimes to their relationship with the speaker. Seminarians need to learn how to hear the Word proclaimedin a deeply sensitive, humbling, and practical way. They should learn to be "quick to listen" and "slow to speak" about the Word of God (James 1:19, which is addressing how we hear and comment on the Wordsee vss. 18-21). This will help them far more in the long run, in my opinion, than making hasty judgments of each other. I could speak also of some of the trifling criticisms I have heard after a stirring message by a candidate for ordination during our presbytery meetings, but I'll relent.
Jesus is our Lord and Redeemer. Paul summarized this relationship to Christ well when he referred to "the God whose I am and whom I serve" (Acts 27:23). We belong to Christ, and therefore we must serve him. When we are conquered by the truth that we belong to Jesus, our lives are utterly changed and we are constrained to serve Jesus. It is Christ's church that I serve. It is Christ's world in which I live. It is Christ's Word that I herald. It is Christ's grace that keeps me living. It is Christ's Spirit that strengthens me. Christ's herald must stay very close to him.
When we preach, it is Christ we are thinking most about. Paul said, "We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:5). He would not invalidate even wrongly motivated preaching, as long as Christ was proclaimed (Phil. 1:15-18).
For Paul, living was simply Christ (Phil. 1 :21). He understood that Jesus, alone, has authority to reign. Every other kingdom is a counterfeit, a usurpationand is doomed to defeat. I, too, should speak as one who knows these things. I should live as one who practices these things. Whatever I do, whether in word or deed, I should do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col. 3:17).
Preachers who forget that they are heralds of Jesus Christ are certain to get off track often. They will be filled with anxiety, intimidation, and weakness at the very moment when they should be bold and powerful. They will search for personally fulfilling ministries, and yet come away empty because a herald is given peace only when he faithfully proclaims the message he was given to proclaim.
We must never forget that a Christ-centered and Christ-empowered message is not produced in a vacuum, out of nothing. To be a herald in whose mind's eye is the sovereign Commissioner, one must live during the week under the same conviction. And that takes faith. We need faith because we are by nature so weak, so hesitant, so fearful of people. May God give each pastor the faith he needs to be Christ's ambassador, an epistle to be read by all. And may he grant all of us faith to hear Christ speaking whenever we hear our pastor herald his Word.
Pastors are commissioned to "preach [herald] the Word" (2 Tim. 4:2). Does this mean that all we should do is repeat the very words sent by God? If preaching were just that, only prophesying or reading Scripture would be true preaching. But there is much called preaching in the New Testament that is not simply repeating the exact words of God. Even the verse just quoted goes on to describe when, where, and how the message is to be heralded: "Be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encouragewith great patience and careful instruction." This description of heralding (and that given throughout the New Testament) means that the preacher is to preach often, being ready and willing to do so at a moment's notice.
Are you ready for this? I am afraid that the way most of us preachers prepare for our messages is largely wrong. I think it is even unbiblical. We spend far too much time in certain areas of study and far too little time in others. Overall, I think we spend far too much time in our academic preparation for preaching. We say we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. But do we really believe it in reference to the preparation and delivery of our messages? How much time did Jesus, the apostles, Philip, Timothy, and Titus spend in formal sermon preparation?
How much of preparation is prayer? The ministry of prayer was a major part of the apostles' ministries (Acts 6:4). How much of preparation is application? How can a minister preach powerfully on a text he studied the day before? How much of that text has settled down into his own heart and life? How much of preparation is doing the Word? How much of preparation is brokenness and repentance before a God who knows us completely? How much of preparation to preach is the preacher declaring the good news to someone perishing in sin that very week? How much of preaching is, instead, trying to impress others and carrying on a tradition?
I know these questions are weighty and perilous. That is why it takes a whole course in homiletics to probe them. Some are ready to declare what the true form of preaching is. I am not. I wonder if they have gone to the Scriptures and analyzed the many different forms of preaching represented there. Once they do that, they will not be so dogmatic that there is only one proper form of preaching (whether it be the expository, textual, topical, or some other form.)
Certain things characterize all forms of good preaching. The most important requirement is that the message be Bible-based and Christ-centered. Otherwise, it is not a heralding of Christ's Word. Every point should be established from the Word and should point to the Savior. To what degree one broadens out from the Word in application and further examination is not an issue to me, as long as it is relevant to the hearers.
It is vital that we remember why we are preaching. We are preaching in order to save the hearers from sin and to drive them to Christ. We are trying to do them eternal good and preserve them from mortal danger. How can we do so without prayer, passion, and a plan? How can we suppose we are succeeding if our hearers are not held accountable following the message? Christ commissioned us to teach them to obey all that he has commanded (Matt. 28:20). Well, are they observing Christ's commands? What are we doing to help them to that end?
How are we countering the deadening influences of today's culture, which teach Christ's flock not to take our message seriously? What strategies are we employing to make Christ's message more easily remembered? How are we feeding the whole flock, including covenant children? How are we feeding our own families?
In seeking to answer these questions for myself, I have been aided primarily by the Spirit speaking through the Word. But I have found several books very useful as well, some of which I recommend to all preachers:
Dr. Gross is the pastor of Gwynedd Valley OPC in Gwynedd, Pa., and has taught practical theology at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 1997.