Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Priority of Preaching

by Ben Hein

Why preaching? Why is (or should) the preaching ministry of a local church be an essential part of your life? Allow me to answer that question by way of a short story.

In his book Norse Mythology, author Neil Gaiman recounts how the Norse gods received their treasures – Odin’s staff, Thor’s hammer, etc. As the story unfolds, we find that it was the mischievous and deceitful Loki who convinced two groups of dwarves to compete with each other to see who could make the best treasures for the gods. Along the way, Loki gets himself into trouble by entering into a wager that he ends up losing. The cost? His head. In classic Loki fashion, he weasels himself out of the situation and manages to have his life spared. Yet the gods were so sick of Loki’s deceitful way with words that they decided to sew a piece of leather over his mouth so he could never speak again.

Here’s my point: the preaching ministry of a local church is either one of the most important things for your life, or one of the biggest wastes of your time. If it is the latter, then preachers everywhere deserve to have their mouths sewn up so they can never trick anyone again into a land of make believe. But if the Bible really is the Word of God (as it claims to be), and if preaching really is a priority for God’s people (as the Bible says it is), then it would be impossible to overstate the value of gospel preaching for your life.

You see, God is a speaking God. It is through his speech that he reveals himself to the world and enters into close relationships with his creatures. The “Word of the Lord” (Psalm 33:1-9, etc.) played the central role in the Old Testament’s description of God’s relationship to Israel, just as the “Word made flesh” (John 1:1-5, 14) in Jesus plays the central role in the New Testament. What we find in Scripture is a remarkably close relationship between God himself and the words through which he speaks. More than that, God’s chosen medium now for the church to expand in this world is through the preaching of his Word (Romans 10:14-17, 2 Timothy 4:2).

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul emphasized how important his preaching ministry was to establishing the church in Corinth. What follows is 7 lessons about preaching that we can learn from the Apostle in the early verses of the letter.

  1. The Challenge of Preaching (v. 1:20-21)

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

Not only is the gospel of Jesus foolish to the world, but so too is the method of preaching. Herein lies the challenge: bringing this foolish message, through this foolish method, to bear on the lives of those who hear it.

We live in a world that is filled with competing narratives and messages: what our priorities should be, what to do with our lives, who or what to love, what products to consume. The narrative of the Scriptures – following King Jesus – is a competing narrative with every other message in this world. The difficulty is that most people aren’t even aware of how they have been influenced by these other narratives to think, act or speak the way they do.

Although Western individuals think of themselves as autonomous individuals, free to form their own thoughts and ideas without constraint, this is simply not true. Every person is a product of a family or community that shaped who they are today. Depending on where we were born, the education we received, or what news source we listen to; all of this shapes how we respond to gospel preaching. And whenever the preached Jesus of the Scriptures rubs up against a tightly held personal narrative or value, then apart from the work of the Spirit, preaching is going to be disregarded as foolishness. This is the challenge of preaching.

  1. The Compelling Nature of Preaching (v. 1:22-25)

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

The correct response to the challenge of preaching is the deliberate laboring to make preaching compelling. This is exactly what we see at work in all of the great prophets and apostles in the Scriptures, especially in the New Testament. The pattern which we see most commonly comes in the form of both affirming and challenging the cultural narratives. Biblical preaching affirms what is good and right about someone’s desires or point of view, but also challenges people to show how they’re looking for it in the wrong ways.

The Apostle Paul was a master at this. We see an example of both challenge and affirming here in these few verses. Do you see it? He essentially says, you Jewish folks seek power through signs, and you Greeks seek wisdom. That’s good – but you’re looking for it in the wrong place. To those who are called, Christ is both the power and wisdom of God.

In other words, power and wisdom aren’t bad things, but you’ll only find them in Jesus.

Preaching never needs to choose between trying to reach skeptics or trying to reach Christians.

Pastor Tim Keller says that biblical preaching is like trying to blow up a boulder with dynamite. If you try to put a piece of dynamite on the outside of a boulder in order to blow it up, you’ll be lucky if a few small chunks of debris fly off. But if you drill down all the way to the center of the boulder, drop the dynamite in, then blow it up – the boulder comes crumbling apart.

Compelling preaching reaches for the heart and seeks to get inside a person’s narrative in order to plant the gospel from the inside. One of the best ways to do this is through the form of affirming and challenging. This kind of preaching never needs to choose between trying to reach skeptics or trying to reach Christians. Compelling preaching will actively work to get inside all of its listeners worldviews in order to plant the Scriptures deeply from the inside.

  1. The Mode of Preaching (v. 2:1)

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.

Paul says he came proclaiming the testimony of God in Corinth. For Paul, that meant publicly proclaiming and applying the Scriptures of the Old Testament. You’ll notice throughout the New Testament how often the authors use the phrase “it is written”, or “as it is written”, always referring to the Old Testament. Paul does it in the preceding verse (1:31).

This mode of preaching is what we call expository preaching, which means drawing out the message of the text with faithfulness and insight, and applying it to the cultural context. While there is a time and place for having a sermon or even a short sermon series that is based on topics or ideas, the steady diet of preaching for the church is expository preaching. This mode of preaching will work its way through whole chunks of texts of the Bible.

There are several reasons to do this. First, because it appears to be the primary method of preaching we see in the New Testament and early church. Secondly, because it gives church members confidence that what they’re hearing each week is the words of God and not the words of man. Sermons should never be the fanciful ideas of the preacher. Preachers are constrained to the text, the text isn’t constrained to the preacher. Finally, by preaching through large chunks of text in the Scripture (and even whole biblical books), we are ensuring that our church members hear everything that the Scripture has to say. Expository preaching prevents pastors from skipping over tough passages or topics.

Over 50 years ago, Dr. King was noticing how preachers no longer wanted to stick to the Scriptures but instead wanted to preach their own opinions and ideas. Commenting on this problem, he said this: “The popular clergyman preaches soothing sermons on ‘How to be Happy’ and ‘How to Relax.’ Some have been tempted to revise Jesus’ command to read, ‘Go ye into all the world, keep your blood pressure down, and, lo, I will make you a well-adjusted personality.’ All of this is indicative that it is midnight within the inner lives of men and women.”

  1. The Substance of Preaching (v. 2:2)

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

In adding the word ‘crucified’, Paul means that with all of the embarrassment and abasement of the cross, he nevertheless preached Christ. He knew that preaching now in the age of the church must display Christ for all to see. Theologian Dr. J.I. Packer describes all of Scripture as “God the Father, Preaching God the Son, through the power of God the Spirit.” This means that the task of preaching is never complete until Christ is displayed for all to see.

Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer describes all of Scripture as a house. It is a house that is not merely made up of rooms filled with empty doctrines. No – a person lives in this house. Christ lives here. Every time Scripture is preached faithfully, it is Christ who you are being invited to come and take up residence with.

This means that the thrust of all biblical preaching is this: Have you taken up residence with this Christ? This King who has conquered sin and death to lead you into life and love everlasting? Have you resolved to make knowing Jesus the center of your life?

This means that the thrust of all biblical preaching is this: Have you taken up residence with this Christ?

  1. The Weakness of Preaching (v. 2:3)

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling,

Paul knew that the gospel of Jesus Christ is foolishness to those who have not been called by God to receive it. He also knew that a simple, plain-style approach to preaching was foolishness. It would’ve been very easy for Paul (as an educated and rhetorically trained speaker himself) to rely on his own skill to win followers. But Paul wanted the people of Corinth to know that it was not eloquence of skilled speaking that won people to God, but it is God who wins people to God. So Paul worked hard to get his own self out of the way, to be as weak as possible, so that people who were saved would know for certain that it was the power of God that had brought about their salvation.

This doesn’t mean that wisdom, eloquence, persuasiveness, or even fog machines and fancy lights are a bad thing. If these things make sense for your context, then by all means do it. Apollos was an eloquent speaker and Paul never rebukes him for that (1:10-17). He rebukes the people of Corinth for relying on Apollos’ eloquence rather than the power of God.

When we rely on our wisdom, craftiness or skill in order to win people over, it is we who get the credit – not God. This is treason and glory theft of the highest charge. The power of preaching lies with God, not with man.

  1. The Power of Preaching (v. 2:4)

…and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,

God works through the power of the Holy Spirit to make preaching effectual. Jesus said in John 14 that it is the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send to teach us all things. It is the Holy Spirit who makes the teaching and preaching of the Scriptures effective. There is no real power in preaching that is not supplied by the Holy Spirit. While the method of preaching may be incomprehensible to the modern mind, that does not mean it is ineffective.

None of this means that using wisdom in our preaching isn’t important. However, I find that the more we rely on things like slick presentations, movies or props during our sermons, the more we are teaching people to rely on the wisdom of man rather than the Spirit of God.

Do you want to see revival in your community? Do you want to see your brothers and sisters in your church grow in their love for God? Then we must pray.

Pastor Mark Dever says it this way, “What you win them with is likely what you’ll win them to. If you win them with the gospel, you’ll win them to the gospel. If you win them with technique, programs, entertainment, and personal charisma, you might end up winning them to yourself and your methods, but it’s likely that they won’t be won to the gospel first and foremost.”

One of the ways that the church works together to strengthen their preaching ministry is through prayer. Do you want to see revival in your community? Do you want to see your brothers and sisters in your church grow in their love for God? Then we must pray.

  1. The Goal of Preaching (v. 2:5)

…so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

The goal of preaching is a kind of spiritual maturity, where we are empowered to move our thinking, our hopes, or our dreams away from the false narratives of this world and into the one true narrative of the Scriptures.

Paul said in Colossians 1:28, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

The goal of preaching is that God would be glorified through your growth in Christ, through transformed living, and through resting on his grace alone.

So what does this look like for our lives? Jesus said that his followers are a light shining into the darkness of this world. Picking up on this theme, John Chrysostom said that God has bestowed on Christians a higher honor than the Sun, the Moon, or all the stars in the sky. While they may illuminate the darkness of the natural world, Christians have been charged with bringing light into the darkness of men’s souls.

So let us hold fast the things which are said through the preached word, and let us be fellow workers together in the battle; that we would not be hearers of the word only but doers.

May God be delighted to transform our love for one another within the church, gentleness and patience toward those who are without, faithfulness and confession, our own purity and sanctification over against all the moral pollution prevailing in the world, our truth and trustworthiness in social relations, our marriages and family life, and the faithful fulfillment of our vocations. May he be delighted to do so through his decreed means of the preached Word.

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