The Privilege of Preaching
Well good evening, everybody. Well the topic as you see is the Privilege of Preaching. And I think it is a good place to begin to remind one another what a glorious ministry the ministry of preaching God’s Word is. But I have three introductory points to make that you will see on your outline.
The first is a personal one. And that is that in speaking to you on the topic of preaching, neither Chris nor I are assuming that we are experts and that you are novices. There is always something rather inappropriate about one preacher preaching to other preachers about preaching. And I feel that anomaly as I address you tonight. I can honestly say that when I’m in the pulpit, I am often seized with what I can only describe as a communication frustration, longing to communicate, but recognizing the difficulty of doing so. When I come down from the pulpit, I nearly always feel the need to cry to God for grace to do better next time. So I hope this puts us on a level. It’s not experts talking to novices. It is people who are called to the ministry of preaching who want to help and encourage one another. That’s just a little personal word to begin with.
Secondly, a social or cultural point, and that is, that on the whole, contemporary society is unfriendly to preaching. It seems to many people an outmoded medium of communication. Who wants to listen to sermons nowadays, people ask. They are drugged by television and hostile to authority, and they are weary of words and tainted by postmodernism so that they quickly become impatient and bored when the sermon begins. Anthony Trollope, a well-known British novelist from the 19th Century, through a rather unpleasant character, the Rev. Obadiah Slope, said that nobody but a preaching clergyman has the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented. And if that was so in the 19th Century, how much more is it so in the 21st Century? So I recognize that.
But now thirdly, I make a pastoral point. And that is, that in spite of all the problems we face in our preaching ministry, we must persevere because the health of the church depends very largely on it. If it is true of individuals, as Jesus said, quoting Deuteronomy, that a human being doesn’t live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, it is equally true of churches. Churches live and grow and flourish and mature by the Word of God, and they languish and even perish without it. That is our conviction. We share it with you in these days. We hope that everybody will come to share it by the end of the seminar.
So this is the lesson of history. Namely, that churches flourish by the Word of God. I quote from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones whose name will be familiar to most of you. He writes, “The decadent eras and periods of the church’s life have always been those in which preaching has declined.” That’s the lesson of history. I think he is right. So although we rejoice in the growth of the church in many parts of the world, as Chris writes and I often say, it is growth without depth. And it’s the superficiality of Christian discipleship that disturbs us very much indeed. We believe that the low level of Christian living is due more than anything else to the low level of Christian preaching.
Well, there are three introductory points that I felt I wanted to make in order to set the scene for the rest of what I have to say. Let me offer you now, as you’ll see on your outline, a definition of preaching. If we have time, it will be very interesting to sit down alongside one another and develop our own definition of preaching. This is mine in, I think, 21 words, and it will form the basis of the rest of our time this evening. “To preach is to open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.” Now this definition contains six implications, two convictions about the biblical text, two obligations in expounding it, and two expectations as a result.
Firstly then, two convictions about the biblical text. A) The biblical text is an inspired text. I begin here because a high view of scripture, as being unlike every other text, unique in its origin, its nature, and its authority, is indispensable to authentic Christian preaching. Nothing undermines preaching more than skepticism about scripture. Now this is not the place for me to develop a sustained defense of this conviction, but I hope I carry you with me in regard to the three words I put on the outline. That is, they all belong to our doctrine of scripture, revelation, inspiration, and providence.
Revelation describes the initiative that God has taken to unveil or disclose Himself to us. Revelation is a very humbling word because it implies that God in His infinite perfections is altogether beyond the reach of our little finite minds. Without revelation, we would not be Christians at all. We would be Athenians like those Athenians Paul discovered outside Athens who inscribed the altar, you may remember, to an unknown God. And if God had not made himself known in revelation, then all the altars of the world would be inscribed to an unknown God. But we believe that God has revealed himself, not only in the ordered loveliness of the created universe, but supremely in Jesus Christ and in the biblical witness to Christ. Revelation, what a glorious truth it is. I hope we’re not ashamed of it in any way because we would know nothing of God if He had not made himself known.
Now I move on to inspiration, and inspiration describes the process which God chose to reveal himself. Namely, by speaking. Speech is the best means of communication known to human beings. It is by speaking now that I’m seeking to communicate with you as you are seeking to listen. Speech is the best means of communication that exists. And speech is the model, and it is only a model of course, that God himself has chosen to indicate how He has communicated with us. Few ever thought that we cannot read each other’s minds. As you sit there, I cannot read your mind. I’ve no idea what you’re thinking; although, I hope that you may be following something of what I’m saying. And if I were to stand here on the podium silent, you would have no idea what was going on in my mind. Try.
What was I thinking about? You’ve no idea. I tell you I was swimming in one of the beautiful beaches of Jamaica. But you didn’t know because you can’t read my mind and I can’t read yours if we are silent. And if we cannot read each other’s minds, how much less can we read God’s mind unless He should speak? And that is what we believe He has done. This inspiration is not, of course, a dictation process. God has not demeaned human beings into computers or other machines in order to reveal Himself. Divine inspiration did not smother the personality of the human authors. God spoke to and through the human authors in such a way as to respect their own personality. Nevertheless, God did speak through them in such a way that their words were simultaneously His words and His words were simultaneously their words. So that’s the double authorship of scripture, that God spoke through human authors to reveal Himself to us.
Then the third word is providence, which is the loving provision by which God has arranged for what He had spoken to be written down so that scripture is God’s word written. That is the definition of scripture that is given in Article 20 of the Anglican 39 Articles. Scripture is God’s word written, which now in the providence of God has been preserved across the centuries so that it is available to all people, in all places, at all times.
So here is our first conviction, and it is indispensable to preachers. If God had not spoken, we would not dare to speak, for we would have nothing to say but our own rather threadbare speculations. But since God has spoken, we too must speak, communicating to others what He has communicated to us. Indeed, we refuse to be silenced as the prophet, Amos, put it, that the Sovereign Lord has spoken, so who can but prophesy? Who can, in other words, but pass on what He has spoken to us?
Well I pity—if I may be frank with you tonight, I pity those preachers who enter the pulpit with no Bible in their hands or with a Bible that is more rags and tatters than the Word of God. Such preachers cannot preach because they have nothing to say. They cannot expound scripture because they have no scripture to expound. But to enter the pulpit with the confidence that God has spoken, that He has caused what He has spoken to be written, and that we have this inspired text in our hands and in our minds, why then our heart begins to beat, and our blood to flow, and our head to swim, and our eyes to sparkle with the sheer glory of having the Word of God entrusted to us today.
So that’s 1A. The biblical text is an inspired text. I hope we are sure about that because it will affect our preaching.
Now B. The inspired text is also a partially closed text. If to preach, in my definition, is to open up the inspired text, it must be partially closed or it would not need to be opened up. And at once I think I see your Protestant hackles beginning to rise. What do you mean, you say to me, that scripture is partially closed? Is it not altogether an open book? Do you not believe with the 16th Century Reformers in the perspicuity of scripture, that is that scripture has a see-through or transparent quality? Cannot even the simple and uneducated read it for themselves? Is not the Holy Spirit our God-given teacher? Yes. Thank you, for asking those questions. All of five of them—my answers to all five is yes, yes, yes. Thank you, for asking those questions. And I can say a resounding yes to them all. But what you are rightly saying also needs to be qualified.
The Reformers insistence on the perspicuity of scripture refer to its central message, namely, the gospel of salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. This way of salvation is absolutely plain in scripture, plain as day. But the Reformers didn’t claim that everything in scripture was equally plain and perspicuous. You will remember, I’m sure, that the apostle, Peter, wrote that there were some things in the Apostle Paul’s letters which were hard to understand. So if one apostle didn’t always understand another apostle, it wouldn’t be very modest for us to say that we can. Know there are things in scripture that are difficult to understand, which is one of the reasons we have this preaching seminar, in order to think about principles of biblical interpretation.
But know the Church needs pastors and teachers to open up this partially closed test, to expound it, to explain it. And the ascended Christ still gives these gifts to His church as we read in Ephesians 4, the gifts of pastors and teachers. I’m sure you’ll remember, of course you will, the wonderful story in Acts 8 about the Ethiopian eunuch. He’d been up to Jerusalem for the feast, probably of the Passover, and he was now on his way back home to Upper Egypt, or somewhere around there, and as he was jolting south in his chariot, he had the scroll of the prophet Isaiah open on his lap. The Holy Spirit sent Philip, the evangelist, to him, and the two men sat down alongside one another in the chariot. And the Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah 53. Philip said to him, do you understand what you are reading, to which the Ethiopian replied, why, of course. Don’t you believe in the perspicuity of scripture? No, he didn’t. That was not his reply. He said, how can I understand unless somebody teaches me?
There is a need for teachers. We have the text. Now we need teachers of the text. Calvin, in his wonderful commentary on the Acts, comments on the humility of the Ethiopian in acknowledging that he needed a teacher. Calvin contrasted his humility with those who are swollen-headed and confident in their own abilities. I’m quoting Calvin: “This is also why the reading of scripture bears fruit with such a few people today, because scarcely one in hundred is to be found who gladly submits himself to teaching.”
Here then is the biblical case for biblical exposition or biblical preaching. It consists of these two fundamental convictions, that God has given us in scripture a text which is both inspired and to some degree closed, difficult to understand. Therefore in addition to giving us the text, God has given us teachers to open up the text. I think that is a wonderful truth myself. I hope you do too. Well, all that is my first major point and I’ll be briefer in the others. We’ve seen two convictions about the biblical text.
Now secondly, two obligations in expounding the text. Granted that the inspired text needs to be expounded, how should it be done? And before I try to answer this question, let us address ourselves to one of the main reasons why the biblical text is partially closed and needs to be opened up. It concerns the cultural gap, the cultural gulf between the biblical world of 2-4,000 years ago and the modern world in which you and I are living.
I sometimes like to tell the story of something that happened to me and was extremely influential in my own development and pilgrimage. I was talking one day to a couple of young men who were students. One was at Oxford University; the other was at Edinburgh University. And they had been brought up in a Christian, a nominally Christian home. They’d drunk in their parents’ faith with their mother’s milk and obviously uncritically as children and boys, they’d taken onboard their parent’s faith.
Now they were students at university, one at Oxford, the other at Edinburgh, and they both said to me, we are repudiating the faith of our parents. One said he was an agnostic. The other said, no, I’m actually an atheist. Oh, I said with some surprise. Then tell me about it. What’s happened to you? Is it that you do not believe that Christianity’s true? To my surprise, they said, no, that’s not our problem. And if you could persuade us that Christianity’s true, we’re not at all sure that we would accept it. Oh, I said with mounting surprise. Then what is your problem?
Our problem, they say, is not whether Christianity’s true, but whether it is relevant. And frankly, they said, we don’t see how it can be relevant. These are their exact words. They said Christianity is an ancient, primitive, Palestinian religion. So what is your ancient, primitive religion got to say to us? We live in the exciting modern world. It was the 1970s when they were speaking to me. They said, we have men on Mars in the ’70s. We’re going to have men on—sorry—men on the moon in the ’70s. We’re going to have men on Mars in the ’80s. They were a little optimistic. They said we have transplant surgery today. We shall have genetic engineering tomorrow. They got all turned on with excitement about the modern world. And then with a sneer, almost a leer on their face, they said to me, what has primitive Palestinian culture got to say to us? It’s irrelevant.
Well, I’m not going to tell you how I responded, because I did very badly. But I’ve often thanked God for that experience because it brought home to me more clearly than ever before the task of the Christian communicator, which is not to make Jesus Christ relevant when we suspect that he isn’t. No, no. It is to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So it is, you see, this gulf between the ancient world and the modern world that constitutes the problem that we are facing. So in preaching, we have two major obligations. A) Is faithfulness to the ancient word. In wanting to demonstrate its relevance, we must not be unfaithful to what it actually teaches.
We have to accept the discipline of exegesis. That is, of thinking ourselves back into the situation of the biblical authors, into their history, geography, culture, and language. We must never manipulate the biblical text into making what we want it to mean or to say. We must not attempt to make it conform to our opinions and then claim their patronage for our opinions. That is rightly called eisegesis as opposed to exegesis. Exegesis, you know, is to draw out of the text what is there. Eisegesis is to thrust into the text what is not there, but what you would like to find there. So since you can’t find it, you put it there. That’s eisegesis. It’s the worst blunder that we can commit in interpreting and expounding scripture.
If I may quote Calvin again, because I believe he was the greatest expositor that God has yet given to the church. He had an amazing mind and clarity of thought. And he said—it’s almost worth writing down I think. He said, “The first business of an interpreter is to let his author say what he does say.” The first business of an interpreter is to let his author, the biblical author, say what he does say.
Now a second obligation, and that is sensitivity to the contemporary world. Faithfulness to the ancient word, sensitivity to the modern world. We have to struggle to understand the world in which we are living in order to speak a word which resonates with our contemporaries. And it’s this combination of faithfulness and sensitivity which makes the authentic preacher. In practice, if I may try to be practical now, when we’re reading the scripture or preparing a sermon, as we study the text we need to ask ourself two questions about the text and to ask them in the right order.
First, what did it mean? Or if you like, what does it mean? Because it does mean what it did mean and it did mean what it does mean. The meaning of a text does not change with the changing years because it is the author of the text who establishes its meaning. I put down the name of E. D. Hirsch. Professor E. D. Hirsch of the University of Virginia wrote a book called “Validity in Interpretation.” And a little phrase that he wrote quite near the beginning of the book has stayed with me ever since I first read it. He said, “A text means what its author meant.” “A text means what its author meant.” It is the author, the writer of the text, who establishes its meaning.
Now its there that we part company with Bultmann as a Christian existentialists. Bultmann would say a text means what it means to me, and what it means to you and you and you and you and you and you and you, it could be quite different. In some university circles they have a phrase that a text is infinitely interpretable. We say no. On the contrary, it isn’t. It may be infinitely applicable, but it’s not infinitely interpretable. It has one meaning and that meaning was established by the author. So that’s the first question we have to ask. What did it mean when the author wrote it? How will the first people who heard or read it have understood it? We have to go back to the original meaning of the text.
Then, of course, we come to the second question; what does it say? We’ve asked what is its meaning. Now what is its message? What does it say to people in our own generation? If we grasp the original meaning of the text without going on to its contemporary message, we lapse into antiquarianism. We live in the past totally unrelated to present reality. But if we make the opposite mistake and we start with the contemporary message of the text, we’ve done our homework as to what it says without first having asked what it originally meant, then we have surrendered to existentialism, unrelated to past revelation. In other words, the historical revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
Well, I hope you followed that a little bit. It’s possible to go to one or another extreme, to be interested only in the meaning of the text without asking what it says, or only interested in what it could say without doing the homework as to what it meant. So we have to ask both questions in the right order. What did it mean and what does it say? And if you do that before you preach while you’re preparing your sermon, I think you’ll find it a great help, as at least I do, to clarify the meaning and then enforce the message to the congregation.
Now we come to—after the two convictions and the two obligations, we thirdly have two expectations in consequence. A) Our expectation is that God’s voice will be heard. But if we believe that God has spoken through the biblical authors, we also believe that God speaks through what He has spoken. He speaks with a living voice through the letter of the biblical text.
Now this was the conviction of the apostles of Jesus in relation to Old Testament scripture. You know how often they quoted from the Old Testament, and when they did so, they introduced their quotations with one or other of two formulae. Either they said ge graptie gar (ph), which means because it stands written, or they said legie gar (ph), which means because it says, it speaks, or he speaks. So on the one hand, it’s what was written and remains written in the text today. The other is what is a living voice that speaks today.
Paul also writes in one passage, what does the scripture say? Well, we might say to Paul, now, come on, Paul, what are you talking about? What does the scripture say? Scripture’s an old book, a fusty old book. Books don’t talk. What do you mean what does the scripture say? Paul would have had no difficulty and answer our question. He says, I know scripture is an old book, but through that old book the Word of God, the living voice of God can be heard today. And in our private Bible reading and in our preaching, we should long maybe above all else that through human words in all their frailty the Divine voice will be heard, that God’s voice will be heard.
Because we read in Hebrews 4 that the Word of God is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit and so on, discerning the thoughts of the heart. It’s a wonderful truth, that God’s word, though spoken centuries ago, is a living word today. He speaks through what He has spoken.
Now such an expectation that as we read and expound the ancient text the voice of God will be heard, that expectation is not held by many people today. There was an Episcopal rector in the United States who in one of his books said that: “We have devised a way of reading the Word of God from which no word from God ever comes because we’re not expecting it.” So when the time for the sermon arrives, the people close their eyes, clasp their hands with feigned piety, and sit back in the pew for their customary doze. And the preacher encourages it by his sleepy manner and voice.
How different it is when both preacher and people are expecting to hear the voice of God and they’ve come to church in order to hear God’s voice addressing them. Why then the whole situation is transformed and the atmosphere becomes electric. The people bring their Bible to church, and when they open it for the lesson or for the sermon, they sit on the edge of their seats or pew hungrily waiting for the Word of God. And the preacher also prepares in such a way that he is expecting God to speak. He prays beforehand in his study that God will come and address His people. He prays again before he enters the pulpit. He prays again, maybe, before he begins to preach. And then when the sermon is finished, he prays again that God will speak to the congregation, that the Holy Spirit will move from person to person to person, addressing them with His own still, small voice.
You may recall how, what Cornelius and his family said when the Apostle Peter reached their home in Acts 10. They said—Acts 10:33 it is. They said now, to Peter, “Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” Wouldn’t it be terrific if our congregations said that before we preach, if they said to us, now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything which the Lord has commanded you to tell us? Expectation. I pray that during these days our expectation will rise and we will learn to expect God to speak through His word whenever we have the privilege of preaching. So that’s A), the expectation that God’s voice will be heard.
And B), is the God’s people will obey Him. That hearing His voice, they will then respond in obedience. Because, as James reminds us, we are not to be forgetful hearers of the word of God, but we are to be obedient doers of what God says in His word.
Well, how should people respond? What kind of obedience should we expect from the congregation when we speak? Well, the answer surely is this: that the nature of the response expected varies according to the content of the word preached. What we do in response to God’s word depends on what He says to us through it.
So let me give you some examples. If in the text that we have expounded God speaks about himself and His own glorious greatness, then of course we humble ourselves before Him in worship. If on the other hand He speaks through the text not about Himself, but about us, about our waywardness, and fickleness, and sin, and guilt, and rebellion, then of course we respond in penitence and in confession. Or if the text is about Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and was raised from the dead to prove it, we respond in faith, laying hold of this Savior, this heaven-sent Savior for ourselves. Or if the text is about God’s promises, we determine to inherit them. If about God’s commandments, we determine to obey them. If the text is about the outside world and its colossal spiritual and moral need, then surely we determine to preach the gospel and to meet these, the material needs of the poor. Or if the text is about the future, about the coming of Christ and the glory that is to follow, why then we, our hope is kindled within us and we resolve to be holy and busy until He comes.
So you see, the text may lead us to different responses according to the content of the text. So the preacher whose penetrated deeply into the biblical text and has isolated or unfolded its dominant thought or theme, and has himself been stirred by its message, will hammer it home in the conclusion and give people a chance to respond to it, often in silent prayer. I am a great believer when the sermon is over, that we pray in silence. We invite the congregation to engage in silent response, and we urge them to respond to whatever it is that God has spoken to them by the Holy Spirit in the message. It’s a wonderful moment of silence, maybe as long as a minute of silence in which you know the people are doing business with God and God is speaking to them and He is—and they are responding.
So I conclude. I’ve tried to open up a definition of preaching. You may not like it, you may have a better definition yourself, but I have ventured to offer you a definition that contains two convictions, that the biblical text is an inspired text that is partly closed and needs to be opened up. Two obligations, that we open the scripture with faithfulness to the text and sensitivity to the context in which we live. And thirdly, two expectations that through the exposition and application of the written word, God himself will speak and His people will obey Him.
I don’t hesitate to say, dear sisters and brothers, that it is an enormous privilege to be called to be a preacher today. I know it is all so very exacting. I know that it involves a lot of hard work as we shall be thinking in these days. But the privilege is even greater of having God’s word in our hands, as we stand in the pulpit with His word in our hands and minds, God’s spirit in our hearts, God’s people before our eyes, waiting expectantly for God’s voice to be heard and obey it.
Let’s pray together now. And we’ll practice what we preach and have a short time of silence. Maybe we want to repent that we haven’t taken our preaching seriously enough, or that we have become stale. Maybe we want to pray that God will use this seminar to all of us so that we may learn valuable lessons about our preaching ministry. Let’s be silent according to how we want to respond.
Now perhaps you would allow me to lead you in a concluding prayer. Our Heavenly Father, we desire to thank you together tonight for the privilege of being your children, that you have adopted us into your family by grace. We thank you that we are members of your worldwide church and that you’ve called us to be leaders, pastors, elders, deacons, preachers in your church. And we want together, on this first evening together, to ask that it may please you to bless this preaching seminar, to kindle our vision, to renew our determination, to take our preaching ministry seriously. And grant we pray, Heavenly Father, that you will use us to bring your word to the people entrusted to our care. We ask these things for ourselves and one another in the name and for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.