The Word faithfully preached and taught is a primary means of grace for God’s people. God has ordained that men and women of His churches hear from Him not merely though their personal reading of Scripture, nor just hearing it read publicly but having it proclaimed and explained to them, ideally by those men who have been formally trained to preach the Word. Our church is in a transition time as we look for an elder to labor at weekly preaching. As we do, it is vital that we understand both who he should be and the deathly importance of the primary work he must do. Counseling, shepherding, rebuke, comfort, and all other practical aspects of his ministry flow out of his decisive, gracious, persistent, thorough, Spirit-empowered preaching of the Word each week. This week’s message explored the importance of that public ministry.
A. What is Preaching?
There are two main words in our Greek New Testament that are translated “preaching.” One is a Greek word used some fifty-four times in the New Testament (for example, Matthew uses it in Matthew 11:15, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1, Peter in 1 Peter 1:25, and John in Revelation 10:7). This is the word for the proclamation of victory, emphasizing the nature of what is proclaimed. This Greek word is almost exclusively used for the preaching of the gospel message, but it would be a mistake to limit the nature of the word to only that subject. First of all, in a few places the word is used of proclaiming Christ Himself (Acts 5:42, 11:20, 17:18; Galatians 1:16), and while some of these uses would point to proclaiming Him as Savior, surely a fully-orbed proclamation of Christ includes all He is, what He has done and will do, and His will for His people. Second, the word is used in connection with preaching “the kingdom” (Luke 4:43, 8:1), “the good news of the promise” (Acts 13:32), “the word of the Lord” (Acts 15:35) and “the unfathomable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). Surely these things extend beyond the gospel even as they encompass it. Thus, the entire declaration of who Christ is, what He has done, what He will do and is doing, what He demands from us, and His inscripturated mind on all things is itself the proclamation of His victory! The “whole message of this life” (Acts 5:20), “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), announce the triumph of the incarnate and risen God over the fallen world system, and what He will yet do in the future to exert His will fully in the reclamation of His world.
The second word is the term for a herald. This refers to the delivery of a message given from an authority. (In this, it is not unlike the duty of an apostle, as the Greek term for that office refers to an emissary or representative, who speaks on behalf of another invested fully with his authority, as if he were the one speaking.) His responsibility is simply to declare the message and call for an obedient response. The message is not his, but God’s. He simply declares it. Thus is the word used, for example, in 1 Timothy 3:16 (“proclaimed”), 2 Timothy 4:2 (“preach”) and Matthew 9:35 (“proclaiming”). This verb appears sixty-one times in the New Testament.
There is a nuance of difference between teaching and preaching. Strictly speaking, preaching focuses on proclamation and exhortation (we might compare it to the application portion of a sermon). Teaching focuses on the unpacking and explanation of truth (this would be the expository part of the sermon). Of course, truly healthy and fully-orbed preaching—within the same sermon as well as in the overall life of a church—is a blend of both. The Sunday pulpit ministries at any local church must carefully balance both teaching and preaching. Teaching without proclamation risks a lack of accountability for the hearer and a failure to connect the truth to daily life. Preaching without teaching risks becoming mere haranguing, ranting, or hollow exhortation divorced from a carefully and contextually interpreted passage of Scripture. Faithful, effective proclamation of God’s inerrant Word always strives to employ both.
B. Who Should Preach?
Surely in the broadest sense, every truly converted person is a preacher. We are all to proclaim the gospel—Christ Himself and what He has done—to the unsaved around us, and we are to also proclaim it and then go beyond it in its connections and implications to the saved. However, what of the Sunday pulpit ministries of your local church? What kind of man should step behind the sacred desk and declare God’s Word to His people? Surely the profundity and seriousness of the task severely limits who may preach. The priesthood of all believers and individual Christian competence do not contradict the fact that only certain Christians are qualified for pastoral leadership—and the same notion goes for who may preach. While not every man who steps into a pulpit must be fully elder-qualified—for one thing, there may be gifted Bible teachers in a church without a pastor (such as ours) that yet do not meet all the elder qualifications, and so it would not be wise to deny these laymen the opportunity to use their gifts for the body, and second one wonders how men who are called to preach or eldership can develop the skill of preaching if they must be fully qualified to do so—certainly any man who teaches God’s Word publicly must have several characteristics.
First, they must have an evident, above average ability to understand the Word of God and clearly communicate it to others. The more depth of understanding they have, and the more careful of a speaker they are, the better. Second, they must be men of maturity and obedience, known for their love for the Lord and His truth (in other words, they must not habitually contradict what they proclaim). Third, ideally their teaching will be met with responsiveness by mature and discerning people, and God will have blessed it by growing the saints and/or leading people to Christ. Fourth, they must grasp the weight of what they are doing. Preaching is not a game and it is not a popularity contest. It is standing before God’s people with the responsibility to declare His Word with His authority. A strong sense of one’s unworthiness and a complete dependence on the Spirit’s empowerment must be present. Fifth, it helps if they are a good communicator. While preaching is not strict oratory, disorganized messages, superficial connections, poor use of time, and even wrong inflection and pace of speech betray an inexperience (or worse, lack of care) that may also indicate a lack of understanding of the text being preached. Poor communication, while not necessarily a blight on the sincerity of the preacher, does not honor the Word of God and does nothing to aid the maturation of the listener. The seasoned preacher will manifest all of these characteristics consistently.
C. How Should We Listen to Preaching?
Wisdom demands that believers be selective with the preaching they listen to, both in their local church and through the multiplicity of audio materials available in our day. In both cases, one of the first considerations must be the character of the preacher. Is he known for a life consistent with what he proclaims? Or are there questions about his humility, his relationships with women, his use of money, how he treats those in his church? The more visible the preacher, the more likely this information is available. Watch the men who preach in your church closely as well. They should be men of humility, not abrasive or quick to pontificate about things they do not understand (this indicates pride). They must be wise, avoiding hobby-horses and instead proclaiming the whole counsel of God. They must be fearless men, but filled with tenderness and love for the Lord and others.
Moreover, you should learn good Bible study habits and how to handle the Word from the preaching you hear. I have been very blessed to sit under good teaching at both of the churches I have been involved in, as well at the ministries the Lord has led me to online over the years. One of the consistent characteristics of the preachers I listen to that I learn more of how to handle the Scriptures from them. You should imbibe a reverence for Scripture, a delight in God, a treasuring of His ways, along with good hermeneutics, correlation with other passages, and a high view of the authority of the text. I learn the big picture as well as the individual pieces, and can put what I’m learning together into a cohesive whole. Moreover, because I am growing in discernment, I can usually quickly tell if what I’m hearing bears witness with the truth I already know, or if it does not fit. Then, I am able to take this truth to my own study of the Word, which is that much richer and more blessed because I understand more of it from godly men.
Finally, it is important to make sure you are listening with a proper heart. Bear in mind if the preaching is done faithfully by a godly man, you have a high level of accountability. You cannot easily dismiss what you hear. You must never blindly agree with any preacher, but neither should you go in attempting to buck and contradict what they say. If the preaching is done correctly, you are hearing God speak to you. Treat that with the solemnity and responsibility it deserves. God has taken the time to open His heart to you through His Word. The Lord of the church is speaking from His throne. It is for you. Incline your heart to believe what He says, love as He loves, and obey His will fully, with surrender and joy.
D. Why is Preaching Important?
Simply because preaching (which includes teaching) is the primary ordained means of the furtherance of God’s entire program today. It is how the lost are saved (Rom. 1:16, 10:14-17). It is how disciples are made (Matt. 28:18-20). It is what Jesus came to do (Mark 1:38), and what He is still doing through His churches (Acts 1:1). It is what we are to do regarding the kingdom and the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:20 with vv. 25, 27). It is how Christ is manifested to His people (Col. 1:28; Eph. 4:20-21).
One of the risen Christ’s first orders of business was to give pastor-teachers to His church (Eph. 4:11). The ruling Christ in His glory, directing His church towards the furtherance of His plan, thinks preaching is that important. Do we? May God help us to respond rightly to the proclamation of His inerrant Word!