The ministry of Jesus was primarily a preaching ministry. After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God” (Mk. 1:14). He said, “Come, follow me . . . and I will make you fishers of men (1:17). Although he healed and cast out demons, he said, “Let’s go somewhere else—to nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mk. 1:38). He commissioned us to “preach the good news to all creation” (Mk. 16:15) and “make disciples of all the nations” (Mt. 28:19). He commanded, “repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations” (Lk. 24:47). Jesus also teaches us that if we allow Satan to keep the word out of people’s hearts, “they cannot believe and be saved” (Lk. 8:12).
Ministry must involve the preaching of the gospel because “it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe” (1Cor. 1:21). Paul stressed that the word of God’s grace “is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). He also declared that the gospel “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16). This is true because it offers righteousness from God for those who have no righteousness of our own (1:17, 3:10). James agreed saying that the word of God “is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21). If we do not preach the word, the power that saves is not available to the masses.
Preaching Christ is the only thing that can lead to both present happiness and eternal salvation (Jn. 3:17; 10:10). Preaching is a ministry of reconciliation; it draws people to God (2 Cor. 5:18). The gospel provides words by which men must be saved (Acts 11:14). Saving faith comes by hearing the word of God (Rom. 10:17) or being told about the things Jesus did (Jn. 20:30, 31). So, the faith is not only something that we must defend; more importantly, it is something to be shared.
The preaching of the gospel completes the suffering of Christ. Paul makes the startling assertion that his efforts to preach the gospel was “filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). Lacking in Christ’s afflictions? Was the death of Christ not enough to save people? It was indeed enough to make salvation possible. But salvation must also be made available! The point is that if the gospel is not preached, the death of Christ will not have its effect. Christian ministry is a stewardship (dispensation – KJV) of the gospel and of the grace of God (1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 1:10) The salvation for which Christ died must be dispensed. An electrical generator might generate billions of kilowatts of electricity and not light one fifty-watt light, if there were no power lines to dispense it. If it is not dispensed, a miracle drug for cancer will not heal one person. In the same way, the remedy of the Great Physician will not save one soul, if it is not dispensed through evangelism.
It is not only urgent that we preach the word; it is important that we preach it as it is written. We who preach must remember that we are only preachers of the truth, not makers of the truth. God commands that the Bible itself be our only guide–not my view of the Bible or your view of the Bible. Peter says that those who speak must speak as the oracles of God speak (1 Pet. 4:11), the message revealed from God (Acts 7:38; Heb. 5:12). Paul assures us that since the Scriptures are given by the inspiration of God, the Bible alone is sufficient for doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness and that it will completely equip people for good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Throughout the Bible, always and forever, God has forbidden us to add to or subtract from his words (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18-19). Paul clearly warns us not to “go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). John warns that those who do not abide in the teaching of Christ have forsaken God and are not worthy of our support (2 Jn. 9-10).
God cannot speak to people through the preacher’s sermons until the preacher first allows God to speak to him through the Bible. We must care enough about the Bible to apply it to our own lives first. We need to renew our commitment to the Bible. Since Christ is the focus of the Bible, some say, “We must be committed to Christ, not the Bible.” But, how can we be committed to Christ and not be committed to what He says? We must let the Bible control both our lives and our sermons. As preachers, we must let the Scriptures shape our thoughts, not do as some and simply allude to the Scriptures as support for our own thoughts. While biblical truth must be applied to human experience, we must compel our hearers to experience biblical truth. If we do not confront life’s situations with the living Word of God, “relevant sermons” are no more than pulpit trivia. Although our sermons must speak to modern-day life, they must not substitute modern experience for the Word of God.
Too many want to speak to the Bible rather than allow the Bible to speak to them. Biblical exegetes and expositors are tempted to treat the Bible as an object under our control. But our true role is to submit to the control of the Bible. It is our duty as preachers to try to discover the message intended by the author–never import meaning into a text from church tradition, our culture, our experience, our biases, or even from other texts of Scripture.
When culture, past or present, or human experience has more influence on the church than the Bible, we are approaching a new dark age in the church. In an effort to be relevant, preachers tend to judge the Bible by human experience, but we should judge human experience by the Bible. We must always strive to preach sermons that meet the needs of the people. But, in our efforts to communicate and make our sermons relate to experience in today’s culture, we must not allow culture to become more important than the biblical message. Although the cultural particulars in the Bible greatly differ from our experiences, the message of the Bible is as applicable to us here and now as it was to them then and there.
Since the Word of God was given in a particular cultural context and in an ancient language, some feel that it is not relevant to modern man. They say that since we are so removed from the culture into which biblical revelation was first given, it is antiquated and has no application today. Others claim that we cannot bridge the cultural and language gaps, so we can neither know its meaning nor its application. Thus, they have concluded that we cannot know what the Bible means, and that truth is simply a matter of perception–a personal preference. Those preachers conclude that truth is relative, not absolute–subjective, not objective–private, not universal. In their minds, what we preach can be nothing more than our own perceptions.
Postmodernists feel that Bible readers have a right to give truth the shape they want it to have—make it mean whatever they feel they need it to mean. If this is true, what we feel, think, or experience determines the meaning of Scripture. The Bible means what God intended it to mean; what you and I think, feel, or experience does not change that meaning one iota. Although its meaning applies to us, Scripture has meaning separate from and independent of what you and I might feel, think, want, or like.
There may be many applications that vary from individual to individual, but there is only one meaning–God’s intended meaning! As preachers seek to be relevant, we witness, even often become involved in, this slide into relativism. We must face the question, “Do you, as a preacher, endeavor to bend your thought to the Scriptures, or do you use the Scriptures to support your thought?” While biblical ideas must be related to human experience, men and women of all cultures, and in their various situations, must be called to conform to biblical truth.
The first task of preachers is to let God say what he intended to say, not what we think He should say. We must take the message of our sermons from the Bible, not try to put our ideas into the Bible. Stop trying to speak to the Bible and listen–let the Bible speak to you. Don’t manipulate the Bible in your sermons; let the Bible control you and your sermons.
In all of your sermons, be sure you preach the good news. Surely, we are troubled and even agitated that so many are treating the word of God lightly. And, yes, we must seek to defend the truth against the assault. But don’t forget to preach the gospel–good news! Christ is not Lord only, but he is both Lord and Savior.
We must preach more than judgment to sinners who molest the word of God. In the midst of a wicked generation and in the face of the traditions of the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:17). Jesus has demonstrated that we can be friends of sinners without condoning their sins and compromising the truth (Rom. 5:7-8).
We must help the lost to see more than rules and wrath. It is those who see the glory of God that are changed to be like God. Paul says, “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
In a description of the church at a later time, a church that had seen the glory of God, Luke adds, “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need. And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:32-37). Preaching the gospel makes a difference!
William T. (Bill) Lambert, EdD
Professor Emeritus – New Testament Literature and Interpretation
Searcy, AR 72149-0001