A THEOLOGY OF PREACHING
What is preaching? Have you ever pondered that question? For many the modern day preacher conjures up pictures of a legalistic, close-minded, money hungry, overweight, car salesman-like individual who seeks the platform of the pulpit as a means to gratify his selfish ambitions. Yet the New Testament elevates the act of preaching and pictures it as the “event through which God works.” Preaching is so vital to the Kingdom of God in fact, that if it were to cease no one would ever have the opportunity to hear the message of Jesus and in turn receive Christ’ wonderful gift of salvation” (Rom. 10:14-16 ESV)! The preacher stands as the mouth piece of God, announcing to the world God’s desire and will. It only seems logical therefore, that the Christian understand the role and duties of the preacher as described in the Bible. Thus, the following seeks to provide a biblical theology of preaching. A biblical basis for preaching will be provided, followed by a discussion of how the New Testament defines preaching, and concluded by two guiding principles for the modern preacher in light of the New Testament’s explanation of preaching.
THE BIBLICAL FOUNDATION FOR PREACHING
Before anything can be said about the subject of preaching, a biblical foundation must be developed, offering a reason for preaching in the first place. Imagine the modern day preacher’s surprise if he discovered his hours of study and preparation were all in vain due to a lack of biblical emphasis to preach! If indeed there lacks a clear exhortation to preach in the scripture, tremendous unproductive efforts have been wrought by preachers throughout the years. Thankfully, this is not the case. The Bible has indeed set forth a strong emphasis on the importance of preaching. The Bible emphasizes preaching through the ministry of Jesus, the commandment of Jesus, the ministry of the early church, and the source of divine compulsion,
Few doubt that the Gospel writers highlighted Jesus’ preaching ministry. In fact, one of the main reasons Jesus entered into the cosmos involved preaching. For example, in Luke 4:43 Jesus says “but he said to them, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.’” When asked of John whether Jesus was actually the messiah one of the proofs Jesus gave included preaching (Lk. 7:22 ). Furthermore, Jesus sent out his disciples to “proclaim (kerryso) the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 10:7 ESV), implying the importance and significance of preaching. One of the main thrusts of Jesus’ ministry therefore, included his preaching.
In what way does the emphasis on Jesus’ preaching ministry speak to the overall biblical emphasis on preaching today? Simply stated, Jesus’ preaching ministry highlights the importance of preaching or proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Jesus set forth for all believers through his preaching ministry an example for all Christians to follow. Because Jesus preached, we too preach!
Not only does the Bible emphasize preaching through the example of Jesus preaching ministry but also through Jesus’ command to preach. Before Jesus ascended into Heaven he appeared to his disciples in order to commission them before his departure. In this commission Jesus commanded his disciples to “go into all the world and preach (kerusso) the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk. 16:15 ESV). Of all the commandments Jesus could have left the disciples with, preaching revealed the one that Jesus saw as most necessary. Additionally, Peter in his sermon spoken at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10 said: “And he (that is, Jesus) commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42 ESV). Therefore, preaching is important because Christ commanded that we do it.
Just as Jesus exemplified the importance of preaching in the Gospels, so did the early church as recorded by Luke in the book of Acts. A significant example of preaching in the book of Acts comes from Stephen’s remarkable sermon as recorded in Acts 7. Preaching the Gospel was so important to Stephen that he accepted the consequences of speaking the truth in exchange for his own life. After preaching a powerful and convicting sermon to the Jewish religious leaders, Stephen was executed by way of stoning. Stephen’s boldness and courage sets forth a strong case for the essentiality of preaching for the contemporary church.
Final biblical evidence behind the necessity of preaching lies behind what R.H. Mounce calls “divine compulsion.” Preaching the Word of God results not from some trivial decision to do so, but begins with a divine movement within the heart of the individual. That is, one can’t help but preach; the preacher is compelled to preach. For example, after being told not to speak about Jesus, Peter and John respond by saying “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20 ESV). Similarly, the apostle Paul cries “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor. 9: 16 ESV). Therefore, divine compulsion points to one of ways the Bible underscores preaching.
THE DUAL NATURE OF PREACHING
Now that a biblical basis for preaching has been set forth, preaching can be defined and explained. Preaching involves both evangelism and discipleship.
Generally the word “preach” carries the idea of proclaiming something. The announcer for a baseball game or the spokesman for a T.V. commercial can just as easily be called a “preacher” because they proclaim or announce information. In the ancient Greek world the most common usage of the word preach was kerysso, which meant to proclaim as a herald. The herald was a man of significant importance, employed by the king or state to make all public proclamations. The New Testament writers carried this idea of public proclamation and related it to proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Preaching therefore, at its core, is “the public proclamation of Christianity to the non-Christian world.”
Preaching carries first and foremost evangelistic connotations. Preaching involves proclaiming the core truths of the Gospel, that is, Christ’ death burial and resurrection (see 1 Cor 15:1-3). The usage of the Greek word euaggelizo assists in developing this understanding of preaching. The compound Greek word euaggelizo comes from two Greek words, eu meaning “good,” or “well” and aggello meaning “to proclaim,” or “tell.” Thus, euaggelizo means “to proclaim the good news,” “preach the Gospel,” or “to evangelize.” It is at no surprise then that euaggelizo “is almost always used of good news concerning the Son of God as proclaimed in the Gospel.” Therefore, the purpose of preaching consists of proclaiming the good news of the Gospel to ears that have yet to hear of it. This understanding of preaching is clearly repeatedly seen in the New Testament.
The early church described in the book of Acts highlights preaching as the means by which evangelism takes place. The majority of the 34 references to the word preach in Acts refer to preaching for the purposes of evangelism. For example, following the dispersion resulting from the martyrdom of Stephen, Luke records that those who had scattered went about “preaching the word” (Acts 8:4 ESV). Among those preaching included Philip, one of the seven chosen in Acts 6, who had gone down to Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. The response to Philip’s message underscores the fact that Philip’s preaching was in fact evangelistic. Philip’s preaching resulted in the Samaritans (v.12) and even Simon the sorcerer (v.13) believing in the message and being baptized. Thus, Philip’s sermon to the Samaritan’s advocates preaching for the purposes of evangelism. Similarly, in Acts 11 men from Cyprus and Cyrene who had traveled to Antioch were “preaching the Lord Jesus to Hellenists.” (Acts 11:20 ESV) Again, the results of their preaching climaxed with “a great number who believed and turned to the Lord (v.21),” showcasing preaching as an evangelistic effort.
This idea of preaching as proclaiming the Gospel to the unchurched is also emphasized in Pauline literature. In Romans 10:14-15 the apostle Paul seems to indicate that preaching is in fact the means God uses in order to reach unbelievers. Paul writes: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Ro. 10:14-16 ESV) Preaching then, is the vehicle in which the message of the Gospel is conveyed to the unsaved. The weight and importance Paul places on preaching staggers the mind, without preaching there lies no hope for the Gospel to be communicated to the world.
Another outstanding Pauline passage that focuses on preaching as the proclamation of the gospel to the unchurched is found in Romans 15:20. Here Paul states that he makes it his “ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Rom. 15:20 ESV). Schreiner notes that “named” refers to “where Christ has not been ‘confessed’ or ‘acknowledged.’” Paul implies that preaching involves proclaiming the Gospel to those who have yet to hear of Jesus Christ.
Few deny that preaching should be defined as the proclamation of the Gospel to those who are unsaved. But what about preaching and its relationship to discipleship, is their any correlation between the biblical concept of preaching and teaching? In the modern church preaching and teaching seem to be in some ways synonymous with one another. The modern sermon may involve both preaching and teaching. The question arises however, does the New Testament see preaching and teaching as synonymous pairs or are they separate entities with entirely different functions and purposes?
The difficulty arises when one discovers that in some circumstances preaching seems to be unique and distinctive from that of teaching. That is, preaching is solely seen as the proclamation of the Gospel to the unsaved without any inference toward teaching for the purposes of edification or discipleship. However, there are instances when the scriptural context seems to define preaching as much more than just an evangelistic effort. On occasion preaching includes an element of teaching for the purposes of growing the church spiritually.
In Romans 1:15 Paul explains that he is “eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (Rom. 1:15 ESV). If preaching is defined as solely the proclamation of the gospel to those who are unchurched, then why would Paul long to preach the gospel to those who had already heard and received it? Since Paul’s audience was already Christians, preaching must include more than just an initial presentation of the centrality of the Gospel and initial conversion. The word translated “preach” is the word euangalizo, and as we have already observed its primary usage is preaching the Gospel to the lost. But as seen in this passage “it also has the connotation of explaining the fuller content of the gospel to the church, the ongoing work of teaching and discipleship that builds on initial evangelization.” So, while preaching consists of preaching the gospel to the lost, it also involves expounding and explaining the gospel more fully to the church for their edification and spiritual growth. One thing that seems clear from this verse, and the book of Romans in a whole, is that “the gospel of grace is often misunderstood and often requires a lot of follow-up clarification and explanation.”
The above conclusion leads me to believe that the New Testament does not draw much of a distinction between preaching and teaching. Preaching involves a great deal of teaching and vice-versa. This is explained, for example, when the words preach and teach are used so tersely that the logical conclusion demands the same meaning. For instance, in Matthew 11:1 Jesus is pictured going into the city in order to preach and teach. It would seem odd that Matthew intended to have the reader think Jesus would be preaching something entirely different then what he would be teaching. Rather, preaching and teaching seem to be identical. Similarly, In Acts 5:42 we find the early church “every day in the temple and from house to house, not ceasing to teach and preach Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42 ESV). In this example the content of what is preached and taught is exactly the same namely, that Jesus is the Christ. Therefore, Preaching and teaching can be used interchangeably. The same type of construction arrives in Acts 15:35 where Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the lord with many others also. Again teaching and preaching are not seen as two distinct purposes but involve communicating the same content to the same group of people.
Preaching therefore, carries a dual purpose. On the one hand preaching involves proclaiming the gospel message to those who have yet to hear of it. Like a herald in the ancient world carrying good news from the King, so the modern day preacher delivers the greatest news of all, from the greatest king of all, to a hopeless world in need of a savior. To preach is to evangelize. However, preaching includes the development of that initial gospel message for the strengthening of those who have accepted it, explaining in detail everything that is entailed in the gospel and how the believer can apply it to their everyday life. Preaching takes on the characteristics of teaching and develops more fully the implications of the Gospel. This is why Paul instructed Timothy to “preach (kerysso) the word… with complete patience and teaching (didache)” (2 Tim 4:2 ESV).
PREACHING IN THE 21ST CENTURY
In light of what has been said concerning the meaning and purpose of preaching, two principles will be set forth as a framework to guide one’s preaching ministry.
First, preaching should address believers and non-believers differently. As been observed, preaching contains a dual nature, a proclamation of the gospel for the unbeliever and an explanation of the gospel for the believer’s spiritual growth. Thus, whenever the preacher presents the gospel he must do so differently for both groups because they are both in need of the gospel differently. Koessler writes: “The difference between preaching the gospel to those who do not believe and to those who do is the difference between announcement and implication. Both involve obedience, but of a different sort.” For the unbeliever the gospel needs to be presented as the good news of salvation, for the believer the gospel needs to be explained in depth and applied for their daily spiritual growth. The reason the gospel must be preached differently to unbelievers and believers involves a “fundamental difference between the two groups…those who do not know Christ are fundamentally incapable of living the Christian life.” Before one can receive the detailed guidelines of the gospel for empowered Christian living one must first receive the empowered dwelling of the Holy Spirit in order to live a Christian life. Therefore, “when we preach the gospel to those who are lost, we hold out the hope of Christ to them and call them to the obedience of faith. When we preach the gospel to those who already believe, we hold before them the Bible’s vision of reality and call them to act accordingly
Second, preaching should include the whole counsel of God. Paul told the Ephesian elders “And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming (kerusso) the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:25-27 ESV). It has been noted that preaching involves an element of teaching the Word of God for the spiritual growth of the saints. Thus, one of the preacher’s jobs includes teaching the Bible in its entirety. That is, seeking to preach the Bible holistically and refraining from preaching only things that come easy or bring large crowds. The apostle Paul also warned that “the time is coming when people will not endure soundteaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4 ESV). Moreover, preaching involves speaking on tough issues. A good preacher resists the temptation of preaching only on topics that are receivable and non-controversial. Instead, if a biblical passage covers material that is not socially acceptable the preacher remains faithful and preaches the truth withoutcompromise.
The emphasis the New Testament places on preaching testifies to its importance. Preaching, as outlined above, includes a dual nature, both the proclamation of the gospel for unbelievers and the expounding of the gospel for spiritual growth for the believer. Because of this understanding preaching should address the believer and the unbeliever from different approaches. To the unbeliever the gospel is presented as the call for salvation. For the believer the gospel is presented as the call to an obedient lifestyle. Furthermore, preaching should seek to include the whole counsel of God, preaching all the truths from scripture.
Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 19.
Mounce, R.H. “Preaching,” Pages 1023-1024 in The New Bible Dictionary. Edited by J. D. Douglas. (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity, 1962), 1023.
Zodhiates, Spiros, ed. The Complete Word Study Dictionary. (Chattagnooga: AMG, 1993.), 668.
Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 1998.), 770.
Cottrell, Jack. Romans. ( Missouri: College Press, 2005.), 59.
Koessler, John. Folly, Grace, and Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching. (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2011.),114.