Who Is Sufficient for These Things? Thoughts on Preaching

Now we come to an objection people inside the Church have raised, that preaching is unbiblical, even pagan. Oh, not preaching to unbelievers, in the public square. But preaching to Christians, in the gathered church.

These people are well-meaning. They come to their objection out of a care for evangelism (seeing preaching as something done in church will weaken our resolve to do it in the world) and edification (questioning whether one man preaching while everyone else sometimes listens is truly a recipe for spiritual growth).

Furthermore, they’re not without Bible texts. Those who object for evangelistic reasons point out that in Acts, preaching is mostly to unbelievers. Those with a burden for edification note that according to texts like 1 Corinthians 14:26, everyone in the gatherings of the early Church brought a hymn, lesson or revelation, rather than one person bringing a sermon. In short, these objectors believe that the practice of preaching a sermon on a regular basis in the church is a pagan innovation that stunts the church’s growth in number and spiritual maturity.

We ought to thank God for such Christians, for they force us to ask of preaching what we should ask of all our church practices: Is it scriptural? That is the root question we will zero in on. Rather than handling many texts (such as Acts 20:7, Romans 1:15, Colossians 1:28, 1 Timothy 4:13) and be guilty of proof texting, let’s plunder and steal instead. Drawing from Jonathan Griffiths’ illuminating work,[1] we’ll limit ourselves to three passages that, considered contextually, show the practice of preaching to the gathered church to be robustly biblical.

“I charge you … preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2Ti 4:1-2).[2]

Paul uses the word kērussō in his solemn charge to Timothy, the word often employed for the public declaration of the gospel. Yet here Paul intends Timothy to preach the Word in the context of the gathered church, as the surrounding verses show. The imperative to preach is followed by four more imperatives which round out Paul’s intention in the first one. For instance, the second imperative (“be ready in season and out of season”) cannot stand on its own, and must apply to the command to preach. The entire series of imperatives is then modified by the phrase “with complete patience and teaching.” All these terms (reprove, rebuke, exhort, teaching) suggest that it is Timothy’s ministry to Christians that is in view, and verses 3-4 confirm it. The reason this preaching ministry to the church is so vital is that without it some believers will be led away from the truth.

We conclude, then, that Paul charged Timothy to preach to the gathered church. But did the Holy Spirit intend this charge for the church today? Taken in context of the whole letter, the answer must be yes. Paul was appointed a preacher and teacher of the gospel (1:11), and is transferring these responsibilities on to Timothy (1:13-14; 4:2). Timothy, in turn, is to take what Paul taught him and entrust it to “faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2:1-2). Paul not only envisions Timothy fulfilling his instruction to preach the word in the gathered church, but he envisions this ministry persisting until the day of Christ’s return (1:12; 4:8).

“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I” (2Co 1:19).

Again Paul uses the word kērussō in a congregational context. He proclaimed Christ “among [them],” and the response was corporate – they uttered their “Amen to God for his glory” (1:20). As Griffiths says, “Paul’s description of the effect of [his] ministry and the response it evokes in the people of God suggests a setting in congregational worship.”[3]

Then in chapter three Paul reflects on the differences between new-covenant ministry and old-covenant ministry. To highlight these differences, he refers to two modes of old-covenant ministry: in 3:12-14 to Moses’ pattern of speaking to the people of Israel, and in 3:14-15 to the reading and preaching of the law in the temple and synagogues. In both cases, the ministry is public proclamation to the gathered people of God (Exo 34:34; Act 15:21; 13:15), as is Paul’s ministry (2Co 4:1-2,5). While there are many differences between ministry in the old covenant and ministry in the new, preaching God’s Word to the congregation (the ekklēsia) is not one of them.

Now look again at 2 Corinthians 1:19. Paul highlights the shared nature of this preaching ministry by naming Silvanus and Timothy. Notice also his use of the first person plural throughout the letter, and how he lists Timothy as co-sender (1:1). Similar to 2 Timothy, Paul’s teaching on new-covenant ministry is applicable beyond his specific work as an apostle to those who serve the church today.

“I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly” (Heb 13:22).

The author calls his work a “word of exhortation.” He is writing to believers with Jewish background who were well aware that the same term was used for sermons in the synagogue (Act 13:14-15). Hebrews also includes many oral features, such as the language of speaking and hearing. The author even exhibits that tendency of all preachers to call their messages brief! Thus the book of Hebrews is a sermon, written by a preacher, to be read in the public gathering of the Lord’s people.

And for the third time Scripture draws lines to ministry in the church today. The God who spoke through prophets in OT times and by Christ in the last days (Heb 1:1-2) entrusted the ministry of preaching to apostles (2:3), and beyond them to leaders in the church who were to speak the Word of God (13:7). Eventually, these leaders died, but the Lord raised up new ones (13:17). Reflect on the word “today” in these two verses: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever …. Today, if you hear his voice” (13:8; 4:7). Preaching in church is not an unbiblical pagan innovation but a life-transforming practice rooted in Judaism, Scripture, and in the Son of God Himself.

[1] Jonathan I. Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament: An Exegetical and Biblical-Theological Study (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), Kindle Edition.

[2] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.

[3] Griffiths, loc. 1218.