Who Is Sufficient for These Things? Thoughts on Preaching

We tend to forget how precious things are until they’re gone. We break a wrist, puzzle over how to get shampoo from bottle to palm, and confess to the Lord that we’ve never thanked Him for the bones and joints He gave us. If COVID-19 did the same for us regarding preaching, perhaps the gain would outweigh the pain. In the first two articles we defended preaching. Now it’s time to celebrate it.

Take our author to the Hebrews. He urges the Christians to pray for him so that he might “be restored to [them] the sooner” (13:19).[1] His wording implies that he has ministered to them before, as does his familiarity with their circumstances and history (5:11-14; 10:32-34). And now he’s desperate to get back: “Make it a matter of earnest prayer,” he begs. Timothy may have just gotten out of prison, but he’ll have to hurry if he’s to catch a ride (13:23).

What’s the rush, we ask? He’s just written a “word of exhortation” – the writer’s signal, as we learned last time, that he intends this work to be read out as a sermon to the gathered congregation. Technology to the rescue! He has been separated from them, but by this marvelous invention called writing, when his sermon is read aloud, it will be almost as if he were right there with them. Surely that relaxes the urgency of returning?

Apparently not. Like other NT preachers, the first century’s version of Zoom did not satisfy his longing to speak face to face (2Jn 12; 3Jn 13). Likely the experience of writing this sermon intensified it. As he wrote of the privilege of drawing near corporately into the very presence of God (Heb 4:16; 10:22), his own heart must have yearned to put down his pen and join them in the real thing.

Other hearts, not so much. This preacher was all too aware that others, growing cold, had begun to neglect meeting together (10:25). As I write, many local churches are still not able to meet, and many that are, are missing half the assembly when they do. The preacher to the Hebrews can help us. What clues did he leave in his sermon to explain why, by the end of writing it, he couldn’t wait to get back to preaching to them physically again? What’s so special about preaching?

God Speaks

Technology is wonderful. When you speak, Alexa speaks. But the novelty wears off. Oh, what a marvel preaching is, for when a preacher exposits and applies Scripture to the gathered assembly, it is God who speaks! When Israel gathered to the Lord at Sinai, they heard God’s voice speaking to them out of the fire (12:18-19). And when a brother stands up, clears his throat, and begins to read a Scripture, that same divine Voice speaks today: “Today, if you hear his voice” (3:7). And continues to speak throughout the message: “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking” (12:25). And not just because the author of Hebrews happened to be inspired: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God” (13:7). The most marvellous thing about preaching is that when a man gifted and called by God faithfully exposits the Scriptures to the gathered church, God Himself speaks.[2]

“We See Jesus”

But hang on, there’s more. God has spoken to us by His Son (1:2). The Son is God’s full and final Word, His perfect revelation. The exposition of Scriptures God speaks through is the exposition that honors the authorial intent of the Holy Spirit who inspired them, which is Christ. As the preacher begins speaking (2:5), the congregation starts seeing: “We see … Jesus” (2:9). When men proclaim not themselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, God shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and we are transformed from one degree of glory to another (2Co 3:18-4:6). Preaching is God the Father proclaiming to us God the Son by the agency of God the Spirit, through a human mouthpiece.

We Get to Come Closer

We know how to draw a child near to us with our words. In preaching, God speaks to us of His Son, so that through His Son we will come close to Him: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus … and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near” (Heb 10:19-22).

Here is the ultimate response to the objections to preaching raised in earlier articles. Preaching isn’t meant to drive people away; it’s meant to draw us near. Preaching isn’t passive, one person doing his thing. True preaching is dynamic and responsive. The whole assembly hears God’s voice rejoicing in the person and work of His Son, hears afresh the pardon preached by Christ’s sprinkled blood, and together, corporately, responds by drawing nearer to God’s throne of grace. God speaks, and we squeeze closer. And get breathless about heaven (12:22-24)!

The Ice Breaks and the Whole Church Comes Alive

There’s another dynamic at play in preaching. On day one of a cross-cultural outreach we help with, awkward silence reigns, until a very special sister arrives. The words bubble out of her with warmth and love, and soon set the whole camp talking.

That’s what preaching is like in the church. It’s not the only word ministry in the church. Preaching is to be done mostly by those specifically gifted for it, but the NT envisions other kinds of speaking taking place during and outside of assembly meetings: “Exhort one another every day” (3:13). Preaching primes the pump that gets every member’s ministry flowing: “The primary feeding and teaching of God’s people should come from the preaching that takes place week by week in the assembly. That preaching ministry should, in turn, fuel and shape many other ministries of the word, as all believers speak (and sing!) the word to each other and to those outside the church.”[3]

Preaching isn’t over when the sermon is over; many times, that’s when the preaching begins. During preaching, the chairs turn into a bank of battery chargers. By the closing prayer, an entire array of power instruments are ready to get to work.

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

[2] See also Rom 10:14 (NASB); 2Co 5:20; Eph 2:17; Col 1:29; 1Th 2:12-13.

[3] Jonathan I. Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament: An Exegetical and Biblical-Theological Study (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), Kindle Edition, loc 1984. I am indebted to Griffiths for some of the points in this article. For more texts on how preaching fuels other ministry, see Heb 5:11-12; 10:24-25; Rom 15:14; Col 3:16 with 1:28; Eph 4:11-16; 1Th 5:12-14; Titus 2:1-3.