Who Is Sufficient for These Things? Thoughts on Preaching

As far as how to preach, we can learn a lot just by listening to those who do it well. One veteran I know of counsels younger men to listen to good preaching with two heads: one for their own nourishment, and another for noting how the preacher performs his craft. If we were right in earlier articles to say that Hebrews is a written sermon, then we have a priceless opportunity not only to feed our souls from it but also to learn from the finest of preachers how best to preach.[1]

Suppose you did that now, and as you pressed “play,” you took out your notebook to jot down your insights. You hear the part where he says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart” (3:12),[2] and, pausing the recording, you write: If I will become more helpful in my preaching, I must learn how to preach to the heart. How might we do this?

First, we must study the heart. Our modern conception of the heart tends to limit it to the seat of our emotions and desires. It is that (Joh 16:6; Psa 37:4), but it is so much more. Our preacher to the Hebrews speaks of our hearts as something that can be hardened (the will), brought to faith (organ of trust), is capable of thought (the intellect), and of registering right and wrong (conscience).[3] We must become spiritual cardiologists and study all that Scripture teaches about the heart. Everything we do, every sin we sin, every word we speak, flows from our hearts (Pro 4:23; Mar 7:14-23; Luk 6:45). The heart is our innermost person (1Pe 3:4; Jer 4:18), our animating core, our motivational center. It’s what makes us tick.

Second, we must aim for the heart. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (3:7-8). This expositor knows that his audience’s most vital organ is the heart. It is hotly contested territory, a sacred chamber devoted either to loving God or worshiping idols (Deu 6:5; Eze 14:3). “My son, give me your heart” (Pro 23:26), the Father pleads. Deceitfully, sin whispers the same thing (Heb 3:13). The preacher knows that all teaching and preaching is a battle for the heart (Mat 13:19). Desperate, he wields his sword (Heb 4:12), crying with each swing, “Do not harden your hearts.” His only counterattack is the persistent exhortation of the Word (3:13).

Alec Motyer notes that in the literal Hebrew, God wanted Isaiah to “speak to the heart” of His people (Isa 40:2). He wants us to do the same. Preaching that targets only surface behaviors produces only surface changes, but when we take aim at the desires driving the behaviors, the Spirit can effect radical transformation right before our eyes. When the British sought to breach the Möhne dam during World War II, placement was everything. They needed their “bouncing bombs” to detonate underwater, close to the dam wall. If I am responsible to teach, I must focus not only on the data to be conveyed but also on its placement. I want God’s life-altering truth to roll down right into the yawning cavern of the heart.

Third, we must speak from the heart. In the game Battleships, the shots on your own tracking grid match those that land on your opponent’s grid. Somewhat similarly, our preaching will only land in other people in the places it has first landed in us. If we will aim for our listeners’ hearts, it must strike our hearts first. Then when we speak, our message will come from deep inside.

How can we get it into hearts, both our own and our listeners’? The preacher of Hebrews gives us some crucial ingredients:

1. Dealings with God in our own spiritual experience. Christ’s superiority and priestly ministry in heaven are not abstractions to this preacher. Christ is everything to him! He knows by experience how Christ can help the tempted and dispense mercy to the fallen. Suffering, life, prayer, the Holy Spirit and the Father’s discipline must move Christ from being just a topic of discourse to being what David Robertson calls the “Magnificent Obsession” of my heart.

2. A willingness to address the real questions, needs and burdens of the people. Our preacher does not skirt the issues. He confronts his listeners’ needs head-on. He knows the Lord’s people. He knows their worries and weaknesses. He takes the questions they’re actually asking and answers them with powerful exposition from the Scriptures. Are we in touch? Do we have the courage to tackle hard questions?

3. An evident love for God’s people. This preacher preaches with striking earnestness. He’s not playing games. He cares about his audience. He cares about their souls. He warns them, teaches them, urges them and exhorts them. He is full of sympathy and love for the people, just like the Priest he proclaims. He includes himself with them, 14 times saying, “Let us.” “Let us” copy him.

4. The fresh use of language and images to capture the heart. Sometimes our words grow predictable and staid. Not this preacher’s. Without at all compromising the faithfulness of his exposition of Scripture, he employs colorful word pictures. Drowsiness to the gospel is like a ship drifting away at night (2:1). That’ll wake up Sleepy! Instead of a rather flat statement like “we have eternal security,” he portrays our hope as being a steadfast “anchor of the soul,” cast not into the sea but up into heaven (6:19). Such word pictures can endear even a mariner’s heart to Christ.

Ultimately, it is Christ Himself who gets the Word into our hearts. When He reveals Himself to us in the pages of Scripture, our hearts begin to burn within us with a fire that demands an outlet (Luk 24:32; Jer 20:9). For what we have to preach is not chicken soup for the soul but good news for the heart. Because of Christ, we can come near with true hearts “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (10:22). There’s a new covenant in which God writes His law on our hearts and is merciful to all our iniquities (8:10). Divine grace and human need collide in such preaching. And believing hearts throughout the room are strengthened not by food but by grace (13:9).

[1] It was heartening to see, after I finished outlining this series, a whole book come out taking this approach. See Jeremy McKeen’s The Model Sermon: Principles of Preaching from the Book of Hebrews.

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

[3] 3:8; 3:12; 4:12; 10:22.