I met Cicero for the first time one fine day in Cambridge, England, at Waterstones Bookshop, where I found a copy of his book On Duties. Later, I read other works such as On the Laws, On the Republic and On the Best Kind of Orators. Cicero instructed me, delighted me and persuaded me.
Cicero was born Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.). As a young boy, he learned at the hand of tutors, memorized the Twelve Tables of Roman law, and survived childhood given that one in five died in infancy and only two-thirds of the children barely made it to early maturity. As a young boy and man, Cicero pursued all things Greek: the culture, the language, and the art. Thus, friends designated him “the little Greek boy.” Suffice it to say he became one of Rome’s leading politicians; a fascinating, spell-binding orator; a brilliant lawyer with a flair for the dramatic; and a writer of a multitude of books, letters and treatises.
One must imagine Cicero in the forum, in the agora or marketplace among the mass of humanity, on the street, at home, on one of the seven hills of Rome, in the study, and in preparation for a speech in defense of his client, or in the courtroom—or better yet at speaker’s corner near the forum waxing eloquent before the shoving crowds. One might imagine him in exile in Greece wondering whether it was exile at all because he spent it at the house of quaestor Plancius. The populous and wealthy city thrived with life on the trade route, Via Egnatia, where a Roman military fortress stood, ideas floating through the city, and religiosity in the form of cults. The city once carried the Greek name Therma due to the fever (perhaps malaria) caused by the mosquito-infested area built on swampland. Maybe Cicero’s greatest exile involved surviving and swatting pesky mosquitoes.
Only so much can be said about Cicero because there is so much to know. However, one thing stands clear: Cicero knew Roman law—the legal intricacies of the Roman laws of obligation—rhetoric and the best kind of oratory. He wrote about Roman law (On the Republic and On the Laws), Roman laws of obligation (On Duties), and on speech-making (On the Best Kind of Orators). Imagine Cicero giving an impassioned speech in the Roman forum in his purple-striped toga as crowds increasingly gathered as he gave a legal defense involving elements to instruct the listeners, to delight and move the crowd as he intoned his emotion and energy in the speech.
Before I add anything to Cicero on preaching, it should be known that Paul in his letters deeply understood Roman law and its strategic importance in the Roman world. He used Roman law to his advantage (see Acts 22:28). The apostle understood Roman law and occasionally used these legal terms in his letters. For example, when Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:14-17, NIV). Paul obviously felt an obligation to preach the gospel. He used a legal term, obligation, as a binding commitment to preach Christ. His obligation combined with his eagerness created a sense of urgency in preaching the gospel.
Readers of Paul’s letters and of his life would see a clear vision of his life transformed by Christ, his education as a tool for sharing the gospel to all peoples, his commitment to travel and work as a tent-maker to preach, and if his letters are studied closely, his use of rhetorical schemes and devices to communicate the power of Christ. Paul’s use of rhetoric (oratory) as a rhetor (public speaker) focused key words chosen in persuasive speech (rhema or words).
Preaching itself involves persuasive speech.
If you can imagine Cicero in the forum speaking or swatting flies in Thessalonica, or if you can imagine Paul preaching in the synagogue at Damascus or in the cities of Iconium, Antioch, Philippi, Thessalonica or at Ephesus over shouts of “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” then you can imagine Paul’s eagerness to preach the gospel at Rome and his use of persuasive speech. This shows why Cicero hints at three qualities of any good sermon by giving the three rhetorical qualities of a good speech.
Cicero wrote On the Best Kind of Orators around 46 B.C, approximately 12 years after his exile in Thessalonica and three years before his assassination at the hands of the soldiers of Caesar Augustus as he tried to escape Rome by way of the sea on Dec. 7, 43 B.C. In writing On the Best Kind of Orators (1.3), Cicero delivers his superb thought on the supreme orator: “The supreme orator, then, is the one whose speech instructs, delights, and moves the minds of the audience. The orator is duty bound to instruct; giving pleasure is a free gift to the audience, to move is indispensable.” Pivotal preaching that impacts lives for Christ possesses these three qualities.
The apostle Paul encouraged the young Timothy to preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:2). Earlier in his second letter to Timothy, Paul encouraged a kind of instruction that cut against the grain of human selfishness and fleshliness. Paul’s instruction focused on truth that led to repentance (2 Tim. 2:25). Repentance, metanoia, in Greek means “to change the mind and move in a new direction.” Often in Scripture, it creates the analogy of a person heading in one direction (the wrong direction) and suddenly swerving to move in another direction (the right direction). Peter’s sermon on the portico steps at the temple in Jerusalem summarizes repentance at its core, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord…” (Acts 3:19-20, NIV). Peter experienced repentance as had Paul. Christ changed the direction of both their lives. Repentance refreshes life in a new direction guided by Christ.
Paul indicates proper instruction precedes repentance (2 Tim. 2:25). Instruction itself, as Paul used it, was born in the heart of Greek and Roman education, paideia. In the Greek sense, instruction called for teaching the good and beautiful Greek virtue through a system of tutors as a teacher would teach basics, as a coach would coach an athlete, or as a music teacher would teach a singer or musician. In the Roman sense, the instruction included the Greek sense but also the thought, as well as teaching Roman virtues, values, ancestral customs, Roman laws and basic practical skills such as how to farm land. The Roman sense of instruction imprinted two vital and practical ideals necessary to Roman life: one, pietas or piety, a sense of duty, devotion, and loyalty to family, state, and the gods; two, gravitas, gravity, a seriousness about dignity, responsibility, and deep respect for authority.
Instruction in preaching bears the necessity of piety and gravity. That is, teaching both the basics of the Christian faith in duty and loyalty to Christ and the gravity or seriousness of the privilege—and responsibility—of following Jesus, human dignity and God’s Word as an authoritative force in life.
Cicero inspires the rhetor, the speaker, the preacher to use proper words, fitting words for the occasion possessing a rhythm and flow that eases quietly into the ears of listeners. Cicero also challenges the speaker to use figurative language, metaphors, words that paint pictures so readers can see or catch a vision of what is spoken.
Jesus, the Master Teacher, Rabbi, “My Master” (teacher), instructed with pithy maxims if you read the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are the meek; blessed are the merciful; blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness; rejoice and be glad (Matt. 5). The instruction might carry a harsh tone of instigation or correction: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt. 12:33-36, NIV). Such words in preaching call for proper words in the proper tone delivered to people with the right heart and at the right time or on the right occasion.
Consider Jesus’ preaching, and you will find language painting pictures: Consider the lilies of the field, they do not worry; consider the birds of the air, they neither toil nor spin and yet God provides for their needs; I am….the good shepherd, the light of the world, the bread of life, living water, and the door. Add to this Jesus’ masterful use of parables: A certain man went out into the field or a certain father had two sons (the prodigal son); the kingdom of heaven is like the pearl of great price, leaven, etc. Jesus painted pictures with words, often giving literary figures and images by virtue of the spoken word. The instruction combining information and images activated both sides of the human brain (left and right) while inviting repentance and a change of direction in listeners’ lives. The instruction gives life in an animated presentation of the gospel.
In public speaking, delighting an audience might seem a trustworthy statement for a speaker, but in preaching a strange word of for the preacher. I can read Cicero’s words and think of my first preaching professor. He told me clearly, “Do not cross your legs while seated on the stage or near the pulpit; always button your coat; stand up straight behind the pulpit; and never talk about yourself, unless on rare occasion you use a self-deprecating story.” In today’s world of preaching, the advice given would appear strange, perhaps creating a bizarre countenance—as if Martians from outer space had shown up in church. Who sits on the stage? Who always wears a coat to preach? What preacher today stands still? I often make a circle around the pulpit to gain better eye contact or stand in front of the pulpit to remove barriers to communication. What congregation does not love a good, humorous, personal story, even a self-deprecating one or one not so self-deprecating? Times have changed, or have they?
Jesus mastered in keeping His audience’s attention, or to use Cicero’s words: to delight or entertain. When Jesus wanted to drive home a point using humor, He used camel analogies: “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:23-24, NIV); “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices: mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:23-24, NIV). In both instances, Jesus entertained the crowd, drove home a serious point, but heard laughter from the crowd, though perhaps nervous laughter.
When Jesus told parables, He communicated stories. What preacher has not delivered an animated, regenerated, modern version of the prodigal son—a banquet and a festive day of joy ending in songs of celebration when the son comes home? What preacher has not used Jesus’ all-too-familiar words “They killed the fatted calf” to refer to a celebration of joy at homecoming or good news?
What preacher has not waxed eloquent to instruct the congregation of the Father’s love but delighted the crowd with a description of the loving Father’s arms open wide with tears streaming down His face when He sees the son returning on the road to home? What preacher has not delivered the good news: “God-is-like-this,” just as the father loved his returning son so God our Father loves every saint and sinner—every man, woman, boy and girl—who makes their way into His loving arms again?
It all makes for preaching that delights heaven’s ears, the congregation’s hearts, and the rejoicing spirit of the preacher. In a sense, preaching as delight and delight as preaching entertains but also inspires; and the rich metaphors and images of the text easily preach themselves.
In today’s preaching, not enough can be said about delight. Tell stories. Activate the left side of the brain with instruction about Christ and His Word. Enliven the right side of the brain with stories, appropriate humor, rich metaphors and personal accounts that identify Christ at work in the human struggle and the agonies of life. A story connected to the biblical text and connected to the Person of Christ empowers and enriches the sermon and the listeners’ souls.
Tell the gospel story. Tell stories in the context of the gospel story. Tell captivating stories to delight and entertain the listener. Beware, though; never overpower the story of Christ by trying too hard to tell a captivating story. Always connect your story to Jesus and Jesus to your stories.
It Moves the Audience
Preaching by its nature requires persuasion. Jesus never preached without aiming to persuade His listeners. Peter never preached without persuasive speech in a good sense. Paul the rhetor and Paul the preacher always struggled against flesh and blood, against principalities and powers, and against evil forces to persuade recipients of the gospel message preached to walk by the Spirit, to live in the light of God’s glory and power, and to celebrate the good of all that Christ died for and resurrected in the hearts of believers. Paul the rhetor and the preacher directed his emotions, passion, and content at persuading his hearers to follow Christ at all costs. Often his persuasive speech came in the form of a sense of duty or Holy Spirit-born obligations: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:9-21, NIV).
At other times Paul’s sermon came with the force of imperatives, non-negotiable responsibilities in the Christ-life: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Rom. 12:1-3, NIV).
At other times, Paul’s persuasive speech encouraged the saints, prodded them to keep going in the faith, and gave spiritual strength to believers on the verge of quitting: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength…” and so can you! (Phil. 4:13, NIV);
“And my God (our God!) will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19, NIV); “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:9-10, NIV).
The core of Cicero’s speech for the rhetor involved persuasive, passionate speech calling for an answer, a response, or some kind of action. Likewise, the core of preaching the gospel calls for persuasive, passionate, laser-like words that call for Christian action and response. Preaching apart from persuasive speech that moves the audience to tears, repentance, service to Christ, or a deeper walk with Christ is not preaching at all. Gospel preaching always moves the audience closer to Christ.
For all of Cicero’s wisdom in speech, public speaking, and the power of the rhetor in instruction, delight, and persuasive words, Cicero’s instruction predated Paul’s work as rhetor and preacher. Therefore, Paul had one huge advantage over Cicero as every preacher today has: the Holy Spirit as a factor in preaching to help instruct, delight and move the audience. The Holy Spirit, Paul said, is given in hope, “because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5); can be trusted with joy and peace “by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13); graces the preacher and hearer with “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14); amplifies the message of the gospel “with the joy given by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6); renews the soul (Titus 3:5); and proclaims Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). After all, how can they preach unless the Holy Spirit preached persuasive words through the preacher? “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news’” (Rom. 10:14-15, NIV).
Yes, how beautiful the feet, the words, the hearts, and the souls of those who preach by allowing the Spirit to speak through them the gospel’s instruction, delight and persuasive speech.
How beautiful the sermons of those who preach with passion God’s love with loving arms spread wide to welcome prodigals in anticipation of a banquet of the fatted calf, friends and family in a festive celebration of joy.
John D. Duncan is interim pastor of the Kowloon International Baptist Church in Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong, but his home base is Texas. He is the author of three books: Sacred Space, Sacred Grit and Sacred Dung. His forthcoming book is My Father’s House: A Memoir.