One of the most interesting debates in homiletical circles is the degree to which contemporary preachers should preach like Jesus. On the surface, we might think it absolutely necessary to preach like the greatest Preacher ever. Isn’t He, after all, the perfect model? Shouldn’t we exhibit His simplicity, His connection with people, His boldness?
Some go even further and suggest that 21st Century preachers should adopt Jesus’ methodology. Often authors and professors of homiletics support their particular approach to preaching by appealing to some aspect of His technique or style. He was a storyteller, they assert, so sermons should be stories. The suggestions continue: He spoke in parables. He preached inductively. He preached deductively. He preached gently. He preached boldly. Interestingly, opposing approaches to preaching often locate their respective convictions in Jesus’ preaching.
In some ways, however, modern preachers should no more emulate Jesus’ preaching than contemporary Christians should copy the crucifixion. Just as the work of redemption was His alone, a work in which we may merely share, so elements of His preaching can only be reflected in ours, but never actually appropriated.
The unique and distinctive marks of Jesus’ preaching are inextricable from His person, specifically His place in the Godhead. He preached with an intrinsic authority; our authority is derived. He looked into the hearts of men and women and perfectly saw their worth by divine creation and their sin by human commission; we can only approximate knowledge of either one. His preaching had the unmistakable gleam of the glory of God; on our best days, we struggle to get self out of the way and hope God might just show up for a little while. At times the heavenly prerogative and intent of His preaching was to “conceal everything from the outsiders” (Mark 4:11, New Living Translation) in order to keep to His divine timetable and plan, while our purpose can only be to help everyone – without distinction or discrimination on our parts – understand clearly our meaning.
Most of all: He preached about Himself. Admittedly, for us that would be not only blasphemous, but pathetic. Like Paul, we must declare, “We don’t go around preaching about ourselves; we preach Christ Jesus, the Lord. All we say about ourselves is that we are your servants because of what Jesus has done for us” (2 Corinthians 4:5, NLT).
From the time He announced to an exasperated Joseph and Mary that He had to be about His Father’s business, Jesus engaged in a Self-centered and decidedly theocentric ministry of proclamation. As odd as that sounds, He could do nothing else. He was the Son of God, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. To preach anything other than Self would be to deprive His audience of knowing the only way of escape from their spiritual squalor and alienation from God. Were mere mortals to preach self, we would be delusional. Jesus, on the other hand, was just being accurate.
His entire life was a series of sermons about Himself. Whether He was standing on a ship beside the shore of Galilee preaching to a pressing throng of listeners or quietly speaking in hushed tones with His disciples in an upper room, Jesus was always preaching His glorious self, revealing more of Himself. Without Him, nothing else would matter. What would the kingdom be without a King? Where are the sheep without the Great Shepherd? What are the branches without the vine? What is a story about forgiveness without the one who alone can forgive? The Last Supper fades into meaninglessness apart from His body and His blood.
For all these reasons, it would be extremely dangerous – even blasphemous – indiscriminately to model one’s preaching after Jesus. He just has too much on us. He’s God after all, and has a few more tools in His homiletical utility belt than we are equipped to handle.
On the other hand, the need of our day is every bit as acute as when Jesus walked physically on the earth. Furthermore, the truth He taught remains the only antidote to the world’s spiritual poison. The insight of the parables, the beauty of the Beatitudes, the woes against the ways of the outwardly religious Pharisees are not at all out of style or step with the times. While we cannot preach like Jesus in certain ways, we must follow his example in some significant identifiable ways.
The key lies in distinguishing the person of Jesus from the preaching of Jesus, His divine prerogatives from His human performance. In other words, if our preaching can reflect Him rather than merely mimic Him, our preaching can honor Him. Jesus’ preaching was both Self-centered and God-centered, while ours can only be the latter. If we can distinguish between the aspects of His preaching that belong solely to His deity and those characteristics that can still be communicated by earthen vessels, we can learn how to reflect Him better when we preach.
Once we take a step back from His person and evaluate His preaching, we understand five key ways in which Jesus preached Himself. One could easily find additional ways that Jesus preached Himself which we can emulate, but these core issues should mark and define our preaching as they did His.
Jesus Preached about Himself Decisively
Whenever Jesus preached, He always preached and pushed for a decision. He never concluded a discourse with, “But that’s just what I think. You might feel differently.” He forced a crisis, asked for a verdict, often confronting His audience with only two options – follow or don’t, be wise or be foolish, sell all or turn back, be a sheep or a goat! He forced his followers to face their future and to take responsibility for their actions. He made it clear that indecision was impossible because making no decision was actually making the choice to reject Him and His message.
Frequently, Jesus refused to temper those decisions with any promise of grace. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, He offered no comfort for those who mess up, no assurance of forgiveness, no politically correct disclaimers about different religious traditions and respecting those who may disagree. He laid out the judgment as plainly as possible: if you accept what I say you are wise, if you know these things but don’t do them you are foolish – and you will experience a great destruction (Matt. 7:24-27).
Whenever He asked His audience to choose, He was ultimately asking them to decide about Him. As in everything He said, He was precisely in the center of the choice He forced on His audience. In the same way, contemporary preaching needs to be infused with a radical call to decision about Jesus. He is Lord or He is nothing. He is God or merely man. He is worthy of obedience or He is not, but no one who hears our preaching should be able to remain undecided.
Jesus Preached about Himself Theologically
A growing fault of contemporary preaching is a pervasive belief that people are either incapable of comprehending doctrine or at least uninterested in it. I hear it in conferences I attend, I read it in books, and see it in churches I visit. The last several decades of preaching seem to have shifted from theological content to psychological therapy. The preacher has become less prophet, more cheerleader; the holiness of God has been shunted aside for the happiness of man. Rather than teach our members concepts like justification and sanctification, we preach coping strategies and time management. We have placed man squarely in the center of our religious universe.
By placing Himself at the center of His preaching, Jesus packed His preaching with doctrine. He may have preached simply and even to simple people, but never at the expense of theological content. His preaching revealed the person and the character of God as the most significant consideration. When answering questions about divorce, for example, His answer was about God’s intention in marriage rather than about man’s happiness (Matt. 19:3-12). When He taught the disciples how to pray, He trained them to begin their prayer with the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven and to end it with God’s kingdom, power, and glory. He taught His disciples to fear God rather than man, to honor the Lord of the Sabbath more than the tradition of the Sabbath, and to put devotion to God even above keeping the law.
One event in the ministry of Jesus that is theologically rich is His encounter with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22 and Mark 10:17-31. Jesus’ statements to the young man are shocking enough. Answering the question, “What good things must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus just followed the young man’s incorrect assumption to its logical conclusion. “Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Hardly the methodology that many would employ today! Apparently someone needed to tell Jesus that He could never build a large congregation with that kind of demand. When the young man turned sadly and walked away, Jesus did not chase him, hound him, or lower the standard to make it easier for him. He let him go, even though “Jesus felt genuine love for this man” (Mark 19:21). Significantly, Jesus equated following Him with getting eternal life.
As fascinating as that exchange is, the real story is the “meeting after the meeting” when Jesus dropped a theological bomb on the disciples. “I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. I say it again – it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Matt. 19:23-24).
The text does not give details of how much time passed between Jesus’ statement and the disciples’ question, but I have always imagined that Jesus just spoke those words matter-of-factly and walked on as though that truth were as self-evident as the color of the sky. The disciples must have exchanged furtive glances and motioned to each other, hoping someone would ask for a little clarification. How rich, they surely wondered, was too rich? After all, some of them had fishing businesses back in Galilee. Others must have had some possessions or enterprises, some inheritance of property or wealth coming their way. Did this exclude them from the kingdom? Did this bar the way to eternal life? Hearing their questions and worry, Jesus at first said nothing to assuage their concerns. In fact, He widened their cause of worry from the wealthy narrow segment of society to everyone. “Humanly speaking,” He answered, “it is impossible.”
Ouch. That must have hurt. Jesus just told them that salvation is impossible.
I always picture Jesus allowing a few seconds to pass in order to let the full weight of His words settle heavily on the minds of His followers. Just when their eyes must have widened in worry and their jaws clenched in fear, Jesus added, “but with God everything is possible.” In that brief moment, Jesus unmasked all of humanity’s efforts to achieve righteousness apart from Him, but at the same time He revealed a Father who devised a way to redeem a people for Himself. His very presence, in fact, was the impossible way God could reach men like them.
Even in the ordinary, everyday press of people who came to Jesus for an answer to their questions and a solution to their problems, Jesus put theology – the knowledge of the divine – at the center of His thought and teaching. Whether casting out demons, loving on little children, or forgiving people long caught in sin, Jesus used the occasion to teach theological truth, to say something about the character of God and even His own identity with God the Father.
When Jesus placed theological truth at the core of His preaching, He placed Himself there. His preaching and activity was filled with claims about His deity. When the four men lowered a paralytic through the roof for Jesus to heal him, Jesus first forgave his sins, thereby claiming a divine prerogative (Mark 2:5). He did not blink when He claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life apart from which no one could come to the Father (John 14:6). Ultimately, Jesus warned, He would be the one who is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father (Matt. 16:27) and separate the sheep from the goats in judgment (Matt. 25:31-46).
How can we preach Jesus and be so theologically bankrupt? Theologically empty sermons are about as exciting as a fat-free, sugar-free, nutritionally empty meal. You might find something to chew on, but very little to digest. The only way to take theology out of the sermon is ultimately either to distort who Jesus is or get rid of Him altogether. How can we preach Jesus without a theologically rich understanding of the Trinity, the incarnation, soteriology, sanctification, the mystery of the will of God? Like the other religions of the world, we have to dethrone Him to a mere man. We preach Him as a best friend rather than as Lord. We preach His example rather than His substitutionary atonement. We make His name a talisman to be used for our wishes rather than the authority by which we go into all the world. Jesus preached theologically because He preached Himself, and we dare not depart from that paradigm.
Jesus Preached about Himself Ethically
In the church I serve as pastor I am currently preaching a series of sermons on the family, working through passages of the Bible that teach what a Christian home should be like. Frankly, I am having a lot of trouble.
The exegesis of the passages is not what troubles me. After all, I have spent years of my life in classrooms and study learning how to handle the technical aspects of the biblical text. Similarly, I don’t find the homiletical structure to be any more difficult than usual either – that part is always tough. Still, I am having a hard time preparing and delivering these sermons because the part of this series that gives me a disconcerting pain is how I fall far short of the standard that I present to my people each week. I often find myself preaching with a broken heart, not only because of my love for my people, but because of my realization that I have failed in some key ways and my preaching does not always match my life.
Jesus, on the other hand, never felt conviction about His sermon topic; He never heard Satan whisper in His ear what a phony He was. Jesus never knew any distance between the vast sky of intention and the hard earth of performance. His character was completely consistent with the concepts He proclaimed to others. Even in the Sermon on the Mount, the highest ethical standard ever espoused, He was both preacher and subject. He was the perfect incarnation of the Beatitudes, the perfect illustration of obedience, the perfect implementation of the character demanded by the entire sermon. His life modeled the second mile, the turned cheek, the simple trust in God required for a single day. Who else would dare claim that on the Day of Judgment, He would be the one telling false disciples, “Depart from me, I never knew you!” (Matt. 7:23).
What other person could say in complete confidence, “The prince of this world approaches me. He has no power over me” (John 14:30) because He knew His own character was sinless and impervious to Satan’s temptation? His preaching was filled with ethical exhortations as His life was filled with the perfect application and that divine standard.
While we will always feel the chill wind of the space between our preaching and our performance, we still must unflinchingly relate the theological teaching of the Word and of Jesus Himself to the everyday life we and our congregations live. Whether our members work in corporate boardrooms or local junkyards, they need to see the relation between the truth of the Word and their everyday behavior. Though Jesus is not merely an example for living, He is indeed our greatest example, and our preaching must reflect an uncompromising commitment to holiness in our lives just as His did.
Jesus Preached about Himself Scripturally
Jesus’ preaching was saturated with Scripture. His teaching had the smell of leather scrolls on it. His words dripped with the language of the prophets. He was as comfortable with Moses as He was making a table in His carpenter’s shop. He was as familiar with the Psalms as the streets of Nazareth. He used the Old Testament authoritatively and easily.
From the beginning to the end of His ministry, Jesus relied on the Scriptures. Scripture signaled His ministry’s inauguration, both privately and publicly. In the wilderness He rebuked Satan’s temptation with scriptural truth. In the synagogue of Capernaum, He read a messianic prophecy of Isaiah’s, rolled up the scroll, and informed His audience, “Today . . . this Scripture has been fulfilled” (Luke 4:18-19). In other words, He was saying “Folks, that is about me!” In each case, Jesus revealed His identity and authority through the authoritative use of the holy text.
His use of Scripture in the Sermon on the Mount showed not only His reverence for the Scripture, but His authority over it. Several times He quoted Scripture and then added layers of meaning to it. Using the formula, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .” Jesus exercised His rights as God in the flesh to add to the biblical mandates. His ethical standard went deeper than the outward performance of the law, and just as significantly, this particular treatment of Scripture established Him as its definitive interpreter.
His discourses were textured with the landscape and characters of the Old Testament. Unlike every other preacher, His authority was not derivative of the sacred writings, yet He was always consistent with it, frequently using it to silence His critics. When the Sadducees questioned Him about the resurrection, He flatly told them that they had been deceived because they didn’t know the Scriptures and then cited Genesis 3:6, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32). When the Pharisees tried to trick Him about the parentage of the Messiah, His answer and subsequent citation of Psalm 110:1 so intimidated them that they dared ask him no more questions after that (Mt. 22:41-46). Even as He hung on the cross, preparing to lay down His life, He cited the prophetic words of Psalm 22:1.
While no 21st Century preacher could dare use the Scripture precisely as Jesus did, he still must use it precisely because Jesus did. If Jesus, who was the authority behind the biblical text, peppered His discourses, conversations, and sermons with the Bible, how much more should we who are subject to its precepts and mandates rely on it? Our preaching must be lashed to the Scriptures, not to the latest Christian book that lands on the bestseller list. Many books are helpful, but only the Bible is eternal and the seed by which the Holy Spirit grants eternal life.
Jesus Preached about Himself Passionately
Jesus never preached from a manuscript; He preached from His heart. Whether He was preaching a carefully formed sermon, like the Sermon on the Mount, or giving an impromptu answer to critics, one can still feel the deep feeling and emotion in His words. One couldn’t very well dispassionately tell an audience that they should cut off a hand or pluck out an eye! Standing firmly in the tradition of the prophets who had foretold His coming, Jesus delivered His messages with fervor and feeling.
He was passionate as He wept over Jerusalem and lamented that they had stoned the prophets and now rejected Him. He was passionate in His very public criticism of the Pharisees. Not only did he invoke passion, He elicited it. His preaching made people want to throw Him off a cliff sometimes, and at others they were simply astonished at His preaching.
I sometimes think that perhaps the greatest sermon Jesus ever preached may not even be recorded in the Scriptures. As great as the Sermon on the Mount is, I suspect the private exposition that Jesus shared with the two bewildered disciples on the road to Emmaus on that first Easter would at least rival it. Luke characteristically encapsulates it with one power-packed sentence: “Then Jesus quoted passages from the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining what all the Scriptures said about Himself” (Luke 24:27). In that single summary one sees how Jesus undeniably came preaching Himself. Jesus’ preached Himself decisively: they would either accept His resurrection or deny it, but they could not remain neutral. His sermon was definitely scriptural as he systematically worked through Moses and all the prophets to show them the truth. He preached theologically because He placed Himself at the very center of the sermon, showing them how the scriptures testified of Him. He preached ethically, having triumphed over sin in death and the resurrection, never failing to maintain His integrity and holiness. The reaction of the two Emmaus disciples reflects His passion. “Weren’t our hearts ablaze within us while He was talking to us on the road and explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32, HCSB). The only way our preaching can set 21st Century hearts ablaze is if we do just what Jesus did: we must passionately explain what all the Scriptures say about Him!
To the extent that our preaching can mirror these five qualities of Jesus preaching, we can follow his preaching. To preach decisively, theologically, ethically, scripturally, and passionately is to adopt the aspects of Jesus’ preaching that are normative, that are, in fact, essential to Christian preaching. But at the center of Jesus’ preaching beats the heart of a self-aware deity, the incarnate Word, the Savior of the Word. We must preach Jesus because He preached Himself.
Hershael W. York is Lester Professor of Preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, KY.