You can and you can’t. Can and can’t what? You can and you can’t preach like Jesus. I know you are reading this article because it is titled “Preaching Like Jesus,” but in many ways we cannot preach like Jesus. Jesus preached as God the Son. His words were the Word of God. The Holy Spirit anointed Him unlike any other person. Hershael York makes the point, “Frankly, we are never told to preach like Jesus and probably shouldn’t try.”1
At the same time, York encourages us to emulate some of the aspects of Jesus’ preaching: “His passion, His high view of Scripture, His confrontation and application, and His tendency to force a decision of acceptance or rejection.”2 In addition, we can learn a great deal about how to preach effectively by considering Jesus’ example as a Preacher.
Keep in mind that not everything Jesus said was in the form of a sermon. Some students of Jesus’ preaching make the mistake of considering every crimson word in a red-letter Bible to be part of Jesus’ sermonic corpus. That’s not true. Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees were not sermons. Furthermore, neither His discussions with the disciples, the woman at the well nor any number of other engagements were sermons.
In fact, not many of Jesus’ sermons are recorded. Yet during His early ministry, He preached regularly in the synagogues throughout the land (Luke 4: 14-28, 44). By studying His synagogue preaching and His other sermons as reported in the gospels, we can make several observations about Jesus’ preaching that provide a pattern for today.
1. Jesus preached biblically.
Jesus preached the Word of God. In his foundational work, The Master Preacher, A.R. Bond points out that Jesus’ message originated in “the purpose of God.” Christ told His followers, “The word you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me” (John 14:24).3 Some people claim Jesus did not preach expository sermons; therefore, we should not preach expositionally. The basis of their position appears focused on Jesus’ lack of preaching systematically through books of the Bible. They also claim His sermons did not have a primary text, which He investigated grammatically or historically.
These assertions fail in several points. Keep in mind that Jesus spoke Scripture. The best we can do is to preach from Scripture.
Another problem is a misunderstanding of the nature of expository preaching. Sidney Greidanus writes, “At its heart, expository preaching is not just a method, but a commitment, a view of the essence of preaching, a homiletical approach to preach the Scriptures.”4 Haddon Robinson agrees: “Expository preaching at its core is more a philosophy than a method. Whether a man can be called an expositor starts with his purpose and with his honest answer to the question, ‘Do you, as a preacher, endeavor to bend your thought to Scripture, or do you use Scripture to support your thought?’”5
Some expository preaching involves preaching through a Bible book, but sequential book preaching is not the only way to do exposition. Bible book preaching requires tenure with a single congregation. Jesus moved constantly from place to place and never served as the pastor of a local church.
The key question is, Did Jesus preach biblically? Did He not only speak Scripture, but did He in fact explain Scripture in the form of public discourse? The answer is yes. When preaching in the synagogues, He likely followed the model typical for those days. A scriptural passage was read, and then the speaker explained and applied the text, similar to Ezra in the days of Nehemiah (Neh. 8:4-8).
In Luke 4:14-28, Jesus visited His hometown synagogue. He deliberately found the text He wanted (Isa. 61:1-2) and read it. He then gave a brief statement about its fulfillment in the people’s hearing. We should not think this one-sentence sermon was the end of it. Although unrecorded, He may have spoken at length regarding the passage because all the people were amazed at His words (v. 22) This was not the only occasion in which He followed the pattern of synagogue exhortation. Luke 4:44 relates how Jesus preached in synagogues throughout Galilee.
Jesus constantly referred to Scripture as He taught and preached. In His teaching about marriage, He mentioned Genesis 2:24 (Mark 10:5-9). As He taught about the resurrection, He quoted from Exodus 3:3-6 (Mark 12:23-27). On numerous occasions, Jesus appealed to the Hebrew Scripture to make His points: “as the Scripture has said” (John 7:37-38), “the Scripture must be fulfilled” (John 13:8), and “have you not read this Scripture” (Mark 12:10-11). On the road to Emmaus after His resurrection, He opened the Scripture “starting with Moses” and explained how the Messiah must suffer, die and rise again (Luke 24:27, 32).
Preachers today can emulate Jesus’ biblical preaching. Our words do not become the Word of God in the same way as the words of Jesus, but we can proclaim His Word faithfully. If we take a text that fits a topic and depart from it, sharing our thoughts rather than God’s thoughts, we are most arrogant because we suppose our ideas are superior, more relevant and more worth hearing than God’s ideas.
Robinson reminds us, “The man in the pulpit faces the pressing temptation to deliver some message other than that of Scripture…Yet when a preacher fails to preach the Scripture, he abandons his authority. He confronts his hearers no longer with a word from God but only with another word from men.”6
2. Jesus preached powerfully.
Jesus preached with authority, unlike other religious leaders. Jesus’ preaching contrasted with the powerlessness of the scribes (Matt. 7:29). The people recognized the power in Jesus’ command over the demons (Mark 1:27), but they also saw His authority in the way He taught Scripture (Mark 1:22).
His authority emerged not only from the fact that He was the divine Son of God, but from His obedience to the heavenly Father. Paul reminds us that while Jesus was fully God, He also was fully man. In His humanity, Jesus humbled Himself and became obedient to the death on the cross (Phil. 2:6-8). John records Jesus’ confession that He came at the direction of the Father. What He said was what He heard the Father speak. What He did was what He saw the Father do (John 5:19, 30, 37; 8:16, 18; 12:49).
James MacDonald emphasizes how preachers should follow Jesus’ example of preaching with authority. He argues that one reason for Jesus’ authoritative preaching was His use of Scripture: “His teachings are filled with Old Testament quotes, and He is the Word of God, so every Word that proceeds from His mouth is the Word of God.”7
While we cannot speak with the same authority as God the Son, we can preach with confidence when we declare God’s Words rather than our own. Also, when we humbly submit ourselves in complete obedience to the Father—going where He says to go, saying what He says to say, and doing what He says to do—then we can preach with authority as heralds of God.
3. Jesus preached prophetically.
Hughes Oliphant Old observed that Jesus’ censure of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 used very strong language to denounce the hypocrisy of spiritual leaders who did not practice what they demanded of the people. Jesus used terms such as “blind leaders of the blind” and “whitewashed tombs”—words which surely provoked the listeners.8
Jesus did not shy away from being confrontational when prophetic admonitions were needed. At the same time, He was not crude. Broadus comments: “We must meditate on His perfect fidelity to truth and yet perfect courtesy and kindliness; His severity in rebuking without any tinge of bitterness; His directness and simplicity, and yet His tact…; His complete sympathy with man and also complete sympathy with God—bringing heaven down to earth, that He might lift up earth to heaven.”9
We need to be courageous enough to wear the prophet’s mantle when needed. At the same time, modern preachers must not become arrogant. Remember, our sole authority rests in our being heralds of God’s Word, bringing Christ’s message to bear on the ills of people and society.
4. Jesus preached purposefully.
Jesus always spoke with intention. He wanted people to “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Repentance toward God, faith in Him as Messiah, and right relationships with one another formed the substance of many of His sermons. He preached that people would believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). He preached with the goal that people would follow Him (Matt. 10:38).
Jesus’ text from Isaiah also described some of His purposes in preaching. He preached to the poor, that they might have hope in Him. He preached to the brokenhearted that they might be healed. He preached deliverance, recovery and liberty (Luke 4:18-19).
Even so, effective preaching today demands an objective. Speaking without purpose reduces the sermon to a wandering commentary that is more of an abstracted stream of consciousness than Spirit-directed conviction. Each textual pericope (thought block) contains its own inherent purpose. To produce power that moves people, the sermon’s objective cannot be merely what the preacher wants to promote, but what the text itself demands.
5. Jesus preached practically.
In the Sermons on the Mount and on the Plain (Matt. 5-7; Luke 6:17–49), Jesus addressed practical, everyday issues such as marriage, prayer, benevolence, conflict resolution, trust versus worry, influence in society, relationships and much more. In each case, His preaching was not a sanctified self-help lecture, but He led hearers to follow Him along their paths of daily life and on into eternity. A.R. Bond writes, “The themes of Jesus’ preaching were dignified in character, harmonious with His mission of salvation, indicative of His outlook upon life, and suggestive of His homiletical methods.”10
God’s Word always relates to people and to Himself. No other words are more relevant to the lives of people in every generation. He alone has the words of eternal life. Those words also touch every aspect of our current lives. The preacher who emulates Jesus’ preaching begins with the text, finds the aspect of human life addressed by the Word, and helps hearers apply timeless truths in timely ways.
6. Jesus preached full of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus in the flesh was conceived through the instrumentation of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). At His baptism, the Holy Spirit’s presence testified of Jesus as the voice of the Father affirmed Him to those who stood by (Matt. 3:16; John 1:32). Jesus faced temptation full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1). His preaching in the power of the Spirit was fulfillment of prophecy (Matt. 12:15-21; Isa. 42:1-4). The Holy Spirit permeated all of Jesus’ life and preaching. John the Baptist testified, “For he whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives not the Spirit by measure unto Him” (John 3:34).
Jesus’ text as He preached in His hometown synagogue emphasized how the Holy Spirit anointed Him for preaching: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). Three times in two verses, He used the word preach to describe the purpose of the Spirit’s anointing.
No one should stand in the stead of Christ, speaking to His people, without the filling and anointing of the Holy Spirit. Every believer has the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:9). The question is, “Are we filled with the Spirit?” (Eph. 5:18). Paul reminded the Thessalonian Christians that he had shared the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Even so, we must yield ourselves to the cleansing and filling of God’s Holy Spirit so He might glorify Christ through our preaching (1 Thess. 1:5).
The Holy Spirit guides us into the truth of God’s Word (John 16:13). He convicts the hearers of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). The Spirit empowers the preacher (1 Cor. 2:4). The Spirit of God glorifies the Son of God (John 16:14). Without the Holy Spirit, we can offer a persuasive talk, but we cannot preach with power.
Evangelist Jay Strack shared that before preaching at Bellevue Baptist Church during the tenure of the late Dr. Adrian Rogers, Rogers admonished him to make sure there was nothing that would hinder the Holy Spirit as he preached. The two prayed before Jay preached, yielding to Christ and asking for the filling and power of the Holy Spirit. Such should be the pattern of every preacher today!
7. Jesus preached in the language of the people.
Jesus used words and ideas most people could understand. Even His parables, which challenged the comprehension of some listeners, were couched in story language from familiar settings (Matt. 13). Rick Warren has pointed out that Jesus “taught profound truths in simple ways.” He added that Jesus employed “terms that normal people could understand…He used the street language of that day and talked of birds, flowers, lost coins and other everyday objects that anyone could relate to.”11
Too often, newly minted seminarians preach in the language of intricate academic thought. Terms may involve complicated theological language that confuses average listeners. Their illustrations may relate more to dead preachers of prior decades rather than the people listening today. Preachers who want to follow Jesus’ example will translate intricate doctrinal truth into concepts their congregations can comprehend. Our words will reflect the common experience of contemporary Christians and help them incorporate God’s truth into their lives.
8. Jesus preached so people could see, as well as hear.
Stylistically, Jesus preached to the eye, as well as the ear. He wanted people to visualize the truths of the gospel and the kingdom. Abstract concepts can be ignored. He used word pictures—object lessons, metaphors and similes—to help hearers imagine the principles. When He called believers to be the salt of the earth and light of the world, they understood the importance of their impact on their world (Matt. 5:13-14). Jesus held a child on His lap as an object lesson reflecting the humble faith of the kingdom (Mark 9:36; Luke 8:17).
Similes thoroughly salt Jesus’ speech. The kingdom of God is likened to a merchant seeking a costly pearl (Matt. 13:45), a net gathering all kinds of fish (Matt. 13:47), and a man who made a marriage for his son (Matt. 22:2). Jesus sent His disciples out as sheep among wolves to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16).
Jesus also made strong use of metaphors, especially in His great I-am statements. He was the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Door of the Sheepfold, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and the Life, the Vine, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Perhaps His most famous metaphor of the kingdom is the parable of the sower, which focuses on different kinds of people as they respond to the Word of God. The parables were stories couched in familiar settings to convey deep truths. Calvin Miller observed that Jesus’ stories were “sandwiched between the use of other forms of reasoning and all to good effect.”12
People respond well to communication that appeals to multiple senses. If we preach like Jesus, we will work hard to formulate word pictures that help our congregations see the Word, as well as hear it. Study the preaching of modern men such as Vance Havner, Chester Swor, Nelson Price, Calvin Miller, Matt Chandler, David Platt and other masters of language for examples of preachers who followed the model of the Master Preacher.
9. Jesus preached for decision.
From His first sermon, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17), Jesus preached to bring people to a decision. Many of His messages involved teaching, whether regarding human relationships on earth or divine relationships for eternity. Other themes focused on the message of the Messiah and His kingdom. Still, all of His sermons possessed urgency for the listeners to make a decision. They believed or didn’t. They followed Him or didn’t. They loved Him or hated Him. There was no middle road. Every time He spoke, the listeners were forced to decide to accept Him and His message or reject both.
Modern preachers cannot merely throw out pious platitudes, tenuous teachings, interesting illustrations and/or extensive exposition and call it preaching. Following the example of Jesus means calling people to decide for or against Him. Each sermon should have a point at which people recognize the words spoken by the preacher represent the Word of God; therefore, they must receive or reject the God of the Word.
Jesus told His disciples, “as My Father has sent Me, even so send I you…” (John 20:21). Their preaching followed His example in many ways. The people who heard the disciples were amazed by their words because they were uneducated, but they took note that these men had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). If we spend enough time with Jesus, our preaching will take on characteristics of the Master Preacher.
As we emulate Jesus’ preaching in the power of His Spirit, our people will not go away amazed at our preaching, but we pray, will emerge into life with a knowledge of and commitment to Christ.
1. Hershael York and Bart Decker, Preaching with Bold Assurance (Nashville: B&H, 2003), 15.
3. A.R. Bond, The Master Preacher (New York: American Tract Society, 1910), 280.
4. Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1988), 15.
5. Haddon Robinson, Biblical Peaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 20.
6. Ibid., 18.
7. James MacDonald, “James MacDonald on Preaching Like Jesus” (http://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/themes/preachingwithauthority/preachinglikejesus.html), 04/29/10.
8. Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, vol.1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 148.
9. John A. Broadus, Lectures on the History of Preaching (New York: A. C. Armstrong, 1893–Reprinted by Kessinger Publishing), 35.
10. A.R. Bond, The Master Preacher, 54.
11. Rick Warren, “How to Preach Like Jesus (Part 3): Keep It Interesting and Simple” http://pastors.com/preach-like-jesus-3/?mc_cid=11ba1264f4&mc_eid=0e4e63b046), July 24, 2015
12. Calvin Miller, Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 149.
Jere Phillips is professor of practical theology at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tenn., and author of Pastoral Ministry for the Next Generation.