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“And Jesus was going about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. And seeing the multitudes, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:35-36).
Preaching is not merely an exercise in speech or oratory. Preaching is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end, and that being the helping of another human being. Preaching is one soul pleading to another, “Be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor. 5:20). Some men become preachers because they love the task, the accompanying glory and the feeling of power. But such will never preach with passion. It is the burden for others that creates passion in our preaching. “Others” becomes our pastoral cry!
Lloyd-Jones hits the mark when he writes, “To love to preach is one thing, to love those to whom we preach is quite another. The trouble with some of us is that we love preaching, but we are not always careful to make sure that we love the people to whom we are actually preaching. If you lack this element of compassion for the people you will also lack the pathos which is a very vital element in all true preaching.”1
Passionate, powerful preaching is characterized by compassion for people. Compassion is feeling the same as others, carrying their burdens, sharing their pain, weeping when they weep.
“com/pas/sion n. a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for someone struck by misfortune, accompanied by a desire to alleviate the suffering; mercy.”2
Compassion is what characterized the ministry of the Lord Jesus: “seeing the multitudes, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:35-36). The Greek word translated “felt compassion” speaks of the movement of the inward parts (heart, liver, lungs and so on) in response to the pain and misery observed.3 The whole person is deeply affected! Christ was no mere preacher; He was a lover of mankind. His whole ministry was an outpouring of His compassion for us.
Compassion moved the Lord Jesus to associate with sinners (Matt. 9:13) and thus attracted them to Himself (Luke 15:1). Compassion moved the Lord Jesus to liberate mankind from the cold legalism of the Pharisees (Matt. 12:7). Compassion moved the Lord Jesus to a ministry of healing diseases and infirmities (Matt. 14:14). Compassion moved the Lord Jesus to feed the hungry masses (Matt. 15:22). Compassion moved the Lord Jesus to restore the sight of the blind beggars in Jericho (Matt. 20:34). Compassion moved the Lord Jesus to touch the untouchable leper, healing him (Mark 1:41). Compassion moved the Lord Jesus to raise the widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7:13).
Hence, the words that Christ spoke proceeded from a life deeply affected by those to whom He ministered. He identified with us, suffered with us, and ultimately died for us. Are we like Christ? Or are we aloof from the everyday drudgery of mankind? Do we despise the afflicted, loathe the godless, flee the needy, avoid the helpless, fear contamination by the perverse and shut up our hearts from the pain of identifying with the hurts of others? How dare we then ascend the pulpit to speak words of comfort and encouragement when there is no feeling in our words? Miserable comforters are we! Baxter says, “Brethren, can you look believingly on your miserable people, and not perceive them calling to you for help? There is not a sinner whose case you should not so far compassionate, as to be willing to relieve them at a much dearer rate than this comes to. Can you see them, as the wounded man by the way, and unmercifully pass by?”4
Remove the Common Fetishes of Preaching
Our preaching is lifeless because it comes from stony hearts. The fact is that we preach for all the wrong reasons. Our aim is too low. If we were honest with ourselves, we would be embarrassed to admit our real motives in preaching, that it is not to bring spiritual balm to the afflicted of God’s flock. No, the motives are often much less noble, more carnal, more selfish and more mercenary in nature.
Common Fetishes of Preaching
– Preaching for hire
– Preaching to draw a crowd
– Preaching to please the audience
– Preaching to promote our learning
– Preaching to print or publish
– Preaching to protect our “kingdom”
– Preaching to pass the time
If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we have often laid our sacrifices upon the high places mentioned here, and not upon the true, sacred altar of God’s purpose for preaching. We preach for the wrong reasons, and then we wonder why we cannot put heart and soul into it. Let me elucidate.
1) We preach for hire. Preaching is both a calling and a vocation, but it is foremost a divine calling. We should pay to preach more than we are willing to get paid for preaching. The Word of God warns us against serving for money (cf. 1 Pet. 5:2; 2 Tim. 6:5-10). Yet we can easily become “guns for hire,” mercenaries in need of a livelihood, and so we preach to make a buck.
A bought preacher is a pitiful preacher; his sermons and his life are pitiful. We would do well to imitate Elisha in his ministry rather than to have our ministries infected by the leprosy of covetousness (cf. 2 Kings 5). Better that we make tents to finance the ministry than be a hireling to a people in need of a prophet to tickle their ears. Paul could be bold and passionate because he “coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes” (Acts 20:33).
2) We preach to draw a crowd. America, nay, the world is in love with large crowds, and we are in competition with one another to see who can build the biggest church. The pathway to the high places is lined with preachers sacrificing truth for the pleasure of drawing a crowd. Under the guise of evangelism, of relating to a new generation and of making the truth relevant, we have sacrificed the truth that saves and sanctifies on the altar of numbers.
3) We preach to please the audience. We preach to please people, not to do them spiritual good. We give placebo sermons instead of sound, healthy words that benefit people for the present and for eternity. Such preachers are afraid to utter the hard and necessary truths for fear of losing their audience!
We must ask ourselves, “Are we here to entertain a crowd or are we called to turn people to Christ and to holy living?” We have already been warned about the mood of some against sound doctrine (cf. 2 Tim. 4:3-4). Christ taught us by His own example that we ought never to play to the crowd (cf. John 6:64-69). Or, as Paul would say, “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).
As ministers of God, we are called to declare to people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear! We should have the attitude of the pastor who was reprimanded by his deacons: “Pastor, you’re rubbing the cat the wrong way!” “Well, then,” said the pastor, “turn the cat around!” We ought never to be afraid to rub the cat the wrong way.
4) We preach to promote our learning. Some of us think that the pulpit is a place to wow the audience with our learning. We think it a triumph when we preach over their heads and no one comprehends, and the service ends with a comment like, “You were sure deep today, pastor.” Such may be good for our intellectual egos, but it does little for the spiritual needs of our people. Clarity is the axiom! We must be understood, or all is lost! The great apostle Paul had this as his goal (cf. 1 Cor. 14:19).
Our Lord was a preacher of the simple and had great effect upon the masses. Luke wrote that “all the people were hanging upon His words” (Luke 19:48). It is said that John Wesley first preached his sermons to the maids to be sure that even the simplest would understand him.
5) We preach to print or publish. It is a reversal of purposes to think that we can use our audience as a means to this end. Everyone knows that the printed word is not like the spoken word. In almost every case where a great preacher has had his sermons printed, it is because his sermons did his people much good. If your sermons are worthy of preaching, they may be worthy of printing. But keep to your main priority: preach to help your people.
6) We preach to protect our “kingdoms.” Like the enemies of the gospel in the apostolic days, we may refrain from declaring the whole counsel of God and instead possess the spirit of Diotrophes (3 John 9-10). God’s people are no one’s possession except His. Our goal is to present everyone complete in Christ (Col. 1:28), not to make them our clones.
7) We preach to pass the time. Some men hold to a pulpit as a security blanket until they find greener pastures or until they reach retirement age and qualify for retirement benefits. We may impede the work of God by occupying a post with no desire to advance the cause of Christ. A “lame-duck” minister is just that — lame! We should all follow the refrain given by one CEO: “Lead, follow or get out of the way!”
We mistake our calling if we think that our task is merely to preach beautiful sermons or to go through the motions of teaching the Bible. Preaching is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. Preaching is but one of many spiritual means that God has ordained to bring a lost world into harmony with Himself.
The goal of ministry is clearly given to us by Paul in his letter to the Colossians: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (1:28-29). “To present every man complete in Christ” is the goal of the minister, and Paul declares that it deserves to be done with total abandonment.
The same thought is expressed in the Pastoral Epistles: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). “… holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).
The ultimate goal of preaching is “the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). It is easy for us to forget this. The use of the pulpit and the worship service for entertainment and theatrical performances can make us miss this mark. Even among evangelicals there is the subtle desire to be the “great preacher” or the “great expositor” instead of the great doer of good to our people.
“The ministry would be a great place,” someone has said, “if it were not for the people.” Such a remark misses the whole purpose of ministry. People are our business — our only business — and true preaching is to be people-oriented. The apostle Paul reminded the Ephesian elders of their purposes both by a strong exhortation cf. Acts 20:28) and by his personal testimony as to how he personally ministered among them. Catch Paul’s compassionate heart in his words:
“You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house…. That night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears” (Acts 20:18-20, 31)
When was the last time you wept for your people? When did your tears and weeping arrest your speaking? When were you last so overwhelmed by your love for your congregation that your words went forth mingled with tears? Spurgeon writes of George Whitefield:
“Hear how Whitefield preached, and never dare be lethargic again. Winter says of him that ‘sometimes he exceedingly wept, and was frequently so overcome, that for a few seconds you would suspect he never would recover; and when he did, nature required some little time to compose himself. I hardly ever knew him go through a sermon without weeping more or less. His voice was often interrupted by his affections.'”5
Every preacher wants to have the ability and acclaim of George Whitefield, but few have his compassion imbedded in his soul, a compassion that permeated every fiber of that tireless, itinerant herald. Whitefield would say:
“You blame me for weeping; but how can I help it, when you will not weep for yourselves, although your own immortal souls are on the verge of destruction, and for aught I know, you are hearing your last sermon, and may never more have an opportunity to have Christ offered to you?”6
Therein lies the secret to Whitefield’s success. It was not his capabilities, but his compassion. His love and concern for people drove the engines of his oratory!
Our sermons should help people, and such sermons can only be constructed if we have people upon our hearts as we prepare them! We dare not be like the worthless shepherds of Israel who became the object of prophetic denunciation. They were castigated because they did not have the welfare of God’s people as their highest priority (cf. Jer. 23:1-2). Note Ezekiel’s record of the Lord’s condemnation of such shepherds:
“Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them” (Ezek. 34:2-4).
What an indictment of a worthless minister!
The Ends of Preaching
For preaching to be passionate, it must proceed from a heart of compassion that desires to produce Christ-likeness in the lives of its hearers. There is a high and holy purpose in his sermon; he will do some good — he must do some good — or his flock will suffer. Hence, every sermon should include one or more of the flowing ends.
1) We should strive to convert the sinner. Souls are under the sentence of condemnation. Baxter says, “Oh, then, for the Lord’s sake, and for the sake of poor souls, have pity on them, and bestir yourselves, and spare no pains that may conduce to their salvation.”7 Every sermon should have the gospel. It should end at the cross and the empty tomb.
2) We should strive to correct the ignorant. Our generation is biblically illiterate and morally bankrupt as a result. Our sermons should make clear the way of the Lord and instruct them in the good and straight ways of God.
3) We should strive to reprove the wayward. The shepherd carries a staff to prod and pull; so should our sermons be equipped with arguments and reminders to those who know the ways of God but choose to go astray. Sermons should correct and convict! Making the wayward uncomfortable in his journey is the sign of a good sermon.
4) We should strive to heal the broken. Preaching should not only afflict but also heal. The shepherd’s balm should be in the sermon. Every soul is in need, even those who will not recognize it (cf. Rev. 3:17-18). A preacher who will not address the broken-hearted — those whose lives are mangled by sin, whose homes are silent from death or divorce — such a person is not worthy of an audience. It is no wonder that such a preacher ends up with no audience, or with a few scattered, pitiful sheep.
5) We should strive to teach the simple. Dr. J. Vernon McGee made it his ambition to “lay the cookies on the lower shelf.” Is it any wonder that he, being dead, still speaks? Most of the people in the world are simple, that is, they do not readily grasp deep truths. Yet we preach as though they are seminarians and scholars.
6) We should strive to inspire the weary. The world and the church are overrun by tired people, and our hurried culture takes its toll on the best of us. We need a word of encouragement, a call to remembrance of what we already know, a fresh glimpse of heaven, of the glories of Christ, of forgiveness, of the joy of the Holy Spirit. Our sermons should be models of inspiration, breathing life into a spiritless congregation. This ranting and scolding, this verbal whipping — these will not enhance the kingdom of God. If the world afflicts our people with cords, shall we do so with scorpions? Is it any wonder that they flee to their own tents?
7) We should strive to protect the helpless. Our Lord saw us as “distressed and downcast, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Sheep need protection, and our sermons should protect them from heresies, from variant teachings, from inward dissension, from self-destructive habits and sins and from the lure of the world and the schemes of the devil. The Word is the sword of the Spirit, and preachers should make good use of it to combat the savage wolves that would devour the flock of God. The flaming sword in the pulpit, wielded skillfully, will effectively guard the entrance into the sheepfold.
Preacher, be caught up with the good of your people, and forget about the good of your sermon. Forget about idolizing methodologies, expository versus textual and topical versus narrative. Do not let these become the main purpose behind your preaching. Rather, mimic the biblical preachers. Aim at forming Christ in the lives of your people. Keep the end in mind, always!
The question that occupies us in this last segment is, “How does one gain compassion for people?” Compassion is neither natural nor universal. Some people are more compassionate than others. Natural temperaments affect one’s compassion as does our environment. If we were in some other occupation, we could rely upon these two reeds to excuse our insensitivity. But the misery of those around us and the charge to assist them challenges all of us to gain a large measure of compassion! Let us proceed to give some practical ways to enlarge our hearts toward others.
How to Gain Compassion
– Study your own heart.
– Live among the people.
– Be a careful observer.
– Read about people.
– Listen to the heart’s cry.
– Learn from personal trials.
To preach to a human heart, we must understand it. Preachers ignorant of people are like hunters ignorant of their game. We earn the right to speak when we have labored to understand our people. Our effectiveness in communication multiplies when our people can say, “My preacher understands my circumstances; he speaks to my needs.” The psalmist extols God for the mercies and benefits given him by his loving God, and the consolation he receives is from his awareness that God knows him and understands his plight. He says of God, “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:13-14).
How, then, do we gain such insight into the human heart?
1) Study your own heart. The three books readily available to us are the Bible, nature and our heart. “Know yourself” was a Greek axiom! The homiletical manual also reads, “Know your heart! Be open to yourself; be honest! Understand your weaknesses, desires, temptations and failings!
Face yourself in the mirror of your life, and when you can see your face-clearly, then you will see that your face resembles every other face in the world. Then you will understand that every soul proceeds from a common source, the same Maker.” A delusional preacher will preach a sermon fit for “extraterrestrials.”
Once you rightly understand who you are and what you need, apply the spiritual meat to your own lean soul. As a newborn babe, you too imbibe of the sincere milk of the word (1 Peter 2:1-2). Then form a sermon that preaches to you, to your needs, to your weaknesses and to your desires. You will rarely miss the bull’s eye! I have often been accused of preaching to specific people in my congregation. The truth is, I was preaching to myself. The sermon was primarily for me!
The lost art of meditation has robbed us of this necessary ingredient in the study and assimilation of God’s Word. Meditation is that act of personal application. Personal introspection and application of God’s Word is the greatest discovery of who we really are! We learn more about humanity from the study of self than from any earthly book written on that subject.
2) Live among the people. The incarnation of the preacher is indispensable to the ministry of the Word, just as the incarnation of our Savior was essential to His high priestly ministry (cf. Heb. 2:17; 4:15). We learn to be merciful when we too encounter the miseries of our people. We learn to sympathize with their weaknesses when we too are beset by their trials and tempted by their environments.
The man who moves from the Christian cradle to the Christian pulpit without traveling through the valley of tears will never know how rightly to apply the Word to his hearers. He cannot distinguish between the trivialities and the essentials, the urgent and the superfluous, the priority and the peripheral. What a tragedy!
It helps the minister if he has had secular employment, if he lives in the neighborhood of his people, if he shops where they shop and if his children play with their children. There is here a great argument for the visitation of your people in their homes and places of employment. When you see under what conditions the people live, it will affect what and how you speak. Someone has well said, “Do not criticize a man’s walk until you have traveled two miles in his shoes!”
We ministers today are guilty of aloofness. We have carried our separation to the extreme. We live in isolation, so isolated that we have lost touch with reality. We think that the masses today pack our churches to know the dimensions of the tabernacle and to decipher the color of its curtains. It may have been true in days gone by, but in today’s world, that is far from what they need or want to hear. Their lives are in crisis, and they need someone who understands them. Do you?
3) Carefully observe people. Preachers must be people-watchers, just as dentists are teeth-observers. We can learn much about people simply by developing a curiosity about them. Here is an area that we cannot avoid. My dentist watches my teeth, but I watch his soul. Others are too preoccupied with their own lives to care much for mine, but my calling makes me “my brother’s keeper.” I must be on the lookout for them.
There are places where you can study people: the airport, the playground, the schoolyard and the very pews in which they sit. There is no place where humans tread where the preacher cannot learn something about them. I heard of a preacher who wept at a football stadium while thousands of people cheered at the game. They were involved in the action on the field, but he was involved in their lives of desperation. That, friend, is compassion!
4) Read about people. The tabloids are proof that people like to know about people. People are interesting, exciting and challenging. So we read about them. Great preachers are all readers of biographies from which they glean not only ideas for themselves but also insights into what made such people tick. A good biography is a help in understanding people.
You need to vary the material you read. Most preachers like biographies of ministers, missionaries and great Christians. This is good, but we need to expand our selection to include the rank and file prospective parishioner. Their lives are quite distinct from our heroes. Sometimes a movie about a person may serve the same purpose. Although television tends to stereo-type people, some programs and movies open the human heart to us. Avail yourself of these resources.
5) Listen to the heart cry. Preachers love to talk but have trouble listening, They want others to pay attention to every word they speak but have trouble paying attention to the conversations of others. It is one thing to listen to someone’s words; it is quite another to listen to their heart’s cry. Behind those nice remarks — those, “I’m doing just fine, pastor” — may be a heart crying out for help and compassion.
A wise preacher once said, “Be kind to everyone because everyone is having a hard time.” How true that is. As I observe people file into the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, take their seats and prepare to worship, I am continually made aware of the hurts they endure and the burdens they bear. Most endure them stoically, not letting on that they have these concerns. They are but a second away from weeping if some careful, concerned soul would simply take a loving interest in their lives. Unfortunately, we have not learned the art of listening to the silent scream of the soul in anguish.
There have been times in my ministry when an icy chill has come over my heart, when my soul no longer weeps, when my sermons no longer connect and when the act of preaching becomes a drudgery. I know that I have then lost compassion for people. That is when I retreat to a small taco stand in the barrio of East Los Angeles, to a place where real people live. I order a cup of coffee and sit with my back against the wall. Then I watch, I observe, I read and I listen intently for the heart cry.
A group of gang-bangers come in for a snack — one in four will die before the age of eighteen; two of the others will end up in prison. All are doomed to a hard life. A young mother comes in with her brood of youngsters. It is obvious that they are poor. They share drinks. They live in poverty; some will never see a forest or snow. An old drunk staggers in, begging for a meal. He is quickly thrown out. That was somebody’s baby boy. A mother at one time cradled that man and nursed him. The poor specimen of humanity has children. His wife is somewhere out there. They have long since disowned him, but they have not forgotten him. He is still somebody’s daddy. For all I know, he could have been my own.
I look, I listen until I hear their cries, until their souls cry out to me, “Please help, I’m perishing!” until the tears pour forth from my melted heart! I am in love with humanity once again. Now I am fit to ascend the pulpit, to weep with those who weep, to laugh with those who laugh, and to bring a living Word — Christ — to a needy people. Now I can preach with passion, for now I have compassion.
Reprinted from Preaching With Passion by Alex Montoya, Kregel Publications, (c) 2000. To order this or other books from Kregel, call 1-800-733-2607.
1D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 92.
2Webster’s Universal College Dictionary (New York: Gramercy Books, 1997), 164.
3G. Abbott-Smith “??” in A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991), 414.
4Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 197.
5Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 307.
7Baxter, Reformed Pastor, 199.