Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2)
Who among us, as a preacher, has not given extra thought to Paul’s inspired words to his son in the gospel, Timothy? Perhaps your own “Paul” inscribed these words on the flyleaf of a favorite Bible. Maybe they came to you as a pastoral charge at the beginning of a ministry.
By God’s grace, I shall never forget the first time my “Paul” underscored them for me. It was in my Uncle Sam’s study at the back of his South Mississippi church a few days before I preached my first sermon. It was under his preaching that God first opened my eyes to the marvelous good news of His grace in Christ. I was blessed. He was not only my uncle, but my pastor, mentor, and friend.
A few years ago authors Thomas Peters and Nancy Austin collaborated on a best selling book about business. Their premise in A Passion for Excellence is three-fold, and might be paraphrased like this: First, to accomplish excellence always consider the needs of those you are trying to reach above all others. Second, allow your imagination to conjure up cutting-edge ways to do that. There is no such thing as warmed over greatness. Third, consider ways that you can inspire the people with whom you come in contact to reach for something beyond themselves.
While some time has passed since I read Peters’ and Austin’s book, its message has returned to the forefront of my thinking as I have contemplated my own preaching themes for another year. There is a strong correlation for preachers between what Paul writes to the young preacher Timothy, and the thesis of A Passion for Excellence. I have also been thinking of some of the preaching I have listened to recently and I find myself asking, “Where is our passion for excellence in our pulpits?” Although God entrusts preachers with the greatest news the world is ever going to hear, not all preachers are excellent. Worse, not all preachers seem motivated toward God-empowered brilliance.
Paul’s biblical injunction to, “Preach the word,” is about more than always being ready, although that surely is part of it. It is about earnestness as much as immediacy. His message for young Timothy is about excellence in preaching as much as it is about timeliness. That search for excellence in preaching has been fleshed out for me, not in the challenge of Austin and Peters but, in a three pronged Latin phrase, “Veritas plateat! Veritas placeat! Veritas moveat!”
For those who feel so inclined, these Latin phrases are a highfalutin’ way to impress uppity folk who may not relate to the more straight forward K.I.S.S., (Keep it simple, stupid!). For the uninitiated, the Latin means, “Make the truth plain. Make the truth interesting. Make the truth moving.” Those three phrases are, for me, foundation posts towards excellence in preaching. Moreover, they form the outline for this simple lesson to encourage expository preaching that honors Him who proclaimed Himself, “The Truth” (John 14:6).
Veritas Plateat — Make the Truth Plain
The foundational task of the expository preacher is to uncover carefully what God has said. The English preaching scholar of a century or so ago, Lord Eccles, in his book, Half Way to Faith, tells how the cynical trustees of a museum were offered a 10th century wooden crucifix, almost life size and covered in many layers of paint. The villagers who had cherished the crucifix for a thousand years, and who now offered it to the museum, had painted and repainted it many times. The dubious museum trustees hired a group of experts — and we all have our own favorite definition of what an expert is — to advise whether they should purchase the crucifix. The experts calculated that if the paint was carefully removed the restored crucifix was likely to be an item of natural beauty, vigor and life.
So it is with expository preaching. The preacher, bathing the entire exercise in prayer, begins peeling away layer after layer from the message of Scripture in an effort to know it like a good friend and, therefore, to tell it better. When we do that the truth is exposed in its natural splendor. We have all had folk who exclaimed after a sermon how they had seen a new truth through our preaching. The fact is that the truth was not new. It was there all along, just where God intended it to be. Yet somehow, in His grace, He allowed us to strip off some of its complicating paint one day and people were amazed at its natural beauty, vigor and life.
Preaching is not about preachers, but about truth. God’s truth. More accurately, it is about bringing God’s truth to people. Except for exposing Biblical truth, the preacher has very little to say. The preacher states the truth, examines the truth, illustrates the truth from something that will relate to the lives of the people who will hear if possible, and applies it. But the beginning of it all, and the end of it all, and the core of it all, is the Truth.
I like the story about the wise elderly American Indian who attended church one Sunday morning. The preacher had not done his homework with the text and his message lacked real spiritual vitality. Like some preachers we all know (but surely not the readers of Preaching magazine!), the preacher tried to compensate for his lack of content with much pulpit pounding and loud shouting. After the service, the wise old Indian, asked for his opinion of the preacher’s message, thought cautiously before replying, “High wind. Big thunder. But make no rain!”
When the Scriptures and prayer are neglected the rain doesn’t fall. Only preaching by one intimately familiar with the text will be empowered by the Spirit of truth to bless and refresh the people who gather to hear. It alone will produce lasting results.
David Brainerd was a wonderful missionary whose preaching was so greatly empowered of God that thousands responded to the message by surrendering their lives to Christ. He once was asked what he believed to be the primary reason God brought fruit from his ministry. Said he, “I never got away from Jesus and Him crucified in my preaching. I found that once my listeners were gripped by the reality of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, I did not have to give them many instructions about changing their behavior.”
Veritas Placeat — Make the Truth Interesting
“The wise teacher,” Solomon says, “Searches to find just the right words” (Ecclesiastes 12:10). The Hebrew text might also be rendered, “Form the right words.”
I have come to believe that Solomon has in mind more than choosing the proper vocabulary alone, as important as that is. Solomon is speaking about how the bricks of that vocabulary are cemented together, and how the bricks are joined to the whole building. The words must fit together in a way that people not only hear them but see them.
Interesting truth is designed not for the preacher, but for the people who will listen. In the case of an expository sermon it begins with an introduction that will whet the listeners’ spiritual appetite. In a source I have long since forgotten, someone said, “The preacher’s primary job is to introduce truth to people and to stay with them until the acquaintanceship is real.” From a distance someone may not look worth meeting and we may respond politely by simply nodding our heads. That is, we acknowledge they are somewhere nearby whilst making no overt attempt to meet the stranger. However, if someone else should introduce us, we may learn that the stranger is not only interesting but intriguing. We want to know them personally.
So with Biblical truth. Let us be honest, if nothing else. There are some parts of Scripture that, at first glance, do not sound very enticing. That is one reason God still calls preachers. It is our job to frame an introduction to God’s truth so well that people will want to pursue a close relationship with the Lord of truth for the rest of their lives.
Lucy is a radiant, round, and sometimes rambunctious retiree who vol-unteers in a former congregation I served. She was helping me file some sermon manuscripts in folders that were set up in English Bible order (i.e., Genesis first, Exodus second, etc.). When she finished she teased her new preacher with this question: “What do you have against the Reverend Obadiah?” She went on to say how she had observed from her filing that this was the only Bible book I had never preached from. Sixty-five out of sixty-six folders contained sermon notes related to a particular Bible book. Only one folder was empty. Lucy wanted to know why. Later she admitted that she had never heard any preacher preach a sermon from Obadiah. As I searched my memory bank, I realized that I had not either.
Lucy’s initial query caught me off guard. I mumbled that I had probably neglected Rev. Obadiah not through dislike but because at some vague point in the past I had decided this shortest Bible book was written with a negative tone and was, therefore, less than fascinating as a preaching source.
By God’s grace, Lucy’s insuring mind also haunted me for four years. During that time I made a number of extended visits with Reverend Obadiah. For some reason (I am persuaded it was the Spirit at work, not in Lucy’s “Reverend Obadiah” but in the sometimes not so reverend Holmes) I saw Obadiah in a new light. Amazingly, I discovered that this little gem among the minor prophets not only makes for interesting preaching, but for preaching that is profoundly relevant to our generation. For several weeks last summer I thrilled in preaching from Obadiah as much as anything I ever preached from all my favorite Bible texts. We never know what secret jewels hide just below the surface of a stranger until we take the trouble to step a bit closer and become more familiar.
After the introduction, expository preaching that is marked with excellence moves quickly to the main body of the message. This might be described as going from the abstract to the concrete. The Bible is not only full of abstract truths, it is also full of concrete examples that illustrate how they take on the flesh and blood of practical truth. Moreover, they are underscored by the relevant happenings of every day events. When I focus on the body of the sermon, I am not so concerned with the number of points a sermon makes as that the text be fleshed out with integrity in a way that exalts Christ and encourages people.
Take, for example, the matter of goodness. Barnabas was, Luke says in the Acts, “a good man” (Acts 11:24). What exactly does that mean?
What is goodness? Is it merely civic mindedness, marital faithfulness, or a quiet disposition? Are these among the characteristics Luke has in mind when he calls Barnabas, “Good”? We could ask for a definition of goodness in almost any social studies classroom in America and find all kinds of interpretations of what constitutes human goodness. We can scan from Genesis to Revelation and find hundreds of biblical examples of it. The question in preaching this text however, is what is Luke’s definition of goodness, especially as it relates to Barnabas? The answer is found in carefully reading the context of Luke’s description of Barnabas and what Barnabas did. Luke helps us move from the somewhat hazy notion of goodness to a more pronounced and clear definition by putting verbal flesh on Paul’s friend.
An Arabian proverb declares, “He is the best speaker who can turn the ear into an eye.” Therein lies the secret for preaching that holds the listener’s attention; for that, too, is a necessary mark of excellence. Such preaching has application for people’s lives today. For the expository preacher, modern parables or illustrations are more than merely good stories. They are the rays of light that illuminate the truth by turning eyes into eyes. In preaching that gets results, the parable, or illustration, never calls attention to itself.
Recently on a return visit to a pulpit where I had preached five years before, I was approached by a friendly fellow who found joy in telling me he remembered what I preached about the last time I was there. He proceeded to relate a story I told on my prior visit. He told it almost word for word as I have told that story several times. “Don’t forget to emphasize the point,” I encouraged him when he finished. He looked at me with an expression of blankness and asked, “What point?” He thought the story was the point.
It was not his fault. It was mine. He thought to honor me by remembering the story. Instead his friendly good intentions taught me that I had failed to relate the story to the truth of that hour so that my listeners would never again remember that story without that great gospel truth also coming to mind. It was a good story but a bad illustration. The English pulpiteer J.H. Jowett compared such illustrations to “pretty drawing room lamps which call attention to themselves rather than lighting the room.” We should preserve them for another day.
Veritas Moveat – Make the Truth Moving
Here as nowhere else, it seems to me, our quest for excellence in the pulpit is absent. Many preachers seem to have difficulty framing meaningful and moving conclusions to their sermons. Yet it might be argued that this is the most vital part of delivering our sermon.
From the first sentence of the sermon to the last, and all the way in between, any preacher searching for preaching excellence must focus on one thing: The fruit of the message. He or she asks constantly, before and during the delivery of the sermon, how the lives of listeners might be positively changed by this exposition of truth.
The word “sermon” comes from a Latin root meaning, “to thrust” or “to stab.” It is not a preacher’s primary responsibility to take a stab at human hearts for Christ’s sake. Taking a stab at human hearts for Christ’s sake is the preacher’s only responsibility. Everything we do in preaching, from preparation to the closing prayer in the pulpit should focus towards this. Our calling is to challenge and encourage people to make a positive response to God’s Son’s claim on their lives. We are to preach for commitment so that people will become Christ’s effective reflections in the world.
There is tremendous encouraging power for all who preach in the story of the aged preacher whose relatives, on the afternoon of his funeral, found his sermon manuscripts neatly tied and filed away. On top was a card with this question in his handwriting: “Where has the influence gone from these sermons I once preached?” On the back of that card he answered his own question, “Where have last year’s rays of sunshine gone, and where are last year’s raindrops? They have gone into fruits and grain and vegetables to feed hungry people. Forgotten by most, they did their life-giving work. Their influence lives on, often unidentified. In similar fashion my sermons have given their lives by taking up residence in lives that they make more like Jesus and better fitted for heaven.”
It is not commonly known that Abraham Lincoln was given to bouts of depression. Sometimes, in the doldrums, he ambled from the White House to the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Experience had taught the President that Dr. Gurley, the church’s pastor, was both a helpful counselor and inspiring preacher. On a particular Wednesday evening, the melancholy Lincoln and an aide slipped quietly into a pew near the back of the sanctuary of the church and listened to Dr. Gurley’s midweek message. Afterwards Lincoln and his aide made their way back along Pennsylvania Avenue.
To break the silence of the night, the aide asked the President a question, “Did you like Dr. Gurley’s sermon tonight, Mr. President.” “No,” came Lincoln’s direct reply. “It was a failure, so far as I was concerned.”
“Why do you say that, Sir? Was it the content or the structure that you did not like?” the aide probed.
“The content was as fine as ever for Dr. Gurley,” said Lincoln. “And the structure was good too. The sermon was a failure because Dr. Gurley missed a glorious opportunity to stir us to rise up and do something great for Christ.”
Lincoln was right! Preaching that is only plain, or interesting, is of limited duration. It should never be called excellent. But preaching that moves people to do something great for Christ will live forever in the lives of those who hear and apply it, as well as in their spiritual progeny. That kind of preaching alone deserves the title, “excellent.” In the power of God’s Spirit, let us give our lives to stirring up people to “do something great for Christ.” For that is what real preaching ultimately must do.
If you are a preacher, that is your calling. It is the calling God placed not only upon us, but upon His only begotten Son. May we, in His power, fulfill it with excellence for Him.

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