In his illuminating history, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Gary Wills dismantles the myth of Abraham Lincoln’s hastily scribbling a few words for off-the-cuff remarks at the Gettysburg cemetery. In all likelihood, Wills says, the speech was honed over a period of several days, being fine-tuned even on the morning of the cemetery dedication. Lincoln was obsessed with finding the right word, and the right word to follow that word. He would have agreed with Mark Twain that the difference between a right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.1
Lincoln’s speech on the “new birth of freedom” was conceived in 272 words. The words acted. Lincoln’s words of peace instilled peace in the crowd. His words of hope inspired hope. His words of unity bound the grieving nation together. Later, in his second inaugural address, Lincoln’s words about “malice towards none, charity for all” would both console and forgive. The distinction between words and deeds is often artificial. Words are deeds.
Lincoln’s words evoked a comprehension of the past and a vision for the future. His simple words were amplified by his humanness and his magnanimous spirit. Lincoln’s spirit comprehended the spirit of the moment. He combined common language with uncommon grace and power, to enable others to understand the world as it is and as it can be.
The kind of speech delivered by Lincoln is what J.L. Austin calls “performative utterance.”2 The ability of words to work change in the lives of its hearers stands on the twin pillars of authority and appropriateness.
Is it possible that today’s pastor could rediscover the revolutionary precision of speech exemplified by Abraham Lincoln? And why has this precision been lost? More important, could pastors recover the kind of congregational authority necessary for a prophetical-priestly role? This God-anointed role would manifest itself in preaching, worship, counseling, visitation, and the various types of crisis intervention that are common to the ministerial task. People of the congregation would have a renewed sense of confidence because the pastor is able to utter a right word in due season.
Part of the reason for mundane pulpit speech stems from the confusion concerning the word extemporaneous, literally meaning “from the moment.” The two following definitions demonstrate that extemporaneous has highly diverse meanings: “(1) composed, performed, or uttered offhand, without previous study or preparation; unpremeditated, as an extemporaneous address. (2) in speech classes, etc., spoken with preparation, but not written out or memorized, distinguished from impromptu.”3
Unfortunately, most evangelical American ministers have adopted the first definition rather than the second when they think of “extemporaneous preaching.” Extemporaneous is assumed to mean spontaneous — i.e., without preparation. Yet no effective American preacher ever has adhered to this premise. For those who divorce the life of the mind from the life of the spirit, pulpit speech becomes benign and shallow. They do not realize that the anointing of the Spirit is best found in a constancy of devotion, rather than in an occasional impulse.
Christian people can endure and prevail in Christ, supported by faithful pastoral words. Failure to provide this support is a betrayal of the ministry’s most basic call. Of course, just as pillars vary in thickness, design and strategic placement, so do the different aspects of a pastor’s ministry. The effectiveness of a pillar’s construction is often difficult to assess; we hope we don’t have to wait until a building falls down before we evaluate its construction. Likewise, careful attention should be given to the construction of a pastor’s supportive ministry. I call the process becoming a prophet-priest. Prophet-priests draw other persons to the ultimate pillar, Jesus Christ.
“You should hear his words. You have never heard anything like his words,” a lady said to her friends. She spoke of a pastor who was about to preach at her husband’s funeral. In faith, she had bestowed on a trusted spiritual director life’s ultimate privilege, the final word. The final word opens the door to life’s mysteries, paradoxes and inherent contradictions. We must have a deft touch in opening the door to peer beyond death. Every ear and eye are open and every individual is poised to experience the other side. Imprecision through lack of spiritual preparation, careless thought, or the inability to seize the significance of the moment, is a sin.
Those who hear a funeral sermon deserve that in which the prophet-priest should excel — words fitting for the moment. The hearers wait expectantly, but not always confidently, for Spirit-anointed and Christ-centered words.
All of life is a crisis. The prophet-priest has the deep realization that daily human existence carries the potential for conflict. Words can be used for both conflict prevention and conflict resolution. Pastors who fail to face life as it is by applying biblical truth are as bland as a computerized sales pitch on the telephone. They fail to change people’s lives because they are both impersonal and irrelevant. By contrast, a prophet-priest can enter a crisis with differentiating, penetrating, revealing, unmasking and inspiring speech. This calls for a marshaling of all of the minister’s resources. It requires all of the prophet-priest’s character, knowledge and skill to meet the demand of the moment.
Even when a minister says nothing, it is not out of a lack of knowledge. A faithful minister’s silence will not come out of ignorance, but from a thoroughly honed sensibility that there is not an appropriate word to speak on this occasion. But eventually, like job’s friends, we will be called upon to speak, for better or worse.
Prophetical-priestly words call for as emotional and spiritual investment that is draining. Facing falsehood with truth, tearing down evasive facades, calling for decision and rebuilding character is tough work. For that reason, throughout the history of the church, prophet-priests have needed times of retreat. The confronting, interacting, uplifting and resurrecting nature of the minister’s job requires incredible stamina. The requisite resources are not found in the human storehouse.
The prophet-priest must be wary of spiritual depletion. For that reason, we read of Christ, “The news about Him was spreading even farther, and great multitudes were gathering to hear Him and be healed of their sicknesses. But He Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:15-16).
Words that do not issue from such times of spiritual retreat will become chit-chat, prattle and idle talk. Unfortunately, much of professional ministry majors in these kinds of words. In contrast, prophetical-priestly words are intentional. They intend to create Christian heroes and heroines, who rise above self-service. They intend to create visions of the kingdom of God on earth. Most important, they intend to create action that will bring the kingdom of God to earth. All of this is idealistic, but prophet-priests will not stop short of the ideal. They are never satisfied. They know that life could be better for someone. Thus, there is the wild hope that they can plant a word that will be replicated ad infinitum in the lives of Christian disciples until Christ returns.
Neil Postman equates “word meaning” with “world making.” The church continually competes for the dominant world view. The gods of economic utility and technology always seek to displace the radical monotheism of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The only way by which we can effectively describe the one true God is via our shared narrative. Telling the Christian story has never been more critical. Postman writes, “Our genius lies in our capacity to make meaning through the creation of narratives that give point to our labors, exalt our history, elucidate the present and give direction to our future.”4
The pastor is responsible for the perceptions of his or her people. Lack of a clear Christian perception of the world leads to an amalgamation with the prevalent world view of the secular culture. This world view is deadly. We can escape only by being summoned to God’s transcendent ideals. Unless leaders of the Christian community sound a certain trumpet, the people’s allegiance to God surely will be compromised.
When we accept the call to ministry, we accept the duty to get the Christian narrative correct. Relating the definitive narrative — i.e., the drama of Christ’s redemptive work — to the totality of life is the prophet-priest’s primary task. This work is as deliberate as the worship of Job, who rose up early in the morning and offered burnt offerings according to the number of his children. ‘”Perhaps my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ Thus Job did continually” (Job 1:5b).
Spoken words which bear prophetical-priestly application will be no less premeditated. They begin with the Christ perspective. They end by asking, “What is the Christian implication of the words which accompanied my latest task or encounter?” All ministerial tasks bear this kind of accountability.
Ministers accept the fact that their words are more than words, and never spoken for words’ sake alone. The Jewish author Elie Wiesel, in reflecting on his life’s work, commented: “For me, literature must have ethical dimension. The aim of literature … is to disturb. I disturb the reader because I dare to put questions to God, the source of all faith. I disturb the miscreant because, despite my doubts and questions, I refuse to break with the religious and mystical universe that has shaped my own. Most of all, I disturb those who are comfortably settled within a system — be it political, psychological or theological. If I have learned anything in my life, it is to distrust in intellectual comfort.”5
All of life tends toward comfort. The comfort that a minister fears, or ought to fear, is the comfort of ministry itself. For that reason, few of us persist in ministry’s most intrinsic task. Myriad pastoral duties offer escape from the toil of soul-care. Likewise, the prophet-priests of biblical history were often lured away from their assignment. Their task was simple — to address the spiritual condition of their people.
Right Words are expensive and should be carefully chosen. The writer of Proverbs says: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances. Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear” (Prov. 25:11-12). The writer goes on to express apt analogies for faithful words, refreshing words, soft words, false words, inviting words and controlled words. Words affect people’s lives. Words determine people’s actions.
So godly words are means of grace. John Wesley defined the means of grace as “outward signs, words or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying or sanctifying grace.”6 These ordinary channels have been constant through the history of the church. Pastoral ministry consists of spoken and acted words, offered in the name of Christ.
Eighteen years ago, a woman came to my church office for counseling. She attended my congregation, along with her three children. She wanted me to rubber-stamp what she had already decided to do — divorce her husband. Her argument was persuasive: He had been maritally unfaithful; he no longer showed any romantic interest in her; he paid little attention to the children; and he misused the family’s finances. To add insult to injury, he had a Corvette sitting in the garage which the family could ill afford.
Like thousands of other pastors, I found myself standing between the biblical text and the human text. After hearing the sordid details of the human text, I wanted to blurt out, “Go ahead and divorce the no-good bum. He’s not worth your time.”
But my first obligation was to the biblical text. “Marriage is to be held in honor,” scripture says (Heb. 13:4). “For I hate divorce,” God declares (Mal. 2:16). The dissonance between God’s Word and the immediate crisis was clear, but we lacked a simple solution. So I stalled for time. I said, “Sue,7 let’s give it three weeks. Covenant with me to pray, and let’s expect God to work a miracle.” Why I designated three weeks, I did not know.
Three weeks later, almost to the day, the couple’s oldest son was found to have an aneurysm (a ballooned blood vessel) in his brain. He was a walking time bomb. The first time I met Bob was at his son’s hospital bed. The boy’s critical condition awakened Bob from his hedonistic coma. On the night before his son was to be taken to a distant hospital specializing in the surgery he needed, I visited the family at their home and prayed with them.
Though I did not know it, Bob made a covenant with God that night. He promised that if God would heal his son, he would begin attending church. The surgery was successful and Bob kept his promise to God. Each Sunday thereafter, Bob was in church. He and I regularly had lunch together and talked about what really matters in life. Bob eventually gave his life to Christ and became a leading member in that church. God not only restored the health of his son, but redeemed Bob’s marriage and revitalized his relationship to his family.
I recently had an opportunity to visit that congregation again. After I preached, Bob and Sue met me in the foyer. Bob wept uncontrollably, hardly able to speak. Sue repeatedly said, “He’s a changed man.”
The right words, words far beyond my wisdom, had served as tools of redemption eighteen years earlier. The Holy Spirit had rendered the scriptures effective in ways that only He foresaw.
Every parishioner deserves a pastor who speaks the language of the Kingdom rather than mimicking the ideas of a confused society. Translating both the written text and the human text is critical to the work of the prophet-priest. God’s Word must be applied to the human heart. The names of this couple have been changed to safeguard their privacy.
All of us who claim to be Christian ministers must keep in mind what Jesus told His disciples: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63b). Christ’s words are truly the difference between life and death.
Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy describes the core identity of a pastor. The one gift most necessary for an “overseer,” a leader of the people of God, is the ability to teach — to use prophetic words (3:2). “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (5:17). This epistle frequently alludes to the task of teaching and reminds young Timothy that it is essential for the welfare of the church (1:3, 5; 4:11, 13, 16; 6:2, 17). The following exhortation is as applicable to pastors in our own day as in any other: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:2-4).
Even those who were physically closest to Christ were unable to comprehend adequately the “fullness of the Godhead” in Christ, much less express it in words. God had revealed Himself via the living Word, “the creative principle of the cosmic order.”8 That incarnate Word represented everything God had ever been or ever will be. Ministers have been striving ever since to find proper words to describe and communicate that Word. This is the challenge and the art of the prophet-priest.
Who was Christ and how did words figure in His ministry? Christ on earth was the embodiment of all God’s attributes. Christ carefully selected a series of disclosures and discourses to reveal His identity. For the multitude, He chose signs and wonders. For those closest to Him, He chose words. In the absence of this explanatory speech, Christ would have been a complete mystery. Christ entered the lives of His followers by speaking of Himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).
In Christ, the world discovered that there is a purpose and direction in history. He demonstrated that the Word of God defies fate and chaos. Christ could usher in the Kingdom and redeem history by becoming a part of history. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13). The essence of history is rational discourse. In the absence of rational discourse, there can be no self-discovery. Only through properly aligned words can a person discover that she or he is not an accident. Thus, we can say that history is not only theocentric, but logocentric.
The New Testament narrative is not simply made of words, it is largely about words — the words of angels, prophets, Mary, Zachariah, Anna, John the Baptist, and ultimately, the Christ. The point is well made that the New Testament centers on the redemptive deed, the death and resurrection of Christ. But that deed would have little or no meaning without the perspective offered by words. The Messiah’s coming was preceded and followed by prophetic words. The angels are the harbingers:
Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased (Luke 2:14).
Christ announced the purpose of His own coming: “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jeruslaem” (Luke 24:46-47).
John the Baptist’s ministry consisted of words, so much so that he was often called the “voice.” A single message has never been more timely, succinct and critical than the one which he preached: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29b). John’s words instructed Roman soldiers, prepared hopeless peasants and rebuked King Herod. He was put to death because his words had been unhedging and unequivocal. He left no monument, healed no disease and performed no miracle (At least none is recorded.). Yet Christ said of him, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” (Matt. 11:11a).
By contrast, Jesus came performing all sorts of supernatural acts. In fact, He used the miracles to validate His ministry to John when the “voice” wondered whether he had made the correct identification of the Messiah. Jesus’ supernatural acts were primarily intended to get people’s attention, to prepare them to listen to His words: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matt. 11:5). Rarely, if ever, did Jesus perform one of these acts without declaratory words. He often prefaced a healing with a command: “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed” (Matt. 8:13). “Get up, pick up your bed and go home” (Matt. 9:6). “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” (Mark 5:41b).
Jesus often connected a miracle with a spoken promise: “It shall be done to you according to your faith” (Matt:9:29b). “Your brother shall rise again …. Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:23,40). The signs were sometimes encompassed by prayer and blessing. Consider for example Jesus’ feeding of the multitude: “Ordering the people to sit down on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds” (Matt. 14:19).
On all of these occasions, He could have said nothing. But had He said nothing, the meaning would have been lost. Doing and speaking were uniquely combined in Christ’s act of blessing. He blessed the bread and blessed the children. The Greek word for “bless,” a combination of eu (“well; good”) and logeo (“speak”), literally means “to speak well of.” it was the appraisal that God gave of the created order in the beginning. Christ gave the same appraisal while on earth, an appraisal that continues to refute Gnosticism, Manicheanism and other false dualisms between spirit and matter. Sovereign grace continues to validate all existence, placing it under the possibility of redemption. Christ’s blessing is the ultimate word of hope.
Jesus’ healing ministry seemed rather to go in reverse. By the end of His earthly sojourn, His healing miracles had virtually ceased. The last eight chapters of Matthew, the last six of Mark, the last six of Luke, and the last nine of John contain no healing miracles of Christ, except for repairing the damage Peter did to Malchus’ ear. What we have instead in these chapters are the two essential things that Jesus came to bring: His atoning death for the sin of the world and His words.
A primary task of the church during its first five hundred years was to accurately define who Christ is. No movement in the history of the world has given more attention to the precision of language than did the church during that time.
The seven Ecumenical Councils of the church were the most important events to take place following its birth at Pentecost. The most critical of the councils was held at Nicea in A.D. 325. Three hundred assembled bishops, after weeks of discussion and debate, concluded that the historical Christ is the eternal Logos. They stated that the eternal Christ is of one being with the Father and is of one substance with the Father (homoousios). Thus, Christ is not less than the Father, but co-eternal, co-equal, and co-substantial with Him.
Church historian Philip Schaff observed,” In the development of doctrine, the Nicene and post-Nicene age is second in productiveness and importance only to those of the apostles and of the Reformation. It is the classical period for the objective fundamental dogmas, which constitute the ecumenical or old Catholic confession of faith.”9
The champion of Nicene orthodoxy was a young unofficial recording secretary named Athanasius, who was not given a seat or voice in the proceedings. He was to become Bishop of Alexandria in 328, three years after the Nicene Council. Athanasius captured the genius of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine with one clear, precise word, homoousious (“of one essence”). He would continue to defend his understanding of the deity of Christ until his death in 373, although he was banished from his home and bishopric five times by various emperors who did not agree with him. The Council of Constantinople in 381 confirmed the decision of Nicea and Athanasius’ subsequent theological defense.
Athanasius crystallized the uniqueness of Christianity, the essential biblical doctrine that God became man. God is not an aloof deity. The Son is not less than the Father. We are partakers of the divine nature because we live in Christ. Indeed, Christ is the proper object of our worship because He is the perfect, absolute revelation of God. Christ is the only person physically to represent God accurately and infallibly. This representation is the telos (“goal”) toward which the Christian moves, especially the pastor, though perfection is never achieved. Athanasius’ unflagging zeal should remind us that Christ’s representation of God will be preserved for the church only by a mentality that stands in service of faith, enabled by grace. The unity of Christianity was made possible by the well-chosen words of the Nicene Creed. Gerhard Kroedel calls it a “communication by the Church to its members on how to speak the gospel.”10
The Nicene Creed also reminds us that theology is best formulated in consultation with other Christians. The present-day church is not called to formulate any new doctrine. There are fresh ways of expressing the gospel in modern idioms, relevant applications and more accessible languages; yet even this is tricky business. The quest demands prayerful dialogue in the same spirit as the apostolic Jerusalem Council, who said, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …” (Acts 15:28).
Excerpted from Prophetical-Priestly Ministry by Darius L. Salter. Copyright 2002 (c) by Darius L. Salter. Used by permission of Evangel Publishing House
1Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg. The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 163.
2J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Howard University Press, 1978).
3Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary Unabridged (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 648.
4Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 7.
5Elie Wiesel, Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995),336-37.
6John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Ed. (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press, 1978), 5:187.
7The names of this couple have been changed to safeguard their privacy.
8Mark Taylor, Erring. A Postmodern Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984),46.
9Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 194950), 3:6.
10Quoted in Emilianos Timiadi, The Nicene Creed, Our Common Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 7.

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