Evangelical pastors will commonly state that biblical preaching is the hallmark of their calling. Nevertheless, a careful observer might come to a very different conclusion. The priority of preaching is simply not evident in far too many churches.
We must affirm with Martin Luther that the preaching of the Word is the first mark of the church. It is the first essential mark of the church. Luther believed so much in the centrality of preaching that he stated, “Now, wherever you hear or see this word preached, believed, professed, and lived, do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica, ‘a Christian holy people’ must be there …. And even if there were no other sign than this alone, it would still suffice to prove that a Christian, holy people must exist there, for God’s word cannot be without God’s people and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”1
The preacher is called to be a Servant of the Word. That is an expression of a very proud and glorious lineage in Christian history. But, as a title, it was particularly made well-known among preachers in 1941 when H.H. Farmer delivered his addresses on preaching and then published them under the title The Servant of the Word.2
In 1941, H.H. Farmer represented the neo-orthodox recovery of preaching. After a period of theological and homiletical sterility, figures such as Farmer in England, Barth in Switzerland, and others in the English speaking world and in greater Europe, sought to reassert the case for preaching. In The Servant of the Word, Farmer actually had very little to say about the Word. He had a great deal to say about preaching, however. He argued for the assertion of the Christian message and the retention of preaching in the church. It is interesting, almost six decades later, to go back to 1941 and see that a case was made for the retention of preaching. The neo-orthodox recovery of preaching was a house built on theological sand — it did not last.
Now, in counterpoint, you can understand that what necessitated such an argument was the assertion, which must have been quite widespread at the time, that preaching was simply an outmoded form of Christian communication. It was something the church could do without. Farmer maintained, however, that the practice of preaching was indispensable to Christianity. In so doing, Farmer wrote a great deal about the “I-Thou” relationship with a view to making preaching relevant. Looking back six decades later, however, we see that there was never much to Farmer’s recovery.
Yet Farmer did get some things right. First, he argued for the unique power and preeminence of preaching in Christianity. The history of religions approach was very influential at that time. These figures held that preaching was part of virtually every religious system in one way or another. Farmer maintained, however, that such a claim simply was not honest. Preaching has a priority among Christians that it does not have among others, and this is because of the very nature of the gospel.
He further argued that the unique authority of Christian preaching comes from the authority of revelation, and in particular, the Bible. Against those who maintained that revelation was basically internal, emotional, and relational, Farmer argued that it was given. Consider his following statement: “For Christianity is a religion of revelation; its central message is a declaration, a proclamation that God has met the darkness of the human spirit with a great unveiling of succoring light and truth. The revelation moreover is historical, that is to say, it is given primarily through events which in the first place can only be reported and affirmed. As we have already said, no merely internal reflec-tion can arrive at historical events. If a man is to be saved, he must be confronted again and again with the givenness of Christ.”3
This is an interesting argument, is it not? Made back in 1941, we discover an argument for the retention of preaching, an argument for the preeminence of preaching in the Christian church, and an argument that Christian preaching is distinguished by virtue of its grounding in revelation. It is the preaching of a word that has been given. It is not the invention of a message that has been devised.
My concern, of course is not really with what H.H. Farmer thought about the preacher as the Servant of the Word. I want to turn to an apostolic authority — one inspired by the Holy Spirit, namely, the Apostle Paul. I am concerned with what the great Apostle thought about preaching and how he understood himself to be the Servant of the Word. I invite you to examine Colossians 1:25-29:
“Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but now has been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we might present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.”4
This is a majestic passage. The Apostle Paul, writing to the church at Colossae, speaks of his own understanding of the apostolic ministry, of his stewardship of the mysteries of God, and of his stewardship of the task of proclaiming the Word of God. He speaks of his calling, his message, and the purpose of his preaching. This is Paul’s declaration of ministry.
You notice in verse 24 that this explains why Paul submits to suffering. “Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Paul explains why he endures such suffering, and why he not only endures the suffering, but, of all things, rejoices in these sufferings.
This is gloriously counter-intuitive. Why? Because these sufferings have earned him the opportunity for the preaching of the gospel, the preaching of the Word. He understands himself as a Servant of the Word, and he sees his purpose on earth as one of preaching this Word and proclaiming Jesus Christ.
This passage does not represent superficial triumphalism, but genuine Gospel triumph. It is a sober triumph because Paul acknowledges the sufferings he is currently enduring, but he also understands the victory that is assured in Christ. It is not Paul’s triumph. It is Christ in Paul, the hope of glory.
In contrast, we look at the contemporary church. We notice the exhaustion of preaching that has taken place in so many pulpits. Rarely do we hear these days that a church is distinguished primarily by its preaching. When we hear persons speak about their own congregation, or when they make comparative remarks about other congregations, generally they speak about something other than preaching.
They speak of its “ministry.” They speak, perhaps, of its specialized ministry to senior adults, children, or young people. They speak of its music. They speak of its ministries of one sort or another. Sometimes they speak of things far more superficial than those. Or perhaps they speak of the church’s Great Commission vigor and commitment, and for that we are certainly thankful. But rarely do you hear a church described, first and foremost, by the character, power, and content of its preaching.
Speaking to pastors, I want to acknowledge that we have a certain product envy. We envy those who build houses or sell cars or build great corporations or assemble automobiles, or merely those who cut the grass. Why? It is because they have something tangible to show for their labor at the end of the day. They may be fastening widgets and assembling automobiles, or they may be putting things in boxes and sealing them up and sending them out, or they may be cutting the grass. They can see the product of their hands. A carpenter or an artist or a building contractor has something to which he can point. What about the preacher?
The preacher is robbed of that satisfaction. We are not given the sight to see what we would like to see. As a matter of fact, it seems like we stand up and throw out words and wonder, “What in the world becomes of them? What happens from it? What after all, is our product, and where in the world can you see it?” Words, words, and more words.
And then, we sometimes feel like we are flattering ourselves that people even remember what it was we had to say. We are chastened from even asking our own church members and fellow believers for the identity of our text halfway through the next week. Why? Because we are afraid that we will get that shocked look of anticipated response when a person of good intentions simply says, “That was a fine message. I don’t remember exactly what it was about, and I have a very vague recollection of something you may have said, but I want you to know it was powerful.”
I think the Apostle Paul responds to this, at least somewhat, in verse 23 when he writes to the Colossians saying, “All of this is true, if indeed, you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.”
Paul understood that it was possible to hear in vain and he hoped that it I was not true of this church — that their response to his preaching was not just a succession of nice accolades and respectful comments. Rather, we would like to have an assembly line of maturing Christians go out the door of the church, wherein we could at least see something and note some progress. We could statistically even mark what kind of impact this sermon had over against another. But, we do not have that sight; it is largely a hidden work in the human heart. Such a work will bear good fruit, but this will take time to be evident.
Since the Lord established His church, there have been preachers — lots of preachers. The church has heard good preachers and poor preachers, faithful preachers and faithless preachers, eloquent preachers and pulpit babblers, pulpit humorists and pulpit bawlers, expository preachers, narrative preachers, thematic preachers, evangelistic preachers, literary preachers, sawdust preachers, post-modern preachers, seeker-seeking preachers, famous preachers, infamous preachers — lots and lots of preachers. And to what end? Well, it all accumulated to millions and millions of hours preaching. You go all the way back to the first century and try to estimate how much time has been consumed in preaching, and we should measure not only the time of the preacher, but the time and attentiveness of the congregation as well.
This represents a massive investment of human time, energy, and attention in the task of preaching. And for what? To what end? Millions and millions of hours of preaching. Countless books and conferences and controversies. So what? The preacher may sound like Luther on Sunday, but he feels like bathing in Ecclesiastes on Monday morning, “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” Striving after the wind-that is what it feels like.
We feel like the preacher of Ecclesiastes who laments in chapter 1, verse 15, “What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.” Vanity. It is such a deal to be called to preach. You work hard and you see nothing. This in not piece work, it is just a piece of work!
Furthermore, this line of work has a nasty way of getting you into trouble. It seems that the more faithful one is in preaching, the more trouble one encounters. Why? There is conflict and controversy. You preach the Word. You did not come up with it. This is not your opinion, and it is not something you came up with in order to offend people. You are simply preaching the Word. After all, that is your assignment.
So you get up, and the next thing you know you are on the front page of the papers. You are the subject of gossip for the deacons’ and their wives, even the youth group is up in arms over whatever you said.
Conflict and controversy are always hard, and they again tend to be correlated to faithfulness in preaching. The harder you work at it, the greater the risk — the higher the stakes. And it is not just conflict and controversy. Sometimes, preachers have experienced persecution or even martyrdom. After all, the man who wrote this letter to the Colossians was himself a martyr for the faith. In giving his final instructions to Timothy he speaks of being poured out as a libation. He is ready to be offered as an offering. The sufferings of which he speaks in Colossians 1:24 are going to be realized in a martyrdom that is yet before him.
And there have been martyrs throughout the history of the church, such that the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the church — the nourishment of the church. Moreover, the church is repeatedly persecuted. Do you not imagine that your preaching priorities would become self-evidently clear under persecution? If you are forced to meet in a catacomb, and if as you gather you know that at any time you might be arrested, you are going to weigh every word. There is not going to be any time for pulpit frivolity. There is not going to be any time to promote the next youth program. Everything is going to be concerned with getting down to the reality of the eternal Word of God.
But, sometimes preachers are ejected and fired. That is simply one of the realities of pulpit ministry. Sometimes it happens that preaching the Word is met with antipathy and resistance. Why? Because “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword ….”5
And as the Lord spoke to His prophet Isaiah, “… [My Word] will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire.”6 Sometimes this means that God uses the Word to rebuke and correct His people. And it is the preacher who must speak that word and reap the response.
Indeed, I will go so far as to assert that if you are at peace with the world, you have abdicated your calling. You have become a court preacher to some earthly power, no matter how innocuous it may appear. To put it straight–[you have been bought. If there is no controversy in your ministry there is probably very little content to your preaching. The content of the Word of God is not only alive and active, it is sharper than any two-edged sword, and that means it does some surgery. It does some cutting, and that leads to bleeding, and by God’s grace, there then comes healing, and there is always controversy.
Well, the text lands right in the middle of all of this and hits us in the solar plexus. Why? Because Paul is not unaware of all of this. Paul is emphatically aware of the dynamic of which we are speaking. He understands the very real experience of preaching. He understands the frustration and sometimes he articulates it in his own words.
Just read his letters. It was not as if he avoided the controversy. Read 1 Corinthians chapter 1. He laid it right before them, even to the point of saying, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.”7 Have you ever wanted to say that from your pulpit? That’s a rather strong word of correction. But this text hits us where we need it, because Paul not only endures all of this, he seems to revel in it, to celebrate it. Paul seems to understand all of the frustrations and the conflict and controversy and trouble of preaching, and yet he says, as it were, “Bring it on. This is what I was made for. This is what I was called to do. This is what I am here for. Let’s get at it.”
In Colossians 1:24, he even rejoices in his sufferings for the sake of the church, for the body of Christ and for His glory. “Of this church,” Paul says, “I was made a minister. I was not made a minister of some hypothetical, non-problematic, non-controversial church. I was made a minister of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ — of the body of Christ on earth — a chosen, purchased possession being sanctified even in the present, and struggling against the powers of sin and death and evil and darkness.” Paul makes his case.
The first point I believe he makes is found in verse 25, namely, that the central purpose of ministry is the preaching of the Word.
In the end, everything comes down to this. It comes down to preaching. “Of this church, I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the Word of God.” In some translations, the words “the preaching of” are inserted there, and I believe that is a legitimate insertion. It is clear that what Paul means is that the carrying out the Word of God is achieved by the proclamation, the teaching, and the preaching of the Word of God. These are vivid terms. Paul speaks in such very strong language.
He speaks here of the fact that he was made a minister. He did not make himself a minister anymore than he saved himself or appeared to himself on the Damascus Road. He was claimed, and as he was claimed, he was made a minister of the Word. In fact, he was made an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he understood his situation clearly. When he writes in 1 Corinthians 15, he explains that Christ appeared to him as “one untimely born.”8 He called himself the “least of the apostles,”9 because he had persecuted the church, but God’s great triumphant sign of contradiction was in choosing the chief persecutor of the church to make him the apostle to the Gentiles.
Paul goes on to say that he has received this ministry according to the stewardship from God bestowed on him for the benefit of the Colossian church. I think this is very critical to the pastor’s understanding of his calling and to the minister’s understanding of the stewardship. We are assigned a stewardship from God, which is bestowed on us not for our benefit, but for the benefit of the church.
It is as if we have been drafted, called out, assigned, and granted a stewardship that we do not deserve and a stewardship that we are not capable of achieving and fulfilling. Nonetheless, God chooses those instruments. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 1:20, 27-28,
“Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are.”
Why? It is thus apportioned so that if there is any boasting, it has to be boasting in Him.
“We are stewards of the mysteries of God according,” Paul said, “to the stewardship God bestowed on him for the benefit of the church.” And why all of this? What is the bottom line? What is the essential point? Well, the point, as you can see in the purpose clause of verse 25 is, “So that I might fully carry out the preaching of the Word of God.”
Paul’s intention was not to dabble a little bit in preaching. Nor was it his intention merely to add preaching to his ministerial resume or itinerary in order that he might complete himself as a well-rounded minister of the gospel. Nor was it that he would eventually get around to preaching in the midst of other pastoral responsibilities. No, he said, “All of this, in the end, is fulfilled and is only fulfilled, in the full carrying out of my responsibility of preaching the Word.”
Now, I believe when the minister of the gospel faces the Lord God as judge, there will be many questions addressed to us. There will be many standards of accountability. There will be many criteria of judgment, but in the end, the most essential criterion of judgment for the minister of God is, “Did you preach the Word? Did you fully carry out the ministry of the Word? In season and out of season, was the priority of ministry the preaching of the Word?”
This is not to say that there are not other issues, that there are not other responsibilities, or that there are not even other priorities, but there is one central, non-negotiable, immovable, essential priority and that is the preaching of the Word of God. And Paul speaks to this so clearly when he states his purpose, “That I might fully carry out the preaching of the Word of God.”
Now we contrast that with today’s minister and with today’s congregational expectations. What we see is the marginalization of the pulpit.
There is the recognition that “after all, it is an important piece of furniture in the sanctuary and someone ought to use it for something.” And so some would tell us, “Preaching has its place, but let’s not let preaching get in the way of music, which is, after all, what draws people, and what establishes fellowship. Perhaps many of us could testify of going to a church service where something was said or even printed in the bulletin to the effect that “first we are going to have some praise and then we are going to get to preaching,” or “first, we are going to have a time of worship and then we are going to turn to preaching.”
What do we think preaching is, but the central act of Christian worship? As a matter of fact, everything else ought to build to the preaching of the Word, for that is when the God of whom we have been speaking and singing, speaks to us from His eternal and perfect Word.
We contrast Paul’s absolute priority with the congregational confusion of today’s church. When you look at, for instance, manuals, books, magazines, seminars, and conferences addressed to pastors, you will notice that preaching, if included, is most often not the priority. When you hear people speak about how to grow a church, how to build a church, and how to build a great congregation, few and far between are those who say it comes essentially by the preaching of the Word. And we know why, because it comes by the preaching of the Word slowly; slowly, immeasurably, sometimes even invisibly, and hence we are back to our problem.
If you want to see quick results, the preaching of the Word just might not be the way to go. If you are going to find results in terms of statistics, numbers, and visible response, it just might be that there are other mechanisms, other programs, and other means that will produce that faster. The question is whether it produces Christians.
Indeed, such techniques will not produce maturing and faithful believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, because that is going to come only by the preaching of the Word. Preaching is not a mechanism for communication that was developed by preachers who needed something to do on Sunday. It was not some kind of sociological or technological adaptation by the church in the first century trying to come up with something to do between the invocation and benediction. It was the central task of preaching that framed their understanding of worship, and not only their understanding of worship, but also their understanding of the church.
Luther got it exactly right. He was trying, after all, to go back to the first century and understand the essential marks of the church, and the first mark is preaching. Where the authentic preaching of the Word takes place, the church is there. And where that is absent, there is no church. No matter how high the steeple, no matter how large the budget, no matter how impressive the ministry, it is something else. Paul was determined fully to carry out his ministry of preaching the Word of God, and he did so in the face of the tyranny of the practical, the immediate, and the seemingly productive, because his confidence, after all, was in the Word of God.
The second essential issue is found also in this text, and that is that the essential content of Christian preaching is the mystery of the gospel.
“(T)hat is,” Paul says in verse 26, “the preaching of the Word of God is seen in the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints.” A mystery. All around Asia Minor and the ancient world, at this time, were mystery religions and mystery cults, and there were some who thought, especially from the Roman perspective, that perhaps Christianity was just another one of these mystery cults. After all, it too had its mystery. And Paul said, “Guilty as charged-absolutely.”
And yet, this is not a mystery of esoteric knowledge. This is not a gnosticism of elitist intellectuals. No, this is a mystery that was hidden by God until it could be publicly revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, in His death, burial, and resurrection. This is a mystery! Go through the New Testament and see how many times the word ‘mystery’ (musterion) appears. Obviously, there is something here to which we ought to give our attention.
There is something deeply mysterious about Christian preaching, both in terms of its communication and in terms of content. For after all, what we preach is not what the world expects to hear. It is not a message they will hear anywhere else. No human wisdom, no school of philosophy, no secular salesman, no TV commercial speaker selling his tapes is ever going to come up with this, unless it comes from the Word of God.
These days you look at what is selling in the bookstores and you see who is selling the conferences, and you realize that if you can tell people how to buy property, improve and sell it, and make a million dollars, why, you could sell your tapes. If you can tell people how they can lose weight, you can sell just about anything. If you can tell people how they can be handsome and wise and have their children well-behaved and their pets like them, you will find yourself a very popular speaker. You could put your video tapes and audio tapes together, and write books that will be sold in the bookstores and hawked on television. Yet if you preach the gospel, you just might discover that it is not quite so popular. But it is powerful. And it is mysterious. Why? Because it was a mystery that God hid from previous generations in order that it might be displayed publicly at the time of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Look at Paul’s statement in verses 26-27, “that is, the mystery which has been hidden from past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” As Paul quite personally knew, true preaching often leads to a riot. But the true preaching of the gospel is the preaching of the mystery of God. It is a musterion. It was hidden, but now it is revealed to the Gentiles.
The Gentiles had been understanding God’s way about as correctly as someone using a Ouija Board to try and understand the ways and the will of God. But now, out of that darkness, out of that confusion, out of that sinful depravity, out of that backwardness, and out of that ignorance comes the shining light of the gospel which is a mystery. It is the mystery of mysteries — Christ in us, the hope of glory.
There is glory, and there is a glory that can even come to us but it is not ours. There is a glory we should seek, but it is not glory for ourselves not to ourselves, but the glory of Christ. And that glory is most evident, not just when Christ is preached as an abstract and objective truth, but when Christ becomes in us, the hope of glory. Paul’s concern was not just that his hearers would come to a correct cognitive understanding of the gospel, although that was essential. His concern was that the gospel would be received by faith and that lives would be transformed. Paul’s wonderfully symphonic presentation of the gospel in the book of Romans helps us to understand how sinners become saints, how we are justified by faith, and how we are adopted as sons and daughters of the Most High God.
Paul understands this is a mystery. And if it is a mystery for the Jews, it is even more a mystery for the Gentiles. Indeed, in those central passages in Romans, Paul helps to explain how it is that the branch of the wild olive tree has been grafted onto Israel. It is a mystery, and I want to tell you that if you do not get excited about preaching this, I do not know what in the world will excite you! The gospel is simply the most transformative, the most powerful, and the most explosive message there is. If you have a problem finding something to preach, I guarantee that you are not preaching the gospel.
“Christ in you, the hope of glory.” This is explosive. It is controversial and transforming. The gospel according to the Apostle Paul is not simply offered to us on a platter for our convenience, our investigation, or our tasting. It is thrown at us like hot, blazing rocks, spewing forth from the crater of a volcano. It is uniquely dangerous. Our task is to preach the Word and to make known the mystery. But, making known the mystery requires diligence — painstaking, systematic, rigorous, expository preaching. Why? Because we have to paint the entire canvas.
Too many preachers are working out of one little corner of the great canvas of the work of God. Here is the plan of God throughout the ages, and they are specialists, perhaps, in this little corner. There are some preachers who, as painters, only have certain colors. Some have the vivid colors. Some have the subdued colors. But, in order to get the entire picture out there, what is required is rigorous expository preaching because we have to connect the dots.
We have to paint the whole picture and this means we have to go into the Old and New Testaments, and we have to use the analogy of faith, that is, the analogy of Scripture to interpret and apply Scripture by Scripture. We have to build upon knowledge, so that the people of God are continually increasing in the knowledge of the Word of God, and that the Word of God is taking root in them and growing in them.
And then, all of a sudden, they begin to see the whole picture. They understand its component parts; they understand the bright colors; and they also understand the subdued hues. Indeed, they understand the gospel. The mystery comes into focus, and that is the power of preaching. It’s not going to come by any other means. Sadly, the doctrinal ignorance in the pulpits of today is being replicated in the doctrinal ignorance and indifference of the pews, and the people are not even seeing the picture.
What does it mean to be a servant of the Word? Finally, it means that the promise of true preaching is to present every Christian complete in Christ.
How is this for a job description? This responsibility, should you choose to accept it, is that, at the end of your ministry, you be able to present Christians complete in Christ. Paul says this in verses 28-29, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” Now that is a challenge.
Listen to what Paul has to say here. We proclaim Him. We preach Christ; we proclaim Him; we focus our message on Christ. We show Christ, the mystery of the ages, revealed in Scripture in the Old Testament and in the New. We proclaim Him from every opportunity and from every text. The best exhortation I know concerning this practice comes from the great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, who, in speaking to his students about expository preaching told them to preach the text as the text and as soon as possible you make a bee-line to the cross and show its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
We preach Christ as a three step process — first, proclaiming Christ, secondly, admonishing every man, and thirdly, teaching every man. This issue of admonishing comes rather difficult in our day, seen in the fact that there is precious little admonishing going on. Paul, however, believed in admonishing. In fact, he described his ministry in many ways as admonishing. He spoke of his ministry to the Ephesians, about staying there, admonishing them for a period of years.
What does it mean to admonish? Well, for one thing, it means to get in the face. These days, with our ideal of personal autonomy and personal privacy, we, as Americans, feel that no one has the right to tell us what to believe, how to act, or what we must correct in terms of behavior or patterns of thought and life. After all, we reason, “Our marriages are our marriages. We are free to make and to break them. Our vocation is simply a matter between us and our employer. God does not have anything to do with it, and the church certainly better not stick its nose into it.”
That is hardly the pattern in the New Testament, however. With a pattern of authentic Christian preaching, the Word is applied, and I do not mean that it is applied in the sense that the preacher tries to find some way to “make” this text relevant. Rather, it is applied in that the text must be directly addressed to persons in the congregation. This is what you must do. This is what you must be.
Isaac Backus, the great Baptist, was first an exhorter, before he was a preacher. In revolutionary America, the exhorter had a particular task in the congregation, and this one was not likely to be popular. After the preacher had preached, it was his responsibility to apply the message. This might mean going up to somebody and saying, “This is going to be how you change your behavior.”
Now Backus was 15 years old when he took on this assignment. So you had a 15 year old (who was probably expendable) and he would come up after the preaching and say, “Now, Widow Jones, this means you are going to have to change the way you raise your children. And this means, Mr. Smith that you are going to have to change the way you do your business. This means we are going to have to be accountable to the Word of God, and we are going to have to be accountable together.”
Well, whether from the preacher, or from the pulpit, there simply is not much admonishment going on in today’s church. In our day, this would be seen as intolerant and invasive and an imposition. Indeed, it would be seen as arrogant. But the role of the preacher is to expose error and to reveal sin. The Word of God will do that, I promise you, because it will be unavoidable as you preach the Word. It is simply there in the text. We are going to have to come into alignment with this text in terms of the way we think, the way we worship, and the way we live, or we are going to disobey. Those are the only options.
In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul told Timothy that in the preaching of the Word he is to rebuke and to correct. This business of correcting is not very politically correct. Why? Because you have to say that someone is wrong, and that an understanding is wrong and needs to be brought into alignment with God’s Word. It means the behavior needs to be rebuked. Sadly, the failure of church discipline in our age has made the church simply one voluntary association with a steeple alongside other voluntary associations in far too many cases.
The first task is proclamation; the second is admonishment; the third is teaching every man, specifically, the positive teaching of the Word of God with application. This is something that cannot be sequestered to Sunday School. We cannot assume that the teaching ministry of the church is fulfilled when you have a good children’s education system. The teaching of the Word of God should be cross-generational. The teaching of the Word of God is to be progressive and cumulative, thereby growing saints toward maturity in the Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the teaching of the Word of God is to comfort, and it should do so, foremost, from the pulpit, for the pastor, is of all things, the teacher of the church.
Now, teaching assumes authority. After all, we have to know what it is we are to teach. Far too many preachers think this is an authority that is personal. “It is my authority, for I am the one who has been elected to teach” or so the thought often goes. Others think that it is the authority of modern knowledge they bring in, or the authority of secular consensus that is needed. But, there is only one authority that is the preacher’s authority, and there is only one authority that undergirds and justifies his teaching ministry, and that is the authority of the Word of God. This Word is inerrant, infallible, authoritative, and trustworthy. It is that Word, and that Word alone, that is our authority, and it is not only the foundation, but the substance, the content of our teaching and preaching.
In too many churches today there is an uncertain sound from the pulpit — a multiple choice curriculum of doctrine being offered. We have our own version of “values clarification,” but that is not the model of the Apostle Paul. Nor was that his understanding of his stewardship. Nor is it the nature of our calling.
The awesome power of authentic preaching is seen in the fact that God uses preaching to present His saints complete in Christ. How in the world are Christians going to grow? How are they going to be matured? How is the process of Holy Spirit directed sanctification going to be seen in them? It is going to occur by the preaching of the Word. The preaching of the Word is made visible. Our product-envy is very temporary. For when we get to glory we are going to see the product of our preaching. We are going to see the fact that there are saints clothed in the righteousness of Christ. We are going to see men and women, brothers and sisters in Christ, made complete in Him, and that is our task. When we measure whether or not we are successful, it must be by this criterion, namely, “Are we seeing the saints growing to completeness in Jesus Christ?”
Paul concludes by stating, in verse 29, that it is for this purpose that he struggles, a struggle not in his own strength, but according to Christ’s power which works mightily within us. The Apostle Paul knew that he was not up to this, but Christ is. His authority was nothing, but Christ is all-sufficient, as seen in His Word. This means we have to devote ourselves to preaching not as one priority among others, but as our central and highest priority.
What does it mean to be a servant of the Word? It means first, that our ministry is so prioritized that the preaching of the Word becomes so central that everything else must fall into place behind this priority — every-thing else. Are there other important tasks of ministry? Of course. Are there other important priorities of the church? Of course. But I want to tell you that your personal schedule will reveal the priority of preaching, and your personal schedule will reveal just how serious you are about preaching. You find out quickly what a church believes about preaching by looking at its calendar and added expectations, and you find out, for sure, what a preacher believes about preaching by looking at his calendar and his schedule.
Secondly, if we are genuinely servants of the Word, it means that our congregations are aware of this priority and honor it. I want to suggest that the congregation needs to understand that preaching is not merely the preacher’s responsibility; it is the congregation’s responsibility. It is the congregation’s responsibility to see that it is fed. It is the congregation’s responsibility to see to it that it calls a preacher who will preach the Word. Then, it is the congregation’s responsibility to hold him accountable for that preaching and to measure his effectiveness and his faithfulness to, of all things, the pulpit ministry.
Thirdly, it means that if we are to be servants of the Word, our preaching must be truly expository. That is, it truly expounds and applies the text of Scripture, declaring the Word of God to the people of God and trusting the Holy Spirit to apply that word. We are reminded that this kind of preaching can get you into serious trouble, and the lack of this trouble ought to be a signal that, perhaps, this kind of preaching is not found in your pulpit.
Indeed, preaching the Word of God just might get you in hot water but it is the criteria, priority, and measure of ministry. It takes rigorous exposition, by which I do not mean just choosing texts we like, the texts we think will preach, or the text that will fall on all the right ears, but the text as it stands. That is why I believe in verse-by-verse exposition, because — let’s be honest here — otherwise we would never get to some of those angular texts that are just so difficult to preach. But they too, are the inerrant, infallible, and authoritative Word of God. They are profitable for our preaching and for our teaching, and that is a measure of our stewardship.
Fourth, if we are servants of the Word, it will be evident that every other task and priority is submitted to that first priority task — the preaching of the Word, with the promise that it will balance all the others. I promise you, a ministry established in the preaching of the Word of God is going to be an evangelistic ministry. It cannot be otherwise. And a ministry that is established in the preaching of the Word of God is going to be a Great Commission ministry, for it could not be otherwise. Everything comes into proper balance because we do not have to worry about balancing a schedule, balancing a budget, or balancing priorities when we understand that the Word of God will establish those priorities. Then, everything else will become clear.
In the final analysis, we will only know how faithful we have been in glory. Then, when we see our Savior face to face and when we see all the saints to whom we have preached, we will discover whether or not our preaching contributed to their completeness in Christ. Paul said all of this — the suffering, the diligence, the hard work, the controversy, and the martyrdom — was work for the glory of preaching the gospel. And he said the purpose is to see every man, every Christian, perfected in Christ, completed in Christ, and presented to our Lord and Savior. Failure at this task is simply too awful to contemplate.
1Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church, in Luther’s Works [LW], ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (vols. 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (vols. 31-55), vol. 41, Church and Ministry: III, ed. Eric W. Gritsch, trans. Charles M. Jacobs and rev. Eric W. Gritsch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 150.
2Herbert H. Farmer, The Servant of the Word (London: Nisbet and Co., 1941).
4All Scripture quotations throughout are taken from the NASB unless otherwise noted.
71 Cor. 1:14.
81 Cor. 15:8.
91 Cor. 15:9.
Evangelical pastors will commonly state that biblical preaching is the hallmark of their calling. Nevertheless, a careful observer might come to a very different conclusion. The priority of preaching is simply not evident in far too many churches.