For centuries, preachers have struggled with the task of bringing together a human congregation and a biblical text in the act of preaching. In his book Homiktic, David Buttrick describes preaching as “mediation.” He says that a preacher stands “in between” the biblical text and the people (p. 251).
How does one unite the biblical preaching text and the listeners in proclamation? I am convinced the answer lies in the priestly function of our preaching. We must be touched by the congregation’s needs and fears.
The Various Ministerial Roles
The role of a minister, and the pastor in particular, is often paralleled to the roles of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. The administrative duties are those designated to the role of the king. The prophetic duty is established in the minister’s weekly preaching. The priestly responsibility is often relegated to ceremonial tasks such as communion, weddings, baptisms, etc. It is apparent each role is involved in the ministers work, but the challenge is to integrate them.
The priestly element of ministry has come to be viewed in a confined and limited scope. While the ceremonial aspect of the priestly role has great importance in and of itself, we would be neglecting other aspects of priesthood in limiting the priestly function only to these types of duties. Much more is entailed in the priestly function than ceremony. The preacher who is serious about the call to proclaim the gospel must capture this priestly distinction.
The Priesthood in Scripture: A Dual Task
Scripture clearly defines the basic responsibility of a believer as a priest. We are told explicitly in 1 Peter 2:5: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (NIV). This concept is also mentioned in Revelation 1:5b-6.
How did the biblical writers understand the identity and function of a priest? The New Testament referred primarily to the levitical priesthood, which had a unique closeness with Yahweh. True priests had a divine access to God in which they knew and proclaimed the mind of God.
However, they had a double task to perform as intercessors or mediators in the totality of their task as priests. They first petitioned Yahweh on behalf of the congregation in prayer. They then offered Yahweh’s word as the answer to their listeners’ needs.
Thus the priest had a prophetic duty as well as an intercessory one. The mediation made with his access to God also meant that he was responsible to communicate God’s message back to those he represented. The priest intervened for helpless men and women. Likewise, he returned with the message of hope that atonement for their sins had been made.
Paul underscored the dual nature of the priest and linked it to proclaiming the gospel in Romans 15:15b-16a. He cites: “the grace God gave me to be a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God …” (NIV). Here, Paul plainly linked the position of preacher with that of priest. Moreover, he did not understand his priestly role as one of merely ceremonial duties, but of proclaiming the gospel.
Our preaching does fulfill part of our priestly function as Christian ministers. Perhaps we may say that there is something sacramental involved within our preaching. If this is the case, then we should look upon our weekly preaching as joining men and women to God through His Word.
The Dual Nature of Priestly Preaching
What becomes obvious is that the minister who understands this call also understands its dual nature. The preacher is to be touched by the weaknesses and needs of his listeners and then offer the message of hope Yahweh desires His people to hear.
If we consider the example of our High Priest in Christ, we may understand more of our own task. There is a responsibility to intercessory prayer for the flock which God entrusted to us. Jesus taught us the need of intercessory prayer by example (John 17). In 1 John 2:1, we read that Jesus intercedes for us in the presence of the Father (cf. Romans 8:34). We should then enter the holy place of our prayer closet, bringing the needs of those to whom we minister.
How do we make certain our preaching remains faithful to the second nature of the priest as Paul described it in Romans? Hebrews 4:15 describes Jesus as a High Priest who is “touched by our infirmities.” Jesus entered into human weakness; thus, He can sympathize with us.
The words “touched by our infirmities” literally mean that Jesus, as High Priest, shares the same feeling of our delicate weakness and helplessness. Just as Jesus cried for those aching at Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:33-35), our High Priest weeps with us today in our sorrow as well.
Bringing home the point of sympathy, Jesus told a parable concerning an unsympathetic priest in Luke 10:25-37. It was a Samaritan who showed mercy on a man who had fallen into a troubled situation. A priest who came that way saw the helpless victim, but traveled to the other side of the road to avoid dealing with the man’s problems. Jesus taught to do as the Samaritan who had mercy upon the beaten traveler, not as the unsympathetic priest.
As ministers, we may attempt to walk to the other side of the road without sympathy toward those with pain and suffering in their lives. Since we may not feel we have adequate answers, we may ignore their problem and hope that time wears away the loneliness of solitary weeping. We may even escape the harsh reality of people around us by launching huge efforts to help the needy thousands of miles away.
However, if a minister is not touched by the heart of his own congregation, he can neither intercede for them nor find the message of the Father to bring the much-needed hope.
A sermon is only half of a sermon if it is only an exposition of a selected text, a running commentary, or the product of the preacher’s concerns. Moreover, it probably will not minister to specific needs of a congregation. Granted, the text is the sermon and the preacher is the one who must prepare the manuscript.
Yet the way we approach and deliver the text is something that must be molded by sensing the needs of the people. In other words, preachers cannot preach pertinent messages if they are unaware of the feelings and situations of their parishioners.
Observations from Oratory
The very nature of preaching classifies it as persuasive speech; hence, preaching is rhetorical. Without rhetorical intention, our sermons are without direction and lack purpose. Primary to the intention of the priestly sermon is to convince the listener of the word of hope they are to receive.
In the field of public speech and rhetoric, as early as Aristotle we find that identifying with the listeners is one of three important elements in every speaking situation. Each speech involves the following three factors:
1. The way the speaker is perceived by the listeners (called ethos). For example, do they view the speaker as credible and believable, or larger than life and a braggart?
2. The content of the speech (known as logos). This is ultimately what will persuade the audience.
3. The ability of the speaker to understand the needs and desires of the listeners (defined as pathos). The speaker will be able to change his/her audience with his/her speech if he/she understands them.
Rhetoric is persuasive when all three elements are working together. The final element of “pathos” is a word from which our word “sympathy” is derived. Our concern here is that the minister must have a grasp of pathos in order to effectively communicate to a congregation.
To be priestly means we must communicate Yahweh’s message back to those for whom we have interceded. In order to accomplish this, we must speak human language persuasively and clearly to deliver His Word.
To speak their language is to understand their way of thinking and living. This understanding is not mere observation, nor psychological evaluation, but is a compassionate desire to mediate between a people and God. This understanding takes a great deal of time, patience, and literal work.
This understanding takes relationships of love and care, and these are not built in a day. These relationships are built when we live through crisis and joy of those to whom we are ministering.
A Method for Priestly Preaching
This obstacle faces the minister: his preaching must be tuned to the heartbeat and heartbreak of the people yet remain faithful to the biblical text. This tension is solved only in using a consistent method of interpretation of Scripture for preaching.
A three-level hermeneutic design is a helpful method for priestly preaching. The three levels are as follows:
1. Exegesis: Using the available tools to determine what the text meant in its context.
2. Exposition: Fitting the text into the entire theological framework of Scripture to determine the eternal truth communicated in the text.
3. Application: Understanding the needs of the listeners to rightly determine the meaning of the text for a particular contemporary situation.
Buttrick acknowledges these three levels of hermeneutic, but reinterprets them as “modes” of preaching (his terms are immediacy, reflection, and praxis). This certainly gives us three categorical “handles” for preaching; however, we may desire to follow Kenneth Burke who determines that the tenor (intended message) cannot be separated from the vehicle (the means of bringing the message).
So, for instance, a narrative context of a passage is not separated from the intended theological message and must be considered in interpretation. Therefore, such a hermeneutic for preaching is certainly not outdated, but is essential to preaching.
These three levels are undergone during the time of preparation and not necessarily delivery. The third level of application is where the preacher is to be touched by the listeners’ fears and concerns.
A general application is not enough in a truly effective sermon. Relevant sermons will be tailored specifically to the needs and situations of the pastor’s listeners. This is not license to meddle in personal affairs. Rather, this is asking the simple, but necessary question: “what does the text say to us?” A sermon which is developed through the three levels and can answer this question will be one which will minister to the needs of the people.
A priestly sermon does not have an exalted speaker “brow-beating” or “talking down” to the recipients of his message. This sermon has a speaker sensitive to the perspective of the congregation, one who attempts to understand life alongside his listeners. In fact, to properly understand the nature of preaching is to view the preacher in solidarity with the audience and personally listening to the message.
We must be saturated in Scripture in order to preach a biblical sermon. In the same way, we must be immersed in the lives of those to whom we hope to minister relevantly.
The message of Scripture does not change, but we can make a specific application to the daily lives of our congregations. When we fellowship with our people, see where they work, visit where they live, eat at their tables, we begin to understand their concerns and fears. These opportunities to get to know the congregation are never wasted time or energy.
The preacher with effective weekly preaching is one who spends as much time attempting to understand his listeners as sitting in the study attempting to understand the text.
Ultimately, our preaching reflects the message God has for our individual churches and lives. The impact of that message is truly felt when the messenger is one who understands the perspective of those hearing it.
As preachers, we fulfill our priestly role in interceding for our parishioners in prayer, then bringing back the message of hope the Father desires them to know. This is preaching as mediation, being touched by their infirmities; this is the priestly function of preaching.

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