Raymond Bailey, Jesus The Preacher (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 128 pp., cloth.
Preaching, as an art and craft, is better observed than defined. Though all good preachers give careful and intentional attention to methodology, the role of preaching models is paramount. Raymond Bailey suggests that the one model preachers often neglect is the model of Jesus as preacher.
Bailey is professor of Christian preaching and director of the National Center for Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. With previously published works dealing with issues ranging from Thomas Merton to dramatic monologues, Bailey brings a varied and textured background to the field of homiletics.
Bailey bemoans the neglect of preaching found in many seminary classrooms in the 1960s and 1970s. As he notes, “It is strange that, during the same period, fervent oratory on the campuses, in the streets, and on the media was reshaping American society.” Nevertheless, that neglect did occur and the church is still reaping the harvest of that lack of appreciation for the central role of preaching in the life and ministry of the church.
This neglect of preaching was at least partially due to an emphasis on pastoral ministry and “incarnational” models of ministry supposedly rooted in the example of Jesus. Many of the positive elements of this movement toward incarnational ministry were undeniably necessary and appropriate, but the denigration of preaching — tied to the assumption that Jesus did not give preaching high value — was harmful to the church. Bailey addresses the issue head-on: “The premise of this book is that every time Jesus confronted one, a few, or many with God’s truth He preached the gospel.”
With characteristic directness, Bailey addresses those who suggest that Jesus’ ministry was not characterized by preaching: “They would argue that the only sermon of Jesus extant is the Sermon on the Mount. The presumption of such foolish statements is that contemporary practice defines correctly what preaching is and that if Jesus did not mount an impressive piece of furniture called a pulpit, did not shout and dance, and tell funny stories that everyone had heard before, He did not preach.”
Yet, as Bailey’s work suggests, Jesus was not merely a preacher, He was the preacher whose authority establishes the basis for all distinctively Christian preaching. Those who heard the sermons of Jesus were, as are listeners today, forced to judge the authority upon which the preacher dares to speak. The listener, states Bailey, must “test the message.” As he notes: “People in every age must select from among a host of conflicting prophets whether it be John, Pharisees, and Saduccees; Paul, Apollos, and the Judaizers; or Billy Graham and Robert Schuller. Multiple conflicting messages place grave responsibility on those who are their target.”
Jesus’ authority was, as Bailey depicts, personal in nature, growing out of His disciples’ increasing understanding of His identity and mission. Bailey characterizes the temptation narratives as Jesus’ temptation to turn to inauthentic means of establishing authority. Instead, Bailey indicates, Jesus established His authority through His personal spirituality, appeal to Scripture, and living tradition: “The respect generated among those who listened to Him was the product of His character and the implicit trust of His words.”
From the issue of authority Bailey moves to identification. Jesus’ preaching was relational and based on His ability to draw heterogenous groups and individuals to Himself. Explicit in Bailey’s discussion is the charge that the church is often based in a homogenous “Christian” culture which seldom draws outsiders into the fellowship. Jesus preached in a variety of settings and contexts. Though He did preach to the establishment in the Temple courts, He also preached throughout Galilee and Judea, to small groups and to multitudes, and in workplaces and fishing boats.
Bailey’s indictment is timely and appropriate. Contemporary preachers often hold to a model of preaching which stands in stark contrast to that of Jesus Himself. Our preaching conventions are often just that — our own conventional methods and contexts for preaching which are far more restrictive than the model embodied by Jesus.
Bailey suggests that Jesus’ ability to identify with His congregation — whether the few or the many — was central to His effectiveness as a preacher. He could identify with the common people and was a good listener. He made His concern for individuals paramount, even touching the leprous and associating with the unclean.
As Bailey writes: “Jesus took risks that endeared Him to some, established Him as a person of courage to others, and marked Him as foolish to many.” Yet the relational ministry of Jesus was also confrontational. He issued prophetic commands, discerning judgments, and offered His hearers hard choices.
To Jesus’ unique blending of authority and identification Bailey adds a third component: living images. Jesus lived in an oral culture which communicated through vivid images and conceived of words as both language and event. His preaching was full of “living images” ranging from epigrams to hyperbole, simile, analogy, comparison and contrast.
Preaching, Bailey insists, “would be more lively if the conversational style of Jesus was studied and copied.”
Bailey roots the nature of Jesus’ living images in Scripture itself, noting that the Hebrew term for “word” also included the meaning of “event.” “The Bible,” states Bailey, “is not God’s address but the record of God’s address.”
This is true in the sense that the readers of Scripture are not sitting in Galilee hearing the words from the physical lips of Jesus. On the other hand, it is proper and necessary to assert that Scripture is itself the Word of God, with the full power and authority of address inherent within divine revelation. The Reformation maxim “When Scripture speaks, God speaks,” should remind the church of the identity of the Bible and the divine Word.
Bailey recognizes the central role Scripture serves in the Christian community and he rightly laments the fact that the Scriptures “were read aloud a great deal more in the worship of the early church than they are today.” Many evangelical churches pass through a worship service without any serious attention to the reading of the Word. A text for the sermon may be read, but Scripture is otherwise neglected, its voice lost amidst the clamor of what passes for worship in so many churches.
America is increasingly a culture based on orality and image. In one concentrated paragraph, Bailey draws a point we can only wish he had drawn further. He states: “The oral culture of first-century Israel was more like today’s than is generally acknowledged. Books were rare and the common people did little reading…. [The Jews] thought in pictures, and their language evolved as a conduit of action rather than concepts. Western civilization, particularly the United States, has turned from print to orality as primary communication. The electronic media have transformed modern America from a reading culture to a hearing one.”
This is a potent paragaph worthy of extended reflection. Social analysts and communication theorists ranging from Neil Postman to Marshall McLuhan have documented the shift from print culture to the images of the electronic media, but Bailey’s catalytic point is that — electronics aside — the mode of communication operant at the end of the twentieth century is remarkably like that of first century Palestine. If this is true, the preaching model of Jesus takes on even more significance as a model for the effective communication of the gospel in an oral/image culture.
Another cogent point Bailey establishes is seen in his indictment of a contemporary “sacramental” approach to the sermon found among some Protestants. Bailey states: “Protestants have come to treat preaching as a sacrament, that is, they believe they are blessed by simply being in a preaching service without paying attention to anything said or anticipating hearing a relevant message that might affect their lives.”
In subsequent chapters Bailey deals with the “what” of Jesus’ message by means of extended considerations of the Gospels of John and Luke. Preachers will find the short volume provocative and powerful. Bailey challenges the reader to reconsider Jesus’ model of preaching and appropriate the central characteristics of that model into contemporary ministry. Readers will carry on a lively conversation with the author as they work through the material.
Jesus the Preacher is an original and thoughtful treatise which deserves a place on the preacher’s reading agenda. For, as Bailey insists: “Christian preachers should preach as Christ preached and preach what He preached.”
Book Note
Bill Bennett, Thirty Minutes to Raise the Dead (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 189 pp., cloth.
Bill Bennett, currently senior pastor of the Houston Northwest Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, is an enthusiastic exponent and practitioner of expository preaching. Formerly pastor of First Baptist Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Bennett has an established reputation for preaching, and Thirty Minutes to Raise the Dead is his testimony to the power of preaching and to the preparation and presentation of biblical messages.
Chapters deal with expository sermons, evangelistic sermons, and major options in preparation and delivery. Interspersed throughout are quotations and epigrams from leading evangelical preachers from Spurgeon to John Stott. (RAM)

Share This On: