The Preacher and the Text: What is the Goal of the Message?
If you get the priority of the Word established, then you have in place the single most important aspect of the church’s life, and growing health is virtually assured, because God has decided to act by his Spirit through his Word.
–Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, p.25
The Glory of God in the Preaching of the Word
In 2006 the Pew Charitable Trusts released its annual report on American journalism, “The State of the News Media.” The report charted everything from the rise of blogging to the declining circulation of print newspapers. The people from Pew asked some interesting questions. For example, they explored whether the public “trusts” the news. One pollster concluded it is the general perception “that news organizations act out of their own economic self-interest, and journalists themselves act to advance their own careers.”1 No surprise there. When asked if the news media is primarily interested in informing the public or attracting bigger audiences, the vast majority concluded the media is most interested in increasing ratings.2 Of course, the fear is that the quality of journalism suffers when delivering the news becomes secondary to gaining viewers. When the goal is popularity, hard news inevitably becomes a thing of the past.
Sadly, the same phenomenon can take place in the local church. When the primary goal is numerical growth, the good news inevitably takes a backseat to entertainment. Consumerism twists the preacher’s task, making him a servant of the pew instead of the Word. This begs the question, “When it comes to preaching, what is the goal?” I’m in agreement with John Piper who argued that the goal of preaching is the glory of God.3 The pastor’s primary duty is to make much of the sovereign, holy, gracious, loving, unchanging Lord in everything he does and says. This is the ultimate goal in preaching.
But the glory of God is the goal of all of life, isn’t it? Is there a goal in preaching that is unique to preaching? Is there a goal particularly crafted to help battle the temptation to consumerism that plagues most every preacher? I think there is. The goal of each message, week in and week out, is the very definition of expositional preaching: making sure that the point of your sermon is the point of the passage of Scripture from which you have chosen to preach.4 Indeed, God is glorified when His word is clearly and faithfully proclaimed. That is the duty of a preacher and the goal of preaching. Let the chips fall where they may. Those called to preach have the responsibility of preaching each text faithfully, of making sure that each sermon captures the point of the text. This is expositional preaching in a nutshell—this is the preacher’s job description distilled to its essence.
Several years ago I worked as an assistant for my United States Senator from Oregon. Occasionally I would have the opportunity to represent him at a meeting and it was very clear in those meetings whose identity was important—not mine! My name did not really matter; all that mattered was that I brought a message from the Senator. When I first began to preach I remember having a similar impression. Although I was not unimportant—the Lord had, after all, called me to this task of studying and preaching the Word—I was simply there to deliver the point of the message as faithfully and earnestly as I could. I was not there by my own authority but by the authority of Jesus Christ. I was not there to grow a church or to win fans or to win favor—I was there to preach the Word of God—to make God’s point—the point of that text—the point of my sermon. I was there to preach the Word.
Recognizing the goal of preaching frees one from so many other distracting concerns. The preacher focused on preaching the point of the text need not worry about being the smartest or most articulate man in the room. No, these are not the concerns of an expositional preacher. The expositional preacher, instead, comes “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” with a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1Cor. 2:3, 5). How is this possible? By taking the focus off of yourself (wisdom of men) and focusing on the text (power of God). Again, God is glorified when His word is clearly proclaimed because such a proclamation is a repudiation of human wisdom and a demonstration of His power.
PAUL AND BARNABAS
Success and the Delivery of the Word
In 1 Corinthians 2 the Apostle Paul describes relying on the power of God. In Acts 13 and 14 we see this lived out in his and Barnabas’s ministry. Repeatedly, these apostles were given the opportunity to preach the Word. In Acts 13 they were in Pisidian Antioch where Paul preached in the Jewish synagogue. The gathering had just read from the Law and Prophets (13:15) and Paul was invited to offer a “word of exhortation for the people.” He proceeded to explain to both Jews and God-fearing Gentiles how the Old Testament points to Jesus Christ, “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus” (13:33). According to Luke, this message stirred up interest: “The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” However, not all the interest was positive: “But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him” (13:45). Still, what did Paul speak, what did he preach? Did he preach the wisdom of men? Never. He delivered “the word of the Lord.” Though many rejoiced at this message, Paul and Barnabas were driven out of Pisidian Antioch. Were they discouraged? No. They “were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). They accomplished their task, they preached the Word.
They then headed for Iconium to continue their ministry. There the results were the same. Many believed—both Jews and Greeks—but they encountered hostile opposition (14:2). Again and again, Luke draws the attention of the reader to the message of Paul and Barnabas. What did they preach? In Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and then on the way back to Antioch in Pisidia, Pamphylia, and Perga they preached “the word of his grace” (14:3), the “gospel” (14:7, 15, 21), and the “word” (14:25). Did Paul and Barnabas only preach the word? Yes. They had no other message than this “word of grace” which, as he wrote later, “is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (20:26).
Was the preaching of Paul and Barnabas successful? There were certainly conversions in Iconium (14:1) and in Derbe (14:21). Furthermore, Luke records that through the preaching the souls of disciples were strengthened, they were encouraged to continue in the faith, and they were reminded to stay the course in the midst of tribulations (14:22). Leaders were raised up as well—further fruit from the preached Word. Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders in every church” (14:23). In short, preaching the Word converted sinners, strengthened believers, and raised leaders. What an amazing ministry—the power of God’s Word at work. However, were Paul and Barnabas successful when their preaching raised enemies? They were stoned and forced to flee Iconium (14:5). In Lystra Paul was stoned again and left for dead (14:19). Were his words successful though they raised such opposition? Yes, he was successful, at least according to Jesus: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5:11). Preach the Word and let the persecution come.
How does one account for Paul and Barnabas’s success? Was it because they were apostles able to perform signs and wonders? No, the signs and wonders did not produce faith. In fact, although some saw them perform miracles, they nonetheless refused to believe (14:4). Was it because Paul and Barnabas were popular—first century celebrities who gathered a following wherever they went? Hardly. Their success must be attributed to their preaching of the Word. In Acts 14:8-18 the Apostle Paul stood before a pagan audience that, like many twenty-first century congregations, would not have been well versed in the Scriptures. What did Paul do? He went to the Word. In a sermon that resembles the one given at the Areopagus in Acts 17, Paul cited Exodus 20:11 and reminded his listeners that the Lord God is the maker of “the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (14:15). Though his listeners were tempted to worship Paul, Paul pointed them to the Word and called them to worship their Maker. There are no more apostles today, but Paul’s example offers profound transferable lessons for those committed to the task of preaching.
First, faithful expositional preaching will be both attractive to some and repellant to others. It was the case with Paul and Barnabas and will be true with any preacher intent on making the point of the biblical text the point of his message. After all, if Paul was the aroma of life to those being saved but the aroma of death to the perishing the same is true of preachers today who are commissioned to speak God’s truth. Those who love God will love His Word faithfully and earnestly preached; they will love getting to know Him better as they get to know His Word better. On the other hand, those who do not love the Lord will not have an interest in His Word. They may be willing to come to a church one Sunday morning for a sermon on time management, but they will not be interested in the main point of John 4. What’s the preacher to do? Preach John 4. A sermon on time management will neither convert the sinner nor edify the saint; a message from John 4 that presents Jesus as the living water will do both.
Second, faithful expositional preaching is always successful preaching. Some preachers are better than others, there is no doubt about that. We just have to accept the fact that the Lord has given some men unusual gifts. Nonetheless, as I look at Paul and Barnabas’s ministry in Acts 13 and 14, and as I think about the goal of preaching—preaching the point of the text—I find myself hugely encouraged. Again, I don’t have to be the best preacher to be a faithful preacher. My goal isn’t to be the best. If that’s my goal I’m doing the wrong thing with my life anyway; I’m pursuing human wisdom and not the cross of Christ! My goal has to be what Paul and Barnabas exemplified: constantly preaching the word, the good news, the word of grace, the gospel.
A HISTORICAL EXAMPLE
Chrysostom and the Centrality of the Word
John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) became the bishop of Constantinople in 398. He is considered the greatest preacher in the early church (chrysostomos actually means, “golden-mouthed”). He was an expositional preacher in the tradition of Antioch—a tradition that focused on a literal interpretation of the text as opposed to the allegorical, fanciful interpretations associated with the Alexandrian tradition. While criticizing Chrysostom for some of his interpretations, especially of the Old Testament, the Baptist John A. Broadus nonetheless offers glowing praise, “Chrysostom has never had a superior, and it may be gravely doubted whether he has had an equal, in the history of preaching.”5
John was born in Antioch in Syria and was raised by his mother. He was baptized at the age of 21 and soon began to study the Bible under the bishop of Antioch. After several years of ministerial training he was ordained a presbyter in 386—this is when he began to preach regularly. Broadus notes that he started his preaching ministry rather late in life. “In our impatient age and country, when so many think time spent in preparation is time lost, it is well to remember that the two most celebrated preachers of the early Christian centuries began to preach, Chrysostom at thirty-nine, and Augustine at thirty-six.”6
Chyrsostom took books of the Bible and he preached through them. During the introduction of one sermon, he reminded his congregation why he told them, in advance, of his sermon texts:
I often tell you many days in advance the subject of what I am going to say, in order that you may take up the book in the intervening days, go over the whole passage, learn both what is said and what is left out, and so make your understanding more ready to learn when you hear what I will say afterwards.7
Here is an example of a preacher who made Scripture the centerpiece of his ministry. He continues, “I also always entreat you, and do not cease entreating you, not only to pay attention here to what I say, but also when you are at home, to persevere continually in reading the divine Scriptures.”8 He trusted in the power of the Word of God to change lives and to equip believers to overcome temptation:
Therefore we have a continuous need for the full armor of the Scriptures . . . For example, the designs of the flesh attack more fiercely those who live in the midst of the world. A handsome face, a splendid body strikes us in the eyes; a shameful phrase weakens the tension of our soul. But why am I saying this? That which often seems the slightest of all these attacks, the scent of perfume falling from courtesans as they pass somewhere nearby has captured and taken us away as prisoners by mere accident. And there are many things like these which besiege our souls . . . We must thoroughly quench the darts of the devil and beat them off by the continual reading of the divine Scriptures.9
At this point in his sermon Chrysostom turned to the Scriptures, Luke 16. He read the Word of God and began to unfold the meaning of the text for the congregation. Chyrsostom trusted in the power of the Word of God to change, feed, and grow the disciples entrusted into his care. He modeled the ministry exemplified by Paul and Barnabas—a ministry that depended upon the Word of God. Can the same be said of those of us who preach regularly today? Do we have the same faith that the Word of God can and will do its work?
The Glory of God in the Sufficiency of the Word
Christian theologians often refer to four characteristics of Scripture: its authority, clarity, necessity, and sufficiency. Obviously it is essential for a pastor to affirm each of these characteristics. With no authoritative Word there is no reason for the pastor to ever stand behind a pulpit. Because Scripture is clear, the preacher (and, for that matter, every Christian) can trust the Word can be understood. Scripture is necessary—the preacher must preach (Rom. 10:13-17). Finally, Scripture is sufficient. As Wayne Grudem puts it, “The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly.”10
When I say I preach expositionally because I trust in the Word of God, I am affirming the sufficiency of Scripture. I am affirming that Genesis to Revelation holds everything that God’s people need to be sustained. What a comfort this is to me, that God’s Word has everything I need and everything my church needs. I don’t need to bring myself, I just need to bring the Word of God.
Can other types of preaching also affirm the sufficiency of the Word—topical preaching, for example, that expounds a biblical theme by synthesizing several biblical passages? Of course! Not only that, I think topical preaching can, at times, be helpful for a congregation. However, I don’t think bringing a congregation to a preacher’s synthesis is the same as bringing a people to the text. Expositional preaching strives to bring the church to the text—that’s what they need. They need to be able to see the text for themselves—to see it and believe it. As Grudem said, Scripture is sufficient for salvation, for trusting the Lord, for obeying Him. So let’s bring congregations as close to the text and as deep into the text as possible. Topical preaching is like a road that passes by the house. Expositional preaching is like a driveway that takes you to the front door. As often as we can, by God’s grace, let’s drive the congregation right to that front door!
J.W. Alexander (1804-1859), son of Princeton’s Archibald Alexander, was a professor and a pastor. In his work, Thoughts on Preaching, he encourages expository preaching, in part because it highlights the sufficiency of the Word and takes the spotlight off the preacher:
Such a mode of preaching is less adapted than its opposite to make the speaker a separate object of regard, and might be selected by many on this very account. It is now some years since we enjoyed the privilege of listening to the late pious and eloquent Summerfield, the charm of whose brilliant and pathetic discourses will never be forgotten by those who heard them. After having, on a certain occasion, delivered a deeply impressive sermon on Isaiah vi. 1-6, he remarked to the writer of these pages that, in consequence of having been pursued by multitudes of applauding hearers, he had been led to exercise himself more in the way of simple exposition, as that which most threw the preacher into the shade, and most illustriously displayed the pure truth of the Word.11
May those of us who preach be quite willing to be thrown into the shade that the truth of the Word might be illustriously displayed. This is the benefit of expositional preaching. God is glorified when the point of the text is faithfully and earnestly proclaimed.
- The State of the News Media 2006. Found at http://www.stateofthenewsmedia.org/2006/narrative_overview_publicattitudes.asp?cat=8&media=1. Accessed May 24, 2006.
- John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1990), 19.
- Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 26.
- John A. Broadus, Lectures on the History of Preaching (Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2004; reprint, New York: A.C. Armstrong, 1907), 77.
- Ibid., 76.
- St. John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, trans. Catherine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 58.
- Ibid., 59.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 127.
- James W. Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1988), 251-52.