Why Preaching Is Primary and the Ordinances Aren’t
One Passover in the first half of the first century, a traveler watches from a distance as three men are crucified on a hill outside Jerusalem. What does he learn? His eyes will tell him little. Other than some unusual weather patterns and a quicker-than-usual death in the case of one of the men, all he notices are a few ordinary-looking Jewish men being executed by Rome.
But once he comes within earshot, everything changes. Amongst other things he hears the crucified men talking. One admits his guilt and asks the central figure, apparently called “Jesus,” to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. He hears this Jesus promise that the criminal will that very day enter paradise. He also hears the centurion overseeing the crucifixion declare that Jesus was “the Son of God.” After a while, he hears Jesus announce that his work is “finished,” and then he commits his spirit to his heavenly Father.
Though the traveler’s eyes alone taught him little, his ears have opened the door of salvation. As it was with our fictional traveler, so it is with us today.
“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
WHAT ABOUT THE ORDINANCES?
In his kindness, Jesus gave us two ordinances—two pictures of the gospel—in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both are vital to a healthy church. To ignore either would be to ignore Jesus. But the preaching of the Word of God must always have priority over the ordinances. Why? Because signs only have meaning when accompanied by words which explain them. I’ve heard that in the earliest days of British radio broadcasting, the BBC came to an agreement with the newspapers that they wouldn’t undermine sales by commentating on horse-racing. So instead they played the sound of the race—hooves thundering, crowds cheering—with no words to explain what was happening. It sounds so ridiculous it might well be true.
But a worship service that ignored the preaching of the gospel, and instead put all the attention on baptism or the Lord’s Supper would be far more foolish. Let’s look at just three reasons why this is so.
THE EXAMPLE OF PAUL
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17).
Paul certainly baptized people, though at times he seems to have forgotten quite whom (1 Cor 1:16). But he clearly believed his central task was preaching Christ crucified. By the time we get to the book of Acts, we hear little of the Lord’s Supper. But we see Paul preaching at nearly every opportunity.
When the divisions in the early church threatened to overwhelm the other apostles, they decided, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2), and resolved instead to “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Prayerful preaching of the Word was the clear priority of the earliest church leaders.
THE INSTRUCTION OF PAUL
As Paul looked to a future when the church would be without apostles, led instead by “ordinary” men such as Timothy and Titus, he concerned himself again with faithful preaching. He told Timothy, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). He reminded Titus that God had manifested the gospel “in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior” (Titus 1:3). No wonder that some of Paul’s final words are also some of his weightiest:
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:1–2).
The pastoral epistles have few, if any, references to the ordinances. But the command to preach rings through each.
THE EXAMPLE OF JESUS
Of course, Paul and Timothy were only following in their Master’s footsteps. He put a high premium on his preaching ministry. When the crowds of Capernaum came flocking for healing, having seen Jesus’s power over disease and demon alike, Christ told Simon it was necessary instead “to go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is what I came for” (Mk. 1:38).
Why did Jesus leave the good work of healing in order to preach to new flocks? Because he was the Sower, who’s word bore fruit and unlocked entry to the eternal kingdom (Mk. 4:1–20).
Still today it is through the Word, not the bare ordinances, that men and women are “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). It is the Word read and preached that is able to convert the sceptic and disciple the saint (2 Tim. 3:15–17). Ordinances without Word will save no one, whereas the Word without the ordinances has saved many.
We mustn’t ignore the ordinances. But let’s keep the sermon central.