Homiletics, the art of writing and preaching sermons, is central to any study of preaching. Hermeneutics, the interpretation of literature such as the Bible, is also vital for preaching. A third area, speech communication, deals with communication as it relates to human speech, including preparing and making public speeches. A study of preaching must also take theology into consideration since preaching is essentially the proclamation of a theological message. Basic to preaching is, of course, a study of biblical literature, including the content, history, and languages of the Old and New Testaments.
"Unless we understand God's purpose for preaching, the rest is more or less irrelevant."
In the Bible preaching is a key element in the dramatic story of God's revelation. Authentic preaching was not an invention of man to spread his theological ideas. God called chosen ones out of the ordinary business of their lives to proclaim to their neighbors what He wanted them to know. Their preaching was often a life or death matter, for the flood was coming, the enemy armies were marching, the fires of hell were burning. It was vital that man hear from God.
Preaching can be rightly understood only as a function of the revelation of God. The Greek word for "revelation" is apocalypsis, meaning "that which is unveiled." God removes the veil of mystery and shows man a glimpse of His majesty and His purpose. He is both the subject (the one revealing) and the object (the one revealed) of revelation. He alone can make Himself and His purpose known.
We may study the presentation of sermons from the viewpoint of the preacher, or the audience, or the times, or the church, or moral values, or any number of other perspectives. Though each of these vantage points is important, the most basic consideration is the purpose of God for preaching. Unless we understand that, the rest is more or less irrelevant. This chapter examines some of the theological themes that help to form a biblical understanding of the place of preaching in God's purpose. After a survey of these themes we will construct a theological definition of preaching that takes these factors into account.
In his discussion of the theology of preaching, Fred Craddock begins with the silence of God. In the noisy, murmuring world of today, in which everyone talks incessantly about everything, he says, the preacher does well to remember that it was out of the silence that God spoke. Out of the quiet stillness of eternity, God's voice broke upon the uncreated nothingness. "Let there be light," He said, and there was light (Gen 1.3). When He needn't say a word, He spoke out of the ageless silence, and in His self-revelation ultimately reached out to man.
If God had not chosen to reveal Himself, He would remain fully hidden to man. Isaiah spoke of God as the One who "hides" Himself (45.15). "No one has seen God at any time," wrote John. "The only begotten Son . . . has declared Him" (John 1.18). Paul described Him as "dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see" (1 Tim 6.16). "How unsearchable are His judgments," he writes, "and His ways past finding out" (Rom 11.33). Though man has searched everywhere and guessed what might be beyond his search, it is only by revelation that he can know anything of God.
"When He needn't say a word, He spoke out of the ageless silence."
Al Mohler puts it simply: "True preaching begins with this confession: we preach because God has spoken." The Bible reveals God as sovereign, all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, loving, merciful, and gracious. No less significant an attribute of God than these is that He is self-revealing. He is the God who speaks. The Creator who spoke the worlds into being revealed Himself through nature, where "His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead . . ." (Rom 1.20). But this general revelation was not the full extent of God's self-revelation.
God also made Himself known in a more direct way. He spoke to men and through men to reveal His nature and purpose in more specific terms. From his first instructions to Adam, throughout the Old and New Testaments, to His cryptic communication to John on the Isle of Patmos, God has spoken. This special revelation had its climax in the person of Jesus Christ. "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son" (Heb 1.1, 2).
Not only was God revealing Himself in personal incarnational terms in Jesus of Nazareth, the words of Jesus were the very words of God. Jesus said, "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; . . ." (John 14.7). He also said, "and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me" (John 14.24). Here was the God who speaks declaring His thoughts clearly in the words of Jesus. Here was a voice men could understand, gestures they could see, facial expressions they could watch, a message in their own language, all from the very person of God.
Fred Craddock emphasizes that preaching follows revelation, not only in purpose but also in method. He writes, "At the risk of sounding presumptuous, it can be said that we are learning our method of communication from God. In other words, from the transaction we call revelation we understand and implement the transaction we call preaching. That is, the way of God's Word in the world is the way of the sermon in the world."
Authentic biblical preaching is an extension of the self-revealing activity of God. Just as He has spoken through the ages with the voice of men, He continues to speak today through preaching. Preaching is vital today "because it does what God did in his self-disclosure to Israel, in his revelation to the prophets and apostles, in the fullness of his revelation in Jesus," writes Clyde Fant. "It provides a medium of revelation which enables the eternal Word to maintain its living, dynamic character and encounter our concrete situation."
Since God is by nature One who speaks, His word becomes a vital factor in our study of preaching. The words dabar in the Old Testament and logos and rhema in the New are the common Hebrew and Greek terms for "word," meaning "a spoken utterance, a saying or speech." John wrote, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1.1). The "Word" is equated here with God's own being, His person. This is a special use of the word logos not employed in the rest of John's Gospel. It emphasizes that self-revelation is so intrinsic to the nature of God that Jesus, the Son, is called "the Word."
"Self-revelation is so intrinsic to the nature of God that Jesus, the Son, is called 'the Word.'"
In the biblical view, words, once uttered, have a life of their own. This is especially true of blessings or curses, such as the blessing of Jacob which could not be recalled (Gen 27). God's words always have the power necessary to their purpose. Isaiah pictures them doing their assigned work on their own. "So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (Isa 55.11).
It is difficult for us to grasp the significance of "word" for God's revelation. We think of "word" as a unit of language rather than a powerful idea. To understand what "word" of God means in these key passages, it might be helpful to substitute the word "truth." We think of the truth of Scripture as powerful and effective for sorting out ideas and attitudes from God's viewpoint. It is the truth of God that is set among His people to guide them, to convict them of sin, to show them who God is and who they are in Christ. This is what the living word is.
This Word of God has a dramatic effect on the hearer. "For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb 4.12). The Word of God penetrates deep into the heart and mind of the hearer. It separates between the natural man and the spiritual man. It gives a basis for judging not only one's ideas, but also one's motives. When this word is heard, the hearer cannot be unaffected by its power.
Preaching is to proclaim the Word of God. It is obvious, however, that many a sermon is heard without hearing the Word of God. Most sermons are largely the opinions of the preacher. Though the religious views of a godly person might be of some help to a congregation, the real need is for a word from God, the very Word of God. The only way to ensure that the Word of God is heard in the sermon is to allow that Word of God to come through the sermon from the text of Scripture. In a real and actual sense every word of Scripture is the Word of God. To the degree that the biblical text shapes the sermon, to that extent it is possible for the Word of God to be heard in the sermon.
Who will hear this powerful Word of God? The Bible makes clear that many may be within the sound of that word, but not all will hear. In the dramatic call of Isaiah, we stand in awe of the vision of God and the experience of His prophet. But then we read of His assignment, with its gloomy prediction, "Go, and tell this people: 'Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive' " (Isa 6.9). The prophet was sent to a people not likely to listen, but he must be faithful to preach nonetheless.
"The process of oral communication is challenging enough, even without the spiritual factors that hinder reception of the preached word."
Jesus appealed to His audience to hear His word, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" (Matt 11.15). He knew that some of those before Him would not hear. When His disciples asked Him why He taught the people in parables, He explained, "I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand" (Matt 13.13). The disciples, however, were enabled to hear. Jesus said, "But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear" (Matt 13.16).
Consider the nature of man as hearer of the Word of God. He is fallen in sin (Rom 3.23), does not understand the things of God (1 Cor 2.14), and is hostile toward God in his mind (Rom 8.7). The preacher is not always addressing a receptive audience, even among Christians, for the carnal Christian cannot receive the Word of God (1 Cor 3.2). The barriers in his nature are multiple. There are ideas and attitudes that form strongholds against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10.5).
When does one actually "hear" in the biblical sense? The word means more than just receiving the sound waves of a spoken message. "Hear" means to receive the message, understand it, and obey it. But in Jesus' parable, the sower finds only a fourth portion of the seed falling on good soil, for there are the barriers of shallowness, of worldliness, and of the devil's work to remove the word (Matt 13.18-23). Paul writes that in the last days even the believers will turn away (2 Tim 4.3, 4). The process of oral communication is challenging enough, even without the spiritual factors that hinder reception of the preached word.
In spite of these barriers, the preacher is to preach the word faithfully. Though he aims for a response from his audience, he knows that the response will not always be positive. He cannot measure his faithfulness by the response. The danger ever looms over the preacher that he will find himself trying to please them, not by adapting his style to them but by presenting a message more to their liking.
Paul's commitment was to adapt himself so fully to his audience that he might overcome the barriers to their reception of the word. Recognizing the importance of the audience in the communication process, the apostle wrote that he adapted his preaching and his behavior to every audience he faced. He adapted to culture, language, religion, race, social position. His philosophy becomes a key theological principle for every preacher, "I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some" (1 Cor 9.22).
Audience analysis and adaptation are basic responsibilities of the preacher of the gospel. Realizing the difficulty of getting a hearing for the Word of God, he adjusts his presentation to the audience before him. Not only do spiritual factors affect the communication connection, a number of cultural elements can also get in the way. The worldview, thinking processes, social structures, language, and decision-making processes of a people will determine how they hear the message. Like Paul, the wise preacher will take all this into account to get a hearing.
In a sense, the preacher is himself a hearer. He does not stand aloof from the people as he preaches. He is called from among the people as God's chosen spokesman. Unless he first hears the message for his own life, he will be ill prepared to proclaim it to others. All preaching is interpretation. The preacher's interpretation will naturally arise out of his own experience with God and His Word. He will not likely lead the people into deeper understanding than he has himself. He is the proclaimer of God's Word, but he is first a hearer.
"The preacher, in all his weakness, boldly declares the Word of God in the power of the Spirit."
The preacher's hope of overcoming the barriers to his message lies in the ministry of the Holy Spirit to empower his preaching. Paul described his own preaching as going beyond the qualities of human rhetoric men might expect in a preacher (1 Cor 2). He said he did not come "with excellence of speech or of wisdom" (vs 1). In the first place the power of his preaching was not in an impressive delivery. The tradition of Greek and Roman oratory gave great weight to a dramatic presentation for effective public speech. Secondly, the power of his message was not based on intellectually stimulating arguments. Instead he simply declared and interpreted the story of Jesus and the cross (vs 2).
Paul's hope was that the response of the hearers would be faith (vs 5). But he did not want their faith to be a response to the wisdom of men. That faith must be in the power of God. Even though he preached "in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling," he expected his message to be accompanied by a "demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (vss 3, 4). Here is the divine-human mix again. The preacher, in all his weakness, boldly declares the Word of God in the power of the Spirit.
The wisdom of God is of a different sort than the wisdom of the world. The rulers of this age cannot fathom God's wisdom, centered as it is in the atoning death of Jesus on the cross. It is a mystery that has remained hidden to men from the beginning of history. God's wisdom is the great alternative, that vision of reality that the mind of man cannot grasp on its own. It is a worldview incompatible with the natural patterns of his thinking. It can only be revealed by the Spirit, for only the Spirit can search out the deep things of God (vs 10).
Man is handicapped by three problems in his natural thought processes, problems that keep him from grasping the truth of God (vs 9). First is the problem of personal experience: "eye has not seen." His understanding is limited by what he has himself experienced. If he has never "seen" it, he has trouble accepting it. Second, he is limited by the problem of precedence: "nor ear heard." If he has never heard of someone else experiencing this new wisdom, he cannot think it valid. Third, his grasp of the truth is limited by the problem of perception: "nor have entered into the heart of man." Due to his preoccupation with experience, he cannot even imagine the reality of God's wisdom. His mind cannot grasp it because it comes by faith in God. As a result, "the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him" (vs 14).
God's wisdom can only be discerned spiritually. In the first place, only the spiritual man, born again to a new spiritual life, can understand the otherwise mysterious wisdom of God. Secondly, he can understand God's truth only as he is taught it by the Holy Spirit, who compares spiritual things with spiritual (