"And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified."
1 Corinthians 2:1-2
Shortly after I had responded to God's call to preach, I remember a disturbing event that would later have profound influence in shaping my understanding and practice of preaching. I was privileged to serve as the associate to the pastor of a small country church who mentored me and gave me an opportunity to stumble my way into Christian service. But, for various reasons, he was a somewhat discouraged man whose ministry had not developed the way he had planned. Consequently, things between him and our congregation were not good. There was tension in the church, and my mentor in ministry was bitter.
After a particularly stressful week, I remember him coming into the Sunday morning worship service apparently distraught and frustrated. We went through the announcements, songs of worship, offering, and special music. Then, the pastor stepped up to the pulpit, placed his Bible on it, looked out at the people, and announced, "I don't have a word from God this morning; God hasn't given me a word. Do any of you have a word?" The congregation was stone silent in shock. Then my pastor prayed and dismissed the service. I was very green—like most young preachers—and did not know a whole lot. For a few moments I sat on the front pew with my head down as people were filing out. I just stared at the Bible I was gripping tightly with my sweaty hands. And I remember as clear as day what I was thinking: There are sixty-six books of the Word of God in here, and you don't have a word from God? I didn't understand.
While I realize that my pastor's words were spoken out of deep distress, to this day I cannot understand how a preacher could not have a word from God. The apostle Paul was never without a word from God. He approached the preaching event at Corinth in a way that was distinct from most of the other preachers of his time. His claims in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 are a beckon call for pastoral preachers to make the Word of God primary in preaching content as opposed to the wisdom and ways of man. And those who listen to sermons must expect nothing more and nothing less.
"The facts, ma'am, only the facts." I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard Sergeant Joe Friday, played by Jack Webb, say those words on the old television cop series Dragnet. The detective was always having to interrupt people he was interviewing in order to remind them that he needed only the facts of the story and not the rabbits they so frequently seemed to chase.
In one sense the preacher is a detective in hot pursuit of the facts and only the facts. But in a truer sense he is a reporter because he reports the facts when he finds them. The word translated declaring technically means "to report down" or "to proclaim throughout." Paul claimed to have come to Corinth reporting the facts, all the facts, and only the facts.
Unlike many sermons today, the facts Paul reported were not regarding any and every subject under the sun. They were very specific, described as the "mystery" of God in the best manuscripts. In the Bible, this word does not mean something necessarily unknown but something not as fully understood at one time as it was at another. For Paul, the mystery was something not fully understood prior to the Christ event, but now it had been explained and illuminated by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor. 2:10-14). The concept is described in the following chapter as containing the wisdom of God and originating long before mankind ever arrived on the scene (see 1 Cor. 2:7). The preacher, then, is one who unfolds the mystery for his listeners under the guidance of God's Holy Spirit.
But while more manuscripts favor the word "mystery," some very good manuscripts render Paul's subject as a "testimony," which means "witness." The same word is mentioned in the previous chapter as that which was spoken by Christ and confirmed in the believers (see 1 Cor. 1:6). We really don't need to fret over whether testimony or mystery is the right term. In this passage they both describe the same thing—the message from God as revealed in the gospel. And they both imply the same criteria—"The facts, ma'am, only the facts." The detective seeks to solve the mystery with only the facts. The witness is bound to relay only the facts.
Before proceeding, I need to insert here a fundamental assumption that I will carry throughout this entire book. I firmly believe that in the larger scheme of the economy of God we do absolutely no injustice here by applying Paul's word—whether "mystery" or "testimony"—to the Holy Scriptures we have today called the Bible. If we go back to the Acts narrative regarding his ministry at Corinth, Luke told us that Paul "continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them" (Acts 18:11, emphasis added). The "word of God" he taught certainly would have included Old Testament Scriptures (cf. Acts 13:13-41; 17:2,11; 28:23) and the apostles' doctrine (cf. Acts 2:42; 6:2-4; Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 12:28), as well as the revelation God was currently granting him as the primary inspired writer of our New Testament (cf. Gal. 1:11-2:2; 2 Pet. 3:14-16). Furthermore, the phrases "word of God" and "word of the Lord" are used twenty-one times in Acts, often interchangeably with references to the three sources mentioned above (e.g., Acts 11:16; 13:42-44, 48; 17:13). There's no doubt that Paul would have seen the "testimony of God" and the "mystery of God" as being expressed in the Word of God.
When it comes to the study of the Word, I prefer the term "mystery." This word seems so much more appropriate for the preacher in his preparation as he seeks to uncover the facts of Scripture. But when he actually stands to preach, his speech is more conducive to a "testimony" of the facts. A testimony is essentially a witness, and a witness can tell only about what he or she has personally seen, heard, or experienced. Some time ago my wife was called to give a deposition in relation to an automobile accident. During the deposition, I listened as the lawyer asked what seemed like hundreds of questions that probed my wife's firsthand knowledge of the event. She was never asked about how she felt, what she thought, or the way in which she interpreted what transpired. She was asked only about the facts.
A witness in any legal forum is to recount only what he or she knows objectively, factually, and personally. The witness cannot speculate, guess, deduce, or conjecture. In Corinth, Paul provided a witness only of God's revelation in Christ as written in the Scriptures. It was not based on his own human understanding, reason, or inclinations. It was all about God's revelation because Paul knew that human wisdom amounted to nothing in the eternal scope of things.
Don't forget, however, that the passage does not say Paul was a witness, but that he merely came "declaring" as much. In other words, the preacher is not the witness himself; instead, he simply is called to report the facts given by the witness. Every time I turn on the television to watch the news, I see a host of men and women called reporters whose job it is to communicate the facts. They talk to witnesses, but they themselves merely report on the testimonies of the witnesses. News stations and newspapers are very careful to make a distinction between news reports and commentaries or editorials. While the latter contain opinions and interpretations, the former is supposed to be limited to reporting only the facts with no bias or opinions.
Reporting about the work of God in Christ is found on a significant number of pages of the New Testament. Numerous times people spread the news about Jesus' incredible activity. After Jesus raised the ruler's daughter, "the report of this went out into all that land" (Matt. 9:26, emphasis added). After teaching and working miracles in Galilee, "Herod the tetrarch heard the report about Jesus" (Matt. 14:1, emphasis added). Upon rebuking a demon in the synagogue in Capernaum, "the report about Him went out into every place in the surrounding region" (Luke 4:37, emphasis added). When He healed a man with leprosy, "the report went around concerning Him all the more" (Luke 5:15, emphasis added). And in response to His raising the dead son of the widow of Nain, "this report about Him went throughout all Judea and all the surrounding region" (Luke 7:17, emphasis added).
The most vivid pictures, however, are found in those references which have direct relationship to the preaching event. Twice in the New Testament reference is made to the fulfillment of the great messianic text, Isaiah 53. Regarding the proclamation of the coming Messiah, Isaiah had posed the question, "Who has believed our report?" (Isa. 53:1, emphasis added). John indicated that the refusal of the Jews to believe Jesus' testimony about Himself even though He had done many signs in their midst was so "that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: 'Lord, who has believed our report?'" (John 12:38, emphasis added).
The second connection to Isaiah's prophecy is made by the apostle Paul himself in his letter to the Romans. In the midst of that great missionary text in Romans 10:14-21 in which he magnifies the role of preaching in the propagation of the gospel, Paul said, "But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed our report?'" (Rom. 10:16, emphasis added). When Isaiah spoke the words quoted by Paul here and by John above, the prophet was speaking of the suffering, dying work of the Savior as noted in Isaiah 53:5, who
was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
The report of which Isaiah and Paul spoke is the good news of the crucified Christ, the glad tidings of His substitutionary death that we might live. That is what preachers are to report.
Paul saw reporting the truth of God as his only task, and so it would seem the task of every preacher. Any other approach is a prostitution of the preaching ministry. The apostle had already assured the Corinthians that he had not invaded their midst with human thoughts and opinions, but only the testimony of God. He later affirmed this commitment when he wrote, "But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4:2). To his young protege in the ministry, Timothy, he warned, "Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron" (1 Tim. 4:1-2). The young pastor was charged to "give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine" (1 Tim. 4:13) and to "preach the word" both "in season and out of season" (2 Tim. 4:1-2). It is incomprehensible that any man who calls himself one of God's shepherds would do anything else but report what God has said.
The nature of the facts and from whence they come are also important for the reporter. So Paul was specific about the source and the subject of his message. The context of the passage seems to suggest that the possessive "of God" (1 Cor. 2:1) is subjective, suggesting that Paul's message was the testimony that God gave inasmuch as it had God as its content. While the context of the passage reveals that this message certainly had God as its subject, the apostle unapologetically claimed that his message actually originated with God.
During the celebrated O. J. Simpson trial of 1995, a controversy arose over some taped phone conversations involving Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman. Fuhrman, the officer who found the bloody glove at Simpson's estate the day after the murder of his ex-wife, reportedly made racist comments on the tapes and referred to alleged incidents of police brutality by the Los Angeles Police Department. During the proceedings on September 5, before Judge Lance Ito had decided whether or not to admit the tapes as evidence, a woman walked to the front of the courtroom's spectator area with a large envelope. She raised the envelope and said in a loud voice, "Judge Ito, Judge Ito, I have a message for you from God. God wants you to play the tapes." This lady did not primarily claim to have a message about God but one that both originated with Him and belonged to Him.
That's what Paul did. He was not merely claiming to have a message about God. He walked into the pagan city of Corinth and said, "Corinthians, Corinthians, I have a message for you from God." And he knew that message was the only thing that would reveal the truth about life and eternity, and he gave God the credit. In other words, his passion for God's glory determined the content of his preaching. He went to great pains to ensure that what he put on the table for his listeners was, in fact, the very Word of God as opposed to the mere wisdom of man. So Paul's message was from God and about God. And all Christian reporting should be of like kind—communicating the revelation that is both about and from God.
Most preachers today, however, do not have a problem preparing and delivering sermons that are about God. It is the from part that is often absent. There is a subtle yet significant difference between preaching content that originates with God and that which is merely about Him. It seems that in our day preaching is validated on the basis of its relational proximity to the concept of God, Christian living, moral character, and even just good practical advice. While we will tackle this issue more thoroughly in a later chapter, suffice it to say now that not all good and helpful information is necessarily that which God intended His preachers to report. He has given to us a specific message to deliver, and that message does not always include all things helpful, good, and God-related. The message with which preachers have been entrusted is the very Word of God—nothing more, nothing less. And those who listen to preaching are obligated to desire the same.
It took me a long time to succumb to the peer pressure of getting a personal digital assistant (PDA), but finally I yielded. Everybody had them. I would sit in meetings and colleagues on both sides of me would be scribbling notes with their styluses and beaming them to one another. Across the room, another individual would be typing away on one of those portable keyboards. I love toys, but I just could not see the advantage of giving up my trusty DayTimer for another electronic fad. But the first time I played with a friend's device sitting on an airplane, I was hooked. And after performing my first "HotSync" operation when I purchased my own unit, I became the top promoter for the company!
Of all the cool features my handheld possesses, I have probably benefitted most from the little "alarm" feature on my date book. My DayTimer never used to talk to me. But when I enter an appointment or an event into my PDA date book, I can attach a reminder to it. I can even determine how far in advance I want to be reminded. At the appointed time, a little alarm of three short beeps will go off reminding me of the event. And the really neat part is that it will just keep going off about every ten minutes or so until I acknowledge that I have been reminded] Our text under consideration suggests that Paul believed that the preacher is not only a reporter but a reminder of that which has been reported.
The Christian preacher is commissioned with a particular task, that of reminding people over and over again of God's Word and its claim on their lives. We find this theme often in the New Testament, from both Paul and others. Paul told the Romans, "Nevertheless, brethren, I have written more boldly to you on some points, as reminding you, because of the grace given to me by God" (Rom. 15:15, emphasis added). To the Philippians he wrote, "Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe" (Phil. 3:1). Even Jude got in on the action and said, "But I want to remind you, though you once knew this, that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe" (Jude 5, emphasis added).
The apostle Peter probably filled the bill more than any other New Testament writer. He seemed to place a huge amount of emphasis on the preacher as reminder. In one passage he reminded us about reminding three times:
For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease (2 Pet. 1:12-15, emphasis added).
And again in another place:
Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior (2 Pet. 3:1-2, emphasis added).
Obviously, many of the New Testament writers saw themselves as responsible for reminding God's people about things they had previously been told. They knew it was necessary if the human mind was ever going to embrace the truth and enable it to sink into the heart.
But of what exactly did Paul remind the Corinthians? To be sure, when he said in 1 Corinthians 2:2, "I determined not to know anything among you except," he put some pretty narrow parameters on his preaching topic. This claim almost suggests that Paul would have had to commit what some consider to be the unpardonable sin of delivering the same sermon over and over again! If that is the case, it must have been a doozie! And so it was. His "testimony of God" is specified in the phrase "Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (vv. 1-2). This was Paul's preaching topic in a nutshell! This is what he reminded the Corinthians of over and over. It was in fact a doozie of a message—the ultimate sugar stick sermon! In fact, this message from God was so important that Paul gave lesser roles to factors such as oratorical ability and thought processes in order to feature it in his preaching.
When you have a message from God instead of just the wisdom of man, it is worth preaching over and over again. Paul refused to dedicate one second of time to a discussion of men's ideas or insights, including his own. His sermons were consumed with the crucifixion, resurrection, and redemption of Jesus Christ. And Paul wanted us to know that he did not merely set Jesus up as the perfect teacher or the perfect example of what a man ought to be. While Jesus certainly was all of these and more, Paul constantly reminded his listeners that Jesus of Nazareth was both Savior and God who had earned the right to lay claim on every person's life.
Such has been the heartbeat of Christian proclamation since Pentecost. The proposition and culmination of that first Christian sermon was set forth when Peter said, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36). He and the other apostles continued to resound the same message in the coming days, saying that "the God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins" (Acts 5:30-31).
When you stop and think about it, the lordship and saviorhood of Jesus Christ is the most significant and relevant issue for people in contemporary culture for at least two reasons. First, it is where all eternity is headed. After describing Jesus' humility in submitting Himself to the death of the cross, Paul said that "God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:9-11). All of eternity is going to wind up bowing at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ, all because of His saving act! Second, it is the only way anyone can head for eternity. Paul said to the Romans, "If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9). Salvation from sin, death, and eternal separation from God can be found only in the crucified Christ.
From beginning to end our Bible is a book about the Christ event. Jesus Himself claimed not to have come "to destroy the Law or the Prophets... but to fulfill" (Matt. 5:17). He told the religious hypocrites of His day, "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me" (John 5:39). To the disciples on the road to Emmaus, "beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:27). Charles Spurgeon said that he would begin at any point in the Bible and make a beeline for the cross. Maybe Katherine Hankey summarized best what ought to be the confession of every preacher when she wrote:
I love to tell the story; 'tis pleasant to repeat
What seems each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet:
I love to tell the story, for some have never heard
The message of salvation from God's own holy Word.
I love to tell the story; for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest:
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
'Twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.
I love to tell the story, 'Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
If you are looking for a camp to be in when it comes to preaching trends, camp out on the "old, old story." Such is part of the mystery of preaching—the consistent reminder of the crucified Christ.
There is a very real tension, however, that the preacher as reminder must navigate. Certainly not everyone today recognizes the importance and relevance of the Christ event. Nor did they in Paul's day. Yet he made it the heart of his preaching even though he knew it was a "stumbling block" to the Jews and "foolishness" to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23; cf. Gal. 6:14). To be sure, the cross always offends! While the crucified Christ is a familiar concept to us, it remains a foolish and offensive idea to the world.
Sometimes the foolishness and offense of this message comes about because of familiarity and frequency. Reminding suggests repetition, and many preachers are afraid of repetition. In fact, it seems that many contemporary preachers shy away from the role of reminder because of the fear of repetition in the pulpit. As I listen to some preachers today, I get the impression that they feel like they have to come up with something new every week that no one else has ever come up with before. And the aversion to repetition on the part of many listeners as well as their expectations of "new material" doesn't help. The spirit of the Epicureans and Stoics has found its way into the pulpit and the pew, "for all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing" (Acts 17:21).
This fear of repetition combined with an affinity for "fresh stuff impacts preaching adversely in a number of areas. For example, it sometimes causes preachers to maximize secondary application and minimize the primary intent of certain passages. In the Gospel of John, for instance, the writer is very clear that his purpose in recording the events in the narrative was so "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31). Even though every passage in this Gospel is not necessarily directly addressed to unbelievers, the preacher is responsible for approaching—and preaching—every passage with this understanding. The fear of repeating the same thing over and over again forces many preachers to resort to secondary application of various passages without ever even acknowledging the overarching evangelistic intent in relation to the larger purpose of the gospel.
Another example of maximizing secondary application and minimizing primary intent is the failure to follow the purpose of various miracle passages in the Gospels. A large number of those events were intended to validate the deity of Jesus. Consider Mark 4:35-41, for instance, where Jesus calms the sea. Close consideration of the text reveals that such a supernatural feat could be accomplished only by God Himself. The physical quieting of creation is something only God can do! But an aversion to repeating the proof of Jesus' deity in the Gospel forces many preachers to allegorize the passage and talk about the "storms of life." The fear of repetition leads us to promote a hermenuetical paradigm that we would otherwise shun!
The fact of the matter is that the Gospels (and the gospel!) are textbooks in repetition. They are called the "Gospels" for a reason—because they primarily are about the good news of the crucified Christ, not about the daily plight of mankind. And for some reason God determined that we needed four of them! Maybe it's because He knew that repetition is the pathway to learning!
The aversion to repetition also affects preaching adversely by creating a fear of systematic series. Some preachers refuse to preach through books because of the necessity to stay with a particular theme for an extended period of time. Also, systematic series usually require some degree of "review" each week in order to establish the connection between individual passages. A preacher's neglect of such an approach robs the church of an important aspect of Bible teaching, a subject we will address in more detail later.
Probably the biggest tension created by the call for repetition in preaching comes in the pastoral pulpit. Many pastors shrink from preaching Christ and the cross because of the awkwardness of saying the same thing over and over to basically the same group of people. This element of awkwardness exists with all true gospel preaching. In the local church especially, a pastor will be preaching to some of the same faces week after week and year after year. The awkwardness sets in when that sameness is coupled with the biblical demand to continually preach the familiar theme—the crucified Christ.
I, along with many others in our community, enjoy walking and running for exercise. The oval-shaped perimeter of our seventy-five-acre campus in New Orleans makes a great exercise area, and people are always moving around it in both directions. If you have ever made laps around a track, a gym, or in some other kind of circular pattern, you probably have experienced an awkwardness that I frequently encounter. Do you know what the toughest part is for me? It's not the discipline it takes to get out and do it. It's not having enough strength or breathe to complete the laps. It's not even the frustration of trying to determine whether or not it's doing any good. The toughest part of that whole deal is trying to figure out creative ways to greet the same people moving in the opposite direction every time you pass them! We have to be honest here. There are only so many ways to sincerely greet the same people within a ten- to twenty-minute time period. And depending on where you enter the circle, you might pass the same people just going around once or twice. This is a real problem!
Now my limited observation has led me to conclude that people respond to this awkwardness in three ways. Some of the serious health nuts never acknowledge that anyone else is on the planet! Or, if they do, they stop acknowledging them after the first greeting on the first lap. It's as if they were on a mission for God, and no one or nothing else matters. Others, who are more recreational in their journey, make small talk after the first greeting which serves as a token acknowledgment. After the first lap on which they say "Hello," "Hey," or "Hi," they offer comments like, "Beautiful weather today, huh?" "Nice shorts!" or "How 'bout those New Orleans Saints?" But there are always those social exercisers who find a variety of creative ways to offer a token greeting every time they pass you. They wave, they nod, they speak, all in a potpourri of attempts to be cordial. All three of these responses are simple attempts by human beings to overcome the awkwardness of repetition.
While figuring out how to greet people doing laps creates some element of tension, choosing how to respond to the awkwardness of gospel preaching in the local church is a far tougher and more important assignment. But the options are the same. First, the pastor can stop talking about Christ and the cross after he's been on the field for a short while. That would be apostasy. Second, he can make small talk in the pulpit with extrabiblical material clothed in "practical and relevant" rhetoric, giving only token acknowledgment to the person and work of Jesus. That would be compromise. There is a difference between Jesus as a good example or pattern and Jesus as the crucified Lord who lays claim to every person's life. Third, the pastoral preacher can find creative ways from the plethora of biblical literature to preach the same old story of the crucified Lord and His claims on the lives of people. For Paul and for us, only the third option is acceptable.
When driving for long periods of time on the interstate, I often find my mind wandering out of sheer boredom. I start doing the weirdest things. Sometimes I find a dirty spot or a mashed bug on the windshield, then see if I can use my line of sight to weave it (the bug, not the vehicle) in and out of the dashed lines in the middle of the road without touching them. I guess it's just the competitor within me! At other times, however, I am much more practical. For example, I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have found myself coveting the patent on those little reflectors that line both sides of every inch of interstate across the entire country. How would you like to be the guy who came up with that idea?
Reality is that those simple little objects are paramount for the safety and well-being of drivers and passengers. They make it possible to navigate an otherwise dark path. In the same way, the preacher is a reflector each week when he stands to preach the Word of God. He is responsible for providing listeners with the light of the gospel which is necessary for navigating the otherwise dark path of a sinful world. So the stakes are even higher when it comes to the safety and well-being of those who listen to preaching.
Those little reflectors are simple things—like the hula hoop and Slinky—that made somebody very rich. The guy who came up with the reflector idea didn't even have to discover electricity, or lights, or anything like that! Somebody else had to come up with the tough, detailed stuff. This guy just invented something that used some other source of light, and he developed something that makes a big difference in the lives of a whole lot of people in a whole lot of different ways. There are reflectors on roads, on signs, on bicycles, on cars—they are everywhere. There are literally thousands upon thousands of applications of the reflector.
Neither does the preacher have to come up with the source of light that he reflects. Somebody else has already done that. That "somebody" is the crucified Christ, the light of the world. The preacher simply is responsible for reflecting the light. What drives the preacher's reflection, then, is not anything that emanates from the culture or the audience, but that which emanates from the cross of Jesus Christ. And that says volumes about the content of preaching today.
Contemporary preachers must understand that the light of the cross has not faded or given way to new sources of illumination. In the language of the New Testament, the perfect participle "crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2) indicates that not only was Christ once crucified, but He continues in the character of the crucified One. That means the effect and nature of the crucified Christ still has bearing on every person's life today, both Christian and non-Christian. In other words, this message is timeless because the implications of the crucified Christ 1 remain the single most significant need in people's lives in every generation, for Christians as well as non-Christians!
The timelessness of the crucified Christ demands that our messages be focused on Him and not us. In other words, preaching should be rooted in a call to the crucified life. When you look closely, Paul's letters to the churches were reflections on and applications of the gospel message he had preached in the beginning. This text indicates that even though Paul knew that his audience considered his message "foolishness," he still preached the crucified Christ (see 1 Cor. 1:22-23) as "a direct challenge to an alternative way of viewing reality." He did not primarily attempt to respond to the questions that people were asking, nor did he make any attempt to present Christianity as the answer to their own personal pursuits. The claim that God had acted in the Christ event flew in the face of the culture's myths in a scandalous way!
Most pastors and congregants assume such as the nature of evangelistic preaching. But if cross-centered preaching that counters the whims of the culture is right for evangelistic efforts, why should preaching to believers be of such a radically different nature? Where do we get the idea that once we become Christians our whims and desires suddenly become the all-supreme determinant of what the preacher is to preach? It seems that no longer is it the claims of the Christ-life that set the preaching agenda but the questions of man's life. According to our text, the life that was crucified to save us from our sins is the same life that is necessary for us to navigate holiness in a fallen world. Peter said, "Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue" (2 Pet. 1:2-3). It is in knowing Him that those of us who listen to sermons know how to live life.
This is not at all foreign to the beckoning call of the New Testament. Jesus Himself said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it'" (Luke 9:23-24). Paul said his goal was to "know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death" (Phil. 3:10). Both taking up the cross daily and being conformed to His death suggest a timeless application of the crucified Christ.
Not all but much of the "felt needs" and "life situation" preaching of our day serves as an illustration here. While claiming to have Christ as its theme, it offers practical help for dealing with the human situation without ever revealing the claims of Jesus Christ on human life and without presenting His life as the ultimate solution to man's problems. "Felt needs" preaching often addresses the questions of listeners but never introduces them to a holy God in Christ. Consequently, people frequently leave our services with practical help for their life situation but with no better understanding of the powerful help that comes only through carrying their cross. They often leave understanding more about themselves but no more about a holy God. This kind of preaching causes man and his needs to overshadow the message of the cross, and all the attention goes to either the preacher or the people—but not to God. Preacher, every sermon you preach ought to reflect the crucified Christ onto the lives of your listeners. And listeners, you need to be looking for that light, not any source of illumination that might emanate from other sources.
I learned an important lesson about people's perception of preaching shortly after assuming my second pastorate, a small congregation in the deep south. I began immediately preaching systematically through a book of the Bible. All of the messages during the first several weeks were more fellowship-oriented, addressing Christians as the respective texts demanded. I assumed the people were receiving the sermons eagerly as their shepherd fed them the Word. Boy, was I naive! About two months into the series, I finally came to a text that was more evangelistic in nature. So I proceeded on Sunday morning to wax eloquent with a hot sermon on hell, making primary application to those persons without Christ. The next day one of the prominent men in the church stopped in front of my house as I was mowing the lawn. He rolled down the window of his truck and yelled, "Great message yesterday, Pastor. You finally started preaching!" And I thought I had been preaching all along.
The fact of the matter is that many congregations today believe that every sermon ought to be directed at the lost, informing them of their sinful condition and their eternal destiny of torment. And, in the minds of many, the preacher is not preaching until he has done so. Sadly, however, many of those same parishioners would never lift a finger to make sure a lost person was there to hear it. Equally as tragic is the reality that so many Christians today do not see the value of preaching for their daily lives or even their maturity in Christ.
So the role of the preacher as reflector of the cross raises an interesting dilemma in weekly preaching. Is every sermon of every week supposed to be a salvation message? When Paul said he preached nothing but the crucified Christ, was he admitting that he preached nothing but evangelistic messages?
Did he sermonize only those parts of Scripture that dealt directly with Christ's atonement?
The answer to that question is a resounding "No!" We must understand that preaching the crucified Christ is not necessarily synonymous with preaching evangelistic sermons. Paul was keenly aware that the person and work of Jesus the Messiah comprise the entire gospel—including the resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15:1-11)—as well as its implications for the Christian life. Think about it. The very epistle under consideration here, along with the host of others penned by Paul, is a testimony to the fact that he was not limiting his understanding of the crucified Christ to the simple plan of salvation. He wrote to churches! To be sure, Paul taught the full counsel of God (see Acts 18:11; 20:27) in his preaching of Christ crucified.
The shepherd of the local congregation has the responsibility of reflecting weekly on the cross of Christ in order to show its implications and applications for the body of Christ and the individuals who comprise it. That is what the majority of the New Testament is—a reflection and application of the gospel as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John! And the reflection of the cross of Christ has an infinite number of implications and applications for God's people. Just like the reflectors mentioned above, these applications are everywhere—on families, students, singles, divorcees, grandparents, churches, nations, and so on. Everybody and just about everything needs to have the light of the crucified Christ reflected on it!
Before leaving this subject, one other issue needs to be settled. It's a personal issue for the preacher—one he must decide for himself. I'm speaking of the personal conviction to reflect only the message of the cross to the church. Every preacher will have to choose whether or not he will preach only Christ and Him crucified as revealed on the pages of the Bible. And be aware, that is a conviction that can only be established by faith. While there is much historical and scientific evidence that points to the validity of the Bible and the Christ it reveals, there remains a gap that can be bridged only by the faith of the preacher.
G. Campbell Morgan, the Prince of Expositors, once suffered a personal crisis fostered by some of the critical theories of his day. It plunged him into the darkness of doubt. Setting aside all his books, he set out to discover for himself if the Bible was indeed what it claimed to be. When all was said and done, he found his faith and his conviction. More importantly, as he said, "The Bible found me." His conviction birthed a preaching ministry that impacted two continents and, through his writings, continues to bless Christians worldwide.
The Christ of the Scriptures had found Paul. To ensure that he presented his message for God's glory, Paul willfully chose not to be distracted with lesser subjects in his preaching, but to reflect only the crucified Christ in his preaching. Many great preachers have wrestled with issues regarding their convictions about the Word. But no great preacher has ever carried such a struggle throughout his ministry.
We may never know if, when, or how long Paul struggled with determining the content of his preaching. What we do know is that the issue had been settled when he got off the bus in Corinth. In the language of the New Testament, the verb "determined" (1 Cor. 2:2) is in the aorist tense, indicating a fact which had come to its conclusion. In other words, preaching only Christ and Him crucified was something the apostle had decided before ever arriving on the church field. He did not wait until he arrived to determine what to preach. He did not wait for some tingling feeling or mystical impression before he could get a sermon. His content was not dependent upon the results of recent audience analysis or the latest demographic research. He did not even have to wait until he got to know the people. Paul had settled the issue of what his preaching content would be long before he ever stepped into the pulpit at Corinth. And that message was both Scripture-driven and Christocentric.
Many scholars believe that it was Paul's perceived misfortune at Athens (cf. Acts 17:16-34) that led him to such a decision, suggesting that he had attempted some other approach. More likely is the belief that the events on Mars Hill merely served to confirm Paul's commitment as opposed to changing his philosophy of preaching. A closer consideration of the Acts narrative reveals several factors that support as much. First, Paul did not get to finish his sermon but was cut off at the mention of the resurrection. Second, Paul began his sermon with a biblical presentation of creation and ended it with the resurrection. Needless to say, discussion of the resurrection implies discussion of the crucifixion and provides a fairly close connection to "Jesus Christ and Him crucified." Third, some in the audience that day believed Paul's message and joined his company (see Acts 17:34). And since there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we can be saved, Paul must have preached the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus at some point.
So what does that mean for us today? Somewhere in the preacher's ministry (ideally before he begins to preach), he will have to decide the issue of content in his preaching. He will have to make a willful decision to stick with the message of the book—Jesus Christ and Him crucified. If not, he will be tossed to and fro, from trend to trend, and carried about by every wind of preaching doctrine. And while his preaching may be characterized by the norms of contemporary rhetoric aimed at the newest discoveries of audience analysis and generational surveys, it will not contain the only thing that is potent enough to supernaturally transform lives.
The authority of the preacher lies solely in the authority of his message. That is both a blessing and a privilege. So preachers ought never to abuse the privilege or minimize the blessing. He does not have to spend the valuable time of his ministry trying to convince people of his own authority through cosmopolitan delivery or supposed "relevant" content that comes from outside the Bible. He can simply rest in the authority of the One who sent him. Rather than relegating preaching to the opinions and ideas of men, he can boldly proclaim, "Thus saith the Lord."
When the authority of the Word becomes prominent in the pulpit ministry of the church, both preacher and listeners will experience the wonder and awe of being fellow laborers with God, reaching people and seeing lives changed. And as a man of God preaches out of a deep conviction that the Bible is the fully matured message of the crucified Christ, those of us who listen will receive the message more seriously and consider it more binding as the power of God works mightily through the preaching event.
Billy Graham made a journey similar to that of G. Campbell Morgan. Early in his ministry he found himself questioning whether or not the Bible was indeed the Word of God. At the end of an agonizing spiritual pilgrimage, he resolved to preach the Bible as God's Word to man. His piercing statement "The Bible says" continues to ring across the globe and reflects the determination he made to preach Christ alone. When you approach the Bible seriously and prayerfully, you may have to wrestle with it for a time. But do not throw in the towel. The victory that awaits will enable you to know, preach and hear Christ and Him crucified. Then He'll get all the glory!
Now that you have begun this journey into a practical theology of pastoral preaching, you may proceed one of two ways as indicated by the shaded areas on the chart below. The (▼) symbol indicates the thematic development of the remainder of Paul's approach to preaching as revealed in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. If you choose this path, proceed to chapter 2, "The Means for Preaching." The (→) symbol indicates the continued development of the content of preaching from philosophical and then practical standpoints. If you choose this path, proceed to chapter 4, "The Shepherds Stewardship." Before beginning chapter 4, however, be sure to read the introduction to part 2, "Passion-Driven Shepherdology."
Chapter 1: The Message of Preaching
Chapter 4: The Shepherd's Stewardship
Chapter 7: Preaching as Worship
Chapter 2: The Means for Preaching
Chapter 5: The Shepherds Power
Chapter 8: Preaching with Potency