This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.
Don’t Preach Yourself
I remember a preacher I heard from time to time who was spellbinding. He was funny and poignant. He’d wow us every time. We’d pour out of church talking about how great the sermon was. But come Monday morning, I’d never remember what the sermon was about. I’d been moved by it, but I’d struggle to put my finger on what I’d been moved by. There had been powerful anecdotes aplenty, but I’m not sure he was teaching us anything.
I’m not naturally a captivating speaker. When I’m preaching at another church, the tech guys sometimes ask how much of the stage I’m likely to utilize while I preach so that they can figure out camera angles. I tell them they won’t need to pan at all. The most I’ll likely move is to shift weight from one foot to the other. I’m just not that expressive. You may know those famous silhouettes of Charles Simeon preaching back in the nineteenth century, with his head and arms struck in various expressive postures. If someone produced one of those of me preaching, it’d be the same image in each frame.
But there is comfort in the fact that the apostle Paul may not have been the most skilled public speaker:
For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” (2 Cor. 10:10)
Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things. (2 Cor. 11:6)
Even by his own admission, Paul wasn’t the most compelling speaker by worldly standards. So there’s no reason to despair if we feel lacking. To use us, God doesn’t need us to have the most eloquent voices in town.
Even though there’s a part of me that has wanted to be a more dynamic communicator, I’m glad I don’t have the gift of gab. For as lovely as it would be to routinely hold a crowd in rapt attention, it’s healthy to not be able to do so. If I knew I could captivate people by my own natural charisma, it would be too tempting, and I might not work as hard at understanding and preaching the text as I should. Instead, I must work hard on what I’m saying. The content of my sermon must be compelling, or I feel I have no reason to be there. If the word isn’t moving anyone, I’ve no reason to think I will.
So, if preaching isn’t simply transferring data or trying to make people feel something through our charisma, what is it?
A New Covenant Vision of Preaching2
The New Testament zeros in on a fourfold vision of preaching. Let’s unpack it.
First, we’re preaching Jesus. Paul writes, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). We’re not just teaching the Bible or explaining a passage. We’re not just giving people information about Jesus. We’re proclaiming him. The content of our preaching is a person. The church is not just hearing a message; they are meeting the Savior. Whatever else our sermon is about, it’s ultimately meant to be about him.
Second, we’re proclaiming the unfathomably good Jesus. Hear the apostle again: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). As we seek to proclaim Jesus, we need to ensure it’s this unsearchably rich Jesus we’re proclaiming.
There are a lot of Jesuses out there. There’s the here-to-fulfillyour-dreams Jesus. There’s the constantly-scolding-you-to-dobetter Jesus. There’s the I-only-care-about-social-issues Jesus. But the only Jesus that matters is the Jesus who is there. Paul says he’s the Jesus of “unsearchable riches.” In other words, the Jesus we’re to proclaim is unfathomably good. We’ll never get our heads around it. We’re to preach him in a way that makes it so apparent that there is no one else in the universe like this man. When we preach this way, our affections are now in play.
Third, we’re bringing people to the crucified Christ. “O foolish Galatians!” Paul scolded. “Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal. 3:1). Jesus’s immeasurable riches come to us through his death. So, we cannot proclaim him without proclaiming him as crucified.
But notice how even this is not simply telling people about his death. As Paul preached the cross, the people were able to see it. It wasn’t merely a historical data point put before their minds; it was an existential reality before their eyes. But don’t misunderstand. Paul wasn’t drawing pictures on a flip chart; he was proclaiming the cross with such immediacy that it was as if the Galatians were there at the foot of the cross. They had been transported.
Finally, Christ himself is proclaiming Christ. These verses I’ve referenced above have blown apart my understanding of preaching over the years. But there’s one that has wrecked preaching for me. A few years ago, I was reading through Ephesians, minding my own business, when I read this: “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Eph. 2:17). Paul writes here about how the message of the gospel first came to his readers in Ephesus. “You who were far off” is Paul’s way of talking about Gentiles; “those who were near,” the Jews. The Christian community in Ephesus was made up of both groups, and wonderfully, the same gospel of peace had come to each. Moreover, “far off” and “near” function together as a merism, a figure of speech that combines opposites to express totality. Until Christ comes again, the sermon that is preached to everyone everywhere is peace. Indeed, Paul’s wider point is that the gospel has made all people (but especially these two distinct groups) into one new humanity. Jesus created not just a new community but a new kind of community to which Jew and Gentile alike fully and equally belong.
To use us, God doesn’t need us to have the most eloquent voices in town.
But what struck me as I read Ephesians 2:17 was not so much the gospel of peace but who was preaching it: “He came and preached peace to you.” Christ came and preached to the Ephesians.
This raises a question: When?
Ephesus is in modern-day Turkey, around one thousand miles from Jesus’s regular haunts in Galilee. Was there an unrecorded moment in Jesus’s earthly ministry when he popped across the Mediterranean for a quick preaching tour in Asia minor? No. Christ came and preached when the gospel itself first came to Ephesus. When Paul and his colleagues proclaimed the Christian message, Christ himself came and preached peace to the Ephesians.
This is staggering. Paul and others were the speakers, but Jesus was the preacher. Consider that. Paul has already said that Christ “himself is our peace” (2:14). In him is all the harmonizing fullness of God’s shalom. He is the integrating center of all things. In him all the parts finally fit together, and life comes into a deep and liberating cohesion. We will never find ultimate peace outside him. Jesus is our peace. This means he was both the one preaching and the one being preached—both the means and the message, the communicator and the content, the speaker and the sermon.
All those years ago in dusty, ancient Ephesus, as Paul and others labored away, making the case for Jesus, answering objections, fielding hostile questions, and explaining gospel truth to the uninterested, the confused, and the searching alike—in all this Christ was preaching Christ to the men and women in Ephesus. Through his fallible, human servants, Jesus preaches Jesus to the hearts of those who listen.
How could we ever want anything less than this for our preaching? When we open the word of God to the people of God, our longing is for Christ himself to come and make himself known to the hearts of those listening. That he would be preaching. That he would be who people remember.
- Portions in this section are adapted from Sam Allberry, “Ephesians 2 Wrecked My View of Preaching,” The Gospel Coalition (website), October 2, 2021, https://www .thegospelcoalition.org/.
This article is adapted from You’re Not Crazy: Gospel Sanity for Weary Churches by Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry.
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