What is preaching?

I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:

Here I explore the scriptural roots of our understanding of preaching.

‘Preaching’ is a rather important topic for us to consider—not least because it is the subject of this magazine! But contemporary use of the word has two connotations which need rethinking.

The first is the negative sense ‘He preached at me!’ implying an authoritative, one-sided, even hectoring quality to the speech. The second is more neutral, but equally mistaken: that preaching is something done by a special person, standing in a special place (lectern or pulpit), in a formal service within a church building.

The New Testament verb that we translate as ‘preach’ is kerysso from which we get the noun kerygma, meaning ‘the message’, and this term is used to refer to the gospel message that was preached in the first century world. But in the Greek Old Testament, kerysso translated the Hebrew term qarah, ‘to cry out’, and this takes us to the heart of what preaching is about.

The Call of God

This term is often used in the ordinary sense of calling to someone, or crying out. But it is also used of God, as he ‘calls’ creation into being, forming and filling it so that it is ‘good’. And it becomes the term for God’s own proclamation: he ‘calls’ Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3.4, and on Mt Sinai he ‘calls’ or proclaims the truth of his mercy and grace (Exodus 34.6).

This proclamation then becomes the means by which the leaders and priests tell the people of God’s pattern of life for them. They must ‘call out’ to the people the times of feasting (Leviticus 23.4), the times of sacrifices and offerings (Leviticus 23.27) and the times of Jubilee liberation (Leviticus 25.10). The ‘preaching’ or proclamation of God then becomes the ‘preaching’ to the people, as the words of God are passed on to them.

What happens when the generation who first heard God have died? The proclamation has been written down, to be passed from one generation to another, so that ‘reading this Torah’ is also described as qarah, the proclamation of God’s words. Paul continues this tradition when he exhorts Timothy not to neglect the ‘public reading of the Scriptures’ (1 Timothy 4.13).

Prophetic Preaching

But something goes wrong, and new forms of preaching are needed. The people have strayed from the Torah of God, and so need to be ‘called’ back. God ‘calls’ prophets, who in turn ‘call’ the people to return to his ways. When Hosea calls for the people to hear ‘the word of the Lord’, he laments the ‘swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and adultery’, listing precisely half of the Ten Commandments (Hosea 4.2).

Isaiah hears a voice crying out, and is called to cry out in his turn:

A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

All flesh is grass, and all its endurance is like the flower of the field. (Is 40.6)

This new proclamation is again written down so it can be heard again—layer upon layer of the call of God to his people. Yet once more, the people remain at a distance—this time, as they return from exile, not just at a spiritual distance but one of language, culture, and understanding.

So preaching takes a radical new turn: the word of God now needs not just proclaiming, but explaining.

Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform…Ezra opened the book…and the Levites…read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read (Nehemiah 8.4, 6, 8).

The Preaching of Jesus

All this shapes Jesus’ own ministry. He bursts onto the scene, proclaiming the new thing that God is doing, since ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand!’ (Mark 1.15). He both interprets the scriptures to his hearers (‘You have heard it said…’) and brings a fresh word from God (‘…but I say to you…’ Matt 5.21, 22). He calls others to share in passing on the proclamation (Matt 10.7) who will in turn commission yet others—and all this has been written to pass on to future generations.

The preaching of Jesus does not just happen in special buildings on special occasions, but in the fields, by the lake, and on the road—wherever people gather, in the open air or in their homes. It is not separated from ‘teaching’, so Jesus ‘preaches and teaches’ wherever he goes (Matt 4.23). It is no monologue, but expressed as Jesus asks and answers questions, and wrestles in debate with friend and foe. And in time, the one preaching becomes the one preached; the message is no longer the things Jesus said and did, but Jesus himself (Acts 9.20).

So preaching today declares the truth about God, passing on the words that God himself has declared. It does that primarily by directing people to the words of God in the written word of Scripture, and in closing the gap between the ancient word and the modern world, providing interpretation, explanation, and application. And it does so pointing to the living word, Jesus, enabling fresh encounter with him by his Spirit.

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28 thoughts on “What is preaching?”

  1. “pointing to the living word, Jesus, enabling fresh encounter with him by his Spirit.”

    To me, this is the heart of preaching (as I have experienced people doing it well). Drawing us into the presence of Jesus, as the preacher speaks. Not just talking ‘about’ Jesus, but helping those present know Jesus being present too, our Lord and our God. And welcoming Him. Adoring Him. Humbled and touched by Him.

    To me that is dynamic preaching in the Spirit. In the early days of being a committed Christian I was really blessed by the preaching of Ken MacDougall. In the services he led, as he preached, each time we felt Jesus was there with us. His preaching acknowledged that presence. Jesus was not an ‘outside’ topic of study. He was with us. It was worship. His ministry was accompanied by experience of charismatic gifts among the followers. How could we not *long* to go to those services?

  2. Lloyd-Jones said something like: I can forgive a preacher much if he gives me a sense of the presence of God. Preaching he said is logic on fire. I’d want to amend that a little. I’d say it is biblical logic and I’d not want the word ‘fire’ to be stereotyped. A man has unction when he brings us God’s truth with power whatever his style,

    I think he also said something like preaching is God’s truth mediated through personality. True as long as personality is not stylised or artificial but natural, natural that is tempered by humility ad grace,

    • I love that quote.

      I always find it a bit strange if someone preaches, and it just sounds like an academic thesis ‘about’ Jesus in the third person, like He’s not present. Acknowledging the presence of Jesus seems polite and right, with the preacher drawing us into His presence.

      After all, it’s a strange party, if the host is left outside.

      ‘Come to Me,’ says Jesus, and we should. I think the preacher should draw attention to the fact that Jesus is here, standing in the midst of us in our gathering, to be worshipped and honoured.

      So yes, I think the Lloyd-Jones quote is bang on.

  3. Best comment I ever heard on preaching was by one of my favourite evangelists, Robin Gamble, who once said to me: “I only have three sermons: come to Jesus, come back to Jesus, come closer to Jesus”

  4. Actually the quote ” Preaching is the revelation of truth through personality comes from the pen of one Phillips Brooks who provided us with, among other things, the Christmas carol “O little town of Bethlehem”. Having read his works and heard LLoyd-Jones preach, I am convinced he would certainly not have entertained the idea of lauding the cult of personality in any shape or form.
    Which brings me to Simon’s citing of “one of [his] favourite evangelists”; whose sermons could be expressed in three points : “come to Jesus, come back to Jesus, come closer to Jesus.” Was Ian (Paul) being somewhat long-winded therefore in expounding a more elaborate treatise about our “understanding of preaching”?

    • Pity that such a cult of personality did grow and still exists around MLJ

      No, I don’t think Ian was being long winded in his presentation of his understanding of Jesus – but neither was he preaching – if he was I am sure he will have presented Jesus and invited us to come to him, come back to him, or come closer to him.

      • Simon- Personality cults have always existed around popular preachers. Did you yourself not speak of one of your “favourite evangelists”? Whether or not you have a tendency in this direction; when this particular person classifies his preferences under three terse headings , given the present theological climate, how much substance actually undergirds his sermon material? The “all about Jesus” school of homiletics embraces a very wide spectrum of religious thought! If in doubt, compare some of the positive asides to your first contribution here with the nature of the debate in the next post. The modern “Jesus” has chameleon-like qualities.

    • Hello Colin,
      Do you think Ian Paul was being long winded? Or short winded taking account of how much has been written on preaching? Or is Ian, your guru?
      I think you presume too much, if you conclude, Simon for example, has read little.
      You seem to have guru’s on your mind at the moment. Are we to conclude that you’ve learned nothing, positive and negative, from the writings and the preaching of other preachers.
      Surely the question is not how well known, famous, is the preacher but how faithful in preaching to few or many. Is it not an honour to do so, to be granted that privilege? Even if it is far from easy, as it is not merely a matter of intellectual ability and application, as you well know. There will be times of unction and flow and others where the words will seem to fall flat on the floor and meet with irked resistance and yet even there God will use.
      Another guru has said that preaching is worship, but this will likely be a misquote as I don’t want to fall foul of your guruisation by citing it fully.
      This was written before I saw Simon’s response.
      If MLJ had a cult following it was before my time, but I ‘ve listened to a number of his sermons online, and though the language is of its time, and the length would bring on restlessness in today’s church he still has something to say eg spiritual depression series also published in book form and much else.
      It is amazing how we can pontificate on preacher teachers that the Lord has used in the futherance of his Kingdom even when they may not be our cup of tea.
      Last, I’d say, you really need to be there. Recording, technology, somehow creates some sort of, spiritual interference even if slight.

  5. Colin

    I may be wrong, it’s certainly not unknown, but I think Lloyd-Jones said it too. Perhaps he cited Brooks. And you’re right L-J would not have entertained the idea of a personality cult. My qualifications were not because I thought L-J was wrong but because modern ears may hear him differently.

    • Thanks—that is interesting. But it does very much depend on the skills of the lecturer and preacher.

      Certainly any monologue must be supplement with questions, exploration, and dialogue to be effective. So perhaps monologue preaching makes a contribution, but cannot be the only or even main means of teaching.

      And again, worth noting that the modern, monologue, 20 minute sermon from a pulpit is a modern artifice.

    • I remember the same query being raised when I was young. A few of us (mainly in our twenties) started a once a month bible teaching meeting for young folks. The preaching was an hour or more and the hall which held around 200 was packed. This continued for a number of years.

      Preaching is not a lecture. It is a combination of teaching and exhortation in a heralding form. It has summons and authority in the name of Christ. It is proclamation. There are of course other valuable methods but preaching over the centuries has been God’s means of growth and I doubt we have sufficiently changed that it will not work today. The important thing is to communicate in language people understand and to do so plainly.

      I believe much ‘preaching’ fails because it cuts out the hard edges that convict and bring the fear of God into human hearts.

  6. Last, I can recall reading somewhere, something along the lines, something far clearer so more poignant.
    A well known preacher was asked by the preacher of that day what he thought of the sermon?- Well prepared, a lot of work has gone into it, mentioned the historical context, packed in lots of good information, but you’ve hidden my Lord and I don’t know what you’ve done with him.

    • Sorry. Last of the last. How is Christ to be preached from (all of) the Old Testament? A huge topic even as Ian mentions it, that is, something that would not be acceptable in a Synagogue, as a Synagogue sermon.

      • Yes. I remember reading Goldsworthy saying if your sermon could be preached by a rabbi or an imam it is not a Christian sermon.

        The OT was essentially about Christ. At least that is what he says. We’ll spend eternity loving and adoring Christ. We may as well start just now. Speak well of Christ was the ancient wisdom.

  7. In ancient Greece, it was the diplomatic representative, or keryx, who, on behalf of rulers, delivered decisive declarations to their subjects and ultimatums to other states.

    A prime example of the keryx’s role was described by Thucydides, in his account of the build-up to the Peloponnesian War. To avert war, the Spartan ambassadors were engaged in intense negotiations with their Athenian counterparts.

    The Spartan representatives (Ramphias, Melesippus, and Agesander) demanded that the Athenians end their blockade of Potidia, free Aegina and revoke the onerous trade sanctions that they had imposed on the Megarans.

    Instead of a long-winded recital of Spartan grievances, the bluntly worded declaration was a last￾ditch attempt at peace which, if heeded, would have averted the eventual horrific war that the Athenians lost. It went: “the Lacedaemonians desire that there should be peace, which may be had if you will permit the Grecians to be governed by their own laws.”

    As a modern analogy, as a last-ditch attempt to prevent the Falklands War, we might consider the ultimatum issued to Argentina in U.N. Security Council Resolution 502 to be a kerygma. In that context, Sir Anthony Parson, the U.K.’s Permanent Representative to the U.N., who delivered it to his Argentinian counterpart, functioned as the British keryx.

    After the Spartans defeated the Athenians and concluded the Peloponnesian War, Thrasybulus was an Athenian exile, who led a successful armed revolt against the 30 oligarchs (tyrants) who had been installed by the Spartans, but who initiated a lethal purge of their opponents.

    The Roman biographer, Cornelius Nepos, explained: “ Another noble action of Thrasybulus was this: when peace was made and he held the chief power at Athens, he proposed a law providing that with reference to what had been done in the past no one should be accused or punished; and they called that law ‘the law of amnesty.’ And he not only saw to it that the law was passed, but also that it was enforced; for whenever anyone of those who had been in exile with him wished to put to death those who had been officially pardoned, he prevented it and remained true to what he had promised.”

    While Thrasybulus’ public declaration of amnesty was ensured by his own honour. It assured that, as promised, there would be no reprisals against those 3,500 Athenians who were privileged by the 30 Tyrants during their short-lived ‘reign of terror’. His declaration also demanded their complete surrender to the prevailing forces.

    Although preaching and teaching often go hand on hand, the role of the Greek keryx may help us to distinguish the former from the latter.

  8. Asked to comment on a preacher to whom she had just listened, HM Queen Elizabeth said, ‘He preached a very good sermon. And then he preached another one!’


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