Is There Room for Doubt in The Pulpit?

By Adam Brown –

“If you don’t believe it, don’t preach it.”

This statement seems reasonable. Necessary even. It does not seem possible for a preacher of God’s Word to authentically or effectively fulfill his assignment to feed Christ’s sheep if he does not believe what he is preaching.

The old adage regarding comprehension, “If it’s a mist in the pulpit, it’ll be a fog in the pews,” might be leveraged to say something about faith: “If there’s doubt in the pulpit, it’ll become disbelief in the pews.” Indeed, there is something that rings true about this.

John Stott comments on the power of sincerity of faith in the pulpit:

A friend once met [David Hume] hurrying along a London street and asked him where he was going. Hume replied that he was going to hear George Whitefield preach. ‘But surely, ‘his friend asked in astonishment, ‘you don’t believe what Whitefield preaches, do you?’ ‘No, I don’t’ answered Hume, ‘but he does.’

John Stott, Between Two Worlds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982. 270

Stott’s point is that sincerity of faith is not only a basic requirement for preaching, it is an attractive asset as well.

But. . . What if the preacher has doubts? Here are three thoughts about doubt in the pulpit.

1. Some Doubt in The Pulpit is Unavoidable

Some men are given the gift of faith to such a measure that there is no room for doubt. These men can be tremendous treasures to the church, instilling hope and confidence in those who sit under their preaching. These men can also be tremendous tyrants to the church, ruthless in their inability to sympathize with the failings of the weak.

Most Christians―most preachers even―have some doubts. Most of us can join the distraught father in his prayer, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” as he pleads with Jesus to exorcise a demon from his son (Mark 9:14–29).

The assumption that absolute certainty, perfect clarity, and unblemished obedience is required before a man can stand up to proclaim the Word of God would leave pulpits empty everywhere.

Moreover, a pinch of doubt is a powerful tonic against prideful and needlessly dogmatic preaching.

2. Some Doubt in The Pulpit is Pastoral

There are degrees to doubt. At some point, doubt becomes a liability to the preaching of God’s Word. To guard against unqualified preaching, Paul wrote to Titus in Crete:

He [the prospective elder and preacher] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Titus 1:9

Doubt regarding the primary doctrines of the gospel―such as the Trinity, the Person and work of Christ, justification by grace through faith, the infallibility of the Bible as God’s Word, among others― makes it impossible to fulfill this mandate.

Up to the point of elder disqualification, however, the public declaration of doubt might serve a very pastoral purpose.

In 1 Timothy 4:11–16, Paul instructs the young preacher in Ephesus to devote himself to the ministry of the Word. In the middle of this stunning string of exhortations, the apostle writes, “. . . so that all may see your progress. . .” What kind of progress does Paul have in mind? Is it merely mechanical and homiletical? Or, might this progress have something to do with intellectual comprehension, doctrinal confidence, and personal progressive sanctification?

In the context of the local church, members are to watch the spiritual development of their preachers over time. This includes the flourishing of faith and conviction, as well as the maturation of personal holiness.

But how will this progress be seen if the preacher hides behind the pulpit, pretending to possess a level of doubtless conviction that is not actual?

By carefully exposing personal doubts and struggles, a preacher is able to create space in the church for sincere theological discourse that enhances transparency and vulnerability of fellowship in and around the Word of God. These conditions are a spiritual greenhouse for growth.

3. Some Doubt in The Pulpit is Necessary

Last Sunday I preached about the treasures of justification that are given to us through the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1–5).

I challenged the church with this exhortation, “The greatest treasures in all of reality are not found in any earthly wealth, but between the covers of this Book, the Bible” (paraphrased).

Then, I asked the church if they believed that. In spite of various nods and visual affirmations, I offered a pastoral rebuke, saying, “I don’t think that you do.” Immediately thereafter, I very purposefully revealed my own doubt, saying, “And, I don’t know if I do either.”

On one level, I most definitely do believe that the greatest treasures in all of reality are found in the written promises of God. Neither I, nor most of the people in our church, have any intellectual doubt about it.

On a deeper level, however, our lives do not readily demonstrate this belief. By taking an inventory of how we spend our time and money, it is fair to suggest that we seek worldly treasures more than we seek after the kingdom of God. That was my point. Our belief is real, but it is shallow. It is not transforming our behaviour the way it would if we truly, deeply, believed it. When put to scrutiny, a real and present Doubt is revealed in us.

It would be hypocritical and insincere―not to mention spiritually abusive― of me to rebuke the church for their deep-level-doubt without including myself in this analysis also.

Thus, revealing some doubt in the pulpit was necessary if I was to issue the rebuke and if I wanted to lead our church in pursuit of the greater treasures. By exposing my own doubt, I intended to establish a tone that would edify the church by helping us to develop a deeper conviction and desire to believe with action.

Is There Room for Doubt in The Pulpit?

Yes.

So long as doubt does not undermine the very essence of the gospel, an admission of doubt in the public preaching of the Word can be used by God to help a church to discover greater intimacy with Him and with one another.

Doubt, properly handled, is an essential tool in the kit of an effective preacher.

Why Do the Hard Work of Exposition?

By Angie Brown –

[Originally posted at Discerning Daughters on November 2, 2017]

“Your story and my story might have the power to amuse someone or impress someone, even inspire someone. But let me tell you, only God’s story centered in the person and work of Christ has the power to make dead people alive…

That’s why Him we proclaim, we proclaim Christ and not ourselves…

We’re not out to make friends or fans for ourselves. We’re out to reconcile people to God. That’s why we do the work of exposition. We start with the Scriptures, we’re doing the work to figure out what they have to say, what the main point or implication is first. Then we’re figuring out what story will help to open up the hearts and minds of women to see their need for, and to be open to, accepting the implication of this passage for their lives. That’s how we want to use story.”

Nancy Guthrie challenges women Bible teachers and writers to do the hard work of exposition to make the mystery of Christ known. This is a must listen for all women Bible teachers and writers! Thank-you Nancy for your work to the glory of Christ!

Listen to her podcast on  here.

Preaching with Emotional Impact

As mentioned previously, thinking about God is required if we are to love God. As preachers we do not want to foster cold, heartless thinking. Rather, we want our people to think emotionally. We want our preaching to inflame the passions of our people for the heart of God. Prime and Begg make a distinction between the intellectual target of teaching and the emotional/behavioural target of preaching:

In teaching we aim to give people an understanding of God’s truth. Beginning often with the first principles of a doctrine, we will make sure that people grasp it as best they can in all aspects. Then in preaching we make an appeal to people’s wills, as well as to their emotions, to respond to the Word that they have now understood through teaching… Considerable harm may be done to people if they are called upon to act without first possessing a proper foundation in their understanding of that action. Many have made an emotional response to preaching, and have not understood afterward what they have done. That is irresponsible of the preacher and damaging to the hearers. Preaching at its best maintains a balance between teaching and preaching.[1]

Whether we make a clear definitive distinction between teaching and preaching, or we consider them to be two aspects of the preaching ministry, it is essential that we ensure that our ministry targets both the head and the heart in order to motivate the hands.

Just as it is wonderfully intellectual, the Gospel is deeply emotional. God created human beings in His image but we rebelled against God. This betrayal of our Creator ought to grieve our hearts. God became man and we brutally murdered Him by nailing Him to a Cross. The sheer violence of this act ought to affect our hearts, not to mention the aching realization that we killed the One who gave us life. The deep love of God, however, shines through all of this because it is while were still sinners and enemies of God that Christ died for us, the ungodly (Rom 5:6-8). It is important that we help our congregation to connect with the truth of the Gospel in an emotional way.

Unfortunately, familiarity breeds apathy. It is so easy to sanitize the Gospel of all emotion. It quickly becomes an emotionless transaction between us and God. The challenge for the preacher, therefore, is to continuously find ways to help the congregation to reconnect with the heart of God through the Gospel.

It is interesting to me that many in our pews will shudder at the thought of animal sacrifice, but sit easily through a description of Good Friday. This does not mean that these are bad or heartless people. It is simply an illustration to prove the point that we can quickly be desensitized to the most graphic violence simply through repetition. Since, however, animal sacrifice elicits such a strong reaction Leviticus 1-5 becomes the preacher’s ally, helping him to shock the congregation into a fresh emotional appreciation for the sacrifice of Christ. The near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 is another example than can be used to show the deep love of God the Father, that He would sacrifice His only Son for us. There are many such examples throughout the Bible.

It is important that we, as Christians, do not grow cold in our hearts. Jesus warned the doctrinally committed Ephesian Church: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev 2:3-5). The works Christ refers to are works motivated by love, works fueled by emotion that had been stirred in them through the Gospel. Jesus does not want us to be doctrinally sound but emotionally cold. He wants us to be doctrinally sound and emotionally engaged with the heart of God.

More to the point, Christ desires his people to be moved in their affections so that our allegiance to Him is not coerced but rather wooed. As Piper says:

When God sends his emissaries (preachers) to declare, “Your God reigns.” his aim is not to constrain man’s submission by an act of raw authority; his aim is to ravish our affections with irresistible displays of glory. The only submission that fully reflects the worth and glory of the King is glad submission. Begrudging submission berates the King. No gladness in the subject, no glory to the King… When the kingdom is a treasure, submission is a pleasure.[2]

Our emotions help us to engage our lives submissively with joy. When our hearts dry up then our Christian journey becomes forced, stale, and bordering on counterfeit. Therefore, we must continually be renewed in our knowledge of God’s glory so that our love for God remains hot and our slavery to God remains freedom.

There is not one single way to impact the congregation emotionally. Every congregation is different and every preacher is different. Sparking an emotional response cannot be formulaic.  At the root, however, emotion that comes in response to preaching must be a response to nothing other than the Gospel and the Person of God. Indeed, the preacher must be careful not to hypnotize the congregation, and thus flush out emotion that is misplaced. That is, any emotion that does not flow from the believer’s response to the Gospel is not properly placed.  Music is a powerful means to prepare the heart to hear the Gospel. However, the abuse of music can cause a congregation to fall into a collective trance. A hypnotic trance is not the goal of biblical preaching. Preaching or praying over music, therefore, must be employed with tremendous care and wisdom. It cannot be said to be wrong one hundred percent of the time. However, if it is music alone that elicits an emotional response then the preacher has failed in both his means and his end.

The Bible contains the full range of human emotions and therefore every preaching text must be carefully studied to see which emotion ought to be tugged at by the sermon. Since all sermons find their climax in Christ, however, all sermons ought to have a ring of hope. Some preaching texts, such as texts from Judges 19 or Ezekiel 16, will cause despair and heavy heartedness. Therefore, the sermon ought to permit, yes even encourage (.), despair and heavy heartedness. However, the answer to these chapters is the hope we have in Christ. Therefore, take care to leave the congregation with hope, which leads to peace and joy.

Speaking about marriage, Ravi Zacharias writes: “Without the will, marriage is a mockery; without emotion, it is a drudgery. You need both.”[3] A similar comment could be said about preaching: Without the intellect, preaching is a mockery; without emotion, it is a drudgery. You need both. Indeed, Zacharias continues to develop his understanding of the relationship between the will and the heart concluding that they are inseparable. In marriage, the will creates a foundation for the heart and the heart fuels the will. So is the relationship between the intellect and emotion in preaching. Both are needed because each contributes to the other, thus safeguarding the impact of preaching from both mockery and drudgery.

[1] Begg and Prime, Pastor, 125-126.

[2] Piper, Glory, 25.

[3] Zacharias, Isaac & Rebecca, 30.

Impact versus Application

As we have explored the past three weeks, application-based sermons fail to achieve the transformation they seek. Why? There are many reasons, four that we will briefly articulate here. One, they falsely assume that the preacher can apply a text for a hearer, both in theory and in practice. Two, they overload the hearer with pseudo-laws that the hearer rarely ever intends to implement. Three, they tend to ignore – and sometimes deny – the subtle but necessary transformative work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Four, they make the congregation the central focus of preaching rather than Jesus Christ.

Does this mean that the sermons we preach are doomed to be fruitless powerless exercises of futility? Absolutely not! Preaching changes the world, shining light where there once was darkness and breathing life into people who once were dead. In a word, sermons are meant to have IMPACT. Yes: real, enduring, eternal, transformative impact.

So far, this blog stream has attempted to demonstrate that the application portion of a sermon is directed toward Christ and not toward the congregation. Therefore, we need not – indeed we should not – apply the Bible to ourselves and our congregation. This would displace Christ in our preaching. However, by preaching the preacher does help the congregation explore the impact of the preaching text on their lives.

In some senses, what I have just written is only important in the world of semantics. Does it really matter if the “so what?” part of a sermon is called impact instead of application? Clearly it does not. Therefore, if you would be more comfortable saying that we must first apply a preaching text to Christ and then apply that same preaching text to the congregation through Christ, then so be it. I have no quarrel. I have chosen to use the word impact, however, to make clear the distinction between the second and third movements of preaching. That is, I want it to be abundantly clear that to apply a preaching text to a congregation without first understanding that text in light of Jesus is not really the goal of Christian preaching. So, call this third movement congregational application or call it congregational impact. Whatever you call it, however, please recognize the need to first apply any biblical text to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Most Christian sermons require a clearly articulated congregational impact in order to be full and faithful sermons. This impact is the fruit of an aptly selected and contextualized preaching text that has properly explored Christ-centred application. The Bible is about Jesus written for humanity to the glory of God. Therefore, the more we see Jesus, the more we will be personally and corporately impacted. Both this Christ-focused application and personal/corporate impact brings glory to God.

It is true that some preaching texts are so focused on God that finding personal impact is not as easily discerned. As Johnson writes, “Some texts even leave us – and our actions – out of the picture; some texts are about God. Period.”[1] Likewise, Piper asserts that the greatness and the glory of God are themselves relevant and sufficient for our people because “our people are starving for God.”[2] These statements are absolutely true and a wise preacher will heed their counsel. Nevertheless, even these texts impact the congregation. Often these are the texts that are the most transformational because they force us outside of ourselves. They compel us to lose focus on our selfish little empires for forty minutes in order to focus on the eternal glory of the kingdom of God. These are the sermons that help us to actually apply – if I dare use that word (.) – Luke 9:23-25:

And Jesus said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”

How wonderful it is when God’s people lose themselves for thirty or forty minutes to focus on the eternal glory of God. A sermon that does this, though it may provide no other piece of application, is transforming the hearts of men, women, and children. It has impact.

This seems to me to be a perfect example to articulate the difference between the classic felt-need for application versus the liberating real-need for congregational impact. Put another way: “We are not asking people to apply a truth; we are inviting people into a truth to participate in the new reality shaped by the truth… We want people to throw themselves on God, not on their own abilities.”[3] Our sermons must point to God in and through Jesus. When we lose ourselves in Christ-centred preaching we are only beginning to find ourselves. When we insistently point the sermons toward ourselves then we lose any hope of real change. Application belongs to Christ. Impact is for us.[4]

[1] Johnson, Glory, 136.

[2] Piper (Glory, 10-11) also states that “application is essential in the normal course of preaching…”

[3] Johnson, Glory, 139.

[4] For too long we have turned the Bible into moralizing application. This misses the heart of the Gospel. By being disciplined in our applying the Bible to Christ and then seeking impact for ourselves, we can properly safeguard ourselves and our congregations from legalistic preaching that fails to communicate the Gospel.

Relevant Preaching (Pt 3)

We live in an instant, give-it-to-me now culture. We expect to consume material goods, people, and information at an alarming rate. We want slogans and soundbites, how-to’s and should-do’s. We also want someone else to do the heavy lifting for us. Perhaps our pastors can do the transformative work for us, chewing and digesting the truth so that all we need to do is swallow the how-to pabulum. But preaching does not work like that. Transformation does not work like that. While attending a Bible Conference at Muskoka Bible Centre I heard Andy Bannister, the lead apologist for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries Canada, say: “The Gospel is not intended to make bad people good. The Gospel makes dead people alive.” A transformative sermon is not 7-Ways to Be a Better You. A transformative sermon is an encounter with the living God in the face of Jesus Christ through the revealing power of the Holy Spirit. Show people Christ and they will be transformed. Show them one more how-to and they will simply stumble over the stumbling stone (Rom 9:30-33).

Relevant Preaching (Pt 2)

This idea, that applying a text is not the preacher’s responsibility, requires a little further explanation. If applying the text is not the preacher’s responsibility, then whose responsibility is it? The answer is twofold: it is the responsibility of the hearer in the power and instruction of the Holy Spirit to connect the preached Word of God with his or her own life.

Every life is different. Every person’s struggles are uniquely fitted to that person. While we can agree that we might share certain struggles in common, the exact contours of every person’s life are different. Therefore, it is an impossible request that a preacher apply a text to anyone’s life. The role of the preacher is to articulate the truth from Scripture. From there, each person must invite the Holy Spirit to help him or her apply that truth to the realities of his or her own life. This application has two parts. First, the person must identify the relationship between the biblical truth and the circumstances of his or her life. Second, the person must put the biblical truth into practice by the way he or she chooses to live. A preacher can and should deliver the truth and provide some practical assistance for application, but the rest is up to each person who is listening in the power and partnership of the Holy Spirit.

These realities are sobering for preacher and hearer alike. As preachers, we must come to terms with our own limitations and the extent of our call. As hearers we must also recognize the role we all must play. The miracle in all of this is that the Spirit of God will use one sermon to bring about the healing and transformation of His people in a multitude of unique ways.

By contrast, application-based sermons run the serious risk of missing the mark more often than not. Rather than inviting people to learn a transformative truth, an application-based sermon must give specific exhortation for immediate implementation. Forget that the pastor is powerless to ensure this happens. Who has successfully applied all the application points of application-based preaching? Surely this approach is doomed to failure from the outset. For example, say a church-goer receives three application points a week, forty-six times a year. That person will have received one hundred and thirty eight (138) must-do’s, could-do’s, or should-do’s in that year alone. If that person keeps up that pace for a decade, then he or she will have received one thousand three hundred and eighty (1,380) how-to’s to try to integrate into his or her life. If that person is given the gift of health and he or she continues to attend church at that rate for forty years, then the number has increased to five thousand five hundred and twenty (5,520). Why stop there? It is not inconceivable that a person could go to church regularly to listen to a sermon for eighty years. If this were the case, that person could hear upwards of eleven thousand and forty (11,040) ways to live a Christian life. Even if we lower the number on account of duplicate application points, this scenario illustrates a powerful point. Who could remember all that application? And, who could successfully apply all that application? This makes the Law of Israel, which only contains 613 laws, tame by comparison.

Relevant Preaching (Pt 1)

There is a lot of talk these days about the need to be relevant in our preaching. On one level this is pure common sense and self evident. An irrelevant sermon can hardly be the goal of any preacher. However, the term “relevant” seems to mean many different things to many different people. Relevancy has become a mask that we wear to discuss whether or not the sermon tickled our ears. And, any student of Scripture will know to beware of such a desire (2 Tim 4:3-4). In spite of the malleability of this term, however, I have found that what most seem to mean when they say that a sermon is relevant is that it can be easily applied to their life. There seems to be a real hunger in congregational appetite for the preacher to take a biblical text and transform it into two or three imperative pseudo-laws or therapeutic comfort statements. In my own experience, this is what relevancy seems to mean to most people. But is this an acceptable understanding of relevancy? Goldsworthy challenges such thinking and I heartily agree with him:

Preaching must be relevant, I’m sure we would all agree. But what does “relevant” mean? Who determines what is relevant and on what basis?… Relevance is relative. It is relative to how we perceive a situation. Often it is based on as simple a thing as enjoyment. A sermon was deemed relevant because the preacher stimulated and even entertained us. Maybe it seemed relevant because it confirmed our already formed ideas or prejudices… In short, what is relevant is defined by the gospel; what is helpful is defined by the gospel. The first question we all need to ask in not, “Was it relevant?”; “Did I find it helpful?”; or “Were we blessed?”; but “How did the study (the sermon) testify to Christ and his gospel as the power of God for salvation?”[1]

Need we preach relevant sermons? Absolutely. What constitutes a relevant sermon? The degree to which it faithfully bears witness to the Gospel of God in the Person and Ministry of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. Anything and everything else – imperative and therapeutic application points included – is irrelevant by comparison.

Though I make this statement about relevancy with some boldness, my own ministry has not always been as confident. Many years ago I read Johnson’s preaching manual, The Glory of Preaching, during a season when I felt buried by the burden shared by so many pastors. This burden was the demand and pressure to tell people how. It felt as though nothing mattered to the congregation as much as the last two minutes of the message, when I would try to boil down a week’s worth of study and prayer – which is usually the culmination of years of study in or around a particular preaching text – into a short succinct list of one, two, or three application points. The pressure to find three common how-to’s for a congregation as diverse as snowflakes in their wants and needs, ages and stages, crises and celebrations, was too much to handle week in and week out. The burden was additionally heavy because I knew deep down that it was an impossible task. This, and my own lack of life-experience, made my preaching seem to me to be hollow and false, contrived and forced. Imagine my relief, therefore, when I read the following words:

I want now to do what I can to lift a horrible burden off of preachers. It is the burden of ‘applying the text’ to the everyday life of the hearers. Yes, we can, and we should, try to help people understand the text’s radical implications. But applying the text is not the preacher’s responsibility.[2]

This was exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right time. It affirmed what I had been feeling all along. Finally, I was free. If you are a preaching pastor and need a similar release, then I invite you to take it. I also encourage you to get a copy of Johnson’s book so that you can more fully learn and appreciate the wisdom he shares. If you are a church-goer and you expect or even require your preaching pastor to give you easy to understand, one size fits all, plug and play application then I challenge you to consider what kind of unfair yoke you are putting on his shoulders, both to his detriment and to yours.

[1] Goldsworthy, Whole Bible, 61-62.

[2] Johnson, Glory, 158.

Summary: Preaching Christ

The whole Bible is about Jesus. When we preach the Bible, therefore, our first movement from any preaching text must always be toward Christ. When we skip this crucial step, applying passages directly to ourselves without first applying them to Jesus, then we have usurped the centre of Scripture, which belongs uniquely to Jesus. And, it is no small error to put ourselves in the place of Christ.

Each section of the Bible presents its own challenges in this regard. The road to Jesus is slightly different depending on which section of the Bible the preaching text is from. What remains important regardless of preaching text, however, is that our application always begins with Jesus, not with ourselves.

In the Old Testament we can apply the preaching text to Jesus by charting redemptive-historical progression through history and revelation, identifying prophesies of promise and fulfillment, describing typological pictures of Christ, highlighting analogies between God and Israel with Jesus and the Church, tracing longitudinal themes through the whole of Salvation History, contrasting the Old Covenant from the New Covenant, and exploring New Testament references to the Old Testament. In the Gospels we must ensure that we are constantly illuminating the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus as our hope and our example. The book of Acts reminds us that Jesus is still very much present by the Holy Spirit in the activity of the Church. Both orthodoxy and orthopraxy as found in the epistles must be firmly built on the foundation of Christ. And finally, Revelation is a fearfully awesome unveiling of the risen and glorified Jesus Christ, both in this age and the age to come.

Does this mean that the Bible is to have no impact on us? Absolutely not! There is no book that will impact us greater than the Bible. Just because the Bible is not about us does not mean that it is not for us. The Bible is for us and it makes an eternal impact on our lives.

Preaching the Book of Revelation

The book of Revelation begins: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His servants the things that must soon take place” (Rev 1:1). Jesus is both the object of Revelation, that is the one being revealed, and the agent of Revelation, that is the one who does the revealing.[1] Throughout the book we see profound portraits of Christ, which help us to more fully understand who He is. The glorified Christ, of whom Peter, James, and John, saw a glimpse on the mountain of Transfiguration, is uncovered for us in awesome power and glory. Even the sections of Revelation that seem to be about others ultimately teach us something about Jesus. For, it is Jesus who is in control of history. He is the One who is worthy to open the seals and to bring this age to its alarming conclusion. He is the One who defeats the anti-christ, the false prophet, and that ancient serpent, the devil. He is the One who throws them into the Lake of Fire. He is the One who has authority over Death, Hades, Heaven, and Hell. He is the climactic Judge at the Great White throne. He is the One who is worthy of honour and glory and power forever and ever. If anyone other than Jesus becomes the main subject of Revelation then the preacher has missed the mark.

[1] Johnson (Discipleship, 14) writes: “‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ’: The title is ‘The Lifting of the Cover, the Pulling Back of the Curtain, The Opening Up, The Breaking Through of Jesus Christ.’ The title of the book is ‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ by Jesus Christ about Jesus Christ.’”

Preaching the Epistles

The epistles of the New Testament provide commentary on the Gospels. They articulate the doctrine and practice of the Church based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament Scriptures. It is therefore impossible to remove Jesus from the epistles.[1]

It is easiest to apply the doctrine of the epistles to Jesus because they clearly speak about Him. There are a great many doctrinal passages, however, that directly address human beings rather than God. For example, sin is a human problem. God does not sin, which means that Jesus, who is fully God, does not sin. If Jesus does not sin, then how is the preacher supposed to apply passages about sin to Jesus? First, humanity’s sin problem is the reason for Jesus’ Incarnation. Therefore, a passage like Romans 3:9-20, which declares that no human being is righteous, provides the preacher with the awesome task of expounding the reason for and achievement of the sinless life and sacrificial death of Jesus. This is precisely what Paul proceeds to do in Romans 3:21-31.

Any doctrine about humanity must be applied to Jesus because Jesus Himself is human. Therefore, the similarities and differences between fallen humanity and Jesus need to be explored by the preacher. For example, Paul contrasts Adam as a type of Christ in Romans 5:12-21. According to these verses, human beings fall into one of two categories. Each person is either in-Adam or in-Christ.

Whatever the doctrine, it finds is fullest expression in a right understanding of Jesus. There is no doctrine that can stand outside of Christ, and therefore all doctrine must be applied to and through Jesus.

The more challenging parts of the epistles to apply to Jesus are the passages concerning the practice of the Church. These passages directly exhort believers to behave in a certain way. Similar to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, any exhortation to the Church in Scripture is an exhortation from Christ calling the Church to be like Christ. Therefore, anything asked of the Church has been perfectly exemplified by Jesus. Providing the congregation with an example from Christ’s life will strengthen the preacher’s message. Secondly, the ability to obey Christ’s commands is only possible because of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The congregation must be continually taken to the Cross and reminded of the Spirit’s ministry in their lives in order to avoid moralistic works based sermons.

The epistles fall apart if preached apart from Jesus. Both the doctrine and practice of the Church, which is found in the epistles, must be built on a strong foundation, which is Christ. Remove the foundation and the whole structure collapses.[2]

[1] Clowney, All of Scripture, 49-50.

[2] For more on preaching Christ from the epistles read: Greidanus, Modern Preacher, chapter 12.

Preaching the Book of Acts

Acts begins with the ascension of Jesus into heaven. Unlike the Gospels, therefore, Jesus is not front-and-centre, in an earthly sense, throughout the book. This does not mean, however that Acts is not about Jesus. Indeed, without Jesus there would be no Acts of His Apostles. He remains the foundational subject of the book, as the early Church endeavours to carry on His earthly ministry in and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Neither Peter nor Paul is the principle actor in book of Acts. Jesus alone remains the lead. This under-girding reality must be preached as the basis of every message from Acts.

Furthermore, Jesus must be preached as the active leader of the Church, the head of the body. Whatever the Church does, Jesus is doing. Whenever the Church is being persecuted, Jesus is being persecuted. Wherever the apostles go, there goes Christ. By the measure the Church grows, so grows the reign of Christ in the hearts of men and women. Acts provides preachers with the tremendous opportunity to preach the presence of Jesus in the world today through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the activity of the Church. To separate Jesus from the Church is to decapitate the Church. Therefore, to preach the Church must always be to preach Christ.[1] This may not be self-evident for the congregation and therefore it falls to the preacher to underscore this profound reality at every turn.

[1] Clowney, All of Scripture, 56-57.

Preaching the Gospels

Jesus is the main subject of each of the four Gospels. Therefore, the art of applying Gospel passages to Jesus is a relatively easy one. Nevertheless, there remain a couple of tricky exceptions, such as applying Jesus’ own teaching to Jesus and applying Old Testament concepts in the Gospels to Jesus.

Sometimes Jesus is directly teaching about Himself and sometimes Jesus is exhorting His hearers to behave in a certain way. Distinguishing when Jesus is teaching about Himself and when He is exhorting others is a very important first step. For example, Jesus is teaching about Himself, His ministry, and the Kingdom of God in Mark 4. In passages like Mark 4, it is important to help the congregation to see that the primary focus of the teaching is Jesus, not the congregation. When this is well accomplished, the task of applying the text to Jesus is successfully completed.

On the other hand, for much of Matthew 5-7, Jesus is exhorting His hearers. In passages like Matthew 5-7 there is a necessary step that often feels unnatural. That is, the preacher must first apply Jesus’ own teaching to Jesus Himself. For example, it is instructive to demonstrate for the congregation that Jesus perfectly exemplifies all that He is teaching to others. Where possible, it is helpful to point to actual places in the Gospel where Jesus illustrates the point He is teaching by the way in which He lives His life.

For example, Matthew 5:38-39, which instructs us not to retaliate, is perfectly fulfilled in Jesus on the Cross in Matthew 27. Once Jesus’ teaching is applied directly to Jesus, then the congregation can be exhorted both to do as Jesus commands and to do as Jesus does. This strengthens the overall message and ensures that we are consistent in our application of Scripture.

The other delicate point about applying the Gospels to Jesus, which is more challenging than the first, is identifying and applying Old Testament concepts to Jesus. Much of this work should be accomplished during the contextualization process. Nevertheless, it is important to mention this at this juncture also. It is not uncommon for Gospel passages to be nonsensical unless first rooted in the Old Testament. In these instances, the preacher must take the Gospel text, root it in the appropriate Old Testament text, and then reapply the passage to Jesus.

For example, in John 8:58 Jesus says to the Jews: “Before Abraham was, I Am.” The first step is to root this statement in Exodus 3:14 where God says to Moses from the bush: “I Am who I Am… say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” The second step is to clearly show that God’s self-revealed divine Name is ‘I Am.’ The third step is to then apply this knowledge to John 8:58 which provides the conclusion that Jesus is claiming to be God.

When we try to short-cut this process back into the Old Testament then we end up distorting what the Gospel writers are saying about Jesus. For example, if we do not take the time to understand clean and unclean legislation from Leviticus, we cannot understand Mark 7:14-23 or Luke 5:12-16, or a great many other passages.

If we cannot apply the Gospels to Jesus, then we will not be able to apply any part of the Bible to Jesus. The goal in this task is for every Gospel preaching text to focus on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The simple act of contextualizing the text should make this an easy task.[1]

[1] For more on preaching Christ from the Gospels read: Greidanus, Modern Preacher, chapter 11.