What God Likes in a Preacher
A few years ago, I remember hearing a really famous preacher at Passion for the first time. Although he wasn’t a fraction as popular then as he is now, he had a big enough following to get invited to Passion. For the first 25 minutes of his 40-minute message, the arena echoed with uproarious laughter as he did a stand-up comedy routine about Shark Week. Towards the end, I think he quoted a few Bible verses. The most disheartening thing, though, was that as I talked to our students about what they thought about the conference for weeks afterward, they all mentioned that sermon. None of them remembered anything other than the Shark Week part. Meanwhile, they all thought John Piper’s message was boring, heady, and kind of angry. Their loss.
Something surprised me about their feedback. I expected people to say that he was entertaining; he was. Many of them said things like, “He’s just so relatable,” or “He doesn’t talk like he has everything figured out,” and “He speaks with so much humility.” I didn’t expect that last one. Entertaining? Yes. Relatable? Maybe. Humble? Really?
I want to comment on a trend in preaching. What we like and what we need are often two different things, and the most interesting part is, this preference comes from some confusion over what it means to be humble in the pulpit.
Here’s the trend: People really like preachers who talk about themselves. God really likes preachers who talk about his Word.
What’s common in modern preaching is to shirk the responsibility of preaching with authority by preaching with humility. But there’s something very problematic with this kind of humility. In many modern pulpits, it’s seen as arrogant to proclaim the Word of God as if it has authority over our lives. And the only thing worse than an authoritative Word is a preacher who believes he knows what that authoritative Word actually says. This presents quite the quandary. What do you talk about in the pulpit if you’re sheepish about proclaiming the Word of God? Yourself, obviously. So what happens is instead of preaching from a text, many preachers exegete their own experience to the congregation with little splashes of their own wisdom thrown in on the side. As Doug Wilson has pointed out several places - these are the preachers who are seen as “humble.” Proclaim the Word from God with confidence and you’ll be called arrogant and legalistic. Spend 30 minutes talking about yourself, your flaws, successes, and comical anecdotes and you’ll be considered humble and transparent.
As Ones With Authority
This isn’t a knock on story-telling per se. I love illustrations as much as anyone else, and more than many in the expository camp. But it is an observation about where you derive your authority. One of the most famous books of what known as the “New Homiletic” - you might not have heard of it because it’s pretty dated at this point - is As One Without Authority by Fred Craddock. In the book, he makes the case that the pulpit has lost its authority in American culture. The changes in language and communication have rendered the monologue impotent to bring about true life change in the church. As a response, Craddock challenged a young generation of preachers to preach inductively, inviting the congregation into the discussion to make up their own minds. He famously preached inconclusive sermons that allowed the congregation to go off and decide for themselves, like a spiritual choose your own adventure book.
Craddock’s method has become the norm, the chosen strategy of some of today’s most famous preachers, Rob Bell being the premier example. These preachers draw their authority from relatability, connection, and the human experience. In this line of work, the Bible is really just a jumping off point to kickstart the connectivity or a convenient way to baptize the preacher's words by quoting a few proof-texts.
Let’s get back to the question of authority for a moment. Craddock called his book, As One Without Authority. The reference comes from the end of the sermon on the mount in Matthew 7. When Jesus finishes, the people marvel because he taught as “one with authority, not like the scribes.” Everywhere Jesus goes people are amazed by the authority of Jesus preaching. He sets the standard for truthful, authoritative, Scriptural teaching.
Well, we certainly don’t believe every person can be as good a preacher as Jesus. But can everyone draw their authority from the same place? The NT makes it clear that we can. In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas are on their first missionary journey when they are confronted by the magician Elymas. Paul strongly rebukes him and strikes him blind as the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, looks on, and as he listens to Paul, his heart changes. Luke tells us, “Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” This is the same phrase used to describe the scribes reactions to Jesus teaching. Authoritative, biblical teaching leads to astonishment, and to heart change.
The prescription for Christian preaching can be found all over the Bible, beginning with the prophets of the Old Testament up through the preaching of the Apostles in the New Testament. Everywhere, teachers and preachers are called to herald the Word of God. And this isn’t simply a difference between style and content; it’s a question of substance and authority.
Preaching in Revelation
I’ve noticed, though, that there’s a neglected treasure trove in the New Testament when it comes to preaching. Even after doing a master’s degree in preaching, I don’t recall seeing a single treatment of the book of Revelation as a guide for preaching. There are other places in the New Testament that make more sense on the surface. The end of Matthew is a great place to begin. Make disciples of all the nations; that’s a great charge for preachers. The end of Acts is also good - “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God and teaching about our Lord Jesus Christ with complete faithfulness, and without hindrance.” The first four chapters of 1 Corinthians are a familiar spot. There Paul says, “We preach Christ, and him crucified.” These are just a few of the usual suspects. But there is a hidden gem at the end of the Bible.
The book of Revelation is God’s final word to the churches. It’s easy to forget that chapters 2-3 which contain the letters to the seven churches are really a preface to the greater letter to the churches, chapters 4-22. In the first half of the book, John sees visions of things that have happened and will soon take place. Then in chapter 10 something changes. While Jesus and the angels have primarily been speaking up to that point, in chapter 10 it becomes clear that John is going to be the one speaking. The great angel standing upon the land and the sea who has his head in the heavens tells John not to write the vision down, but to eat the book of the lamb. Like Ezekiel, he is going to ingest the book and it will become part of him. Then he will speak from what he has seen and what he has eaten. Like Jeremiah, in chapter 11, God gives him a test to prepare him to speak to the people. Like Daniel, he is going to write his visions down and send them to the people of God. Like Paul, he is going to confront the false teachers making war on the church. Like Jesus, he is going to promise that God is going to make his home with his people in the end.
By the end of Revelation, John is the preacher par excellence. He has become one of the witnesses and he proclaims the Word of God to the churches. For the rest of the book, the angels instruct John to proclaim what he has seen. Take the book. Eat it. Measure the temple. Write this down! One of these things doesn’t seem to fit. Measure the temple?
The scene is reminiscent of Ezekiel’s vision from chapters 40-47 of the man in linen measuring the temple with a reed for measuring (kalamos metrou in the LXX). John’s is a reed like a staff that he is told to use to measure the heavenly temple (kalamos homoios hrabdo). Peter Leithart points out in his commentary on Revelation that holy things get measured and numbered in Revelation. For example, he points out, there are numerous scorpion-locusts, but there are 200,000,000 horse-lions. It’s easy to tell who the good guys are. On top of that, it’s the good guys who do the measuring.
Leithart puts the point well: “If there are not clear lines, it is because the word is not being faithfully prophesied, because those who have been given the reed do not measure straight. Much of the church’s murky confusion in the early 21st-century is a failure of prophetic topography, and the world’s confusions are a natural product of the church’s. How can anyone tell the difference between marriage and an abomination if no one speaks the word of God with force and clarity, if no one measures off the holy from the profane and detestable? Only when the word is eaten, digested, and spoken do boundaries become clear. Preachers and teachers need to speak with the sharp straightness of a yardstick” (419).
Christian preachers should be measurers. Size up the world and measure the holy places. Get specific with the details of the things of God. Measurement is no less than a sign of intimate familiarity. There are endless books in the world, but there is only one Bible and it contains 66 books. Show the congregation their measure and dimensions.
Humility and Authority
True humility in preaching comes from rightly handling and presenting the Word of God. In Isaiah 66:2, God says, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” That should be a guide to us when we think about preaching. If you rifle through America’s most famous pastors, it’s a who’s who of the low authority, high “humility” approach, but there’s really nothing humble about it. People really like preachers who talk a lot about themselves and very little about the Bible. God prefers a man who will speak with the authority of his Word.
I don’t say this as a preacher, or as someone who is preparing to rightly handle the Word each week. I say this as someone out of ministry, as a person going to church each week to have the word preached to me, to be taught and shepherded. Put down the remote and pick of the measuring rod. Leave the fascinations of your personality in the margins and give us the Word of God! Eat the book and speak the words of the Lord with authority. We desperately need it.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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