The Preaching of Jesus
Whether you call yourself a minister, evangelist, missionary, or preacher, the one thing that binds you to all others in the service of the Lord is the common task of preaching. Preachers always have opinions on preaching or styles of preaching or what is required for a good sermon. Put two of them together and ministers will soon be discussing and sharing favorite sermons, ideas, or opinions concerning this central role in their ministry.
It is in this spirit, therefore, that I offer a brief essay on the preaching that in one way or another, we all try to emulate – the preaching of Jesus Himself. Perhaps in examining His style and approach to this glorious work we can become more of what all of us seek to be, like Him.
Jesus and the Ministry of Preaching
Jesus is the quintessential preacher and we will examine His very unique style, but first we need to establish some basic facts about preaching itself.
The History of Preaching
Preaching is one of the most ancient of ministries. Peter refers to Noah as "… a preacher of righteousness" (II Peter 2:5), and the Old Testament was recorded mainly by those who were involved in the work of preaching. Prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, and others were, essentially, the preachers of that time who also possessed the gift of prophecy. Much of what we read in their books are their sermons and exhortations to the kings and people of that period. Even Solomon refers to himself as "the preacher" in the book of Ecclesiastes.
In the New Testament, John the Baptist is called a "prophet" but his main work was accomplished through the ministry of preaching. From John through Jesus to the Apostles, we can trace this ministry as the main component in God's effort to communicate His will, promises and love to man and the key ministry in the work of building the kingdom of God here on earth,
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
- I Corinthians 1:21
As a ministry type, it is a gift and role given only to some by the Holy Spirit through Christ.
…and He gave some as evangelists…
- Ephesians 4:11
From the very beginning God has used preachers as His mouthpiece. It is fitting, therefore, that Jesus makes His appearance on this earth not as a priest (although He is our perfect High Priest – Hebrews 10:21) and not as a lawyer (although with His sacrifice He enters into the presence of God to be our advocate of mercy – Hebrews 10:1-14), but as a preacher communicating perfectly and completely God's final will for all mankind.
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.
- Hebrews 1:1-2
As I mentioned before, prophets were preachers blessed with the special gift of inspiration and their preaching came directly from the Holy Spirit (II Peter 1:20-21). However, not all preachers were inspired prophets.
The word "preach" or "preaching" comes from a Greek word which almost always meant the proclaiming of the good news concerning Jesus. In the Old Testament the word referred to one who brought any message that cheered the hearers (I Samuel 31:9) but by New Testament times the word became exclusively connected with the heralding of the Good News (Gospel) of Jesus Christ.
In the New Testament we have several models of the modern-day preacher. They were not divinely inspired or chosen directly by Jesus (as the Apostles were), but nevertheless served as God's proclaimers of the good news. These men were chosen and ordained by the church, trained by human teachers and preached the message already recorded by the prophets and apostles before them, just as preachers do today. There are many whose identity we do not know but the New Testament does name a few like Stephen, Phillip, Timothy, and Titus, as some of the more familiar ones.
Jesus, therefore, was one of these, a preacher. He worked as an itinerant preacher announcing the good news of the kingdom. He was empowered and inspired as the Son of God, but He served His people as a preacher and a teacher.
Jesus and the Mechanics of Preaching
In order to discuss the preaching of Jesus, we must first understand the mechanics of this work so we can better appreciate what and how well He preached. Preaching has three basic components:
A. Effective Communication
The principles that apply in every form of public communication apply to preaching as well. The rules about posture, voice, inflection, gestures, eye contact that make a person a good public speaker are also necessary to produce a good preacher.
In some cases, someone may have a fantastic memory for history but turns out to be a boring professor because his voice is flat, or he never makes eye contact, or is not enthusiastic about his material. The same is true for preachers. Many are good, holy, knowledgeable men but they are poor communicators so they are not effective as preachers.
Jesus, however, was a dynamic and effective communicator in every situation. Of course He had great power and resources but He knew how and when to use them. For example, He never lost His composure when debating the Pharisees as they tried to provoke and discredit Him (Matthew 12:1-ff - question of Sabbath breaking).
He could galvanize huge crowds (Matthew 4:25 – multitudes followed Him from city to city) or teach a small group of specially chosen disciples (Matthew 5:1 – Sermon on the Mountain). He knew how to speak to the ill, the outcast and the discouraged (Matthew 8-9 – the demoniac, the paralytic), and communicated just as effectively with the religious (Synagogue ruler – Matthew 9:18), or the pagans (the Syrophenecian woman – Matthew 15:21). He could also speak to rulers (Sadducees and Pilate – Matthew 22:23; 27:11) or connect with children (Matthew 19:13) and do both well.
Some say that Ronal Reagan, the former American president, was the 'great communicator' because of his effective use of the media. This may be so, but the greatest communicator was Jesus Christ because He could always connect with His message (whether it be comfort, a stinging rebuke, or the good news of the kingdom). He could reach out to groups or individuals, speak at the Temple or on a hillside. Everyone everywhere was connected when He addressed them.
Of course, not everyone liked what He said and not everyone believed what He said, but everyone knew and remembered what He said. In Matthew 27:63 the Chief Priests and Pharisees actually quote a portion of Jesus' sermon concerning His resurrection in an effort to get Pilate to put extra guards at His tomb. The fact that even Jesus' enemies quoted Him accurately demonstrates how effectively He was able to communicate.
B. Sermon Styles
Most sermons fall into three main categories and much of the training preachers receive involves learning how to develop lessons within these frameworks.
1. Textual Sermons - These are lessons based on one text in the Bible. They are called textual because most of the points or "lessons" are drawn directly from that one text. For example, a sermon based on the parable of the Prodigal Son will usually remain with this one text in Luke 15:11-32 and the conclusions, comparisons and practical applications will stem from the story of the lost son.
2. Topical Sermons - These sermons take a certain topic (baptism; the role of women in the church; dealing with anger, etc.) and attempt to summarize what the Bible has to say about them. Here the preacher begins with a single idea or topic and will develop a body of biblical information concerning that subject.
3. Expository Sermons - An expository lesson is much like a textual sermon except that the preacher is focusing on the meaning of a particular passage. He will do this by explaining the meaning of words in their original languages or giving background information on the historical and social conditions of that time to help others understand the passage in context.
It is for this reason that teaching the book of Revelation, for example, requires much exposition. The symbols and language are not as readily familiar as the language found in the parable of the prodigal son, so much more background development is necessary. In the end, expository preaching seeks to find the essential meaning of the passage and then apply those lessons to a modern day audience.
There are other sub-categories of sermon types (i.e. biographical, geographical, word studies, etc.) but textual, topical, and expository sermons are the mainstay of every preacher's lessons.
Jesus' Preaching Style
Even though we can categorize some common approaches to modern Biblical preaching, it becomes evident when looking at Jesus' preaching style that these categories are limited. Jesus used every style and in some instances blended styles in the same lesson. I say this to establish the fact that any attempt to fit His preaching into a box is futile because His is the preaching that ours is based on. For the purpose of this article, however, I would like to demonstrate some of the methods He used which are recorded in the New Testament.
a. Textual Preaching
It is hard to discuss Jesus' textual sermons because He created the texts from which we preach. At times, however, He did textual sermons based on His own texts!
For example, in the parable of the Sower and the Seed (Matthew 13:3-9) Jesus begins with a parable as a basic text and then follows this with a textual sermon explaining why He used parables and what this one meant (Matthew 13:10-23).
b. Topical Preaching
Much of the Lord's preaching dealt with various topics relevant to the people He spoke to. The topics were based on who He was dealing with at the moment. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) for example, deals with the topic of character. The kind of character one finds in the kingdom of those who are Christians.
Further along there is a lesson for the Apostles on the topic of true discipleship (Matthew 10:5-42). The list goes on as Jesus clarifies and refocuses the true meaning of the existing teaching in the Scriptures at that time and provides new revelation from God. Whatever "topic" we preach on today, Jesus has either revealed it, or has confirmed and clarified it for us 2,000 years ago.
c. Expository Preaching
Although many preachers think this is the only type of preaching that should be done, it was the one least used by the Lord. The people Jesus addressed understood the language so there was no need to translate or explain root meanings. In addition to this, they were familiar with the social and historical settings which we today have to recreate with study and research. Jesus' listeners could catch every voice intonation and gesture which are so important to effective communication. For this reason there was less need for Jesus to explain history and word meaning to His contemporaries.
The Lord did some expository work but mainly in dealing with the Pharisees. There were many confrontations where He explained or clarified certain passages or conclusions that they had misunderstood or misrepresented. For example:
- Matthew 12:3-7 – He explains an exception to the rule of eating the showbread by the priests when David ate it out of need.
- Matthew 15:1-14 – He explains how the Pharisees have misapplied the law of "Corban" by denying their parents' financial support.
- Matthew 19:1-12 – He explains the proper interpretation and application of the law concerning marriage and divorce.
- Matthew 22:29-33 – He corrected the Sadducees' false conclusion concerning the resurrection based on their mistaken use of the verb "am" in an O.T. reference.
There are many more examples but these amply demonstrate Jesus' absolute grasp of the Scripture and His ability to explain every verse perfectly within the context of the entire Bible. And why not have the perfect style? Is He not the Word made flesh (John 1:1-13)? He knows how to use the Word and communicate it because it is the product of His Spirit; His Mind; His knowledge; and His power!
Finally, there is the question of relevancy. Preaching professors call this the "so what" factor, "Is what you are preaching meaningful, can it be used, is there a point?"
In order for preaching to have a point and to be relevant, it has to have a specific objective. There are any number of preaching objectives but most are variations of the following seven:
- The evangelistic objective – The objective is to call on the church to reach out. The need to be evangelistic. How to be a soul-winner, saved ourselves.
- The devotional objective – The objective is to inspire awe and reverence for God (sermons on power and grace).
- The ethical objective – The objective is to teach right from wrong, behavior, motivate to love.
- The consecrative objective – The objective is greater commitment (discipleship lessons).
- The doctrinal objective – The objective is to find out what does the Bible say?
- The supportive objective – The objective is encouragement in suffering (Psalms 23).
- The faith objective – Preaching the death, burial, resurrection of Jesus; cross, as well as Christ centered sermons.
Preachers have to constantly mix all of these variables in order to provide a balanced spiritual diet. This means preaching from both the Old and New Testaments as well as changing their approach from topical to textual to expository and making sure they have a clear preaching objective in every lesson.
This is why preaching gets boring at times. Some preachers get locked into one style or pound away at the same objective week after week without realizing it. Usually members start saying, "It's the same old thing every week." The sermon is different but the style and objective never change. I remember one preacher who ended up condemning the use of instruments in worship no matter what text he began with in his lesson. Every week his title and text were different but his point was always the same.
Jesus, of course, had no such problem. He covered every objective using various approaches. One can readily find all the preaching objectives listed above in His Matthew sermons alone.
- Matthew 28:18 "Go therefore and make disciples…" (Evangelistic)
- Matthew 7:7 "Ask and it shall be given…" (Devotional)
- Matthew 5:9 "Blessed are the peacemakers…" (Ethical)
- Matthew 10:37 "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me" (Consecrational)
- Matthew 19:6 "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." (Doctrinal/ethical)
- Matthew 25:28 "Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden" (Supportive)
- Matthew 26:26 "Take, eat, this is My body…" (Faith)
Jesus not only preached about these objectives, His entire life was lived in such a way that these objectives are now possible for us to preach about. His very life was a sermon, a sermon that reflected every style, and achieved every objective.
In closing out this essay I would like to briefly examine one passage in Matthew's gospel (Matthew 5:1-ff) where Jesus demonstrates His amazing ability to mix and attain various preaching objectives within one simple teaching style.
In this section Jesus gives His disciples an overview of what Christian life and kingdom living is like and how different it is to the life they are experiencing in the world. The style or approach of Jesus' lesson here is clearly "topical" as He addresses a variety of issues and subjects relevant to the kingdom and its nature. What is amazing about the sermon, however, is that it achieves so many objectives within the same lesson. For example,
- The beatitudes accomplish the "supportive" objective in encouraging the hearers despite the difficulty of kingdom living. "Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted." 5:4
- The discussion of "salt and light" promotes the "ethical" lifestyle required in the kingdom. "Let your light shine: 5:16
- When Jesus says "You have heard that it was said..." He is clarifying doctrinal issues that had been misinterpreted. 5:27
The list of objectives reached goes on and on as He works His way through the lesson. Jesus used every style, reached every objective and while He taught in person, established much of the texts that we preach from today.
This article has no "neat" ending because there is no end to what can be said about Jesus' preaching and teaching, only that it will be our inexhaustive model until He returns.