(I have been thinking about the nature of preaching for a few weeks and considering writing a blog about it. Two recent postings on the internet by brothers in Christ inspired me to finally to start writing. One was a blog post by Tim Bayly entitled “500 years later: a couple theses on Reformed preaching and worship.” I recommend you read it. I am going to be saying something similar in this blog. The other post was a facebook status by Michael Foster that said “Faithful preaching will often be labeled legalism.” Amen. Well anyways let’s get into this blog.)
Those who are called to preach must hold two important truths about preaching in tension to be faithful. Preaching is both transcendent and immanent. It is both personal and yet not about personality. Preaching is exposition and application. I want to focus on these two aspects, the transcendent and the immanent, in this blog post.
Nehemiah 8: 4-8 And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading
Sovereign King Church is in the process of converting a barn into a church meeting house. As we think about how to best design the building for worship, we have looked at historical puritan churches and old country churches. Have you ever seen some of the elaborate designs of the pulpits in Old puritan churches? These handcrafted wooden pulpits were set center of the protestant church building. This was contrary to most Roman Catholic buildings that place them to the side. The pulpit being in the front of the sanctuary symbolized the centrality of the preaching of God’s word to the puritan church. They were often set high above so that the congregation had to look up at the preacher. This was to help with acoustics so that the sermon could be heard by all. It also had the effect of symbolizing the authority of the preaching of God’s word. In order to preach, you had to step up into a pulpit. They often had a door that you would close behind you. Some pulpits even had multiple levels for different parts of the service. The first level was for announcements and song leading. The second was for scripture reading. The highest level was reserved for preaching.
The idea was that when the preacher stepped into the pulpit he was leaving behind his human ideas and philosophies. He was leaving behind personality in order to present the word of God. He was stepping into a place of authority. This was a fearful and reverent task. It was not be taken lightly. Faithful preaching was about presenting God’s word as to make it known to the people. The preacher was transcending himself and becoming a megaphone for God. This is not in the sense of him receiving special revelation or speaking ex cathedra but in as far as he faithfully communicates the truths of scripture, he speaks words from God. He was delivering a message from God with all of its authority. Therefore, when a man stepped behind a pulpit he was to transcend himself. His personality and colorful characteristics were secondary to the task at hand which was to faithfully expound the word of God. The preacher was not concerned with his listeners making a personal connection with him as much as they were to make a personal connection with the word of God.
It is interesting to see as the modern evangelical church has narrowed the focus of Christianity to meeting felt needs and has truncated the gospel to be only about the personal, that pulpits have shrunk or become non-existent. Because of postmodern theories on communication and an over emphasis on the communicator rather than the communication, many preachers are concerned with the listeners establishing a report with them first before the text. Rather than the scripture being the message, the preacher becomes the message. Rather than the transcendent word of God being proclaimed with its authority, preaching often becomes the word of man. It becomes a glorified therapy session rather than the giving of God’s commands and gospel.
Preaching, though, is about communicating the authoritative word of God. When a preacher enters a pulpit (I’m not concerned with the physical object here) he is setting aside himself in order to deliver God’s word. This means that he must be preaching from the word of God. Not just speaking from humanly wisdom. It is the word of God expounded and explained that is authoritative. The preachers job is not primary about developing a connection with his listeners. He doesn’t have to get down and walk around so that they know he is a relatable person. Preaching isn’t about you, preacher. It is about the word of God.
But as I said at the beginning, there is a tension to be held because preaching also must be immanent. Preaching is best done by pastors. Pastors are those who love and care for their flock and know them by name. Pastors look out for dangers for their flock. Pastors know where their flock is tempted to sin. Pastors are loved and known by their flock. Therefore, when a pastor enters into a pulpit he is not leaving behind who he is as pastor. Instead he is taking on that mantle even more so. A lot of reformed preachers have seen how the immanence in the weak evangelical church undermines the scriptures and therefore they put a heavy emphasis on the transcendence. Preaching can become simply lecture where one exegetes the text out loud. Sermons become data dumps. It is only presenting informative commentary on the scripture. There is no room for application. There is no room for moving hearts only speaking to disembodied minds. Working to convict the listeners of sin and righteousness and judgement is not seen as the job of the preacher.
But faithful preaching is not just reading the text. It is about taking the written word and bringing it to the people to be used by them. If the Bible is authoritative and it is, then it must be applicable to us today. And thus, the work of a faithful preacher is to take the transcendent and make it immanent by applying it to the very people he is preaching to. That will involve speaking to the very sins of the people the preacher is engaging. What broke the hearts of the people Ezra preached to was that the law of God was expounded and they were made to understand its meaning. This wasn’t just a data dump but they were made to understand how they had broken God’s law. They were guilty and they needed to repent. They had neglected God’s law and they were broken. Pastors who refuse to speak to the sins of their congregation are not being faithful no matter how big the pulpit is.
Futhermore, preachers must be able to see that people are struggling with sin, doubt, fears, and all kinds of spiritual ailments. God’s word must be faithfully applied to these circumstances and more. This is why the puritans called pastors, physicians of the soul. This work is deeply personal and one cannot hide behind the bible as an excuse not to do it.
When one understands the tension in the transcendent and the immanent their preaching will be authoritative because it will be the word of God applied specifically to the people. It will also be accused of being legalistic. Most people will be happy when preachers forsake the tension of transcendence and immanence either way. They like it when preaching becomes about personal stories and making that human connection because they don’t have to deal with the raw word of God. They also like it when the pastor becomes so transcendent that he transcends personal application. Reformed Christians really like the latter.
When you preach with authority from God’s word and apply it to people specifically, one of two things will happen. One, you will be hated and spurned like the apostles and all other faithful preachers who have come before. Two, just like the apostles and all other faithful preachers, God will use your preaching to convict and bring people to repentance, faith in Christ, and growth in holiness. God will use this type of preaching (coupled with pastoral care, a subject for another blog) to gather in the sheep and drive out the wolves and thieves.