This is a topic of considerable interest to me at the moment, since I recently had a sermon discreetly nixed because my pastor believed it was better suited to a lecture hall than a pulpit. (Pray for your pastor, that he would be as careful about protecting his sheep as mine.)
In trying to assess how I felt about this, I realized that I had no clear idea of what a sermon is actually supposed to be—or, perhaps better put, what it is supposed to do. This aggravated me, since I have been preaching for a couple of years now, and you would think at some point I might have made sure I knew basically what I was supposed to be doing. But better late than never.
Now, this is probably the closest thing to a list post I’ve ever written, largely because the answer to this question is not actually all that complicated, but there are a lot of Scriptures to consider in fleshing it out. That said, in a nutshell, my conclusion is as follows:
Preaching is speaking on God’s behalf for the purpose of training people to become like Jesus.
A key passage—though not perhaps an obvious one—which really establishes a foundational context for understanding preaching is the Great Commission:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18–20
We know that preaching is integral to this endeavor because Peter later describes their commission as one to “preach to the people and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).
In my quotation of the Great Commission, some of the words I’ve bolded might seem random. But they are not; my point is to show that two significant elements are in play here:
1. In speaking for God, preaching is authoritative
Jesus says that because all authority is given to him, we should preach to make disciples—and, moreover, continue preaching to them, so they learn what being a disciple is all about, and actually do it. He emphasizes that he is with the disciples—and, by implication since the age has not yet ended, with all who preach his word. Thus, preaching carries the authority of God with it. It is a prophetic office, not in the sense that preachers have the gift of prophecy necessarily, but that they speak on behalf of God.
Prophecy and preaching are frequently conflated in the Old Testament; the terms are sometimes interchangeable. This carries over to the New Testament, where the preacher exercises authority by speaking for God. This is why Paul does not permit a woman to speak. (Presumably this is a high-context command admitting exceptions, since women do sometimes prophesy.)
- Ezekiel 20:46: “Son of man, set your face toward the southland; preach against the south, and prophesy against the forest land in the Negeb.”
- Ezekiel 21:2: “Son of man, set your face toward Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuaries. Prophesy against the land of Israel.”
- Amos 7:16: “You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.”
- 1 Timothy 2:11–12: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
The parallelism in all these passages shows that preaching is a kind of prophecy, and teaching in church is a kind of exercising authority. Of course, this authority is only extended as far as God’s word actually allows; the preacher must genuinely be speaking for God. That’s what prophecy means. Many people associate it with foretelling the future, but this is only because foretelling the future is the paradigm case of speaking for God—since God alone knows what the future holds. Nonetheless, prophecy simply means speaking on behalf of God.
The reason God gives preachers such authority is because they are his chief instrument in achieving that which concerns him most: the sanctification of his people…
2. Preaching is public discipling through instruction & exhortation
You will seldom find in Scripture instruction without exhortation, or exhortation without instruction. They are two sides of one coin—a coin I think we can summarize as “training.” The purpose of this training, simply put, is to develop onetogetherness with God. Paul instructs Timothy about this in no uncertain terms:
All Scripture is breathed out by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. I charge you therefore in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; convince,rebuke, exhort, with complete patience and instruction. 2 Timothy 3:16–4:2
Through instruction, preaching explains, clarifies and defends theological truth (cf. Philippians 1:13–16, 18). It convinces its listener of what is right, while correcting or reproving error. It fleshes out any and all doctrine—not for the sake of simply conveying information, but because as we more accurately and comprehensively understand what God has revealed, so we more closely pattern our thoughts on his. In this respect, preaching is about comprehensively teaching a biblical worldview, for the purpose of developing the listener’s—and the preacher’s—holiness, transforming them into God’s likeness:
- 1 Peter 1:13–16: Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
- Nehemiah 8:8, 12: “So they read the book from the law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that they could understand the reading… All of the people went to eat, to drink, to share their food, and to have great joy because they understood the words that they had made known to them.”
- Titus 1:1–3: “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior.”
Because the instruction in preaching is aimed at conforming the listener to the image of Christ, it should be by nature exhortational. It must urge, it must admonish, it must stir up the affections of the listener to turn from the self to God. It can do this evangelistically (Matthew 4:17; Acts 10:42; 17:22ff) for the purpose of making disciples; but Sunday preaching is generally for the purpose of spurring existing disciples on to work out their salvation:
- 1 Timothy 4:13, 16: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching… Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.“
- Hebrews 10:23–25: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the one who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir one another up to love and good works, not abandoning our meeting together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging each other, and by so much more as you see the day drawing near.”
These two passages are helpful in combination. Firstly, they show the clear link between public assembly for worship, and preaching. Secondly, Paul’s instructions demonstrate what should be obvious: because a preacher speaks on behalf of God, preaching should be accompanied by the public reading of God’s own word. In Paul’s sequence, Scripture is read, and then the preacher exhorts and teaches from it, for the purpose of saving himself and his hearers.
The power and wisdom of God
I’ve said that inasmuch as a preacher is genuinely speaking on behalf of God, his role is prophetic—he is speaking the wisdom of God. This in turn leads to a sobering reality: by speaking the wisdom of God, a preacher is actually bringing with his words the power of the Holy Spirit. He does not merely convey information; his preaching becomes an occasion for God to act powerfully through the Spirit in those who hear, putting that wisdom into their hearts and transforming them. Surely this is Paul’s point at the beginning of 1 Corinthians, when he emphasizes that it is not the eloquence of the message that changes hearts, but God himself:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles—but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:17–24
It is not through any lofty speech or human wisdom that preaching is effective, but rather, as Paul goes on to say in the next chapter:
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:11–16
This helps to round out what preaching is, and what it is for: it is the Spirit, the mind of Christ, in the preacher—conveying the thoughts of God to the mind of Christ in the listener, and thus building both preacher and listener up to be more like Jesus.
And this returns us to where we started, with the Great Commission. We are discipling through our preaching, in the authority of God—and it works, because the Spirit of Jesus is with us until the end of the age.