True apostolic succession takes place when the Word of God is preached in the power of the Spirit.
Is it all that necessary for our seminaries to turn out good preachers? Or is it enough that those entering the ministry be good counselors, administrators, or social activists? Unfortunately, many seminary graduates excel in one or more of these areas rather than in the area of preaching. Those who downplay the importance of preaching fail to recognize that it was the central activity of the apostles. In this brief study, we will examine the apostolic function of preaching, and then discuss how we are to preach.
Early in the life of the church, the apostles had to decide how to order their time. In the opening verses of Acts 6, they found themselves overburdened with the social outworking of the gospel. “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables,” they told the disciples gathered there (6:2). Seven men were then chosen to handle these necessary social affairs so the apostles could devote themselves to the “ministry of the word” (6:4). The serving of tables had diverted the apostles from their main purpose and desire. When the seven men undertook their service and the apostles were able to teach and preach again, “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (6:6).
The word translated “ministry” in Acts 6:4 is the same word rendered “distribution” in 6:1 (“ministration,” KJV). A common idea underlies each term. The daily distribution was the early church practice of giving appropriate portions of food or money to the needy among them. Likewise, God’s apostles, as ministers of the Word, distributed Christian truth to soul-hungry individuals. The word “serve” in 6:2 has the same Greek root as “ministry” and “distribution.” Just as ministering to the poor is a service, so also is ministering the Word. The apostolic preacher, then, is a minister of the Word, a distributor of divine truth. No other activity should take a more important place in his life.
In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul charges Timothy to “preach the word.” His decisive challenge sums up the whole motive and measure of a preacher’s ministry. Preaching the Word had to be Timothy’s one all-embracing purpose. It had to absorb his total being. Timothy may count himself, in Charles Wesley’s words, “Happy, if with my latest breath / I might but gasp His name; / Preach Him to all, and cry in death: / Behold, behold the Lamb!”
Throughout the Book of Acts and the Epistles, preaching clearly dominates the activity and desire of the apostles. While the apostolic office is no longer valid today, the apostolic function of preaching the divine word is still necessary for men of apostolic spirit. True apostolic succession takes place as we proclaim the truth of God revealed in the power of the divine Spirit.
The charge for us to preach remains, but that is not enough. One can find a bad preacher in any city. How then can we best fulfill the apostolic function of preaching?
The Greek verb euaggelizō (or its close relative, kataggellō) suggests the scope of the preacher’s message. It means to tell out glad tidings, that is, to declare the good news about God. The preacher’s message must focus on God, not man. Man is needy and guilty, although, as Pascal said, his lostness is a sign of his greatness. “Man has more grandeur than the Milky Way,” Jacques Maritain said, “but how easy evil is for him, how inevitable.” Man has rebelled against God, yet God has reconciled man to himself in the Cross of Christ and seeks after him. Such is the preacher’s word of reconciliation, his good news about God.
Euaggelizō suggests the scope of the preacher’s message. The verb kērussō underscores the source of the message. It conveys the idea of a royal proclamation, a word carrying regal authority. Absolute finality and power should characterize the divine word of the preacher.
In order for today’s preachers to continue in the apostolic spirit, they must follow the apostles’ example in three areas. First, they must focus on the Word of God. To declare the good news is to minister and herald the Word of God. Ultimately, the New Testament presents Jesus Christ himself as the Word, as God’s final utterance (John 1:1, 14; Heb. 1:2). Christ is the Word who became flesh for man’s salvation. But in order to know and understand this Word-became-flesh in a historic context, we must depend totally on the inspired documents. In the Bible, the church possesses in written form the gospel that the apostles heralded in oral form. The Christian preacher who functions as agent of this organic word stands squarely in the apostolic line. He sees the written Word as the divinely accredited medium through which human lives come into creative contact with Christ the living Word. He approaches the Bible as God’s positive revelation, the source and flow of divine authority.
To the biblical preacher, the Bible does more than make pious suggestions or venture the guesses of past religious geniuses about a deity. It is the Word of God. As such, it has the central place in the witness and worship of the church. Neither the church itself nor its sacraments should have a more prominent place. Placing ritual in the front pushes the preacher to the rear; to enhance the priest is to eclipse the preacher. The sacrament of the Word gives meaning and value to all other sacraments.
When the Word of God takes a secondary place in the pulpit, danger lurks nearby. In some quarters the Christian pulpit differs little from the public platform—except, perhaps, for its shape. Men air their opinions to their “dear friends” about the contemporary political and economic situation, or complain about what’s wrong with the world, or pontificate on how they would distribute wealth more equally or insure more secure oil resources. To be “with it,” these modern preachers look for Sunday discourse material in the religion section of the newspaper rather than in the Book of God. Their authority is the journalist, not Jesus.
Such preaching may stir a passing humanitarian emotion or inspire someone to vote for a cause, but it will never bring one face to face with God. Many forms of pulpit preaching lack substance. But “we will never mend these deficiencies by thrusting into the background the testimony of Jesus,” James Denney declared. “Such a testimony is the only inspiration of the worship in the Christian sense of the term, and it is the primary mark of the true Church that it gathers round this testimony and is unreservedly loyal to it.” The church possesses only one reliable testimony: the biblical records. They bear witness to our Lord, and he himself authenticated them by interpreting “all the scriptures” in relation to himself (Luke 24:27).
The true Christian preacher is the voice of the church; an officer of the Word that created it, and an expositor of the message that establishes it. He is not the organ of a human fraternity, but the oracle of a divine gospel. He acts essentially and supremely as the messenger of God’s grace and God’s demands to people, rather than merely speaking for their causes, advocating their rights, or giving divine sanction to their ideals, grievances, and programs. He is not first, if at all, the champion of a social movement or a political ideology. He represents the divine gospel and serves as the apostle of God’s holy salvation.
Above all else, apostolic preachers focus on the Word of God. Second, they engage in exposition rather than exhibition. They have no time for vague, topical, story-telling episodes echoed in many modern pulpits. Exposition is not exhibition. We should not be like “The things that mount the rostrum with a skip / And then skip down again: pronounce a text, / Cry, ‘hem!’ and reading what they never wrote, / Just fifteen minutes, bundle up their work, / And with a wellbred whisper close the scene.”
To preach in an expository way is to “expose” or to “place out” before men the message of God in a given section of Scripture. When we expound on a passage of God’s Book, we draw out the argument, doctrine, or ethical implication. Expounding the Word takes much more time and thought than mulling up a “message” or typing up a “thought for today.” It means unfolding the power of the Cross. True preaching must set forth the reality of the Cross. The Cross turns a speech into a sermon, and a sermon into the gospel.
Finally, the apostolic preacher must not only expound the Word, he must live the Word. He must himself incarnate its message. Kierkegaard satirized his contemporary Bishop Mynster by saying, “Your reverence is absolutely not in the character of your sermons.” The preacher nullifies the effect of his message when his life does not harmonize with it.
Walter Bagehot has written that King George III of England was a kind of “consecrated obstruction” for the greater part of his life. Too many preachers are themselves the chief obstruction in their task.
Once a friend of the great Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte said to him, “You preached today as if you had come straight from the Presence.” Whyte answered softly, “Perhaps I did.” That was just it; he did. That was his secret; it is the open secret for all who interpret the eternal truths of God’s Word in a meaningful and relevant way.
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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