Advice to Preachers and Teachers (18)
Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily. Colossians 1.28, 29
“Since I bear the responsibility for very needful teaching, first of all I may briefly speak of the first thing for all to know. I desire that what is the basis of all men’s salvation should be the foundation of our talk, and that our doctrine should commence from that point whence all that is arises and what has not been begins, and that the heart’s belief should open the gateway of our talk, rightly opening, as it does, the mouths of all Christian believers to a salutary confession.”
- Columbanus, Sermon 1
Columbanus (ca. 543-415) was the greatest of the Irish peregrini, those wandering missionary/scholars who re-evangelized much of Europe during the seventh century. He had been an instructor and scholar at the Irish monastery in Bangor, when the Lord called him – at age 40 or 50 (sources disagree) to go on peregrinatio to Europe. He gathered a team of students and colleagues and sailed for Gaul (modern France). There, he found conditions among the churches, clergy, and monarchy to be much in need of revival. He founded three monasteries in Gaul and one in Italy, each of which became a center for training young men for the work of the Gospel.
After twelve years in Gaul, and many confrontations with clergy and kings, Columbanus was pressured to move on, which he did – to Switzerland and then northern Italy. He left strong leaders behind in each of his monasteries, and continued to communicate with his charges, to encourage them in their work.
Columbanus was the most prolific writer from the period of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800). He left many letters and poems, as well as thirteen homilies and two monastic rules, which together provide much insight to the vision, values and vigor of those who led the Celtic Revival.
Columbanus directed his sermons to the leaders and men-in-training at his various monasteries. These brief homilies are more in the form of reminders and reviews, providing a record for his successors of the matters that were most important to him.
As Thomas Cahill reported in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, it was preaching and disciple-making such as Columbanus undertook that fueled one of the richest periods of Church history and provided leaders and missionaries for generations. For the remaining installments in this series, we’ll look at the sermons of Columbanus, so that we can compare our own preaching and teaching with this greatest of Irish missionaries.
Beginning and end
As the excerpt above indicates, Columbanus insisted that all preaching must have its beginning and end in the Gospel of salvation, and more specifically, in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the “basis of all men’s salvation” and therefore He must be “the foundation of all our talk”. Our doctrine and teaching should commence from Him Who is the point from which all true knowledge rises. It should aim at the hearts of those who hear, so that their hearts might be opened in love for Jesus, and they might confess Him boldly and firmly.
We shouldn’t take for granted that this is always the case, either with our preaching and teaching or with those who hear and process our words. Paul reminds us, “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever” (Rom. 11.36). In Jesus Christ we live and move and have our being. His Word upholds everything about us, and about the whole cosmos (Heb. 1.3). The Spirit of God within us is working to transform us into the likeness of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3.12-18). We are to learn from Jesus and learn Him (Matt, 11.29; Eph. 4.20). Christ is building His Church so that it matures increasingly into His Body, refracting His love throughout the world (Eph. 4.16). We are called to be witnesses to Jesus (Acts 1.8), to put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13.14), and to regard Jesus as the prize of our upward calling from God (Phil. 3.14).
Our preaching and teaching, learning and disciple-making, growth and sanctification does not consist in the right grasp of doctrine, or mastering certain disciplines and techniques, nor improving in knowledge of Scripture. All these are important, but only as means to the end of knowing Jesus and increasing in Him.
But unless we begin with Jesus – with a common commitment of love for Christ, and a joint resolve to seek Him in all things – we are not likely to end up in Jesus at the end of our time of instruction. We may be inspired to improve our disciplines; we might gain more clarity on some point of doctrine. We might rejoice to have a better understanding of some book of the Bible. But if our instruction ends here, our instruction will fall short of the goal of all instruction, which is to be formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ, so that we love as He does (1 Tim. 1.5).
A lesson on the road
What can we do to ensure that, like Paul, we are preaching and teaching Jesus, and working to bring those we teach to completion in Jesus, from beginning to end? Well, what do you do? How do you begin your preparation to preach or teach in Jesus? How do you keep Him in the mix of your preparation, and as the goal of it? How do you hold Jesus before the people you serve, so that they see Him with greater clarity and adoration, devote themselves more completely to Him, and actually experience Him increasing and themselves decreasing day by day?
I invite you to share your approach to fulfilling what Columbanus and Paul taught as foundational to all preaching and teaching. We should see ourselves like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, engaged in an ongoing conversation with Jesus, listening as He makes Himself known throughout the Scriptures, our hearts burning and increasing in love, and our minds eager to share with others what we have learned from Him, about Him, unto Him, and for His people and church.
This comes down to how we prepare for the ministry of the Word. How we commune with Jesus throughout the day. How we think about the goals we seek for the people entrusted to our care. The “needful teaching” most required in our day is that which brings Jesus to the world, connects His people with Him, fits them for His sending, and leads to His proclamation and Presence in all we do. We can learn from one another, and I hope you will share your thoughts and practices concerning keeping Jesus as the beginning, substance, and end of all our preaching and teaching.
He again repeats, in Christ, that they may not desire to know anything but Christ alone. From this passage, also, we may gather a definition of true wisdom ― that by which we are presented perfect in the sight of God, and that in Christ, and nowhere else.
- John Calvin, Commentary on Colossians 1.28
T. M. Moore
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).
All quotations are from G. S. M. Walker, ed., Sancti Columbani Opera (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studeis, 1957), pp. 61 ff.