Advice to Preachers and Teachers (19)
“You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” John 5.39
“Who shall examine the secret depths of God? Who shall dare to treat of the eternal source of the universe? Who shall boast of knowing the infinite God, Who fills all and surrounds all, Who enters into all and passes beyond all, Who occupies all and escapes all? Whom none has ever seen as He is. Therefore let no man venture to seek out the unsearchable things of God, the nature, mode and cause of His existence. These are unspeakable, undiscoverable, unsearchable; only believe in simplicity and yet with firmness, that God is and shall be even as He has been, that God is immutable.”
- Columbanus, Sermon I
Between two poles
Much preaching and teaching on the part of evangelical Christians today fluctuates between two poles. Here I must speak in extremes to make my point.
At one pole are those who believe we must exegete the life out of a text, paying attention to every nuance of language, context, cross-referencing, and doctrine so that we can break through to the motherload of meaning and share the wealth. This is preaching-as-commentary.
Such preachers are of the opinion that we ought to focus on just a few verses, or better, one or two, taking apart all the parts of this section of the engine of spiritual life, examining each in detail, then reassembling them in the confidence that we can put them back together better than before we started fidgeting with them.
At the other pole are those who aren’t too picky about the intended meaning of any text; their interest is in what the text might mean to you. For them, the text they’ve chosen is a springboard into a sentimental story, a clever anecdote, or some sparkling insight to the psyche – any one of which yields a catchy phrase on which to hang a message containing an application certain to reach everyone. This is preaching-as-therapy.
We need sound exegesis, to be sure; and we also need careful, insightful, and relevant applications. And for exegesis and application to do their job, we need a framework and format for preaching that captures and keeps attention, and guides people along the path to “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do!”
But neither careful exegesis nor hand-in-glove application is the heart of preaching and teaching. The heart of preaching and teaching is the same as the heart of Scripture: Jesus.
Mind and heart
Those who aim to enlighten the mind by their preaching and teaching tend toward the first pole mentioned above. They believe preaching and teaching ought to aim primarily at the mind, and so they construct their sermons on logical outlines, frame them with memorable alliteration, and pack in lots of insights, terms, and ideas, which they throw up against the walls of our brains, hoping something will stick.
Those who, tending toward the other pole, seek deeply relevant applications in their preaching and teaching, aim at the heart. Their goal is to plunk a feel-good chord in the soul, eliciting an unspoken “Yes!” from their hearers, and sending them out feeling better about themselves, God, and the church.
But a firm scaffolding of doctrine, holding up the walls of the mind, will not engender a lively faith or a ready witness for Christ. And a warm heart and sense of “I’m OKness” likewise will fall short of that goal.
Columbanus must have known preachers at both ends of our spectrum. In his day, the biggest problem was those whose preaching and teaching kept wanting to go further, to uncover more of the mysteries of God, and explain His ways more fully and completely. They wanted to search out the unsearchable things of God, thus showing themselves to be loftier than God because they were able to reduce Him to ideas they could manage. Such preachers and teachers ended up constructing whole new ways of understanding God, not a few of which departed the path of orthodoxy. Columbanus warned against such probing into mysteries, and insisted instead that preachers and teachers should be content with bringing people to God, leading them to Jesus.
My sense is that he would have equally excoriated those who so simplified the message of Scripture as to redirect people to themselves rather than Christ.
Feeling good about ourselves is not an essential property of Christian experience. It may even be a dangerous disposition.
But knowing all mysteries and the appropriate Latin terms to express them is not an essential property of Christian experience, either.
I sometimes think the work of preaching and teaching is like helping someone discover the 3-D image in a stereogram – a “Magic Eye” picture.
You start by telling people what they’re looking for in this picture. You say, in effect, “See this? This seeming jumble of images and lines? These patterns and backgrounds? The Parthenon is in there.” That usually elicits a quizzical look and a doubting expression.
The work of persuasion proceeds by examining what is immediately visible on the surface, which is usually a pattern of interlocking and repeated images that cover the entire page. But we do not focus on these. Nor do we ask people to consider some void in their souls. We say, “Focus on the center of the picture, not the individual images. Open the eye of your heart to the possibility of the subliminal emerging. Do you see the columns? Look harder. Concentrate. Think: Parthenon!”
When that image finally emerges, it is so clear and so compelling that people will reach out to touch it. They can’t believe what they’re seeing. You didn’t have to explain all the details of the images and patterns and how they interconnect or what they might actually be called. You didn’t have to warm up their hurting souls for it. You kept saying, “Look. Concentrate. Let your imagination connect with what’s actually there.” People will gasp, or break into a smile or laugh when the Parthenon – or whatever the hidden image is – suddenly presents itself as clear as day.
When we’re preaching and teaching the Word of God, we do not begin by insisting there’s lots to unpack here, and many details to consider. And we do not encourage people to discover the vacancy in their soul which we promise this text will fill. We say to them, “Jesus is in here. Believe He is, and believe that He is speaking to you. Let’s look together. Let’s concentrate and pray and engage our sanctified imaginations with the Spirit of God.” If we’ll make Jesus the focus of all preaching and teaching, He will emerge from the pages of His Word, so real and palpable, that we will feel ourselves actually communing with Him.
Do the work of exegesis, but don’t exegete the text to death, or pile on terms and insights designed to paper the walls of our brains. And don’t be so quick to get to the hearts of people that you bypass the Heart of Scripture, which is Jesus. Lead them to Jesus, and Jesus will do the rest.
… we ought to read the Scriptures with the express design of finding Christ in them. Whoever shall turn aside from this object, though he may weary himself throughout his whole life in learning, will never attain the knowledge of the truth; for what wisdom can we have without the wisdom of God?
- John Calvin, Commentary on John 5.39
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).