The following is an adapted sermon I preached to college students at RUF at CNU in 2019. It was a part of a series simply titled “The Church.” We first defined the church in various ways: as the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, grafted vines to the root, and other ways. We then shifted to marks of a healthy local church. I got the chance to preach on preaching.
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Good morning everyone, my name is Patrick Quinn. I’m a pastoral intern at McLean Presbyterian Church. It’s a real pleasure to be able to preach to you all this morning. Preaching is one of my favorite parts of my job. I’m not sure what your religious background is, if you grew up in the church or became a Christian later in life, or maybe you’re not a Christian and church is completely foreign to you. For those of you who are in that last group, you might have a perspective on preaching I want to lean in on today.
Preaching is kind of an odd thing if you stop and think about it. We churchgoing folk don’t really question it because it’s just a normal fixture of worship, but if you didn’t grow up inside the church, there’s not really anything analogous to it outside of the church. Before I came on staff at MPC, I worked with a college ministry called Reformed University Fellowship, or RUF, for a few years. Our group was a mixture of students like what I described: many were born and raised in the church, but many others were new to Christianity or exploring faith. We worked through a series one semester all about the church, and in my explanation of what preaching is, I tried to put myself in the shoes of those students who weren’t familiar with faith. What might preaching look like to them? So here’s what I came up with—this is a non-Christian college student’s impression of a sermon:
It’s a 20-30 minute lecture for a voluntary class you don’t sign up for and don’t get credit for. The only reading you do for it is during the lecture itself—if there’s any reading at all, sometimes the professor just rambles. The professor doesn’t work for any school and may not even be educated in the field he’s lecturing on, and the homework is usually some weird, unrealistic moral advice but it’s never graded so you never have to do it anyway.
I got some good laughs the first time I shared that, and a few nods of approval—preaching is kind of weird if you’ve never thought about it. That might be what some of our non-Christian friends think of preaching, and if that’s the case—if they really think that’s what preaching is, and if you really think that’s what it is—they probably wonder why in the world you would stick around for it. If that’s your view and experience of preaching, I have good news for you: God calls us to something far better.
I’ve got two questions for us this morning. First, what even is preaching? What’s it about, why do we do it? Second, what is healthy preaching? How do we judge between good and bad preaching? Whether you’ve been a Christian for decades or you’re just now considering faith, hopefully we can all gain from looking at what the Bible has to say about preaching. Here’s our takeaway sentence up front. This one sentence has everything we’re going to touch on tonight. Preaching is an act of worship in which the preacher, as a herald, invites his audience to see and celebrate the word of God with him.
With that up front, let’s hop into our text. This is 2 Timothy 3:16-4:5.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. I charge you 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; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
Our passage today comes from one of the apostle Paul’s last letters he wrote before he was executed. He’s writing to a young pastor named Timothy whom he’s trained and mentored for many years. Second Timothy is full of advice and warnings and encouragements and helpful teachings. Here, Paul gives Timothy an exhortation: “Preach the word.” Now this isn’t evangelistic “street preaching.” Paul is specifically talking about preaching to established Christians. This is a church setting. We know that from 2 Tim 4:3. Paul is talking about established Christians who will be led astray by the sinful desires of their hearts and false teachings that cater to those desires. As a countermeasure, Paul calls for regular preaching of the word. So that gives us our setting for this preaching—not a street preacher yelling at passing crowds, but an ordinary worship context. There’s a time and a place for street preaching (if done right); Paul himself engages in open air preaching frequently. But the kind of preaching we’re focusing on is within the context of a worship service.
So if we’re going to hear Paul’s exhortation on preaching, we need to understand what Paul’s view was on preaching. There’s a lot of passages we could go to to see what Paul’s view of preaching was, but one of the shortest and the best is Ephesians 3:8. In this passage, Paul is talking about his role in the church. This is what God commissioned Paul to do—this is Paul’s own description of his job: “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.”
I love that, it gets so directly to what the heart behind preaching must be. Of all the ways Paul could’ve described his calling, he says it is a “grace given to” him. It’s not a duty, not an order, not a job, but a “grace.” Why? How? Just see how he describes his work—not merely “to preach Christ to the Gentiles.” Paul’s not just teaching history, he’s not just disseminating facts; he’s not only preaching “Christ”, he’s preaching “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” That keys us in on our first principle in defining preaching.
An Act of Worship
Preaching, first and foremost, is an act of worship. There’s a reason we include it as an aspect of our worship service, right along side singing and prayer and reading Scripture and fellowship. Preaching is one of the ways we declare the immeasurable riches of Jesus together; it’s not separate from the rest of the worship service. Some might be inclined to think that praying or singing worship songs is more “worshipful” than the preaching aspect of the service, but Paul didn’t see it that way. If we keep reading in Ephesians 3 we see Paul write this: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man.” (Ephesians 3:14-16)
That sounds pretty spiritual to me. That’s pretty worshipful. Look back at Paul’s charge to Timothy: “I charge you 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…” The first audience, in fact the primary audience Timothy preaches to, is the triune God, to the Christ who reigns. Preaching seeks God’s approval and pleasure and glory, not a crowds’. So preaching isn’t just teaching—it is that, but it’s so much more. Here’s how preaching is worship.
Seeing and Celebrating
Preaching is an act of worship that helps us see and celebrate the unfathomable riches of Christ. Both of those words are important and they help capture a fuller understanding of worship. Seeing gets at the teaching aspect of preaching. We really want to understand what we’re talking about. Preaching should help you see God more clearly; it should clarify confusions and dispel misconceptions. That’s a part of the function of preaching that Paul is touching on in 2 Timothy 4.
Preaching doesn’t stop there, though. It must lead us to celebration. It’s not only a recognition of the value of Jesus, but a deep appreciation of it as well. This involves passion, emotion, and deep conviction; this is how the truth changes you and moves you. Seeing the riches of Christ ought to drive us to celebrating those riches. This is joy and adoration.
Preaching demands both of those. If a preacher teaches the word clearly but has no joy or sense of worship in his preaching, that man is a liar. He’s denying the truth of the word he’s teaching with his actions. On the flip side, if a preacher is wonderfully passionate and charismatic and engaging but isn’t clearly teaching the word of God, that man is a fraud. All he’s doing is putting on a show. It’s a performance, not preaching. Sight without celebration is lying, and celebration without sight is performance. Preaching demands both.
All of that primarily focuses on the preacher, but he’s not the only active participant here.
An Active Audience
Preaching invites the audience into worship, too. Do you realize that you also have an active role in the sermon? It’s not just the person behind the pulpit. I hope you as a listener don’t just check out as soon as the sermon starts. This is just as involved as singing or prayer. Look again to 2 Timothy 4:2, where Paul calls Timothy to “reprove, rebuke, [and] exhort” in his preaching. These are all directed at the audience. Paul calls the audience to action. He calls them to align with truth.
The word of God is offensive, in that it is on the offense. It’s coming at you to change you. It’s advancing. It’s going to make you feel uncomfortable, it’s going to call you out and call you to—both of those; out of sin, out of yourself and into life, into Christ, into the will and law of God. Do you come into a sermon with the expectation that you’ll be called out? That you’ll be reproved, rebuked, and exhorted? Do you come into a sermon prepared for something to be asked of you? If not, you’re not engaged in preaching. Preaching calls the audience out of sin and into worship. It’s an invitation.
There’s one last necessary ingredient for preaching that I want to touch on.
A Herald’s Work
Preaching is the work of a herald speaking on behalf of the King of kings. One of the reasons we know that preaching isn’t the same as just teaching is because Paul uses different words in Greek to describe them. The word he uses for “preach” in 2 Timothy 4:2 in Greek is kēruxon, which literally translates to “herald.” Think of a town crier from medieval times, the guy that’d go to the king’s citizens and proclaim the king’s words. The one who would enter the village with trumpets and shout “Hear ye, hear ye, the word of your king!”
That’s a very specific duty. The herald’s one job is to communicate the king’s message as clearly and accurately as possible. Let me ask you something: Does the herald have the freedom to say whatever he wants? No, absolutely not! He speaks on behalf of the king, and has the full weight of the king’s authority. As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. That’s why the herald must work so diligently to make sure he’s accurately representing the king. It would be a grave wrong for the herald to misrepresent his king—treasonous even.
That’s what we see in our passage. Paul doesn’t just tell Timothy “preach whatever you want.” No! He says “preach the word,” and that word is specifically what Paul describes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Preachers are bound to declare God’s word as revealed in Scripture. That’s why sermons are all about the Bible. Other book studies or topical lessons are great, but they can never supersede preaching; preaching must be from the Bible.
I’ll close with this last thought.
The king’s message the herald brings is good news—that’s what gospel means. The news we bring is that our King has won the battle! Our king Jesus has defeated death and is freeing his people from the oppression of sin and evil. Our King is calling us to return to Him—return to life, return to peace, return to unity. Death has been defeated, death is swallowed up in victory! Christ has overcome! We rebels can surrender to the God who loved that radically. The call is to abandon our resistance, lay down our fears and burdens, and come home to the King who calls us sons and daughters—in short, to experience the immeasurable riches of His grace. Come enjoy our Lord’s rest. There is no rest in rebellion, only in the loving arms of Christ.
If this is your first time hearing the gospel phrased that way, it might not all sound like good news. You might be offended at the fact that I just identified us all as rebels. Friends, let me warn you—the Bible calls us a lot worse things than mere rebels, and we’ve earned every one of those harsh titles. Consider earlier in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he rightly calls us “by nature children of wrath” apart from God. There’s plenty of hard, ugly passages in Scripture, but even in the hard, ugly passages—things like sin, death, punishment, reprobation—we see those things in the greater context of the immeasurable value of Jesus. If you encounter a church that never preaches on hard, ugly passages and always avoids the messy, controversial parts of the Bible, that pastor isn’t doing his full job. All the Bible proclaims God’s glory and it is the preacher’s duty to herald His full word to His people.
With all that being said, let’s finally return to our summary sentence. Preaching is an act of worship in which the preacher, as a herald, invites his audience to see and celebrate the word of God with him.
I hope you take this to heart, friends. Healthy, Christ-centered preaching is an essential part of every Sunday worship service, and you have an active role in that. Preaching isn’t just a boring, irrelevant lecture; God calls us to something far better. Here’s our closing question for the morning that you can discuss over lunch:
How can you be a more active participant in worshiping God through preaching?