The Meaning of Preaching
The Meaning of Preaching
In Unit 1 we considered what preaching is and the kind of person who ministers. We looked at the personal and practical preparation needed for preaching. Now we are ready to look more closely at the ministry of preaching. In this lesson we examine the meaning of preaching, some reasons why preaching is a means of ministry, and some Bible examples of preaching.
The definition of preaching given in Lesson 1 will be enlarged to include New Testament terms that give a better understanding of the word preaching. We shall consider the words from the original language, which give us the well rounded meaning of preaching as early Christians understood the word. Just as preaching was a valid method of communicating the Word of God then, so is it an effective means of communicating the gospel today.
As you focus on the meaning of preaching, I pray that you will be challenged with its potential for winning the lost, strengthening believers, and preparing the church for Christ’s soon return.
Definition of Preaching
“Preaching is the communication of truth . . . . It has in it two essential elements: truth and personality. Neither of these can it spare and still be preaching.” These words give us what has long been considered one of the most clear and concise definitions of preaching. It was given by Phillips Brooks, a well-known American preacher of the 19th century. Preaching has also been described as the outflow of a life, the sifting of divine truth through human personality.
Preaching is a major means chosen by God and used in the early church to communicate the good news to people. Although preaching has changed through the centuries, it retains, to a lesser or greater degree, the original elements of proclamation, evangelization, and instruction that it had in New Testament times.
One major definition of the words to preach in the New Testament is “to proclaim as a herald.” The message of New Testament preaching was the gospel. The appeal was to repentance and faith and the goal was to evangelize the lost. The good news needed to be publicly proclaimed because this was the first time people had heard and understood the significance of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You can clearly see this pattern as you read the sermons the apostles preached, which are recorded in Acts.
Although preaching is mentioned many times in the New Testament, rarely does preaching refer to a formal discourse. Generally it refers to heralding the good news. In many places today, the gospel message is being announced to people for the first time; this is New Testament preaching in the sense of proclaiming as a herald.
Can this definition of preaching be reconciled to the broader definition and practice of preaching today? Yes. For example New Testament preachers had the special opportunity to announce the good news immediately after the Lord’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The gospel was new to Jews and Gentiles alike, so the obvious goal of preaching was the salvation of the lost. This is undoubtedly why the New Testament examples of preaching emphasize the winning of the lost. However, later, when the church was more mature and some New Testament literature was available, Paul exhorted Timothy, as a pastor: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage, with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). This is the New Testament order from which present-day preaching has developed. Thus, today’s preaching includes not only the proclamation of the gospel for the lost to be saved, but also the preaching of the Word for believers to be encouraged and strengthened in the faith. By biblical order and example, therefore, both purposes of preaching are taught in the New Testament.
Another major New Testament definition of the words to preach is to tell the good news. This type of preaching is done primarily in the book of Acts as believers told the story of Jesus everywhere they went. They spread their message by personal conversation in homes, on the highways, in the marketplaces and wherever opportunities presented themselves. They witnessed boldly to the power of the gospel that had so changed their lives as they engaged unbelievers in conversation, telling thoroughly and convincingly the good news of salvation. These believers, filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke with boldness and authority in synagogues and prisons. They reasoned with the learned, that is, with those who shaped the attitudes and thinking of the multitudes of people of that day, they witnessed before secular political rulers, and they testified before the religious leaders, whose minds were often unreceptive to the truth of the gospel. They often used the same approach, reasoning, witnessing, and testifying, persuading people to accept the gospel message. In fact, when Jesus sent the disciples to fulfill their task of preaching the gospel to every creature, He instructed them to use all of the elements of communication, such as preaching, teaching, witnessing, and testifying. Their mission was to lead people to see, understand, and experience the power of the gospel.
Thus, the gospel was spread by personal testimony and public proclamation. The multitude of dedicated believers shared the message with one purpose: to reach the unreached and to give the only hope possible to a hopeless world. Although these believers were like sheep among wolves in a hostile pagan world, the message spread quickly throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. During these early years, persecution was bitter, but the more believers suffered the more committed they became. Their zeal and determination were richly rewarded. Within three centuries, Christianity earned a place that could not be erased within the Roman Empire. It had proved that even the gates of Hades could not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:18). The gospel made a permanent impact on the world. Since those early years, the spiritual life and power of the church have advanced or declined in direct relation to the place the church has given to the preaching of the Word. Every great revival of spiritual life in the church has followed a return to the biblical concept of preaching. Preaching is essential to God’s church. The strength of the church rises or falls on its commitment to and passion for preaching. Therefore, desire to become the best preacher you can be, for the only thing that will replace great preaching is greater preaching.
New Testament Words
We have considered several New Testament definitions of to preach and have seen that the biblical language suggests a number of methods the early church used to present the gospel to those who were unreached. As we examine the subject of preaching more thoroughly, we notice that still other methods of communication are suggested by the original language of the New Testament. Some Greek words suggest the personal, informal approach while others speak of the more formal, uninterrupted delivery of a message in a pulpit setting (like our modern idea of preaching). Notice the various methods of communicating the gospel that are suggested by the following New Testament words.
Kerusso means “to proclaim as a herald.” This refers to public proclamation. For example, before the days of newspapers, towns had their town-criers. These were men who stood in the public square and verbally announced the news of the day. That is the image behind the Greek word kerusso. This word is used about 60 times in the New Testament, including the following places: Matthew 3:1; Acts 8:5; Romans 10:8, 14–15; 2 Timothy 4:2.
Euangellizo means “to tell the good news; to preach the good news.” This is the word from which we get the words evangelize, evangelist, and evangel. Because the content of the message is so closely related to the preaching itself, this word describes both the method and the message: preaching (telling) is the method; the “good news” is the message. This word is used about 70 times in the New Testament, including Matthew 11:5, Luke 3:18, and Acts 5:42.
The two preceding words suggest, in most instances, a formal structured discourse, such as we commonly consider preaching today. In contrast, the following words describe more informal, unstructured methods of sharing the message of salvation with the lost. Notice, also, that little is said in the New Testament about preaching sermons and giving discourses while much is recorded about telling the good news and talking about Jesus the Savior.
Laleo means “to talk,” “to converse,” “to tell.” Literally it means “to talk it up.” It gives the idea of the more personal approach suggested by a conversation. This word is usually translated as “to speak” or “to talk” in your Bible. It is used more than 250 times in the New Testament. Acts 11:19 illustrates this method well.
Martureo means “to be a witness” or “to testify.” This word gives the idea of a convincing testimony based on genuine convictions and clear evidence. John the Baptist was such a witness, commissioned by God to testify concerning the light of God’s salvation. This method of communicating the gospel is used more than 70 times in the New Testament. John 1:7–8, 15; Acts 1:8; 5:32; and 14:3 are examples of this method.
Dialegomai means “to hold dialogue.” This word suggests an exchange of views, an opportunity to question and interact on the message presented. It is the opposite of monologue, in which the speaking is done by one person. Here a teaching-learning situation exists. This word comes under the heading of preaching because it is associated with persuading people to accept the gospel message and be saved. It occurs a few times in the New Testament; the following are examples of this method: Mark 9:35; Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4. In our world, this would be like a debate or question-and answer session. The purpose is always to communicate the message that Jesus died for our sins and was raised to justify all who believe.
Katangello means “to tell thoroughly and with authority.” Two others words, plero and parresiazomai, add to the idea of thoroughness and authority with respective meanings of “to fill” and “to speak openly, boldly.” References for this word are found in Acts 13:38; 15:36; and 17:3.
Reasons for Preaching
Chosen by God
God chose preaching to communicate His message of salvation. “John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 3:1– 2). John the Baptist had all the marks of a herald and ambassador: proclaiming the message of another, preparing the way for one to come after him, and representing a kingdom (see v. 3).
When Jesus made public announcement of His mission, He gave preaching priority for communicating His message to humanity. He read from Isaiah’s prophecy, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news [euangellizo] to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim [kerusso] freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim [kerusso] the year of the Lord’s favor’” (Luke 4:18–19). Again in His own words, Jesus describes the importance of His ministry of preaching: “‘I must preach [euangellizo] the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent’” (Luke 4:43). The extent of that ministry of preaching is seen in the next verse: “And he kept on preaching [kerusso] in the synagogues of Judea” (Luke 4:44). Giving His disciples the Great Commission, “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation’” (Mark 16:15). “The disciples went out and preached [kerusso] everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it” (Mark 16:20). When the disciples obeyed the command to preach, miracles confirmed their message, multitudes believed, and the church became a mighty, mobilized army. This is why it is important for you to learn much about preaching, dedicate yourself to the task (and joy) of preaching, and then do it often.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he described preaching as the method God chose to save those who believe, rejecting the wisdom of the Greeks and the miraculous signs sought by the Jews (1 Corinthians 1:21–25).
We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:23–24)
Paul makes another strong defense of preaching in his letter to the church at Rome. He declares that salvation is for all people (Romans 1:5–12), then continues, “‘“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”’” (Romans 10:13). Paul develops systematically a line of reasoning:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14–15, 17)
The need for preaching is clear: faith in Christ for salvation comes as the gospel is preached to people. And this includes every method of communication suggested by the New Testament words translated preaching in our modern Bibles.
No new method is needed to advance God’s kingdom in the lives of people. You can supplement preaching with video clips, dramas, illustrative sermons, and other technology features, but nothing will ever replace preaching. God has chosen preaching as the primary means of communicating the gospel. He did not use political means, social action, or cultural activity to build a spiritual kingdom. Only the gospel can truly change the lives of people.
New Testament Pattern
New Testament preaching in its initial stage takes the form of an official announcement or proclamation of God’s provision of salvation to all people. This preaching was always for the sake of the message, the gospel. No one preached just for the sake of preaching. The apostles preached the gospel of Christ, repentance and forgiveness of sins, Christ crucified, and similar themes. The act of preaching at this stage was never separated from the message of salvation.
The believers of the church began immediately to proclaim the good news in Jerusalem, as the Lord directed (Acts 1:8). Peter, with the other disciples, made the first announcement of it on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14–42). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Peter showed how the prophecies of the past were being fulfilled in the events of the present. He then urged the crowd to accept the salvation God offered. The unbelieving multitude was stirred by the message. When the people asked what they should do, Peter advised them to repent of their sins and then be baptized. As a result of this stirring message three thousand people were added to the church. The pattern was set; the church grew and believers went everywhere preaching the gospel.
As we have already seen, public preaching to a crowd, the delivery of a sermon, was not the only method of spreading the gospel in the early church. Persecution forced believers to use other means. “All [the believers] except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). This introduced the use of personal witness, talking and telling the good news, on a large scale. This methodology was widespread and effective:
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19–21)
There is no indication that these believers, who so faithfully preached the gospel, were formally recognized as professional clergy by the elders in Jerusalem. Neither are they associated with pulpit ministries or discoursing at public meetings. They simply went “gossiping the gospel” and telling the good news wherever they could. This scattering of the church by persecution became a turning point in the book of Acts as they moved beyond Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria toward the uttermost parts of the earth with the gospel. (See Acts 1:8.)
Personal witness was another New Testament method of spreading the gospel. The man born blind gave personal testimony of his healing to those who asked (John 9:25). Notice the progress in the man’s knowledge of Jesus. He began by referring to Jesus as just a man (verse 11). Next he viewed the Lord as a prophet (verse 17). The healed blind man went further by calling Jesus a man from God (verse 33). Finally, his spiritual eyes were opened and he confessed Jesus as Lord (verse 38), worshiping Him openly. Paul gave the testimony of his conversion three times in the book of Acts. In each instance he simply told what happened when he was born again and what it had meant to his life (Acts 22:1–22; 24:10–21; 26:1–29).
Paul also frequently used dialogue to preach the gospel. Because Paul was Jewish by birth, he entered the local synagogue to discuss and reason with Jews and others about Jesus the Messiah (Acts 17:1–3). Some were convinced while others were not (Acts 17:4–5). These discussions gave opportunity for questions, debate, and interaction among those present. The purpose of the dialogue was to convince listeners to believe the gospel message and be saved. (For other examples of Paul’s use of this method see Acts 18:14, 19; 19:8–10.)
The New Testament church used a variety of methods to spread the gospel. However, two things were always the same: the message and the objective. They preached the gospel at this stage primarily to save the lost.
Historically and Presently Effective
Jesus indicated that He would build His church and that even the forces of Hades would not overcome it (Matthew 16:18). From the Day of Pentecost onward the place and power of preaching was established. Enemies of the apostle Paul testified to the power of his preaching when they claimed that he had turned the world upside down or literally shaken the social order (Acts 17:6). In the process, he had affected mightily great cities and entire provinces (Acts 19:26).
Paul reminded Corinthian believers that the tremendous change in their lives was the direct result of Spirit-anointed preaching (1 Corinthians 2:1–5). Thus the good news spread: powerfully, convincingly, and irresistibly. By the beginning of the 4th century, it had triumphed over persecution, governmental opposition, numerous doctrinal errors, and its own infancy. It had also gained acceptance in the Roman Empire, and a fresh vision reached beyond Rome’s imperial boundaries to the very ends of the earth.
Church history records periods of great advances, as well as those of decline. But whenever the church experienced revival in its spiritual life, it was always accompanied by the dynamic proclamation of the Word of God.
During the centuries since the birth of the early church, preaching has undergone various changes. But it is still the highly effective method for communicating truth that God chose and that the early church used so well. Today, preaching is demonstrating its usefulness as a means for reaching masses of people that live in the crowded cities of the world. In mass meetings modern-day heralds of truth proclaim the good news to evangelize the lost, and multitudes of people are finding Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
In addition, millions of television viewers and radio listeners hear the preaching of the gospel each week through these media. In remote areas gospel tapes bear the message of the preached Word to hungering hearts. Gospel tracts bring the same gospel message on a personal level to millions more, while effective testimony and faithful witnessing point many to Christ. And in countless churches and preaching points each week the Word of God is communicated to evangelize the lost and to mature the spiritual life of believers. Preaching, it would seem, is as important now as it has ever been. This is especially true as the Holy Spirit prepares the church for the Lord’s coming.
Examples of Preaching
In the Old Testament prophetic ministry are examples of the prophets speaking as heralds for Jehovah and serving as His ambassadors. Jeremiah repeatedly said, “The word of the Lord came to me . . .” (Jeremiah 1:4; 2:1). He and other prophets spoke a message that revealed the mind of God toward the conditions that existed. Elijah, Isaiah, and Hosea are among others who heralded God’s message in the Old Testament and faithfully represented God to His people Israel. Their ministry called the nation to repentance and faithful service and inspired trust in God for salvation.
New Testament preaching, for the most part, had these things in common: an appeal to the Old Testament Scriptures; a clear and authoritative proclamation of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ; and an appeal to the listeners to believe in Him for salvation. Peter’s message at Jerusalem (Acts 2), his message in the temple (Acts 3), Stephen’s address to the council (Acts 6), and Peter’s message at Cornelius’ house (Acts 10) are examples of New Testament proclamation for the purpose of evangelizing the lost. Paul’s message on Mars’ Hill (Acts 17) is an example of discussion and discourse for the purpose of pointing lost people to salvation.