The Heart of Preaching and the Preacher
William Safire, who was a New York Times columnist and speechwriter for President Reagan, has penned a book on the great speeches in history, Lend Me Your Ears. In this book he contrasts two great speakers in ancient Athens: Pericles and Demosthenes. Pericles, who was known as a brilliant orator, observed: “When Pericles speaks, the people say, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes speaks, the people say, ‘Let us march!’”
That’s exactly what we want in preaching! We don’t want accolades at the door. We want people to respond to God. We want people to obey God. We want people to march!
The purpose of preaching is not information but transformation. We aim primarily at the heart, not the head. Of course, information is essential. People have to know truth. Truth cannot be minimized. But we don’t want people to merely know truth, we want them to respond to the truth with all their hearts.
The bottom line is this: Our goal in preaching is that people would fall in love with Jesus. We want people to obey all of God’s commands for them, but this is the first and foundational command: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” (Matthew 22:37). If people love God, then they will obey God in everything else also.
Augustine commented concisely: “Love God and then do what you please.” If we love God, we will want to please God in every way.
So what is the purpose of a sermon? A lot of things could be said: Glorify God. Please God. Save the lost. Build up believers. Disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed (Chad Walsh). Teach people biblical truth.
All of these statements of purpose are true. But the most helpful purpose, broad enough to cover the entire spiritual life and yet specific enough to have concrete expression, focuses on the Great Commandment, the heart of the spiritual life. Our aim in preaching is simple: That people fall in love with Jesus.
Preaching begins, however, not with our words, but with our life.
Who we are means more than what we say. Our life gives credibility to our message. Or conversely, our lack of character nullifies our message.
It is no surprise that when Paul pens his final letter charging Timothy to lead the church in Ephesus, he does not focus on Timothy’s preaching skills but on his character and life. For example: “Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart,” (2 Timothy 2:22).
We do not simply teach the Bible. Rather, we teach people. We teach the Bible to people. We teach the Bible to people because we care. Because we love them. Because we know that people need biblical truth.
Here’s the point: Preaching is not about the preacher. Preaching is all about the people. The issue is not “Did the preacher do a good job?” Ultimately, that doesn’t matter. The issue is: “Did the people hear from God and respond to God? Were the people transformed by God’s Word?” That’s the issue.
If a preacher loves the people, then he is concerned about the people getting the message, not about him giving the message. Paul is our model here. Here is a man who was naturally a driven, hard-charging, hard-nosed, at times brutal, firebrand. Yet, when he fell for Christ, Christ captured his heart. God gave Paul a great, big heart for people. Hear Paul’s heart for people:
“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 1:7-8).
“Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” (Philippians 4:1)
“As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us,” (1 Thessalonians 2:6b-8).
“For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children,” (1 Thessalonians 2:11).
“But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan stopped us. For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy,” (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20).
Paul deeply loved the people and they knew it.
First Corinthians 13 further underscores the importance of love in preaching. The first three verses tell us unmistakably: If we don’t have love, then we have nothing. God is unimpressed with the eloquent but loveless sermon.
The preacher must preach with a heart that oozes love for the people. If he does that, then the people will know it. They will see it on his face. They will hear it in his voice. They will feel it in his heart. He couldn’t hide it if he tried.
If you are at all like me, you need to cry out, “O God, give me your heart for these people! Break my heart with the things that break your heart!” Do I depend on God or do I depend on myself? Prayer is the acid test. Whatever I profess, prayer is the sure sign of dependence on God. If there is much prayer, then there is much dependence on God. If there is little prayer, then there is little dependence on God. For me, this is convicting to even write. I could pray more.
There might be special times of prayer during the preparation of a message, but the preacher can pray throughout the process. He can pray as he prepares.
It is also crucial to enlist the prayer of others. I have a large prayer team that prays regularly for me. I often ask them to pray for my preaching, for God’s anointing. If God anoints a message, that will take care of everything else. Moreover, each Sunday morning before I preach, I go into a prayer room and a team of people lays hands on me and prays over me for the morning. I love this time. I believe God uses it. And, it fires me up. I would hate to go a Sunday without this intercession team.
Is prayer important in preaching? Listen to Warren Wiersbe’s observation on Charles Spurgeon’s preaching:
“A visitor at Spurgeon’s Tabernacle in London was being shown around the building by the pastor, Charles Spurgeon. ‘Would you like to see the powerhouse of this ministry?’ Spurgeon asked, as he showed the man into a lower auditorium. ‘It is here that we get our power, for while I am preaching upstairs, hundreds of my people are in this room praying.’ Is it any wonder that God blessed Spurgeon’s preaching of the Word?”
This is the essence of biblical preaching: The Word of God is preached in the power of the Spirit for the glory of Christ. God’s Word, by God’s Spirit, for God’s Son. Ultimately, preaching is not about a skill or a craft, it’s about a life. A life lived for Jesus Christ.