What gives any preacher the right to stand up at least once a week for, say, half an hour and claim to speak on behalf of God? Not even the president of the United States boasts such authority. No one thinks a math teacher or literature professor deserves this privilege. And how many other one-directional monologues do you regularly encounter these days anyway? What was once popular, the stuff of itinerant entertainment in the ancient world, would scarcely draw a crowd in any city center today, let alone pave the way toward a lucrative career in public speaking.
Preachers draw their authority not from superior knowledge, political power, or rhetorical flourish. They draw it from God’s Word alone. “Preach the word,” Paul told his young disciple Timothy, the pastor in Ephesus; “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Preachers draw their authority from God’s Word alone.
Preachers don’t have authority if they’re reviewing the latest Netflix series. They don’t have authority if you’re asking for a restaurant recommendation. They don’t have authority if they’re sharing thoughts about a conspiracy theory they saw on Facebook. They might make some good, interesting, or worthwhile points. They might have some good advice if you need, say, help finding a job. But they derive special authority to speak on God’s behalf only when they preach his Word.
Don’t Settle for Human Wisdom
As we rediscover church, we’re looking for divine authority and not merely human wisdom. We have more than enough human wisdom today. You’ve never had such widespread access. Self-help books dominate bestseller lists. Podcasts promise a better you. You’ll never reach the end of the internet. So a church that offers human wisdom meets stiff competition. Why listen to a local pastor instead of subscribing to a YouTube channel? Why get up on Sunday morning instead of watching the news programs featuring powerful politicians?
We get up and gather with the church weekly because that is where we go to hear from the divine King—his good news and his counsel for our lives. We hear from him every time we open our Bibles, yes, but we hear from him together in the weekly gathering. We’re shaped together as a people there. This is why preaching and teaching are central to our church gatherings. Centering our gatherings around God’s Word cultivates the heavenly culture that should characterize us as a distinct people, so that we can, in turn, be salt and light in our separate cities and nations.
With the Spirit’s help, you know divine wisdom when you hear it. And it’s not like the human wisdom of today’s self-appointed scribes, who are so common on social media and in bestselling books. The preacher’s authority covers all God has said but does not go beyond what God has said. Preachers may be guilty of saying too much or too little. That means the Word is the basis but also the limit of the sermon.
Mark Dever often compares the preacher’s work to the task of a mail carrier. The mail carrier doesn’t walk up to your door, open up the mail, jot down a few extra notes, reseal the envelope, and then place the letter in your mailbox. A mail carrier simply delivers the mail.
A mail carrier simply delivers the mail. So it is with a preacher.
So it is with a preacher. The Word helps us discern his proper authority. He has the authority to deliver the mail. Nothing else.
Self-help gurus lack authority because they have a vested interest in telling you what you want to hear—otherwise, you won’t buy their products and subscribe to their programs. Such scribes go beyond God’s Word and claim authority that does not belong to them. They seek to bind your conscience on matters that cannot be determined from Scripture alone. They might try to tell you whom to date, whom to vote for, where to enroll your children for school, or what kind of clothing indicates godliness. In all these things, they may truly pass along wisdom, but we must not equate good advice with divine authority. The sermon is not the place for human reflections but divine power.
Thus Says the Lord
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets echo a refrain: “Thus says the Lord.” They spoke with authority because God entrusted his message to them. They spoke on his behalf. That means the prophets did not always say what the people wanted to hear. In fact, it was common for kings to punish the prophets when they didn’t like what they heard.
Prophets did not always say what the people wanted to hear.
The experiences of Israel warn that as we rediscover church, we’re prone to seek out leaders who tell us only what we want to hear. And leaders are tempted to give the people what they want, because it’s easier to make a living that way. It’s even possible for preachers to sound like bold truth tellers when they only speak harshly about people outside their churches. They may sound courageous, but they never actually challenge the people who pay their bills.
In fact, that might be the greatest challenge most preachers face. How can they preach the Bible and nothing but the Bible without stepping on more than a few toes? How can they say hard and truthful things to people who control their livelihood and could remove them and their families from their house and community?
Teach the Word to Yourself
Given this temptation for preachers, it’s important for the rest of us to make ourselves willing to hear and heed the Word, even if we don’t always like it or agree with it at first. As you rediscover church, you’re looking for preachers who will not just make you depend on them for hidden biblical insights, but will show you how to teach yourself the Word.
The best preachers don’t make you marvel at their own skill. They show you God’s glory as seen in his Word. And when you see God that way, you want as much of him as you can get. You grow in eagerness to read and apply the Word for yourself. Then you enter a virtuous feedback loop. The more preachers help you know and love the Word, the more you develop that taste for yourself, and the better taste you develop for meaty preaching.
Think about the work of the Word in a church through at least four movements: (1) the preacher brings the Word for the whole church; (2) the church members respond by taking God’s Word into their mouths and hearts through the singing and corporate prayers; (3) all members of the church teach the Word to themselves; and (4) various members of the church teach the Word to one another and to the next generation. That means every member of the church has been called in some capacity as a student and also a teacher of the Word.
With this view of the Word, churches protect themselves from one of the most common problems today, which the biblical writers anticipated and endured themselves. Paul told Timothy to warn the Ephesians not “to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Tim. 1:4). In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he likewise warned, “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” (2 Tim. 4:3–4). We see, then, that a church focused on the Word will be less interested in “their own passions,” speculation that gives the appearance of knowledge but actually indicates foolishness. Paul might have thought Satan himself created the internet as a tool to divide and distract churches with endless speculation.
Think about the preacher’s unique challenge today. He might command as much as 45 or even 60 minutes of your attention this week. And that’s if your attention isn’t divided by children and drowsiness and text messages popping up while you’re trying to watch the sermon at home. But social media and videos and podcasts command seemingly every spare moment around work and driving and sleeping. No wonder it feels like our churches can’t get on the same page! We’re not prioritizing the same pages of Scripture. The churches that will emerge strongest through the aftermath of COVID-19 will be those that differentiated between God’s Word preached in power and the countless other words that vied for our dwindling attention.