What Is Preaching (And Who Does It)?

One of the best books I read last year was Preaching in the New Testament (IVP, 2017) by Jonathan Griffiths. As part of D. A. Carson’s series New Studies in Biblical Theology, I expected the book to be exegetically rich and the cover to be slate gray. I was not disappointed on either account. Griffiths, a pastor in Ottawa, Canada, makes a compelling case that there is such a thing as preaching and that not every Christian is called to do it.

At the heart of Griffiths’s examination is this well-defended conclusion:

Preaching in the New Testament is a public declaration of God’s word by a commissioned agent that stands in a line of continuity with Old Testament prophetic ministry. (128-129)

Building on the work of Claire Smith, Griffiths argues that in the New Testament euangelizomai, katangello, and kerysso are semi-technical terms referring to the proclamation of the gospel. Griffiths charts all 54 uses of euangelizomai (“announce good news”), all 18 uses of katangello (“proclaim” or “announce”), and all 59 uses of kerysso (“make proclamation as a herald”). While the three terms are not employed in a uniform sense, they are “semi-technical” in that they normally refer to preaching by some recognized authority. Of the three verbs, kerysso is the most specialized term with the narrowest range of meaning. But even with the other terms, Griffiths notes, there are no examples in the New Testament where believers in general are commissioned or commanded to “preach” (36).

Preaching is a certain kind of speech carried out by certain kinds of people. Of course, there are other kinds of word ministries given to all believers (Eph. 6:13-17; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 3:15) but preaching (especially the speech signified by kerysso) is a ministry set apart. Paul’s charge to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:1-2) indicates not only that preaching is a task for one with commissioned authority, but also that the preacher is a man of God (2 Tim. 3:17) like the prophets of old (61-66). Likewise, Romans 10 assumes that New Testament preaching stands in continuity with the Old Testament prophetic ministry of Isaiah. We also see that being commissioned (i.e., sent out) is an essential prerequisite for preaching ministry.

As Griffiths moves through 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians 2-6, 1 Thessalonians 1-2, and Hebrews, he reinforces the main themes of the book: that New Testament preaching is powerful, that God speaks through gospel preaching, that God expects people to respond to preaching with faith and obedience, that preaching requires a commissioned speaker, that preaching stands in continuity with Old Testament prophetic ministry, and that preaching is, therefore, a unique word ministry.

Concluding Thoughts

So what does this mean for the church today? Griffiths offers several points of application, let me mention three of my own (which overlap with some of his).

1. Preaching is not what every Christian does. The work of heralding is related to other word ministries but is not identical with them. There are no instructions for non-leaders to preach or proclaim the gospel. Obviously, the Bible was written in Greek not in English. The apostles never used the word “preach,” but the words they did use under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit mean something distinct from bearing witness, one-to-one discipleship, or leading an inductive Bible study. There is such a thing as preaching, and not every Christian is called to do it.

2. The act of preaching is inherently authoritative. For some reason, I had not seen before how clear this is in Romans 10. Preachers preach the gospel. Yes, that’s clear. But what is also clear is that preachers don’t just decide themselves that they want to preach. They must be sent. Preaching implies a commissioned agent authorized to preach. Rightly understood, there is no preaching that does not come from an authority in the church and no preaching that does not carry with it God’s own authority. A corollary to this point, then, is that complementarians should not speak of “women preachers,” nor should we describe the word ministry of women as “preaching.” The use of such terminology is unwise and unbiblical.

3. Preaching is meant to lead to an encounter with God. The word of Christ preached is not only a word about Christ; it is a word from Christ (Rom. 10:17). Though coming from human lips, the preached word is nothing less than the divine word of God (1 Thess. 2:13). Think of the book of Hebrews, a word of exhortation (13:22) that most scholars now think is the earliest extant full-length Christian sermon. We see that preaching comes from a congregational leader (13:7-24). We see that preaching is an exposition of Scripture. And we see that in preaching we come face-to-face (or ear-to-ear, we might say) with the living God (3:7, 15; 4:7). God’s voice is heard in the Sunday sermon, which is why we are right to give preaching the central place in our worship services and why we should pray regularly for the powerful preaching of God’s Word.