Christian preaching does not merely reference Christ; it offers him. It presses all that Christ is, all that he has done, and all that he will do into the minds, hearts, wills, and consciences of our hearers.
This essay answers three important questions about preaching: Is “proclaiming Christ” a biblical definition of preaching? How do I proclaim Christ faithfully? And, how can I sustain a ministry of proclaiming Christ?
J. I. Packer says that “the proper aim of preaching is to mediate meetings with God.”1 These meetings are the work of the Holy Spirit, and he uses the proclamation of Christ to bring them about. God meets with people as Christ is faithfully proclaimed through his Word.
Proclaiming Christ is the distinguishing mark of true Christian preaching. It sets our preaching apart from what might be heard in a Synagogue, or a Mosque, and it distinguishes preaching from lectures that might be heard in a seminary. Such settings may accurately explain portions of Scripture, giving hearers knowledge of its contents, but preaching is an event in which God meets with people – revealing his glory, calling us to himself, and forming faith in His Son.
Proclaiming Christ is more than finding a way to mention Jesus in a sermon. Christian preaching does not merely reference Christ; it offers him. It presses all that Christ is, all that he has done, and all that he will do into the minds, hearts, wills, and consciences of our hearers.
True preaching begins with the plain meaning, historical context, original audience, and literary genre of a passage of Scripture. But it does not end there. It reaches into the treasure chest of Scripture and holds up Christ. He is the One who feeds and transforms the soul, and that is why, at the heart of our ministry, “we proclaim him” (Col. 1:28).
Three questions must now be answered: Is “proclaiming Christ” a biblical definition of preaching? How do I proclaim Christ faithfully? And, how can I sustain a ministry of proclaiming Christ?
Is “Proclaiming Christ” a Biblical Definition of Preaching?
All of Scripture Proclaims Christ
Jesus repeatedly claimed that he is the central focus of all Scripture. Luke records that when our Lord began his public ministry, he announced that the words of Isaiah the prophet spoke about him (Luke 4:21). When speaking with the religious leaders of his day, Jesus said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39), and “if you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (v46). Speaking of Abraham, Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56) And, on the road to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
The teaching of Jesus is reflected by the Apostles who saw the Old Testament as a book primarily about Christ. John tells us that Isaiah spoke of Jesus (John 12:41). Paul tells us that Israelites in the desert were sustained by Jesus, and that they sinned against Jesus (1Cor. 10:1-10). Peter tells us that the prophets wrote about Jesus (1Pet. 1:10-12). The author of Hebrews tells is that Moses considered the “reproach of Christ” more valuable than the treasures of Egypt, and Jude tells us that Jesus saved a people out of the land of Egypt and afterwards destroyed those who did not believe (Jude 5).
In proclaiming Christ we recognize that the whole Bible is ultimately about Jesus, showing who he is, why we need him and how he fulfills God’s plan to redeem the world. Faithful preaching recognizes that lifting up Christ is God’s purpose from every part of Scripture and while it begins with the human author’s meaning and intent, it cannot disregard the divine author’s meaning and intent, which goes beyond what the human authors understood when they wrote (1Pet. 1:10-12). Preaching that is faithful to the Bible will always point to Christ.
The Apostles Proclaimed Christ
When the apostles preached, they proclaimed Jesus Christ, – his identity as Lord, his judgment of sin, his salvation for sinners, his call to faith and repentance; in short, they preached the Gospel. For them, the good news of Jesus was what mattered. This alone had the power to save souls, nourish people in faith, and build up the church.
Proclaiming Christ was modelled by Peter and John when they gave themselves to “preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages” (Acts 8:25). Paul followed the same pattern throughout his missionary journeys, beginning in Damascus where he “began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God2 (Acts 9:20).
This apostolic practice of proclaiming Christ is clear and explicit throughout the New Testament: “we preach Christ crucified” (1Cor. 1:23); “the Son of God, Jesus Christ … was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy” (2Cor. 1:19); [God was pleased] to reveal his Son in me so I might preach him among the Gentiles (Gal. 1:16); “grace was given me: to preach … the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8); “Christ is preached” (Phil. 1:18); “we proclaim him” (Col. 1:28); “pray … that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ” (Col. 4:3). When the apostles preached, they proclaimed Christ.3
How Do I Proclaim Christ Faithfully?
So, if preaching means proclaiming Christ, how can we do this faithfully? The diagram below offers a practical guide to faithful Christian preaching. We might call this tool “The Preaching Sandbox.”
We are to preach Christ in a way that is biblical and theological. This summarizes the what of Christian preaching. Biblical means that we are to preach the text of the Bible. Theological means that we are to explain any part of the Bible in the light of the whole, drawing attention to the main themes of Scripture.
The right and left sides of the sandbox summarize the how of Christian preaching. The Word is to be preached with clarity so that people can understand. And it is to be preached to people directly so that they may be compelled to respond to the Word of God with faith and obedience. Faithful Christian preaching fits within this sandbox, with each side guiding the proclamation of Christ so that people might meet with God.
Practically speaking, a few key questions with regards to each element might guide a preacher as he seeks to prepare a faithful sermon.
- Biblical: What does the text say? Where does the theme come from or go to in the Bible’s storyline?
- Theological: Where does the text fit? Within which category of systematic theology does the main thrust of this passage belong?
- Clear: How can I say this well? How can I structure, illustrate, and communicate this truth best to these people?
- Compelling: How has this passage spoken to me, and how does it speak to them?
The final point deserves emphasis. A preacher who submits himself to a passage of Scripture will find that certain elements of the text press themselves into his own heart, mind, and conscience. Some of these may be primarily for the preacher himself but, by God’s design, what a preacher finds most compelling in any text of Scripture will be used by God to compel others when he preaches.
The preacher gathers up what God has deposited in his own soul as he has submitted his own life to the Word of God and so he speaks from the heart to the people before him. And that which is from the heart speaks to the heart.
True preaching will make eternal things real and fresh to people so that they glow with an urgent, present tense reality. And it will be marked by with expectancy because God’s Word is living, active, effective and life changing.
Such preaching is God’s ordained means to open eyes, unstop ears, renew minds, enliven hearts, and redirect wills. It is a mediated encounter with God himself.
How Can I Sustain a Ministry of Proclaiming Christ?
Every preacher committed to the task of proclaiming Christ can testify to the demands that this work brings. Week by week, the preacher places himself in a crucible where God’s Word works on his own heart, exposing the secret thoughts and intentions of his heart. His own need is ever before his eyes, and as he thinks about the task to which he is called, he often feels a sense of his own inadequacy. Who is sufficient for these things?
Despite the many challenges and discouragements that beset a preacher, three convictions will sustain him in his blessed and privileged calling to proclaim Christ.
Scripture is the Word of God
No preacher will give himself to a lifetime of proclaiming Christ without a deep conviction that the Bible is God’s living and active word. It comes from God. It was breathed out by him. Scripture is not our word about God; it is God’s word to us.
This conviction must be settled in the heart of a preacher. It must become an anchor for his soul, a cornerstone for his work, and a foundation for his life. The source of the Bible in God himself means the preacher does not stand over it, to define its meaning; nor does he stand beside it, to develop or complement its message. The preacher stands below the Bible, submitted to its authority and bound to its message. And because the preacher is unswerving in his confidence regarding the Bible’s source, he is expectant regarding its promised effect (Isa. 55:10-11).
The preacher believes God when God says the Bible is living seed (1Pet. 1:23): The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to regenerate dead hearts.4 He believes God when he says that the Bible is bread, milk, and meat for the believer (Matt. 4:4; 1Pet. 2:2; Heb. 5:12): It is what God’s people need for growth, for strength, for spiritual health. He believes God when he says the Bible is light, like a lamp in a dark place (Psa. 119:105; 2Pet. 1:19): it is what people need to see truth, to cultivate wisdom, to obey God.
A deep conviction that the Bible is what it says it is, and that it will do what it says it will do, will sustain the preacher in a lifetime of proclaiming Christ (Psa. 19:7-8).
God Speaks When the Word is Preached
Preachers will give themselves to a lifetime of proclaiming Christ if they are convinced of the unique place of preaching in the purpose of God.
Our Lord made preaching the primary thrust of his ministry (Luke 4:18-19; Mark 1:38). And the apostles gave priority to the work of preaching and to prayer (Acts 6:2-4). Preaching is the central and indispensable means by which God advances the Gospel and builds his church.
God uses many means to convey his truth: one-on-one discipleship, group Bible study, personal example, classroom teaching, books, topical discussions, practical experiences, and the like all have their place. Yet, among all these, preaching stands as God’s designated means for his voice to be heard in the world (Rom. 10:14-17, 1Cor. 1:18-25).
Preaching is a personal passionate plea in which God speaks as Christ is proclaimed from the Scriptures. “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us, We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2Cor. 5:20, emphasis added).
Faithful preaching is undergirded by a stunning promise of God’s presence and activity. When the New Testament uses the phrase “the word of God,” it usually refers to the Scriptures (Heb. 4:12) or to the Lord Jesus himself (John 1:1-2, 14). But the New Testament also uses ‘word of God’ to refer to the word preached. “The word of God continued to increase” (Acts 6:7). “The word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). “The word of God was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:49). “The word of God continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:20).
When preachers stand under the Word of God (the Bible) and proclaim the Word of God (Jesus Christ), God speaks through their preaching. When Scripture is faithfully proclaimed, God’s voice is truly heard (Luke 10:16; 2Cor. 5:19-20; 1Thes. 2:13; Heb. 13:7; 1Pet. 4:10-11). A deep conviction regarding this wonderful truth will motivate preachers to persevere in their calling.
The Holy Spirit Works in and through the Preaching of the Word
All that we have said about preaching – God’s initiative to meet with sinners, Christ being lifted up, people seeing the truth clearly and experiencing its life changing power – is accomplished through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Preachers depend on the Holy Spirit at every stage in the preparation and delivery of sermons; for understanding of the passage, for discernment in application, for clarity in writing, for freedom in speaking, and for receptiveness in the hearts and minds of those who hear.
Preaching is spiritual work and it depends for its effectiveness on the work of the Holy Spirit.5 He causes the Word to come with power and conviction (1Thes. 1:5), and when Christ is proclaimed from the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit mediates encounters with God.
Our confidence in preaching is that the Holy Spirit works in and through the proclamation of God’s Word to redeem sinners, to sanctify Christ’s people, and to build his church. So if God has called you to preach, give yourself to the ministry with confidence and joy, knowing that God has said,
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:10,11).
- Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
- Miller, Gary, and Phil Campbell. Saving Eutychus: How to Preach God’s Word and Keep People Awake. Kingsford, NSF: Matthias Media, 2013.
- Packer, J.I. Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1996.
- Keller, T. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. New York, NY: Viking, 2015.
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