What is church? Part four

by Mark Brickell

In nearly every kind of church someone preaches. Sometimes long, sometimes short, sometimes engagingly, sometimes boringly, sometimes systematically through the Bible (expositionally) sometimes thematically, sometimes by way of proof-texting and other times, sadly, with little reference to the Scriptures at all. 

Some see it as useful for warming us up for ministry time, others for imparting the vision, values, culture and strategy of their particular church. A few see it as the boring bit between worship and ministry. 

We may therefore, be surprised to find that in Protestant theology ever since Luther and Calvin the preaching of the word has always been the one constant mark of the church.

In this short piece I want to answer the question, “Why is preaching the scriptures so important?” I also wish to show you why the reformers had such a high view of it and why we should too.

The main reason for its importance is that scripture is a proxy for the authority of God; that God himself in someway is exercising his authority and power through it among us

The main reason for its importance is that scripture is a proxy for the authority of God; that God himself in someway is exercising his authority and power through it among us. It is more than just inspired advice, warm counsel, interesting stories or moral lessons. It is the word of the King of Kings and contains the creative power of the King’s words. When the King spoke it was done, “Let there be light and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). All the authority and power of the king is inherent in his word. 

It says of itself: “By the word of Yahweh were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth . . . Is not my word like a fire, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces . . . All flesh is grass, it withers and fades but the Word of our God will stand forever . . . Like the rain and the snow coming down and watering the earth … so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty, but it will succeed in the task to which I shall send it” (Psalm 33:6, Jeremiah 23:29, Isaiah 40:8, 50:10-11).

In other words, the Word of the Lord is like a great lake of power and wisdom which the speakers and writers of scripture could tap into so God could flow through them to fill and grow his people or like a great sledge hammer that can break down hard hearts and resistance. 

We are also told that the Word of God is “living and active like a sharp two-edged sword that can separate the bone from the marrow” (Hebrews 4:12). It is able to separate our mixed motives, to expose and remove sin that clings so strongly to us that we can be unaware of it. It is not just inspired but is alive with the power and presence of God.

In these scriptures and others we find the elusive but powerful idea of “God’s Word” not as just a synonym for written scripture but as a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating. In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul describes scripture as “God-breathed”, a phrase that implies more than just inspired – perhaps God-infused is an appropriate translation. 

No clear distinction is made in Scripture between what God says and what he does. When looked at this way, we can see why CH Spurgeon said you can no more defend the scriptures than you can a lion. Let it defend itself. 

The gospel itself is also seen as the word of God. “The gospel is the power of God to salvation to everyone that believes” (Romans 1:8). 

This story (Gospel) contains God’s power to overcome resistance and transform the most broken lives.

The gospel referred to here is not the four spiritual laws or the Romans Road to salvation, helpful though they are. It is the whole story, the biblical mega-story of creation, fall, slavery, exodus, Israel, the Kingdom of God and Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s rescue mission (There are many ways of telling this story but I trust you get my point.) This story (Gospel) contains God’s power to overcome resistance and transform the most broken lives. 

Additionally, the power of God contained within the mega-story – the gospel – is a good reason for doing more expositional preaching. The scriptures were meant to be taught as a meta-narrative not as a random grab bag of tenuously-related pieces – an approach which can lead to getting so absorbed in the details that we miss the big picture.

We do not have the apostles and prophets among us to speak the words of God into our situations, but we do have the record of what God spoke to his people in the past to situations much like ours. God uses that record to call us to himself and renew us again, just as he did through Ezra reading the word to the assembled returnees from Babylon. As we look at the Old Testament we see Israel called and formed into the people of God through his word. The word spoken through Moses, the Psalmists, the Prophets, the Wisdom writers and the writers of the narratives formed Israel’s life, worship and behaviour. 

In almost the first strategic restructuring of the Early Church we find the apostles delegating bureaucratic and organisational tasks to deacons so they could focus on prayer and the teaching of the word. We who preach need to try and do the same if we can, so we do not become so absorbed with operational matters that we leave a vacuum where the preaching of the word should sit, a vacuum that may be filled by the solutions that our culture and prevailing ideologies provides. 

The reformers spoke of preaching as God’s audible sacrament, a means of grace – or a way of receiving the power to live the Christian life. In short, preaching is not just for the imparting of information, not just for exhortation or backing up our beliefs but one of the regular places where heaven and earth meet – or, in the words of the ancient Celtic church, “a thin place”, a place where we meet with God, where his presence is, where he walks among us and transforms us. 

The Early Church looked back to Jesus and the tradition they received from him and one of the most notable things is that he was self-identified as a teacher or preacher (Rabbi). It was the title he was most commonly called by. 

As Jesus taught, signs and wonders happened. There was little differentiation between his words and his works. Works happened before, during and after his sermons. We should also expect the same. The New Testament talks about preaching so often that it uses 30 different Greek verbs to describe it.

I hope this brief discourse encourages you to go back to preaching with a renewed passion that comes from understanding the place preaching has in the church and how God is present in it.