by Tom Ascol
If anyone desires the office of a bishop, he desires a good work.- 1 Timothy 3:1
The key word in this verse is work. The pastoral ministry is hard work. Paul compares the life of the pastor to that of a soldier and a “hardworking farmer.” He encourages young Timothy to “endure hardship” in the ministry (2 Tim. 2:3, 6).
At the heart of this hard work is the holy task of preaching. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones stated that “the most urgent need in the Christian church today is true preaching.” His predecessor, G. Campbell Morgan, also held this view of preaching when he called it “the supreme work of the Christian minister.”
In the introduction to his classic work on homiletics, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, John Broadus argues that “the great appointed means of spreading the good tidings of salvation through Christ is preaching.” A pastor is expected to be many things. He must be a counselor to those who need guidance. He must be an encourager to those who are discouraged and a comforter to those who are distressed. He must be an administrator of the life and ministry of a local church and he must be a leader who guides the church into the proper paths. In and through all these and other responsibilities, however, the pastor is, first and foremost, a preacher.
When establishing such a priority in the discharge of his calling the pastor not only follows the pattern set by the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, he also follows the example of our Lord Himself. At the outset of His public ministry Jesus stood in the synagogue at Nazareth and announced His purpose from the words of the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor…
To preach deliverance to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,…
To preach the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19).
He was anointed to preach.
Often when the life of Christ is studied in the gospels it is the miracles which stand out to the mind. As pronounced as they are, however, one must remember that Jesus performed His miracles in the midst of His preaching and teaching ministry. When the crowds clamored for more miracles He said to His disciples, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth” (Mark 1:38). God had only one Son, and He made Him a Preacher.
“Preach the word!” is the apostle’s admonition to Timothy. “Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). This command is strong enough by itself to make pastors sit up and take notice of the great emphasis placed on preaching. Paul, however, goes on to buttress it with a very disturbing argument. The reason that pastors must preach the Word is because “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (vv. 3-4).
Who is Paul talking about? Who are the “they?” He is not referring to people outside the church. Rather, he is speaking of church members-those who sit and listen to the preacher. The reason that Timothy must preach the Word with authority is because of the inevitable tendency within men to resist sound doctrine. Preaching is the God-ordained means to fight against this tendency.
We hear much today about the irrelevancy of preaching. Modern men–especially Baby Boomers and Generation X–simply will not sit still for such “traditional” church activities. What we must do, then, is give them what they like. Give them drama. Give them dance. Give them multimedia. All these and more are being trumpeted as the new vehicles of proclamation for today’s church.
Preaching, we are told, is outdated. To expect large numbers of people to sit and listen to one man talk for half an hour or more is not only presumptuous, it is foolish. Yet, it has pleased God “through the foolishness of preaching [the preached message] to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).
So, what must we do? How should the people of God respond to the Bible’s emphasis on preaching while living in a world that increasingly despises preaching? First, we must determine to let our convictions be shaped by the unchanging Word of God and not by the shifting currents of modern culture. Preaching must become and remain the priority of our gospel ministers. Churches must insist on it for their pastors and pastors must insist on it for themselves.
Secondly, provision must be made in the church for the maintenance of this priority. Many good things compete for the pastor’s attention. There are always needs to be met. There are always ministries that await willing hands. In the face of many demands pastors must cultivate the same kind of humble boldness and studied neglect which was displayed by the apostles who were pastoring the early church in Jerusalem. When confronted with important needs in the congregation, those early leaders refused to be distracted from their main work: “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables” (Acts 6:2).
The situation was serious. Widows were being neglected in the church. Yet, the church entrusted that ministry to other Spirit-filled members so that the apostles could give themselves “continually to prayer and the ministry of the word” (v. 4). This kind of practical wisdom and willingness to delegate responsibilities must characterize a church if the priority of preaching is to be maintained.
Church members and officers should take great care to insist that their pastor maintain the work of preaching as the priority of his ministry. John MacArthur made this point with eloquent force during his sermon to the 1990 Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. How can church members encourage their pastor to make preaching his priority? Here are MacArthur’s suggestions:
Fling him into his office, then tear the “Office” sign from the door, and replace it with a sign that says, “Study.”
Take him off the mailing list. Lock him up with his books and his typewriter and his Bible. Slam him down on his knees before texts and broken hearts and the flick of lives of a superficial flock and a holy God.
Force him to be the one man in the community who knows about God. Throw him into the ring to box with God until he learns how short his arms are. Engage him to wrestle with God all the night through, and let him come out only when he’s bruised and beaten into being a blessing.
Shut his mouth from forever spouting remarks and stop his tongue from forever tripping lightly over every non-essential. Require him to have something to say before he breaks the silence. Burn his eyes with weary study. Wreck his emotional poise with worry for the things of God. Make him exchange his pious stance for a humble walk with God and man. Make him spend and be spent for the glory of God.
Rip out his telephone. Burn up his success sheets. Put water in his gas tank. Give him a Bible and tie him to the pulpit. Test him, quiz him, examine him. Humiliate him for his ignorance of things divine. Shame him for his good comprehension of finance, batting averages and political party issues. Laugh at his frustrated effort to play psychiatrist. Form a choir, raise a chant and haunt him night and day with, “Sir, we would know God.”
When at long last he does assay the pulpit, ask him if he has a word from God. If he doesn’t, then dismiss him. Tell him you can read the paper. You can digest the television commentary. You can think through the day’s superficial problems and manage the weary drives of the community and bless the assorted baked potatoes and green beans better than he can.
And when he does speak God’s Word, listen. And when he’s burned out finally by the flaming Word, consumed by the fiery grace blazing through him, and when he’s privileged to translate the truth of God to man and finally is himself transferred from earth to heaven, bear him away gently. Blow a muted trumpet. Lay him down softly and place a two-edged sword on his coffin and raise the tune triumphant, for ere he died he had become a Man of God.
The evaluation which John Broadus made in 1870 remains valid in the closing years of the twentieth century: “In every age of Christianity, since John the Baptist drew crowds in the desert, there has been no great religious movement, no restoration of Scripture truth, and reanimation of genuine piety, without new power in preaching, both as cause and effect.”
If we hope to see genuine revival and reformation, there must be a return of power to the pulpit. Spirit-anointed preaching is the great need of the day. Let us labor to reestablish its priority in our churches. And let us pray for those whose job it is to fulfill the holy calling of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. May God grant us a revival of true preaching.