Sermon text: 1 Thessalonians 2:13
For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.
Today, as is our custom on the first Lord’s Day of each month, we’ll be celebrating the Lord’s Supper. And one of the things that I have sought to highlight as we approach the Lord’s Table is that it is more than a mere memorial or symbol or ritual. As a sacrament of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is a means of grace appointed by the Head of the Church for the strengthening of our faith and the nourishment of our souls.
But the Lord’s Supper is not the only means of grace. It’s not even the primary means by which the risen Christ dispenses His grace for the benefit of His people. Its entire sanction, function, and efficacy is derivative from the Word of God. So I thought it would be fitting if I brought to you a message on how the Word of God, namely in its public proclamation in the congregation, has been ordained of God to function in worship as a genuine means (or instrument) of grace.
Now this message will be more topical than is usual but I trust it’ll be no less biblical and expository. So for our opening text, let’s take a look at 1 Thessalonians 2:13, where the Apostle Paul writes to the church, saying, “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.”
Consider that in this text, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of what they experienced as they came under the influence of the preaching of the Word of God. He wanted them to reflect on that. He wanted them to understand that so that they would yield a proper submission to the ongoing ministry of the Word to them and so that they would find encouragement from how God had gloriously worked through the Word in the salvation their souls. In addition, since they had believed the truth Paul had delivered to them, he was reaffirming them in the way of salvation; and the end of all this was, of course, that thanksgiving and praise would be given to God for the sake of His glory. But the basic principle in the text that I would like to focus our attention on is this: the apostle wants the church to reflect on how God uses preaching in the accomplishment of His mission and the building up the church. And I think we can therefore infer from the text that reflecting on how the Lord uses the preaching of His Word to benefit our souls is a profitable activity most worthy of our ongoing contemplation.
Note that Paul is here describing several features of his apostolic proclamation that highlight the importance of preaching and the role that it plays in every believer’s life. In this one verse, he summarizes several saliant distinctives about it.
- First, the uniqueness of preaching. It’s not the word of men but of God. As a form of communication, it is unique, categorically distinct, qualitatively different from every other form of human speech.
- Second, the primacy of preaching. It has a priority in terms of how it should be esteemed and received, because it comes not from men but from God.
- Third, the effectiveness of preaching. Its outcome is supernaturally transformative. It is instrumental in the Spirit’s work of grace in our hearts, for it “works effectively” he says, “in you who believe.”
In outlining all this Paul is alluding to the central role that preaching plays in the advancement of God’s kingdom and the salvation of God’s elect. And if you pay attention when you read Paul’s epistles, you’ll find that the apostle is everywhere talking about preaching. He was a man on a mission and preaching was the central task of that mission. He mentions it expressly or at least alludes to it in every single one of his epistles. It’s apparent that Paul thought that every Christian should understand something about preaching in order to appreciate why it plays such a central role in the advance of God’s mission, in the worship of His church, and in the people of God’s experience of converting and sanctifying grace.
So, taking our cue from the Apostle Paul, what I’d like to do in this message is open up for you something along the lines of a concise theology of preaching, and that with a view to its practical import in the lives of those who are not vocational preachers. And as I do that, I’m going to give you a basic definition of what biblical preaching is, followed by an explanation of that definition with a little bit of detail.
Definition of Preaching
Any definition must begin by addressing basic questions such as: What is the essence of preaching? What makes it different from other forms of communication? And what is its function, role, and purpose?
The best definition we can come up with, I think, is still the one settled upon in the time of the Reformation: it is “the exposition and application of the Word of God.” The focus, the content matter, must be the Word of God—not human opinion; not the stuff of natural revelation; and not the things discernable through general human knowledge. It must expose and amplify the message of the biblical text; it must traffic in special revelation and extol the saving acts and knowledge of God. But it is more than a communication of textual information—it is an impartation of biblical truth that is personally and closely applied to the life, the heart, and the conscience.
This definition is implied in Paul’s charge in 2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the word.” That defines the activity of the task, which is public proclamation, as well as the content matter of that activity, which is “the word” of Holy Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16). The three imperatives that follow when he says “convince, rebuke,” and “exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” articulate the manner in which the word is to be preached, describing the specific rhetoric forms of communication whereby the proclamation is to come to expression. These can be broadly summarized as application. Thus Paul is saying, in effect, ‘Communicate the God-breathed Scripture by proclaiming its meaning and making application so that God’s people understand it, believe it, and live it.’
But a more comprehensive definition is in order if we desire to penetrate this matter a bit more deeply. So, regarding preaching which is to occur in the context of the church’s formal assembly on the Lord’s Day, my proposed definition is the following. This has eight aspects to it, and once I give you the definition, then we’ll survey each of those aspects in turn. Here’s my definition:
Preaching is (1) a commissioned messenger’s (2) verbal proclamation of divine truth, (3) contained in the Holy Scriptures, (4) centered on the redemptive work of God in Christ, (5) as a Spirit-enabled means of grace, (6) applied to contemporary hearers, (7) for edification and evangelism, (8) as an act of worship.
Or, to put it into a series of descriptors, we could say that preaching is divinely delegated, proclamatory, scriptural, redemptive, transformative, applicatory, purposeful, and doxological. Each of these aspects is vital such that the absence of any one of them would result in a truncated approach that falls short of the biblical ideal. So let’s look at each of them briefly.
Eight Aspects of Preaching
Preaching is the prerogative of a messenger who has been sent. That is, it normatively pertains to the vocation and office of those who have been set aside, ordained, and commissioned by God to the ministry of reconciliation. Paul said in Romans 1:1 that he was “called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God.” The gospel was entrusted by Christ to His apostles, and through them to the post-apostolic church, among which the Holy Spirit continues to sanctify, equip, call, and commission messengers to declare the same message—the “deposit” of truth—that was committed to the apostles. Hence the apostles ordained elders in every church (Acts 14:23) to continue and extend the labors of the mission they had received from the Lord. And some of those elders were to spend themselves, according to 1 Timothy 5:19, in the “labor” of preaching and teaching. This pattern of sending is so normative, and preaching is so integral to the vocation of those sent, that Paul asks the rhetorical question: “how shall they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:15). Preaching pertains to an ordained ministry in the church; and one’s calling to that ministry is confirmed in a man by character qualities, evident giftedness, an internal sense of calling and holy compulsion, as well as an external call issued by the visible church of Christ.
The ministry of the Word is to have priority in the execution of the ministerial office. The apostles provided a pattern for the prioritization of preaching when they said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables…. but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2, 4). Serving in the distribution of resources to widows was an important ministry, but in comparison with preaching, it was secondary. Likewise, with the cacophony of voices crying out for a pastor’s attention and time among the pressing demands of ministry in the twenty-first century, it is more vital than ever that he heed the three-fold imperative of the Chief Shepherd who said, “Feed My Sheep” (John 21:17).
According to the biblical pattern, preaching is the principal means by which pastors exercise their shepherding function in the care and cure of souls. Peter, extending Christ’s charge to him to a subsequent generation of elders in the church, said, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2). Calvin rendered this “Feed the flock of God” and commented, “the flock of Christ cannot be fed except with pure doctrine, which is alone our spiritual food.” Throughout the Bible, shepherding as a metaphor for spiritual care evokes the duty of feeding and nourishing the flock with sound, healthy, edifying teaching. And preaching not only is a means of feeding, but as William Perkins famously said, it is a means of gathering the church, of bringing together the scattered elect, and of driving away the wolves. The Word of God is the shepherd’s staff.
The New Testament language of preaching stresses its public character as authoritative announcement with divine backing. But the fullness of this task of preaching unfortunately gets somewhat muddled by English translation. Paul uses three words in the original which (says one scholar) “function with a high degree of consistency as ‘semi-technical’ terms for preaching the gospel throughout the New Testament.”
In 1 Corinthians 1:23, Paul says “we preach Christ crucified.” There he uses the word κηρύσσω, which means to herald the apostolic message: that Christ has appeared in prophetic fulfillment to usher in the kingdom of God through His death and resurrection. In Colossians 1:18 Paul says, “Him we preach,” there using the word καταγγέλλω, which means ‘to publicly announce a message.’ In Romans 1:15, he says, “I am ready to preach the gospel,” using the word εὐαγγελίζω, which means ‘to announce good news.’ This is significant because in the act of preaching is entailed the verbal and audible activity of public speaking and listening, a message from an ambassador of God declared to “the flock of God.” It is not a dialogue or conversation, but a monologue declared with derivative authority. And that authority doesn’t come from the messenger but from the one who sent him, and thus inheres in the message itself.
Preaching should always be biblical, honoring to the God-breathed nature of Scripture, subjected to the authority of Scripture, confident of the sufficiency of Scripture, insisting on sola Scriptura(Scripture alone) and tota Scriptura (the whole Scripture). When Paul said, “Preach the Word,” he meant the written Word in the Scriptures. The biblical text must furnish the raw data for the substance of the sermon. William Perkins said, “The Word of God alone is to be preached, in its perfection and inner consistency. Scripture is the exclusive subject of preaching, the only field in which the preacher is to labour.” Preaching should be exegetical in that “the explanation of Scripture forms the dominant feature and the organizing principle of the message.” Thus all preaching should be essentially expository, making the meaning of the biblical text the message of the sermon. The observations, explanations, arguments, illustrations, and applications of the sermon should be governed and guided by the text and demonstrably tethered to it, even as they proceed from it by direct or inferential textual warrant.
This is more important today than ever because this generation, speaking of Western and European culture, is less acquainted with the Bible than any generation since the Protestant Reformation. A 2010 article in Christianity Today said this: “Americans love their Bibles. So much so that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition. Or, as… Gallup… said in a widely quoted survey finding, ‘Americans revere the Bible but, by and large, they don’t read it.’” We have Bibles on our shelves, in our pews, on our computers, even on our phones, but how many have the Bible in their head and in their heart? How many can say, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You”?
Much of what passes for preaching today is not really engaging the text of God’s Word in a way that would remedy biblical illiteracy. Much of it is simply pandering to the general unacquaintance that evangelicals have with the Bible; it’s opting instead for an easy message of immediate (quote/unquote) “relevance” and “application.” How many pastors are substituting pop psychology, storytelling, maxims, anecdotes, lessons for life, humor, and homiletical entertainment in the place of “thus says the Lord”?
Contrary to these trends, preaching must be leading hearers to a better understanding of the biblical text as it is written. Brother, sister, if there’s one thing you need to know, speaking practically now, it’s the Bible. That’s my goal in this place, to help you learn the Bible. Whether you believe it, whether you live it, whether you truly walk with God through the knowledge you obtain by it, well all that is in the hands of God. I can’t control any of that, but one thing I can do and that I aim to do is to teach the Bible. People should be able walk away from the sermon they heard in church on Sunday and be able to say, “I now understand that biblical passage better.” Your church life should be exposing you to entire books of the Bible through the ministry of the pulpit so that over time, you come to grasp the background, structure, flow of thought, primary themes, and theology of whole books as they stand in their canonical form—and also the whole message of the Bible itself in its simplicity and unity and diversity and depth.
Preaching should communicate not just the message of whatever specific text is under focus, but the main message of the whole text of the Bible. And that message centers around the saving work of the Triune God in Christ. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:5: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake.” What has been committed to the preacher’s trust is not just a duty to transmit biblical information; it’s the gospel. First Thessalonians 2:4: “But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts.” A couple of years ago, I preached in a Presbyterian church, and as I stood behind the pulpit, I noticed a little sign placarded there that was visible only to the preacher. It said, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” We are transformed from glory to glory only as we behold His face in the Scriptures.
Preaching communicates Christ, not just verbally or for cognitive apprehension but effectively, by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the transformation of mind and heart and soul. First Thessalonians 1:5: “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit.” The presence of the Spirit became manifest through the word proclaimed. Christ as a living Person, in His real spiritual presence, becomes manifest through preaching. He speaks and reveals himself through the church’s ongoing ministry of preaching, even as the Holy Spirit speaks and reveals himself through it.
Paul makes an incredible statement along these lines in Romans 10:14 when he says, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Well I’ve studied out that second question in the original and I agree with many commentators that word “of” has no place in the text. It’s an addition not found in the Greek. The sentence is better translated as the New American Standard renders it: “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” The point is not that through the preaching, you hear about Christ (“of” Him); rather, in it you are hearing Christ Himself. He is speaking through it.
This is exactly what Jesus was saying in Luke 10:16 when He told His disciples: “He who hears you hears Me.” He said in John 10:27, “My sheep hear My voice… and they follow Me.” Now, brethren, you’ve never heard His voice literally or physically, but you have heard it truly. When we sit under the ministry of the Word, we don’t merely hear a secondhand reiteration of His voice; in a sense it’s that but in another sense, a much deeper sense, it’s much more than that. We hear the Shepherd’s voice truly as His Word is preached. He speaks through His Word—granted that it’s being accurately taught—just as truly as if He were physically present declaring it.
Thus preaching the gospel brings into present instantiation the living voice of God; it is not merely a word from God in terms of possessing its source or origin in a past activity of revelation; it is also God’s self-enunciated Word in the sense of its ongoing communication such that when the preacher speaks it, God is speaking it through him.
Paul said the preacher is an ambassador for Christ through whom God pleads. The ESV captures the literal sense of 2 Corinthians 5:20 well when it says, “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” God is the one making His appeal through a man’s voice, and He’s pleading with the world to be reconciled to His Son. In light of this, Peter can charge those who speak publicly in the church to ensure conformity to the truth of Scripture so that the voice of God resonates accurately through the voice of the preacher: “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11).
Preaching is thus a true—indeed the primary—means of grace. William Ames wrote, “Preaching is the ordinance of God, sanctified for the begetting of faith, for the opening of the understanding, for the drawing of the will and affections to Christ.” Sidney Greidanus said, “Preaching is not merely a word about God and his redemptive acts but a word of God and as such is itself a redemptive event.” This is not to detract from the completed, once-for-all nature of canonical revelation or accomplished redemption, but it is to state that preaching is an effectual means through the Spirit to usher God’s elect into transformative encounter with their Redeemer.
And just think: if we really believe that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are speaking through the preached Word, what kind of solicitude, what manner of reverence, what degree of attentiveness ought to seize us as we attend to it? We should attend to the preaching of the Word with our whole hearts knowing that souls and our lives and our eternity hang upon how we receive and practice the Word that is taught us. And we should never willingly miss the opportunity to sit under the ministry of the Word in the house of God, particularly on the Lord’s Day; and if we do voluntarily neglect it, we do so only to the detriment of the health and wellbeing of our souls. You know, every Lord’s Day, after we get done here and I relax back at the parsonage, I’ve made it a habit to listen to a sermon by another preacher. We need to be reading the Word, yes, and pondering it privately in our quiet time, sure, but God has also expressly declared that it is His will that we listen to it preached on at least a weekly basis. It does something for the soul that no other medium does quite the same.
Since the preached Word is a means of grace, it ought to be applied to hearers with a view to their growth in both knowledge and grace (see 2 Pet. 3:18). The point of exposition is application. Paul said, “Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith.” We learn God’s commandments so we can love them and live them. We don’t want to puff up our heads with knowledge while starving our hearts from being filled and satisfied with the grace and experience of God.
God’s sheep must be fed out of the fullness of Christ through the exposition of truth that is adapted to their spiritual needs. Such application should flow out of the richly doctrinal, robustly theological exposition of Scripture. As it was said of Jonathan Edwards preaching, that “all his doctrine was application and all his application was doctrine.” Theology is not (or shouldn’t be) dry information full of irrelevant technicalities. It is the knowledge of the things of God that rightly apprehended leads us deeper into the knowledge of God Himself. And that is the kind of knowledge that transforms our lives, leading to what Paul calls, the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 15:26).
Preaching is for the purposes of edification and evangelism, to bring in the lost and to build up the found. It must have both kerygma, the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified; and didache, which is the teaching of the whole counsel of God in all its implications for Christian living. The regular, faithful exposition of the Word of God should have evangelistic appeal and edifying content because the Word itself has both of these elements.
In the church biblical exposition is primarily for the building up of the saints (see 1 Cor. 14:1–5). The seeker-sensitive model wherein the meetings of the church are geared primarily to appeal to the unconverted is as unbiblical as it is sacrilegious. The purpose of preaching in the congregation is to impart sound doctrine (Titus 1:9; 2:1), to feed and nourish the flock (John 21:17), to sanctify hearers and facilitate their conformity to the image of Christ (Col. 1:28), to equip the saints for kingdom service (Eph. 4:12), to lead God’s people into a vision for mission (1 Thess. 1:6–7), and to prepare them to stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). In short, true preaching is speaking out of the ancient text to the contemporary person with the ever-relevant truth of God to bring the unconverted to faith and the converted to maturity, and to a state, if the Lord be pleased to grant the blessing, of spiritual flourishing in Christ.
Yet with all that said, the preacher must be careful not to habitually place the predominate focus on the unconverted or even on the felt or spiritual needs of listeners. Under the influence of the solemnity and authority of the Word of God, we should be aiming to so exalt the divine glory so as to cultivate an atmosphere pervaded with a sense and consciousness of God.
Preaching is the central activity of the Lord’s Day gathering of the church, and that gathering exists primarily for the worship of God. It is altogether God-centered, and when its concerns deviate from that reality and become man-centered, the entire conception of it has become corrupt and idolatrous. The preaching of the Word aims at the edification of God’s people, but it is foremost a doxologically declaratory act of praise to God, a revelation of who God is in his glory, and a corporately-engaged exultation in the greatness of His wisdom and grace and majesty. John Stott said, “All true worship is a response to the self-revelation of God in Christ and Scripture, and arises from our reflection on who He is and what He has done.” The preaching of the Word is the pinnacle of the activity of ‘revelation and response’ in corporate worship. Through preaching, God discloses himself to the congregation by word-mediated revelation, and through the effectual working of the Spirit, the congregation receives and engages that word by faith as living sacrifices yielding themselves to God in “spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:2; cf. 15:16; Ps. 54:6; Jer. 33:11; Heb. 13:15).
Prayer: Oh God, we thank you that as your Word is unfolded, it is an unveiling of yourself, even of the Triune God in your saving and judging presence. As you become present to save and to judge, please save us, sanctify us, and spare us all from eternal judgment for Christ’s sake. Amen.
 Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 7 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 490.
 Jonathan I. Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament: An Exegetical and Biblical-Theological Survey, New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson (London, England: Apollos, 2017), 128.
 Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 122.
 John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 144.
 Gen. 37:12; Isa. 40:11; Jer. 23:2; Ezek. 34:3; 8, 10, 15; Mic. 5:4; 2 Tim. 1:13; Titus 2:1.
 William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying and the Calling of the Ministry, Puritan Paperbacks, rev. ed. (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 3.
 See Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament, 17–40 (33). Piper also surveys these terms in Expository Exultation, 51–71.
 First Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 3:17; 1 Pet. 5:2.
 Paulo R. B. Anglada, Reformed Hermeneutics and Preaching: Historic Investigation, Qualifications, Princinples, Presupppositions, and Linguistic Methodology [McConnells, SC: Knox Publishing, 2021), 103.
 Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 9.
 Sinclair Ferguson, “Exegetical Preaching,” in Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision for What Every Minister is Called to Be (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), 651.
 Bryan Chappell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 10; David Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today, 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).
 Collin Hansen, “Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible,” Christianity Today, May 24, 2010, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/may/25.38.html (accessed February 1, 2023).
 Psalm 119:11.
 See John 12:21.
 See John 14:21; Gal. 3:1.
 Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament, 10.
 1 Thess. 2:13; Hebrews 4:12; 13:7.
 Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament, 9–16, 121–22; Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2004), 112–20.
 See John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, vol. 3, The Baptist Commentary Series (London: Mathews and Leigh, 1809), 571.
 Chad Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643–1653, ed. John R. Bower and Chad Van Dixhoorn, Studies on the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 121–28; Daniel R. Hyde, “The Principle and Practice of Preaching in the Heidelberg Catechism,” ed. Joel R. Beeke, Puritan Reformed Journal Volume 1, no. 1 (2009): 116; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 466–68.
 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans. and ed. John D. Eusden (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1968), 194.
 The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 5.
 Joel Beeke, Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People (Wheaton: IL: Crossway, 2018), 58–60; Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry with An Inquiry into the Causes of its Inefficiency, abridged ed. (1849 repr.; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 246–59; D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 76. For an extensive argument for doctrinal preaching, see Thomas J. Nettles, The Privilege, Promise, Power, and Peril of Doctrinal Preaching (Greenbrier, AR: Free Grace Press).
 Joel R. Beeke, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008), 260.
 Robert Webber, The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship, vol. 1, The Complete Library of Christian Worship (Nashville, TN: Star Song Pub. Group, 1993), 108–109.
 John Stott, Authentic Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 250.
 English Standard Version.