1. Preaching Christ to Christians
‘Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus’ (Colossians 1:28).
We now turn to a subject that is in some ways contentious – do we need to preach Christ to those who are already believers?
Some will point out that most Bible references to preaching Christ are found in the context of missions and evangelism. Clearly, to preach the gospel to the unsaved we must preach Christ. But do believers need something different?
I touched on this question in the first article of this series, and made a preliminary point from Hebrews 12:1-2. If believers are to ‘run with endurance … looking to Jesus’, then surely they must be both helped and exhorted to do so.
And how can we do that apart from preaching Christ? – for he is both the author of faith and its perfector, and we are complete in him (Colossians 2:10). Let us consider this further.
Majoring on Christ
Without question, the epistle to the Hebrews was written to Christians. Although the writer warns his readers against apostasy, he clearly believes them to be truly saved (Hebrews 6:9). It is also obvious that the epistle is a homily – a sermon in writing – full of Bible exposition, application and exhortation.
Yet what is the subject of Hebrews if it is not Christ? It presents him as the eternal Son and express image of God; it sets him before us as the creator, sustainer and heir of all things. It unveils the incarnate Christ as the representative man; as the high priest and mediator of the new covenant; and so much more.
If the Hebrews needed such sustained (even repetitive) teaching concerning Christ then so, surely, do we. The same can be said of the recipients of all the New Testament epistles, for even the most practical of them ‘majors’ on Christ.
The reason for this emphasis is clear: ‘Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus’ (Colossians 1:28). Christians can only be brought to completeness (perfection) if they learn of Christ.
Of course, we can isolate texts that contain no reference to Christ. I remember hearing a sermon on 1 Corinthians 5:33 – ‘Evil company corrupts good habits’ – in which the preacher talked exclusively about the moral dangers of keeping bad company!
Yet this statement is part of Paul’s extended treatment of the resurrection of Christ and its implications for believers. The apostle warns the Corinthians to distance themselves from those who implicitly deny the resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
In fact this passage begins with the words, ‘Now if Christ is preached that he has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?’ No excuse here, then, for not preaching Christ!
This illustrates the danger of preaching from isolated texts without giving due consideration to the context. I would suggest that throughout the New Testament, whatever the immediate concern of the writer, the context is always Christological. The preacher has a responsibility to set his text firmly in this context and thus relate the subject matter of his sermon to Christ.
The pastoral epistles
Three NT epistles were written specifically to help church leaders pastor their flocks – two to Timothy and one to Titus. Although pastors also ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Timothy 4:5) their chief duty as elders is to ‘shepherd [feed] the flock of God which is among you’ (1 Peter 5:1-4).
The pastoral epistles are full of practical teaching concerning the life of the local church – teaching that is much needed in our own day. But Paul is careful to emphasise two things. Firstly, pastors are to teach these things by preaching to believers: ‘I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ … preach the word! … Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:1-2).
Secondly, the purpose of such teaching, no matter how practical and down-to-earth it might be, is that believers should ‘adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things’ – for ‘Christ … gave himself for us that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for himself his own special people, zealous for good works’ (Titus 2:10, 17-19).
In other words, all practical and moral teaching has the aim of fulfilling God’s purpose in Christ. As Peter puts it: ‘You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Peter 2:9).
To teach ethics and morality, church life and obedience, without reference to their purpose of ‘adorning the doctrine’ and glorifying Christ, is to put the cart before the horse (or even to discard the horse altogether).
But is not the Sermon on the Mount a moral treatise without reference to Christ himself? Not at all. Near the beginning of the sermon Jesus makes it clear that he came to fulfil ‘the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 5:17). The sermon proceeds to unveil what God requires of man – gathering up and going beyond the teaching of the Old Testament. For example, although the OT tells us to take pity on our enemies (Proverbs 25:21-22), nowhere does it say we have to love them (Matthew 5:43-48)!
Again, at the end of the sermon, Christ reveals himself and his teaching as the foundational ‘rock’ on which our lives must be built if they are to withstand the storms of life and judgement (Matthew 7:24-29).
We cannot preach the moral requirements of God, therefore, without reference to Christ. He is both the fulfilment of the old covenant and the foundation of the new – all true morality flows from his divine authority.
Furthermore, the only effective motivation to righteous living (the horse that draws the cart) is surely a love for Christ, our Saviour and our Lord.
Above all, however, we should preach Christ to Christians because nothing else can satisfy the true believer. ‘To you who believe’, says Peter, ‘he is precious’. Why? Because God says, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious, and he who believes on him will by no means be put to shame’ (1 Peter 2:6-7).
This being so, to fail to proclaim Christ to believers is to rob them of that which brings them greatest joy. It deprives them of the ‘fragrance of his knowledge’ and the ‘sweet savour of Christ … of life unto life’ (2 Corinthians 2:14-17, AV).
If Christ is the bread of life, the manna from on high (John 6:33-35), should not the preacher feed his flock accordingly? If believers are ‘complete in him’ should we not labour to show them the Christ in whom all fulness dwells (Colossians 2:10; 1:19)?
Of course we should. For ‘he is before all things … the head of the body, the church, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he may have the pre-eminence’ (Colossians 1:17-19). It would be a strange thing if God intended his Son to have pre-eminence in everything except our preaching!
Seeing the Father
There is another possible objection – an issue that genuinely troubles some preachers. If we preach Christ exclusively, are we not in danger of neglecting the Father – the first person of the Godhead? This may be why many sermons refer to ‘God’ frequently but make little mention of Christ.
For example, it is possible to preach on the glory of God from Old Testament passages like Exodus 3:6 (the burning bush) or 33:18-23 (Moses beseeching God to show him his glory) without reference to Christ.
But we should remember that under the new covenant we behold ‘the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ – who reveals the fulness of God’s ‘grace and truth’ (2 Corinthians 4:6; John 1:14). By all means let us expound these Old Testament manifestations of God’s glory. But let us do so by relating them to Christ, remembering that they were only shadows and precursors of ‘the glory that excels’ – the glory of God’s beloved Son (2 Corinthians 3:10). For Christ is ‘the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of his person’ (Hebrews 1:3).
Hebrews also reminds us that we no longer come to Mount Sinai ‘but… to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God’ (Hebrews 12:18-24). The true glory of the living God is revealed only in Christ for ‘no man has seen God at any time. The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him’ (John 1:18).
What shall we conclude, therefore? ‘He who does not honour the Son, does not honour the Father who sent him’ (John 5:23). He who has seen Christ has seen the Father (John 14:9). It is not possible, therefore, to honour Christ at the expense of honouring the Father. Rather, we exalt the Father in the same measure as we exalt his Son.