Heralding the Saviour
‘For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake’ (2 Corinthians 4:5).
In previous articles we have considered two of the Greek words translated ‘to preach’ in our English Bibles – one meaning to ‘tell good news (evangelise)’ and another ‘to tell thoroughly’. We saw how these words relate to the preaching of Christ.
The third most common Greek verb translated ‘preach’ means to herald or proclaim, and it has an interesting history. In and before New Testament times a herald had various functions.
One of these was to call together an assembly for the purpose of making a pronouncement. Another was to act as an intermediary between opposing forces – for example, to convey terms of surrender to an embattled army and bring back their reply.
‘Heralds were believed to be the messengers of the gods. They carried wands; their persons were inviolable, and they were regarded as the messengers, and under the protection, of Jove’ (Liddell and Scott Greek lexicon).
When the early church needed a word to describe the preaching of the gospel they chose (among others) a verb derived from ‘herald’. No doubt their main intention was to convey the idea of ‘proclamation’ but the other heraldic functions are also relevant, as we shall see.
Firstly, then, to preach Christ we must proclaim Christ. Even today Heralds are sometimes used on ceremonial occasions to announce a monarch or other dignitary. A trumpet fanfare greets their arrival, silencing idle chatter and drawing all eyes to the one proclaimed.
So it is with Christ. The purpose of preaching is to herald his appearance, ‘bringing all thoughts into captivity to the obedience of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5). This, at least, should be the effect that preaching Christ has upon our hearers, namely, to focus their attention on his glorious Person and saving work.
It is not the herald’s task to invite people to a discussion, forum or debate. Nor is it to entertain the audience with music or display their instrumental virtuosity. The herald’s function is to announce that a person of great authority or rank stands before the gathered throng.
So also, when we herald Christ there is but one purpose – to make everyone look to him and wait upon his words. The preacher must have a genuine desire that ‘he must increase and [we] must decrease’ (John 3:30). Paul could say, ‘We preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus sake’ (2 Corinthians 4:5).
Although we pay lip service to this principle we do not always observe it in practice. The preacher is constantly tempted to promote himself in various ways – to exhibit his skill and erudition or ‘play to the gallery’. And the temptation increases the more successful we become.
It takes great grace and humility to truly preach Christ rather than ourselves. But the difference will show.
But what if ‘the trumpet makes an uncertain sound’ (1 Corinthians 14:8)? Sadly, this often happens. Some preaching lacks clarity because the preacher is afraid to ‘declare the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27). Paul implies that this was a problem even in his own day, asking the Galatians, ‘Do I now appease men or God?’ (Galatians 1:10. See also his dispute with Peter in Galatians 2:11-14).
Too often, ‘the fear of man brings a snare’ (Proverbs 29:25). We are afraid to speak clearly in case we offend people by doctrines that debase human pride and exalt the sovereign power of God.
Some years ago I was asked to read a manuscript submitted for publication on the pastoral ministry. The would-be author suggested that a pastor appointed to a new church should not mention the doctrines of grace for about two years and then introduce them very gradually. Otherwise, he said, people would reject the teaching and leave the church.
But our task as heralds is not to please men but to promote the knowledge of Christ. Of course, this must be done gently and graciously, ‘with all patience and doctrine’ (2 Timothy 4:2). But it must also be done with great clarity and biblical authority.
Relating all to Christ
But perhaps more often the preaching ‘makes an uncertain sound’ because the preacher himself is confused about the need to proclaim Christ or how to do so. These articles are intended, of course, to help resolve any lack of clarity in these things.
In practical terms, when preparing a sermon, Bible study or Sunday School lesson, we should always ask ourselves what the message will teach its hearers about Christ and their need of him – his Person, his redeeming work, his grace, his love, his compassion, his example and so much else.
How early in the message do we intend to introduce Christ? How soon will we mention his name? How quickly will he engage the attention of our hearers? If our topic is historical in nature, how will we tie this into the history of redemption? If it is ‘worship’, how central to our concept of ‘divine service’ will Christ be made?
If we are concerned with ecclesiology, how does our subject-matter relate to the church as Christ’s body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Ephesians 1:23)? If our message deals with practical living and morality, or with family life, do we see Christ as the source of our wisdom – and his indwelling Spirit as our enabling power – in all such matters? And so we could continue.
If we want to guide our hearers aright, the compass needle of our thoughts must constantly return to point to Christ.
But what of the other aspects of the heraldic function? Firstly, in pagan society heralds were regarded as messengers of the gods, endowed with the protection and authority of those deities. Did the New Testament writers have this in mind also when they chose to speak of ‘heralding the gospel’?
We do not know. But they certainly believed that those who preach Christ do so with the full authority of God. Peter writes of ‘those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven’ (1 Peter 1:12).
What do we know of this divine, Spirit-given authority in our preaching today? More to the point, how may we know it? The answer, surely, is that in our preaching we must let the Spirit of God speak through his own Word.
Too often our preaching is a statement of our own beliefs and opinions. These may be doctrinally impeccable, but if we fail to let the message emerge from the Scriptures themselves, we shall speak in our own authority, not God’s. Furthermore, it must be clear to our hearers that our teaching arises naturally from God’s word – otherwise they may discern the wisdom of man rather than the voice of God.
It is vital, therefore, that before we preach we should meditate deeply on the Scripture passage(s) involved. We must ourselves listen before we dare to speak, asking such things as;
What would the Lord say to us through this Scripture? Where in the passage is Christ delineated? How will the Spirit of God fulfil his work of glorifying Christ by taking of the things of Christ and declaring them – first to the preacher and then to the people (John 16:14)?
Unless the Spirit speaks, the authority of our preaching will be human, not divine.
Terms of surrender
Finally, the herald of old carried messages between warring armies – not least the terms of surrender offered to an embattled foe. So also the gospel preacher conveys God’s terms of surrender to rebel sinners. ‘Repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!’
Let us understand that God sets the terms. The gospel of Christ is an invitation (Matthew 11:29-30) but it is also a command (Acts 17:20-21). It is never a compromise with worldliness or sin, or with the inclinations of the rebel heart and mind. It calls for total surrender – for obedience to the gospel and submission to the righteousness of God (1 Peter 1:2; Romans 10:3).
In our preaching we must reason with sinners (Acts 24:25) and answer their questions (1 Peter 3:15), but we must not debate with them as if the truth of the gospel were negotiable. Nor can we be apologetic or evasive concerning what God requires in terms of faith and submission to the gospel. Men must come to Christ on his terms, not their own, and it is the preacher’s responsibility to make those terms crystal clear.
As they do so come, they will find that God is gracious beyond their wildest dreams. And, as we have seen, they will begin to discover the unsearchable riches of Christ.