Idoubt whether anyone called to preach would quarrel with the apostle Paul’s sentiments. In theory at least, we all agree that Christ is to be preached.
But experience shows that good intentions are not always carried out. Preaching some months ago at a church whose pastor had recently retired, I later received a note of thanks. It said that out of the dozen or so visiting preachers who had served the church, only two of us had preached a Christ-centred message.
One suspects this is a common experience. Further indications that all is not well come from books, conferences and articles on preaching. Many of these contain little direct reference to preaching Christ (there are honourable exceptions, of course).
We read about expository preaching, relevant preaching, preaching with power, preparation for preaching, and so much else, but somehow the content of the preaching often seems to be forgotten.
There are two main reasons for this. Some genuinely feel that Christ should not be the sole focus of evangelical preaching, but that other subjects demand equal treatment – especially when preaching to believers.
On the other hand, many protest that it is so obvious that Christ must be preached that there is no need to say so. It is something that can be taken for granted.
However, in practice, the result is often the same – a failure to preach Christ. The purpose of this series of articles is to explore what it really means to preach Christ and why it is essential to do so.
Let us begin with some approximate statistics – culled from Young’s analytical concordance (and thus based on the Authorised Version).
The words ‘preach’ or ‘preaching’ in our English New Testament are used to translate as many as eleven different Greek words (some of them closely related). However, the majority of references to preaching involve just three Greek words, meaning respectively: to evangelise or tell good news (49 times); to herald or proclaim (61 times); and to tell thoroughly (10 times).
I shall refer to this again in future articles, but more significant for our immediate purpose is the subject or content of New Testament preaching. Of the 133 uses of the English verb ‘preach’ in the New Testament, the following can be said.
In 39 cases the word is used generally, without identifying any specific content (except in the case of John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance, which is included in this figure).
In one case, the subject of preaching is ‘the faith’. In 12 cases, the subject is ‘the word’. In 14 cases it is ‘the kingdom’ that is preached.
But a massive 67 references are to preaching either ‘the gospel’ or ‘Christ (or Jesus)’. Since the gospel is necessarily ‘the gospel of the glory of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:4), all these instances speak of preaching Christ.
Furthermore, ‘the faith’, ‘the word’ and ‘the kingdom’ must also relate in some way to Christ, for he is the object of our faith, the subject of the word, and the ruler of the kingdom! It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say that whenever the New Testament identifies the subject of preaching, that subject is found to be Christ.
Implications and objections
This has important implications. It means that only Christ-centred preaching has New Testament authority. If we fail to proclaim Christ in our preaching we are robbing God of his glory and our hearers of their spiritual food. Could it be that even in evangelical churches today, ‘The hungry sheep look up and are not fed’?
But some will raise objections at this point. For one thing, they will say, I have ignored the Old Testament, which is just as much the word of God as the New. This is a valid point and I intend to deal with it more fully in a subsequent article.
But for the moment let me simply quote two Scriptures. The first is Jesus’ statement to his critics: ‘You search the [Old Testament] Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me’ (John 5:39).
The second relates what happened on the Emmaus road: ‘beginning at Moses and all the prophets he [Jesus] expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27; emphasis added).
These Scriptures do not prove that the Old Testament contains nothing but Christ-related material, but they do put us on notice that Christ himself regarded the Old Testament Scriptures as a massive and concerted testimony to himself.
Clearly, then, we may preach Christ from the Old Testament just as truly as from the New. I would go further to say that we must do so, but the case for this will have to await another article.
Only for the unsaved?
A second objection is that while we should preach Christ to the unconverted, this is no longer necessary for the believer. There are many other things to engage the attention of the converted soul, we are told.
A much-quoted example is Samuel Bolton’s aphorism: ‘The law sends us to the gospel that we might be justified; and the gospel sends us to the law again to enquire what is our duty as those who are justified’ (The true bounds of Christian freedom, 1645).
This implies that while we must preach the gospel to the unsaved, we should make the law our priority in preaching to Christians. I disagree, but this is not the place to debate the role of the law in the Christian life – I am simply illustrating the contention that some regard ‘preaching Christ’ as a ministry to the unsaved rather than the saved.
This is a large and often confused subject, and again a full treatment must await a future article. But let me offer a brief reply to this objection here.
Where does the epistle to the Hebrews bid Christians look as we ‘run the race that is set before us’? Is it not ‘to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:1-2)? It is indeed. For Christ is not only the author of our faith – he is the only one who can bring it to perfection and completion!
If that is so, to take our eyes off him – for whatever reason – is perilous. This surely is the whole burden of Hebrews. And it follows that those who preach to believers must surely preach Christ, so that they might ‘consider him’ (Hebrews 12:3) -meaning study him, ponder him, concentrate on him, and give him our full attention.
A sweet savour of Christ
Let us conclude this first article by pointing out what is accomplished when we preach Christ. When Paul comes to Troas ‘to preach Christ’s gospel’, he sees his preaching as something that ‘diffuses the fragrance of [Christ’s] knowledge in every place’. This is true whether the hearers are being saved or reject his message and are therefore ‘perishing’ (2 Corinthians 2:12-15).
Moreover, this fragrance of the knowledge of Christ is not only diffused among men, but also rises ‘to God’ – like incense offered on the altar in the tabernacle. That is, the preaching of Christ is an act of worship to Almighty God, whether or not that preaching is received and appreciated by men.
God is well pleased when his Son is proclaimed, whatever the reaction of the human audience may be. For God has determined that ‘all should honour the Son just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him’ (John 5:23).
We honour Christ in various ways, of course. By the way we live, and the way we speak, as well as by our service and worship. But it is difficult to see how we can honour Christ unless we continually and consistently proclaim him and preach his unsearchable riches (Ephesians 3:8).
Yes, God is pleased when we preach Christ – but those who are God’s children also partake of his delight. Christ proclaimed is a sweet savour in their nostrils and refreshment to their souls, and they will never be truly satisfied without it.
For Jesus is their ‘King … a hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land’ (Isaiah 32:1-2). So, let Christ be preached!
Future topics will include: What it means to preach Christ; Preaching the unsearchable riches; Evangelism; Preaching Christ to believers; Christ in all the Scriptures; Preaching Christ from the Old Testament.