We began this short series by considering the Holy Spirit in evangelism (ET, August) and continued last month with the Spirit and the church at worship. But I have so far made little reference to a central feature of evangelical worship, namely, pastoral preaching.
Of course, as we saw in August, gospel preaching lies at the heart of biblical evangelism. But most preaching today takes place in the context of worship rather than evangelism. What, then, is the role of the Holy Spirit in this pastoral preaching ministry?
The purpose of pastoral preaching is to instruct, warn, edify and encourage the church – corporately and individually. Certainly, there should be an evangelistic element in such preaching, since most congregations contain unsaved persons (for example, the unconverted children of believers).
Again, even when the preacher is not consciously speaking to the unsaved, there are times when God moves in saving power. But we tend nevertheless to think of pastoral preaching as little more than instruction – and we question (if only subconsciously) whether such a mundane task really requires the involvement of the Spirit of God.
Preachers and hearers alike may adopt this ‘low’ view of pastoral preaching without realising it. We worship together faithfully and appreciate the instruction we receive, but it seems somehow inappropriate to expect our hearts to burn within us.
So what does Scripture say about it?
Point of delivery
Let’s start with the last book of the Bible. The glorified Christ delivers to John a series of messages for transmission to the ‘angels’ or messengers of seven churches (Revelation 2-3). The messages are clearly pastoral, addressed to established churches and their members. They contain all the elements of pastoral preaching such as encouragement, warning and instruction.
But specially significant is the refrain repeated to each church and easily overlooked: ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Revelation 2:7,17,etc. emphasis added). The messages were no doubt delivered by preachers in every church, but the voice was the voice of God’s Holy Spirit.
We are not considering here some ecstatic or revelatory utterance. This is a case of church pastors reading what John had written to them and relaying it to their people. In other words, they were preaching pastorally from Scripture. If this were not the case the whole exercise would have been pointless, for the churches would never have heard ‘what the Spirit says’!
We have here, then, a complete parallel to pastoral preaching today. Yet who is speaking? Are the church leaders just passing on some good advice from the aged apostle? Not at all. The Spirit of God is speaking through the messages at the point of delivery.
But is it not Christ who speaks? Yes, these are Christ’s own words. And is it not Scripture that speaks? Yes, the words were written in epistles to the churches.
But we are not told that the Spirit was speaking to John or even to the ‘angels’ of the churches – he was speaking directly to the churches; that is, when the messages were finally delivered to God’s people in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos and so on, it was the Spirit who spoke first-hand.
Help for the preacher
This has profound significance for us today. For unless the preacher understands that the Spirit is speaking through his pastoral ministry, he will have little sense of divine assistance – nor indeed will he seek it.
As a university teacher and conference speaker, I have often in the past addressed audiences large and small on scientific subjects. I have prepared my material, assessed the requirements and capacity of my audience, and tried to leave them both wiser and (hopefully) enthused.
I have never felt the need for divine assistance in lecturing (except in the general sense of seeking God’s help in all I do). I have simply tried to do my job to the best of my ability. But in preaching God’s Word this approach can never work. Why not?
Because while a lecture affects the hearer’s mind, God’s Word addresses his eternal soul. If our preaching delivers psychological benefits but does not bring ‘every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ’ we accomplish nothing of value.
As a lecturer I can rely on my training, experience and knowledge – but as a preacher I dare not do so. I am utterly dependent on the assistance of the Spirit of God. Indeed, it is essential that the Spirit should speak through my preaching if any good is to be done.
Demonstration of the Spirit
The apostle Paul has much to say about this matter in 1 Corinthians 2. He begins by referring in verses 1-5 to his work among them as an evangelist. But notice that in v.6 and thereafter he switches from the past tense to the present, saying, ‘However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature [complete]’. Who are these ‘complete’ people? Obviously Christians.
Thus his remarks from v.6 onwards relate either to his extended pastoral ministry to the young Corinthian church (Acts 18:11,18) or else, more generally, to his wider ministry among believers.
Paul rejects the option of ‘wowing’ them with human wisdom – something the Greeks found naturally attractive. Instead he unfolds to believers ‘the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory’ (v.6).
When Paul evangelised the city he did so with visible effect. There was a ‘demonstration’ or manifestation of the Spirit’s power. Hearts were moved. Lives were permanently changed. A church was born (vv. 1-5). But the Spirit’s involvement in his ministry did not cease when he turned from evangelism to instructing the infant church. How do we know?
Because he continues, ‘Eye has not seen nor ear heard … the things which God has prepared for those who love him … but God has revealed them to us through his Spirit’ (2:9-10; emphasis added. The ‘us’ is inclusive of the Corinthians; otherwise Paul would be saying, ‘God told me but he isn’t telling you’).
Paul was able to open up to the Corinthians the unsearchable riches of Christ – a view of glory that lay beyond the reach of human thought – because the Spirit of God was revealing these things through his pastoral ministry.
These things we speak
There follows a statement of profound importance. ‘No one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received … the Spirit who is from God that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words that man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual’ (2:11-13).
This is surely definitive of what the pastoral ministry ought to be. None but the Spirit can reveal to our understanding the things that pertain to God. He does so as we search the Scriptures, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the chief vehicle he employs to bring these glories home to our hearts is pastoral preaching – ‘which things we speak … in words … which the Holy Spirit teaches’ (emphasis added).
What Paul tells us about his preaching ministry ‘among those who are complete’ must surely exemplify general principles. Otherwise no preacher could take Paul as his model (let alone Christ and the other apostles). A true pastoral sermon even today, therefore, is something through which the Spirit of God speaks.
Let me repeat what I have already said. We are not talking here about ecstatic utterances or ‘direct revelation’ independent of Scripture. The Spirit speaks through the Word as the preacher opens up the Scriptures – but the Spirit speaks nonetheless.
If this is so, we may look confidently for the Holy Spirit’s help and operation as we preach the Word. Indeed, we must do so.
Hearers of the Word
Just as an understanding of these things can transform the preacher’s confidence and expectation, so it can also make a vast difference to the hearers. Too often we listen wrongly – either evaluating the preacher as a performer (good, bad or indifferent; marks out of ten) or else just absorbing the message as so much doctrinal instruction.
If only we could come to the ministry of the Word expecting to hear God speak to us – and praying that his Spirit would satisfy our longings and deal with our needs – how different would our worship be!
If we could look beyond the earthen vessel and discern the riches – the treasure of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6-7) – what a difference it would make.
How can we do this? The answer is not hard. Come to the preaching with ‘an ear to hear’, that is, expecting God to speak to you. And during the preaching keep asking, ‘What is the Spirit saying to the churches – to me and to my fellow believers?’
Remember that the Lord is seeking worshippers like that (John 4:23).