It has always been a danger. The Old Testament prophets were aware of it. The New Testament apostles consciously resisted it. The pulpit stands for the authoritative Word of God, its public reading and preaching. The pew, through long usage, has become a symbol for the hearing and reception of that word.
And the danger? It is for the pew to take over the pulpit, to influence, soften or anaesthetise the message. The pew may do this blatantly or subtly, consciously or unconsciously. The impact of the pew on the pulpit may be obvious or hidden.
The prophet Isaiah realised that the people of Judah did not really want to hear the law of the Lord. They were saying: ‘Do not prophesy to us right things; speak to us smooth things, prophesy deceits’ (Isaiah 30:10). It must have shocked them to have their attitude unmasked in such stark terms. They had not understood the enormity of it.
But if people are bent on a certain course (and Isaiah’s hearers were), and if the Word of God conflicts with that course (and Isaiah’s message did), then either the people capitulate to the Word of God or they try to make it capitulate to them.
Few would have actually said: ‘prophesy illusions, tell us only pleasant things’. But this is, nevertheless, the subliminal message that the pew often gives to those who bring God’s Word.
The prophet Jeremiah described a lamentable situation: ‘The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own power; and my people love to have it so’ (Jeremiah 5:31; emphasis added). False prophets make popular preachers. Again, Jeremiah describes their stock-in-trade: ‘They speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord’ (Jeremiah 23:16). Isn’t this a danger for us today?
At the outset of his ministry, Ezekiel was repeatedly warned that he would not be warmly received among the exiles to whom he had to preach: ‘Do not be afraid of them, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they are a rebellious house’ (Ezekiel 3:9). He was told to preach the message ‘whether they hear or whether they refuse’ (Ezekiel 2:5).
Later, it was brought home to the prophet just how subtle their rebellion could be: ‘So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain. Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice … for they hear your words, but they do not do them’ (Ezekiel 34:32).
Every hearer knows instinctively that a message from God carries with it implications for living and behaving. Jesus insisted that the wise man is the one who ‘hears these sayings of mine, and does them’ (Matthew 7:24). The writer to the Hebrews says of some: ‘the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it’ (Hebrews 4:2).
Faith not only believes, it acts. The hearing of God’s Word demands a response. So James says with typical bluntness: ‘be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves’ (James 1:22).
But when God’s Word cuts us and challenges us, we often put up our defences. Even ‘good’ hearers may do this when God’s Word invades areas of their conduct they had previously thought inviolable, or challenges opinions they had previously thought unassailable.
Although the New Testament apostles and preachers had great compassion and sympathy for their hearers, and made the most strenuous efforts to communicate their message with cultural sensitivity, they steeled themselves against any tendency to dilute or change the message.
Paul’s approach was, admittedly, adapted to his audience. His preaching in Athens had a different starting-point to his preaching in the synagogue at Antioch. He was quite unabashed about this: ‘I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some’ (1 Corinthians 9:22; see context).
Yet the message itself was non-negotiable. Paul set the agenda for all preachers when he declared: ‘I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2) and ‘I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27).
He recognised the pressure that would come from both Jews and Greeks. He knew that he would be branded a fool for Christ’s sake. The intellectuals were bound to sneer. He knew that the message of a crucified Messiah would be deeply offensive to his Jewish hearers.
Yet he also knew that he must not craft a smooth message to satisfy the ‘wise’ of this world. He dared not compromise, even for the most influential hearer. When ushered into the presence of Felix, the Roman governor, he did not change his message. ‘As he reasoned about righteousness, self-control and the judgement to come, Felix was afraid’ (Acts 24:25). It was not what the august hearer wanted to hear!
The pressure on the preacher is great, and differs in different contexts. Seldom is there a call for preaching to cease; only that it should be bland and without moral force. People do not want holiness. They would rather the preacher propound some new morality and new spirituality to replace the demands of the Holy One of Israel.
In some circles the call is for something new and exciting. People want to go from church on an emotional high. The preacher is expected to be upbeat, the service ‘user-friendly’ and the preaching a ‘snappy presentation’. Any sense of ‘hearing what God the Lord will speak’ (Psalm 85:8) all but disappears.
In other circles people are happy enough with solid exposition and doctrine, but uncomfortable with preaching that unsettles their neat categories and calls for radical Christian living. They seek to protect themselves from the full glare of God’s Word even while assenting to its truth.
In yet other congregations the expectation is that the preacher will make some pronouncement, or use some ‘code-word’, that shows that he is ‘faithful’ on issues deemed especially important. The pulpit is captured by a ‘bee-in-the-bonnet’ mentality. The people of God divide into factions around men who speak well to ‘our position’.
Delivering the Word of God
Surely, the real task of the pulpit is solely to deliver the Word of God — to read it with expression, to explain it accurately and, over a period of time, to explore all its themes. It is to illustrate that Word effectively and apply it to our lives tellingly.
The dominant themes of the pulpit, therefore, should be the dominant themes of Scripture — sin, judgement, wrath, mercy, grace, salvation, forgiveness, repentance, faith, and practical righteousness. Christ must be central. Christian doctrine, experience and practice must be covered comprehensively.
Within the revelation that God has given in the Bible, there is tremendous scope and infinite variety. There are heights to scale and depths to fathom. The grace, skill, imagination and courage of the preacher will be tested and used to the utmost. ‘For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart’ (Hebrews 4:12).
And when the Word of the Lord is delivered with a ‘thus saith the Lord’; when the preacher comes as the Lord’s messenger in the Lord’s message; then the hearers will be challenged, inspired, convicted, humbled, thrilled and changed.
The power of the Spirit
None of this can be done without the help, blessing and application of the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures. He is absolutely necessary. The pulpit needs to be able to say: ‘our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake’ (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
For this to happen, the pulpit needs to know more of the fear of God, less of the fear of man. Again the apostle Paul shows us what preachers must be like: ‘for we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 2:17).
Such preaching requires much prayer and study beforehand. When delivered it will always be comprehensible and engaging. It ought to be riveting. But it will never be popular.
It shows people their sin and their need of salvation. It tells them of heaven and hell and confronts them with eternity. It exalts Christ alone. The pulpit must not flinch from its task, even though the heart of preacher and hearer alike may, at first, fail at the Word of God. As in Nehemiah’s day, a rediscovery of the Word of God, and its clear proclamation, will bring great changes and sheer joy (Nehemiah 8)