4-1 Humility And Preaching
Two perfectly correct observations have often been made:
1. Despite understanding the true Gospel of salvation, we are not generally very dynamic in preaching it, especially on a personal level. The Presbyterians were pioneering Africa over a century before we cautiously inserted out first press adverts there; the JWs and Baptists were infiltrating Eastern Europe before most Western Christians even knew where cities like Vilnius and Kiev were on the map.
2. Dynamic preaching is often associated with pride. Preaching and humility don't seem to go together. Picture the typical American evangelist in a stadium, full of " I this...I that" , falling over himself in coming out with all his personal experiences. Or even, dare I say it, the well versed young Christian preacher tying up the unsuspecting Roman Catholic in knots, thrashing him with verse after verse. It is so easy for pride to creep in- after all, we're right and they're wrong, and we know it.
The Lord likened His preachers to men reaping a harvest. He speaks of how they fulfilled the proverb that one sows and another reaps (Jn. 4:37,38). Yet this ‘proverb’ has no direct Biblical source. What we do find in the Old Testament is the repeated idea that if someone sows but another reaps, this is a sign that they are suffering God’s judgment for their sins (Dt. 20:6; 28:30; Job 31:8; Mic. 6:15). But the Lord turns around the ‘proverb’ concerning Israel’s condemnation; He makes it apply to the way that the preacher / reaper who doesn’t sow is the one who harvests others in converting them to Him. Surely His implication was that His preacher-reapers were those who had known condemnation for their sins, but on that basis were His humbled harvesters in the mission field.
So to help us get a balance between pride and timid silence in preaching, consider the following examples of what motivated dynamic preaching by faithful men:
Isaiah realised his unworthiness: " Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips" . He felt he was going to be condemned. But then the Angel comforted him: " Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged" . And then immediately he offered to go on a preaching mission to Israel: " Here am I, send me" (Is. 6:5-8). This incident is full of allusion to the sending of an equally hesitant Moses:
God appears in the burning bush
God appears among the seraphim, the burning ones
Moses is reluctant to bear God’s word because “I am a man of uncircumcised lips”
Isaiah felt the same- “a man of unclean lips”
Whom shall I send…who will go? (Ex. 3:8,9)
Ditto (Is. 6:8,9)
Moses willing to go (Ex. 3:4)
“Here am I, send me”
Capturing the spirit of Isaiah, Peter fell down at Christ's feet: " Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord" . But the Lord responded: " Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men" (Lk. 5:8-10). So Peter's deep recognition of his sinfulness resulted in him being given a preaching commission. And in similar vein, Peter was given another commission to teach the word the first time he met Christ after his denials (Jn. 21:15-17). In response to this he stood up and preached that forgiveness of sins was possible to all those that are afar off from God (Acts 2:39). As he did so, consciously or unconsciously, part of his mind must have been back in the way that on that shameful night he followed the Lord “afar off”, and far off from Him, denied Him (Mk. 14:54). Peter’s vision of the unclean animals in the net taught him that those people whom he considered unclean, he was to “eat”, i.e. preach to and fellowship with. When he recounts the vision, he comments [in an account that is strictly factual in all other regards and without any embellishment]: “It [the sheet with the animals] came even to me” (Acts 11:5). He is expressing his unworthiness at being called to the task of preaching, just as Paul likewise expressed his inadequacy.
The even greater commission to go into all the world with the Gospel followed straight on from Christ upbraiding the eleven " with their unbelief and hardness of heart" (Mk. 16:14,15). That 'upbraiding' must have left them wallowing in their weakness. It would have been quite something. The Son of God upbraiding His friends. But straight on from that: " Go ye...go ye into all the world" (Mt. cp. Mk. shows “go ye” was said twice). And He told them to preach that those who believed not would be damned- after having just told them that they were men who believed not. Mark’s record stresses three times in the lead up to this that they “believed not”; and then, he records how they were told to go and preach condemnation on those who believed not (Mk. 16:11,13,14,16). They were humbled men who did that. The idea of taking the Gospel world-wide was in fact alluding to Is. 66:17-20. Here those who are spared the ‘Gehenna’ of the last day judgment will have a sign placed on them, as upon Cain, and they will then be sent “unto the nations…and they shall declare my glory among the gentiles”. The rejection process glorifies God’s righteous Name, and this world-wide exhibition of the rejected will actually bring men “out of all nations” (:20) to God, just as Israel’s condemnation was an “instruction” unto the surrounding nations. The connection shows that in our obedience to the great commission, we go forth as condemned men who in our case, like the disciples, have known the wonder of grace.
The Gospel Writers
The Gospel records were transcripts by the evangelists of their personal preaching of the Gospel. Matthew adds in the list of the disciples that he was “the publican” (Mt. 10:3). And throughout, there are little hints at his own unworthiness- in his own presentation of the Gospel to others. Peter was the public leader of the early ecclesia, and yet the Gospels all emphasise his weaknesses. The Gospels all stress the disciples’ lack of spirituality, their primitive earthiness in comparison to the matchless moral glory of God’s Son, their slowness to understand the cross. But there are also more studied references to their failures. Mark’s account of their words at the feeding of the crowd is shot through with reference to the attitude of faithless Israel in the wilderness: “Where shall we [‘And this includes me, Mark...this is what we said to Him...’] get bread to satisfy this people in the wilderness?”. John, the disciple beloved by his Lord, brings out the apparent paradox- that he was ‘on friendly terms with the High Priest’, the great ‘satan’ of the early Christians, and yet also ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. When John knew full well that the Lord Jesus had taught that a man cannot be friends of both Him and of the persecuting world.
The records seem to stress how slow the disciples were to understand the Lord’s essential message; as if to say ‘we are preaching this to you, but we know how slow we were to grasp the wonder of it all’. Especially do they stress their inability to accept the message of the cross, which was exactly the problem which their hearers had. To the Jews, the cross was a stumblingblock; to the Gentiles, a folly. Luke brings out how “they understood none of these things” and then, as a result of that failure to comprehend, Zebedee’s wife came asking for special blessing for James and John. Luke is showing how the essential message of cross carrying, to the exclusion of all self-seeking, had been so lost on them all. Having explained His coming and terrible death for them, they come to Him asking for something else; and He gently asked: ‘What [more] do you want me to do for you?’. This was the extent of the writers’ self-deprecation as they preached. And it must be noted that the pillars of the early ecclesia, Peter, James and John, are all portrayed as having serious weaknesses in the preaching of the Gospel which we have transcripted in the records. They were not preaching themselves as an infallible organization with charismatic leaders. It’s been observed that to title a book e.g. ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’ was very unusual in the first century. “As a rule, the author would come first, in the genitive, followed by the title indicating the content” (1). But the Gospels are different- the authors purposefully put their names last, recognizing that they were mere channels for the Gospel to pass through.
(1) Martin Hengel, Studies In The Gospel Of Mark (London: SCM, 1985) p. 65.
There are good reasons for thinking that Mark’s Gospel record is actually Peter’s; and in his preaching of the Gospel he makes ample reference to his own failures [he contains the most detailed account of the denials of all the Gospels] and to the misunderstanding of his fellows. Both Matthew and Luke record that the Lord asked the three disciples ‘Why are you [plural] sleeping?’ (Mt. 26:40). It is only Mark who says that the Lord asked this of Peter personally, in the singular (Mk. 14:37). And compare Matthew’s “Could ye [plural] not watch with me?” with Mk. 14:37 to Peter: “Couldest not thou [singular] watch?”.
Luke as a doctor would not have been used to publicly confessing his lack of understanding about matters. But in his preaching of the Gospel, he seems to emphasise how he had been blind to the obvious. He records the Lord as pleading with them: “Let these sayings sink down into your ears”, i.e., ‘Please, understand me’. But Luke goes straight on to say: “But they [he includes himself] understood not this saying...they perceived it not: and they feared to ask him of that saying”. Three times he states their blindness, twice repeating how “that saying” which Jesus so wanted them to understand, they didn’t. Luke was a Gentile (so Col. 4:11 implies). Note how the other Gospel writers speak of the sea of Galilee, whereas the more widely travelled Luke refers to it only as a lake. While Paul was in prison in Caesarea for two years, Luke was a free man (Acts 21:17; 24:27). It seems that during that period, Luke may have spent the time travelling around the areas associated with Jesus, interviewing eye witnesses- especially Mary, the aged mother of Jesus, from whom he must have obtained much of the information about His birth and Mary’s song. His preaching of the Gospel in Luke and Acts is made from his perspective- the fact that salvation is for all, not just Jews, is a major theme (Lk. 2:30-32; 3:6; 9:54,55; 10:25-34; Acts 1:8; 2:17). Luke is the only evangelist to continue the quotation of Is. 40 to include the words “all mankind will see God’s salvation”. And he focuses especially upon the wonder of forgiveness (Lk. 1:77; 7:48; Acts 13:38). Only he records the parable of the prodigal (Lk. 15:11-32), and only he describes the great preaching commission as relating to “repentance and remission of sins” (Lk. 24:47). He begins his account with the announcement that Jesus is good news of great joy; and ends with the apostles returning to Jerusalem with great joy (Lk. 2:10; 24:52). Joy accompanies salvation (Lk. 15:7,10; Acts 8:8,39). So Luke witnessed to the Gospel in terms of who he was- a sinful Gentile- and in terms of what most impressed him: the wonder and joy of forgiveness. He was a doctor. Back in 1882, W. K. Hobart wrote a book entitled The Medical Language Of St. Luke, in which he listed more than 400 words shared by Luke and the Greek medical writers of the time. Yes, Luke was inspired to write his record; but all the same, his personality came out in the witness he made and which was transcribed in his Gospel. My point from all this is simply that if we are to be real, credible witnesses, the personal relevance of the Gospel for us will be expressed in how we express it.
“The Gospels are another example of a new creation…they represent a unique departure without parallel in secular literature. Unintentionally, the early Christians, who had no literary pretensions of any kind, created a new genre, a specifically Christian form of art, which had nothing in common with the art of the ancient world” (1). The Gospels were transcripts of the early preaching of the Gospel. Just as they were so different from anything the world had then seen, so the preaching of the Gospel which they record must have been a startlingly different and arresting experience. Here were men who claimed to preach ultimate truth doing so with frequent reference to their own fallibility, getting carried away with their message, bringing out themes in the teaching of Jesus according as the Holy Spirit brought things to their remembrance…in a way quite unlike anything anyone had ever heard. And although we are not inspired as they were, our preaching of the same message should have in essence the same effect.
John’s Gospel is the personal testimony of the beloved disciple (Jn. 19:35; 21:24). Not that John was loved any more than the others- his point is surely that ‘I am one whom Jesus so loved to the end’. He describes himself as resting on Jesus’ bosom (Jn. 13:23); yet he writes that Jesus is now in the Father’s bosom (Jn. 1:18). He is saying that he has the same kind of intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus as Jesus has with the Father. Yet John also records how the Lord Jesus repeatedly stressed that the intimacy between Him and the Father was to be shared with all His followers. So John is consciously holding up his own relationship with the Lord Jesus as an example for all others to experience and follow. Yet John also underlines his own slowness to understand the Lord. Without any pride or self-presentation, he is inviting others to share the wonderful relationship with the Father and Son which he himself had been blessed with.
John’s account of Peter’s denial of the Lord is to me very beautifully crafted by him to reflect his own weakness. He [alone of the evangelists] records how he knew a girl who kept the door to the High Priest’s palace, and how he was even known to the High Priest. He speaks to the girl, and she lets Peter in. Then, she recognizes Peter as one of the disciples, that he had been with Jesus, and he makes his shameful denial. But John’s point is clearly this: he, John, was known to the same girl, and to Caiaphas- but they never accused him of having been with Jesus. Because they sadly didn’t make the connection between John and Jesus. Yet when they saw Peter- they knew him as an up front disciple of Jesus. And when Peter ran out in fear and shame, John remained in the High Priest’s palace- unrecognized and unknown as a disciple of Jesus. The door girl must have realized that John and Peter were connected- because John had asked her to let Peter in. But she never made the accusation that John also had been one of Jesus’ followers. In all this, John reveals his own shame at his lack of open association with the Lord. Significantly, Acts 4:13 records how the Jews later looked at Peter and John “and they took knowledge of them [i.e. recognized them, as the girl had recognized Peter], that they [both!] had been with Jesus”. This is the very language of those who accused Peter of having ‘been with Jesus’. John learnt his lesson, and came out more publically, at Peter’s side, inspired by his equally repentant friend. It’s an altogether lovely picture, of two men who both failed, one publically and the other privately, together side by side in their witness, coming out for the Lord.
The style of the inspired Gospel writers [and indeed the writers of the epistles] differs markedly from that of the uninspired Gospels and epistles. The uninspired writers make far more personal attacks upon their critics; the pseudoepigraphical Pastoral epistles are full of reference to the actual names of former or fictitious opponents; Paul, Peter and John are far more sparing. There is far less emphasis upon themselves as the authors, far less [if any] use of the personal pronoun, and a far surpassing humility when compared to the other writers. Thus the Protevangelium of James concludes: “I, James, who have written down this story…” (25:1); and the Childhood Gospel of Thomas begins: “I, Thomas, the Israelite, announce and make known…” (1:1). The Gospel of Peter 60 speaks of: “I, Simon Peter, and Andrew my brother, we took our fishing nets…”- whereas Mark, as Peter’s Gospel, doesn’t refer to this; and Jn. 21:3 records that Peter said “I am going fishing”. John especially often refers to unnamed disciples- e.g. “two other disciples” (Jn. 21:3), “a disciple” (Jn. 1:35; 18:15), and references to “the sons of Zebedee” [rather than naming them]. And of course, John refers to himself as “the beloved disciple” rather than naming himself. Significantly, not one of the Gospel writers included their own name as author in the Gospel text. They didn’t wish to divert any attention away from the majestic figure who was the centre of their testimony. “Even where Luke (1:1-4) and John (21:24) did in fact make direct allusion to themselves it was with a transparently honest intent which excused them completely from the charge of vanity” (2). And we likewise must not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ. John speaks of himself merely as the disciple whom Jesus loved; and in describing his mother’s presence at the cross, he calls her the sister of Jesus’ mother, rather than define her by reference to himself. Personal testimony must be the motive, but not the content, of our preaching. Even the Lord Himself seems to have preached with an awareness of His own possibility of failure, for when He spoke of the man who could gain the whole world but forfeit his own soul, He surely had in mind His own wilderness temptation- which undoubtedly recurred. Yet He extends the warning to all His hearers. Likewise we do well to ask ourselves who wrote the book of Jonah. It sounds like Jonah himself. In which case, as with the Gospel writers, we have a man’s own testimony to his weakness being his preaching and powerful witness to a sinful world.
Paul likewise was made deeply conscious of his sin before being given his commission. He was called to preach by grace (Gal. 1:15), and for ever felt unworthy of being either a Christian or an apostle (1 Cor. 15:9). But " straightway" after his baptism, Paul begin a zealous campaign of personal witness in Damascus, even before he was told by Christ to preach (Acts 9:20 cp. 22:17-21). Years later he commented: " Unto me , who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles" (Eph. 3:8). Therefore he did so " with all humility of mind" (Acts 20:19). He recounts in Acts 22:19-21 how first of all he felt so ashamed of his past that he gently resisted this command to preach: " I said, Lord...I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed...and he said unto me, Depart...unto the Gentiles" . The stress on “every synagogue” (Acts 22:19; 26:11) must be connected with the fact that he chose to preach in the synagogues. He was sent to persecute every synagogue in Damascus, and yet he purposefully preached in every synagogue there (Acts 9:2,20). His motivation was rooted in his deep recognition of sinfulness. Likewise Peter preached a hundred metres or so from the very place where he denied the Lord.
It seems that the change of name from Saul to Paul ('the little one') was at the time of his first missionary journey (Acts 13:9), as if in recognition of his own humiliation. Paul describes himself as having been called by God, by grace; and in this context he comments how he called the Galatians to the grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6 cp. 15). His response to his calling of grace was to go out and preach, thereby calling men to that same grace, replicating in his preaching what God had done for him. Paul directly connects his experience of grace with his witnessing: “I am...not meet to be called an apostle...by the grace of God I am what I am [an apostle / preacher] and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured [as an apostle, in preaching] more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor. 15:9,10). He surely isn’t boasting that he was worked and preached harder than others. Rather Paul sees a direct connection between the grace of forgiveness that so abounded to him to a greater level than to others, and his likewise abounding preaching work. He speaks as if a man called ‘The grace of God’ did the work, not him. So close was and is the connection between receipt of grace and labour in the Gospel (he makes the same connection in Eph. 3:8). Note that in the context of 1 Cor. 15, Paul is demonstrating the reality of the Lord’s resurrection. Because of it, he received grace and therefore he preached it.
The great commission likewise made the resurrection the imperative behind all preaching. Paul seems to ascribe his own unflagging zeal for preaching to his experience of God's gracious forgiveness of him. And further, he speaks in the third person, suggesting that his fellow preachers had a like motivation: " Therefore, seeing we have this ministry (of preaching), as we have received mercy, we faint not" (2 Cor. 4:1). We have suggested elsewhere that Paul was first called to the Gospel by the preaching of John the Baptist. He initially refused to heed the call to “do works meet for repentance”. But, fully aware of this, he preached this very same message to others (Mt. 3:8 cp. Acts 26:20). His preaching ministry was proportional to the grace he had received, and in this he saw himself as a pattern to us all (1 Tim. 1:12-16). He makes the connection even more explicit in his argument in 1 Cor. 15:10 and 58: “His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all” is then applied to each of us, in the final, gripping climax of his argument: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding [as Paul did] in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain”. And Paul develops the theme in his letters. He speaks of how we received the riches of God’s grace (Eph. 1:18; 2:7; 3:8,16); and yet in writing to the Corinthians he uses only to them a specific Greek word meaning ‘to enrich’. He reminds them of how we are enriched by Him in the knowledge of forgiveness which we have (1 Cor. 1:5; 2 Cor. 9:11), and therefore we are to ‘enrich’ others in our preaching to them of the same grace (2 Cor. 6:10).
When Paul speaks of his sinfulness and weakness, it is nearly always in the context of writing about the privilege and wonder of our commission to preach Christ. He humbly wonders at the trust God places in him, to entrust him with the Gospel. He senses a privilege and responsibility in having been entrusted with the Gospel, to the extent that he can say that his preaching is done more by the grace of God he has received than by the natural Paul (1 Cor. 15:8-10). In Ephesians he coins a word to emphasise his humble status in contrast to the honour of being a preacher: “To me, who am the very least (elachistotero) of all the saints, is this grace given, to preach to the Gentiles” (Eph. 3:7). He was a preacher despite the fact he was chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15); only through mercy / forgiveness had he received the commission he had (2 Cor. 4:1). Paul and Barnabas ran amongst the crowd in Lystra shouting “We also are men of like nature with you, and preach unto you, that ye should turn…unto the living God” (Acts 14:15 RVmg.). Exactly because they were ‘one of us’, they could make the appeal of the Gospel. As the Lord Jesus was and is our representative, so we are His representative to men, whilst being ‘one of them’, ‘one of us’. This is why we shouldn’t be afraid to show chinks in our armour, to admit our humanity, and on that basis make appeal to men: that I, as one of us, with all your humanity, your doubts and fears, am appealing to you to grasp that better way. When Paul wrote that if anyone was weak, he was weak, he seems to be saying that the could match their spiritual weakness by his own. This is why personal contact must be the intended way to witness. Paul could have written to the Jews in Rome from prison, but he realized that true witness involves personal contact wherever possible: “For this cause therefore did I intreat you to see and to speak with me…” (Acts 28:20 RV). Joshua’s victory over Ai was based on the same secret. He had lamented how Israel had fled before their enemies the first time they attacked Ai, alluding back to the curses for disobedience which Moses had recently pronounced to them. Therefore the second time they attacked Ai, Joshua and his people purposefully fled before their enemies; as if recognizing that the curses for disobedience were justified for them. But by doing this, they ended up chasing their enemies, just as Moses had said they would if they were faithful. No wonder that after the victory, the whole of Israel recited the blessings and cursings (Josh. 8:5,20,33-35 cp. 7:8)!
When Paul speaks of how he laboured more abundantly than all, he seems to be making one of is many allusions back to incidents in the Gospels, this time to Lk. 7:47, where the Lord comments that Mary loved much, because she was forgiven much. It was as if the Lord didn’t need to have knowledge of her sins beamed into Him by a bolt of Holy Spirit; He perceived from her great love how much she had sinned and been forgiven. Paul really felt that Mary was his example, his pattern. And so should we feel. The much love which she had for her Lord was, in Paul’s case, articulated through preaching Him.
One final lesson from Paul in this regard is that he says himself that he was not an eloquent speaker; and the Corinthians were acutely aware of this. And yet it was through his public speaking that many were converted in places like Athens (Acts 17:17). The lesson is clear- God uses us in our weaker points in order to witness powerfully for Him. Uneducated Peter was used as the vehicle with which to reach the intelligentsia of Jerusalem- and you and I likewise in and through our very points of weakness are likewise used to reach people.
Hezekiah’s response to being granted another 15 years of life was to edit and produce the Songs of Degrees, so named after the degrees of the sundial. Four of the 15 Psalms were by David, one by Solomon; and the other 10 it seems Hezekiah wrote himself but left anonymous. These ten Psalms would reflect the ten degrees by which the sun-dial went backwards [I am indebted to brother Mark Vincent for this suggestion]. The point to note is that Hezekiah taught others in an anonymous way in response to the grace he had received. True preaching reflects a certain artless selflessness. Likewise Paul writes of his preaching to the Galatians in the third person: “him [Paul] that called you into the grace of Christ” (Gal. 1:6). And likewise he talks about himself while at the Jerusalem conference, where he was given so clearly the ministry of converting the Gentiles, as if he hardly identifies himself with himself: “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago...I knew such a man...of such an one will I glory, yet of myself I will not glory” (2 Cor. 12:1-4- the context makes it clear that Paul refers to himself, seeing that he was the one given the thorn in the flesh as a result of the revelations given to this “man”). In 1 Thess. 1:5 Paul could have written: ‘We came with the Gospel’, but instead he uses the more awkward construction: ‘Our Gospel came…’. He, Paul, was subsumed beneath the essence of his life work- the preaching of the Gospel.
One minute, poor Legion was screaming at the Son of God: " What have I to do with thee, Jesus?" . Moments later he was converted- and being given a command to personally witness to his own family (the hardest of all preaching commissions; Lk. 8:28,39).
In the Millennium, God will use a repentant Israel to achieve great things in terms of converting this world unto Himself. They will walk up and down in His Name, witnessing to Him as He had originally intended them to (Zech. 10:12); men will cling to their skirts in order to find the knowledge of their God (Zech. 8:23). “In that day will I cause the horn of the house of Israel to bud forth, and I will give thee (Israel) the opening of the mouth in the midst of them (the surrounding nations, see context); and they shall know that I am the LORD”, in that Israel will preach to them from their own experience of having recently come to know Yahweh (Ez. 29:21). But at the time of the Lord’s return, when Israel repent and enter the new covenant with Him, they will remember all their past sins “and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame...for all that thou hast done” (Ez. 16:63). They will be so ashamed that they will feel as if they can never open their mouth. But Yahweh will open their mouth, and they will witness. In some anticipation of this, Ezekiel as the “son of man” prophet, a representative of his people just as the Lord was to be, had his mouth shut in dumbness, and he only had his mouth opened when Israel came to know [to some degree] that “I am the LORD” (Ez. 24:27). In all these evident connections something marvellous presents itself. Those who feel as if they just cannot open their mouths in witness are the very ones whom the Father will use; He will open their mouths and use them exactly because they are ashamed of their sins! And so it should be with us.
Likewise Isaiah foretold that when Israel know their forgiveness and salvation, they will therefore quite naturally “declare his doings among the people” (Is. 12:1-5). This will be the motivation for Israel’s witness to the world during the Millennium. They will fill the face of the world with spiritual fruit – and this will be the fruit of the taking away of their sin, and their experience of repentance (Is. 27:6,9 RV).
Moses And Jeremiah
Both Moses and Jeremiah reacted to their preaching commissions by saying that they weren’t the right person to do it. Moses wasn’t an eloquent speaker, nor [so he said] did he know Egyptian very well any more. His comment was: “Who am I...?” (Ex. 3:11; 4:10). Jeremiah protested that he was simply far too young (Jer. 1:6). But as Peter spoke a-grammatos, without grammar to an educated, erudite audience (Acts 4:13 Gk.), so did these men. And this was just the attitude of mind which God wanted to use as His mouthpiece. If you feel your inadequacy, then this is just when you are ready for God’s use. It’s the young sister who still fumbles for where books are in her Bible who is more likely to be the Lord’s agent for conversion, than the well versed and over-confident brother giving a Christian talk.
The Samaritan Woman
The Samaritan woman at the well had a sense of shame and deep self-knowledge over her, as she realised that Christ knew her every sin. It was with a humble sheepishness that she confessed: " I have no husband" , because she was living in sin. She was converted by that well. Immediately she " left her waterpot, and went her way into the city (the record inviting us to watch her from a distance), and saith to the men (significantly), Come, see a man...is not this the Christ?" (Jn. 4:17,28,29). There was a wondrous mixture of enthusiasm and shyness in those words: " Come, see a man..." . It is a feature of many new converts that their early preaching has a similar blend. It is stressed that men believed because of the way the woman told them “He told me all that ever I did” (Jn. 4:39). He had recounted her past sins to her (4:18,19). And she now, in matchless humility, goes and tells her former life to her associates, using the very words of description which the Lord had used. He convicted her of her sins, and this conviction resulted in her unashamed witness.
There are a number of Old Testament examples of preaching the word after becoming aware of the depth of one's own sins. Consider Jonah preaching the second time, with the marks in his body after three days in the whale, admitting his rebellion against Yahweh, pleading with them to respond to His word. Reflect how when his head was wrapped around with seaweed, at the bottom of the sea at the absolute end of mortal life, he made a vow to God, which he then fulfilled, presumably in going back to preach to Nineveh (Jonah 2:9). His response to having confessed his sins and daring to believe in God’s forgiveness, turning again towards His temple even from underwater, was to resolve to preach to others if he was spared his life. And this he did, although as with so many of us, the pureness of his initial evangelical zeal soon flaked. Or consider Manasseh, 2 Chron. 33:16; Jehoshaphat, 2 Chron. 19:3 cp. 18:31; 19:2; Josiah, 2 Chron. 34:29,32; Nebuchadnezzar, Dan. 3:29; 4:2...
The conversion of Job is especially poignant; he prays for his friends, he mediates for them, after gratefully realising that his own search for mediation with God in order to obtain forgiveness had somehow been answered, by grace (Job 42:6,8). After the same pattern, Aaron ought to have died for his flouting of the first commandment in making the golden calf; but Moses’ intercession alone saved him. And afterwards, deeply conscious of his experience, Aaron made successful intercession for the salvation of others (Num. 14:5; 16:22). The way he holds the censer with fire from the altar of incense, representing his prayers, and “stood between the dead and the living [as a mediator]” (Num. 16:48) is a fine picture of the height to which he rose.
Nebuchadnezzar’s multi-lingual preaching of the greatness of God’s Kingdom “to all nations” can easily be read unappreciated (Dan. 4:17,34). But it must have been quite something, involving translating the Gospel of the Kingdom of God into many languages; and it incorporated a very humble expression of his own failures, a recognition of his foolish pride and lack of repentance. And maybe this is exactly why he was the one used by God to make the widest and greatest Old Testament witness to the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Adam sinned, and God responded to that ineffable tragedy by giving him a “coat” of skin. The same Hebrew word is used concerning the priestly robe. Here we see again the positive nature of our God. There was Adam, pining away in the shame of his sin; and God dresses him up like a priest, to go forward to gain forgiveness for him and his wife; and perhaps later on he used that same coat in coming to God to obtain further forgiveness for others through sacrifice.
But the greatest Old Testament example is David after his sin with Bathsheba. Morally disgraced in the eyes of all Israel and even the surrounding nations, not to mention his own family, David didn't have a leg to stand on when it came to telling other people how to live their lives. A lesser man than David would have resigned all connection with any kind of preaching. But throughout the Bathsheba psalms there is constant reference to David's desire to go and share the grace of God which he had experienced with others (Ps. 32 title; 51:13). He titles them ‘maschil’- for instruction / teaching. “Have mercy upon me, O Lord...that I may shew forth all thy praise in the gates” (Ps. 9:13,14). He often uses the idea of ‘confession’, in the double Hebrew sense of both confessing sin and yet also confessing the knowledge of God to others (e.g. Ps. 30:12 AV cp. NEB). Imagine his attitude in preaching! There must have been a true humility in his style of speaking, his body language and in his message- coupled with an earnestness and intensity few have since matched. Ps. 39:9,11 seems to describe an illness with which David was afflicted after his sin with Bathsheba. Psalm 40 then seems to be giving thanks for David’s cure and receipt of forgiveness; and it is replete with reference to David’s desire to spread the word: “He brought me up also out of an horrible pit…he hath put a new song in my mouth…many shall see it, and fear, and turn to the Lord [alluded to in the way the Acts record accounts for the many conversions after the death of Ananias and Sapphira]…blessed is that man [cp. 32:1)…I have preached righteousness [a ‘prophetic perfect’, meaning ‘I will do this…’] in the great congregation: lo, I have not refrained my lips…I have declared (LXX euangelizesthai- evangelized) thy faithfulness and thy salvation [unto]…the great congregation” (Ps. 40:2-5,9,10).
Many of the Psalms reflect David’s realization that confession of sin is the basis for powerful preaching. The LXX often uses the verb euangelizesthai to describe his preaching after the Bathsheba incident (Ps. 96:2). Because God has mercifully forgive His people and His face shines upon them in renewed fellowship, His way is thereby made known upon earth to all nations (Ps. 67:1,2). He utters forth the mighty acts of God with the preface: “Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord, who can shew forth all his praise?” (Ps. 106:2)- and then proceeds to do just that. He did so with a clear recognition of his own inadequacy. The Psalms of praise are full of this theme. David exhorts all those who have been redeemed to show forth God’s praise (Ps. 107:2,22,32). He wanted all Israel to be a joyful, witnessing people. And even though it seems God’s people didn’t respond, David went on undeterred. Time and again he fearlessly sets himself up as Israel’s example. He speaks of how he trusts in the Lord’s grace, and then appeals to Israel to do just the same (Ps. 62:7,8). The strength of his appeal was in the fact that his sin and experience of grace was the bridge between him and his audience.
Forgiveness inspires the preacher; and yet the offer of forgiveness is what inspires the listener to respond. God appeals for Israel to respond by pointing out that in prospect, He has already forgiven them: “I have [already] blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions...[therefore] return unto me; for I have redeemed thee” (Is. 44:22). Likewise Elijah wanted Israel to know that God had already in prospect turned their hearts back to Him (1 Kings 18:37). We preach the cross of Christ, and that through that forgiveness has been enabled for all men; but they need to respond by repentance in order to access it. Hence the tragedy of human lack of response; so much has been enabled, the world has been reconciled, but all this is in vain if they will not respond.
The preacher is seeking to build a bridge across the terrible chasm which lies between him and his audience; between the word of God and the world, between Divine revelation and human experience, relating the two to each other in a credible, relevant way. The way to go across that chasm is surely to bond with the other person’s humanity- for we are all human. This is what we have in common. It’s actually how God reached us- His word became flesh in the person of Jesus, in all the particularity of a first century Palestinian Jew. Jesus was totally human; He spoke human language. Yet He was the supreme manifestation of God to us. In essence, God did the same thing in the way He chose to write the Bible. He breathed His word into ordinary men, and they wrote it down with all the trappings of human words. It is the word of God, spoken through men. So Luke writes his Gospel packed with the medical terminology we would expect of a doctor; Paul writes to his converts with all the native passion and feeling of a spiritual father, a preacher, a traveller, a Roman citizen, with his own pet phrases and ideas…and yet it is all, undeniably, the very word of God. The word was made flesh. The Bible wasn’t written on tables and hidden on the top of a mountain for us to go and find. It was communicated to us through very human people, whose personal humanity is somehow reflected in the form in which it came through to us. In our style of preaching we need to reflect that we know and feel the doubts and fears which there are in our listeners; that we perceive and appreciate their humanity, because we too are human. Have a read some time through Romans 3:1-6 and notice Paul’s style. He perceives in advance the objections which his readers will raise. And we in our preaching ought to be more honest about our own difficulties of understanding. The Gospel records are transcripts of the early preaching of the Gospel by, e.g., Matthew. Yet the records show the disciples’ own struggle to really grasp and believe the very basic things of the death and resurrection of Jesus which they were now preaching. Further, it is clear that we are to seek to relate to our audience in a way they can relate to. Using their terms, shewing our common binds with them. Paul did this when he was faced with the rather mocking comment that he was a “setter forth” of a strange God. He replied that he ‘set forth’ to them the One whom they ignorantly worshipped (Acts 17:18,23 RV). He seized upon something they all knew- the altar to the unknown God- and made his point to them from that. And he picked up the noun they used for him and turned it back to them as a verb. It might seem that it was impossible that Paul, having been beaten and in chains, guarded by soldiers, could make a hand gesture, say a few words in Hebrew, and quell a raging crowd (Acts 21:31-34; 22:22). Yet it was because he spoke to them in Hebrew, in their own language and in their own terms, that somehow the very power and realness of his personality had such an effect. It reminds us of how the Lord could send crowds away, make them sit down…because of His identity with them, His supreme bridge building.
Jeremiah witnessed to Zedekiah on the basis of bridge building. Jeremiah warned him that politically and spiritually, " thy feet are sunk in the mire" - just after he himself had " sunk in the mire" and been miraculously delivered from it (Jer. 38:6,22). It is apparent that our bridge building must relate our doctrines to the real issues which face those with whom we seek to communicate. We must build bridges into the real world in which these people who are our audience live and love, work and play, laugh and weep, struggle and suffer, grow old and die. We need to provoke them to see their life in all its moods from a Godly, Biblical perspective, to challenge them to make the Son of God the Lord of every area of their lives, and thus to demonstrate His immense and crucial relevance. The aim of our preaching must surely be to expound the Bible so faithfully and relevantly that Jesus is perceived in all His adequacy to meet every human need. And as we should repeatedly emphasize, we are merely inspiring people to find God for themselves. Even in pastoral work with those we convert, we are to be gentle shepherds. But shepherds don’t actually feed the sheep by pushing food down their mouths. They lead them to where they can feed for themselves. This is the end result of our bridge building. If we are to build bridges into the real world, we must beware of two extremes: to withdraw from the world into dry, abstract, academic exposition; and to on the other hand withdraw from the Bible text and implications in compromising with the world and what it wants to hear.
In Ez. 24:22-24, Ezekiel’s feelings of grief for the loss of his wife were to be understood as representative of two things- Israel’s grief for losing the temple, and God’s grief over losing His people. In this way, Ezekiel was set up as a bridge builder, in that his feelings reflected both those of God and those of his audience- in order that his preaching could come over as God appealing to them. And consciously and unconsciously, this is how God uses us too, today. By opening our hearts to others, they open theirs to us and to the Lord. This was precisely how Paul dealt with Corinth. He opened his mouth and his heart to them, and in return he asks them: “Open you hearts to us” (2 Cor. 6:11; 7:2 RV). Paul received them into his heart (2 Cor. 7:3), and wished to be received into theirs.
We have spoken of how Peter was so powerful as a preacher, standing only a stone’s throw from where he denied his Lord, to make a speech which is studded with conscious and unconscious reference to his own denials and need for the Lord’s salvation. Yet consider in more detail his preaching to Cornelius: “I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him [Peter alludes here to Old Testament passages such as Dt. 1:17; 10:17; Prov. 24:23; Is. 64:5]. The word which God sent unto the children of Israel…that word, ye know” (Acts 10:34-37). Peter is saying that he only now perceives the truth of those well known Old Testament passages. He is admitting that the truth of his Lord’s criticism of him, that he had been so slow of heart to believe what the prophets had spoken. And yet Peter masterfully goes on to show solidarity with his readers- he tells them that they too had already heard “the word” and yet now they like him needed to believe the word which they already knew. In doing this, Peter is bridge building, between his own humanity and that of his hearers. And the wonder of it all is that it seems this happened quite naturally. He didn’t psychologically plan it all out. His own recognition of sinfulness quite naturally lead him into it.
Paul would pay any price in order to identify with his audience, in order to win them to Christ. He was living out the spirit of Jesus, who likewise identified Himself with us to the maximum extent in order to save us. It was a profitable exercise for me to research the background of Paul’s statement that five times he received “forty lashes minus one” at the hands of the Jews (2 Cor. 11:24). This was a synagogue punishment, based on Dt. 25:2,3, which could only be administered to members of the synagogue community- and apparently, the members had the right under local Roman law to resign from the synagogue and escape the punishment (1). It would’ve been far easier for Paul to disown Judaism and insist he was not a member of any synagogue. But he didn’t. Why? Surely because this was the extent to which he was willing to be all things to all men, to truly be a Jew in order to save the Jews. And we too can chose daily the extent to which we identify ourselves with those whom we seek to save. It’s not simply the case of a Western missionary suffering privations along with the impoverished local population to whom he or she seeks to preach. It’s about us each getting involved in the mess of others’ lives, at great personal cost, in order to show true solidarity with them, on which basis we can more effectively witness to them. This is surely the way in which we are to ‘love the world’; this inhuman world, this enormous collection of desperate, lonely people, into whose mundane experiences we can enter simply through genuine, caring, person-to-person encounter. And by doing this we will find ourselves. For it seems to me that the truly creative and original personalities, the Lord Jesus being the supremest, are those who give of themselves in order to enter into the lives and sufferings of others. And that, by the way, may explain why there are so few truly freethinking minds. Paul didn’t just love the Jewish people in theory, he didn’t draw a distinction between the Jews as persons, and their role or status before God. He loved them as persons, and so he suffered for them in order to save them.
(1) See Raymond Westbrook, ‘Punishments and crimes’ in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992) Vol. 5 pp. 546-556.
Occasionally there is a ‘flash’ between two people. It may last only a moment, perhaps a few minutes… when somehow barriers come down, and they relate as persons. Those encounters are powerful, and can cause major redirections in life. Perhaps in those precious moments we have some kind of presentiment of what the Kingdom life will be like, or at least, what human communication really should be. Those moments, that ‘flash’, is worth almost anything to create. Indeed, so unusual is it, that afterwards one sometimes senses barriers going up, a fear that somehow we’ve become too personal. Merely quoting Bible verses at a person won’t create this ‘flash’; strings of quotations themselves don’t break the unspoken conspiracy of silence which there so often is between two persons in supposed dialogue. By ‘silence’ I mean silence of real dialogue and mutual interaction. Yet frustratingly enough, those moments of ‘flash’ are not far beneath the surface in so many of those ‘silent conversations’, those ‘discussions’ which actually go nowhere. Only by risking yourself, showing your humanity, can you break through their barriers. Underneath, people want to relate to other people. Underneath, real discussion of religion, of death, of life, of hope, of Christ… is all a taboo subject which people want to talk about but feel inhibited and embarrassed about. It’s like how sex was once the taboo subject which everyone wanted to talk about. But the barriers are largely broken through now. And it’s the same in our age with these religious / spiritual matters.
Why Aren't We Dynamic Preachers?
So we return to our initial questions. Why aren't we dynamic preachers? In the light of all the above examples, it must be related to the fact that we don't appreciate the seriousness of our sin as we should. We see ourselves as little sinners, just a fraction over the line, we come to the end of the day with no real sense of having offended God, no sense of how deeply sin and indifference hurts Him. Perhaps we see God as altogether too human, like us not very shocked at habitual sin, comfortably numb to the fact that sinful thoughts really are as bad as the action. God's words to Israel are so relevant to us, living in a world where sin means nothing, and where God never openly intervenes in judgment: " These things hast thou done, and I kept silence; thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself...but I will set them in order before thine eyes (at the judgment)" (Ps. 50:21,22). And it can be that we also lack the faith, or perhaps the concentration and reflection, to meditate on the actual reality of sin forgiven that we have experienced in Christ.
And yet perhaps too we genuinely think that by not showing any chinks in our armour, we will better persuade people. When, I submit, the very opposite is true. By showing that we are real men and women, who are desperate sinners thankful for the real and true grace we have so wonderfully come across, we will persuade men. The more real, the more credible. Paul described the genius of his preaching thus: “By the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience” (2 Cor. 4:2). It is our very transparency which strikes a chord in the heart of those who hear us. James warns his converts of the need to restrain our tongue; and yet he admits that “we”, himself included, use the tongue to bless God and curse men; whereas in other parts of his letter he addresses his readers as “you” when he criticizes their behaviour. But in this matter of the tongue, he holds himself, their teacher, to be afflicted with the same failures as them (James 3:9 cp. 4:15,16). The preaching of the Kingdom by us is likened to leaven- a symbol for that which is unclean (Mk. 8:15; 1 Cor. 5:6-8). Perhaps the Lord used this symbol to show that it is our witnessing as humans, as the sons of men, which is what will influence the ‘lump’ of humanity. People are increasingly acting like the personalities they feel they are expected to be, rather than being who they are. Paul Tournier perceptively notes: “I am sure my readers understand the subtle temptation which assails me: that of trying to be the personage I am expected to be. It slips in disguised as an honest concern for the proper fulfilment of my vocation…they are always disconcerted at first when I speak of my own difficulties, doubts and failings. But they soon come to see that this atmosphere of truth brings us closer and binds us together. My experience of the power of God means more to them than it would if they thought me a quite different sort of person from themselves” (4). Cain as the firstborn was the family priest. He apparently lost credibility when the fire came down and consumed Abel’s offering, but not his. Immediately it seemed that Abel was going to usurp Cain as the family priest. Therefore he was told to offer the animal that was ‘couching’ at the door of the meeting place, and then “unto thee shall be his [Abel’s] desire, and thou shalt rule over him” (Gen. 4:7). Surely this means that if Cain had openly recognized his mistake and then done the right thing, he would have risen to even higher levels of spiritual credibility with his younger brother.
The world is tired of slick, well dressed evangelists with ever smiling wives. We tend to feel that we can never sensibly compete with the charismatic preachers of other groups. But amongst the unchurched, “the least stock was placed in whether the leader of the organization is “articulate and charismatic”: only 12% said they deem that to be very important”. Likewise the size of the church or the travel time to the meeting placed were seen by the unchurched as insignificant (5). We might think that the big evangelical churches are so wonderfully successful. They aren’t. Their own journals point out the way they are no longer making many real converts, rather, that nexus of ‘Christian’ is merely moving around between churches. Islam is growing, but not ‘evangelical Christianity’. People are sick and tired of it. Yet they are interested in religion- our church's ‘Learn To Read The Bible’ seminars prove that- and they are interested, at least theoretically, in Bible based Christianity. But they want something and someone who is real. Not necessarily a mass murderer who says he has come to Christ in prison; but the guy who works at the desk next to them, who answers the dumb question ‘How are you today?’ by admitting that he swore at his wife last night, that he hates himself for it, that he feels even worse because he sinned against God, and yet he takes real comfort in a representative Jesus, who had our nature, who wasn’t the hocus-pocus Jesus of theological creed, but a real man, a real Saviour, who, thankfully, is at the right hand of God Himself in Heaven to make reconciliation for me, in all my desperation with myself… The more real, the more credible.
‘How are you today?…Oh fine, I went to church last night…Yes? Oh, that’s nice…’, these conversations have no meaning, they are merely a passage of words, a kicking time as we both watch the wheels of life go round; whereas in the urgency of our task to convert men and women, we must be stopping them in their tracks, arresting their attention. To hold and present the Truth of God, with all its exclusivity, its implicit criticism of all that isn’t true, in a genuine humility…this has a drawing power all of its own. The two witnesses of Rev. 11:3 make their witness [and will make it during the latter day tribulation?] “clothed in sackcloth”- a symbol of repentance and recognition of sin (Gen. 37:34; Jer 4:8; Jonah 3:5; Mk. 2:20). Their own personal repentance and acceptance of God’s gracious forgiveness was the basis of their appeal to others. And is it going too far to understand that if these “two witnesses” do indeed represent the latter day witness of true Christianity, it will be made on the basis of a genuine repentance by us, brought about by the experiences of the holocaust to come?
Jonah was the great example. How was it that one unknown man could turn up in a huge city and make all of them believe that judgment was really coming, and they really must repent? Why ever listen to this one man? He must surely have told them the story of his own disobedience, experience of judgment, and gracious salvation. There was something about him that proved to that city that this had really happened; that there was and is a God of judgment above. Perhaps the “sign” of the prophet Jonah was in that 3 days in the fish had bleached his hair, made him thin, making him look arrestingly different. Whatever it was, his antitypical experience of fellowship with the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus was enough to arrest a whole city in its tracks. Again, the more real, the more credible.
If we want spiritual dynamism in our lives, and not least in our preaching, there must be a true recognition of the guilt of our iniquity. Any element of either pride or indifference in our preaching can be traced back to our failure to do this. It is God’s mercy, and appreciating it, which leads us to lives of active faithfulness (1 Cor. 7:25). We may look at David, at Paul, and feel we haven't sunk to their level of sin. Of course, that would imply we are better than them... But to hate our brother really is to kill him, and to a man we stand guilty of flashes of hatred. So we can know the dynamism of their repentance, of their zeal to share the Good News of God's grace. this must be so, otherwise Paul would not have held up his own conversion and subsequent zeal as an example for us to copy (1 Tim. 1:15,16). We aren't little sinners. It was our race who crucified the Lord of glory, and we have some part in their behaviour. Note the pronouns in Is. 53. The “we” who preach the Gospel of the cross are the “we” who rejected and condemned the Saviour, and the “we” whose sins are forgiven and who are reconciled to God. These are the reasons why we preach the crucified Christ in zeal and humility (Is. 53:1,2,3,5,6). Grace is the motive power for witness; we preach the word of His grace as it has been to us. “The grace of God, that bringeth salvation to all men…” (Tit. 2:11) is an allusion to the great commission to preach salvation to all men. But here, grace is said to do this. The conclusion seems unavoidable: grace and the preacher are inextricably linked. The experience of grace is the essential motive behind all witness. Thus Paul was “recommended” [Gk. To surrender, yield over to] to the grace of God for the missionary work which he fulfilled (Acts 14:26).
So we don't need to psychologically charge ourselves up to preach. A city set on a hill cannot be hid, it's obvious. Our preaching should flow naturally out of our own personal experience of God's grace. The fact that we were reconciled is tied up with the fact that we have been given, as part of this “being reconciled”, the ministry of preaching reconciliation (2 Cor. 5: 18-20). It is the greatness of God's grace which will form the content of our preaching, not our own practical experience of it. Our experience will only motivate us personally, not anyone else. We preach not ourselves, but Christ as Lord and Saviour. Let's really get down to serious self examination, to more finely appreciating the holiness of God and the horror of sin. If we can do this- and only if- our preaching, our speaking, our reasoning, even our very body language, will be stamped with the vital hallmark: humility.
APPENDIX: The Example Of John The Baptist As A Preacher
John The Baptist
If ever a man was hard on himself, it was John the Baptist. His comment on his preaching of Christ was that he was not worthy (RVmg. ‘sufficient’) to bear Christ's sandals (Mt. 3:11). The sandal-bearer was the herald; John knew he was heralding Christ's appearing, but he openly said he was not worthy to do this. He felt his insufficiency, as we ought to ours. Would we had that depth of awareness; for on the brink of the Lord's coming, we are in a remarkably similar position to John. Paul perhaps directs us back to John when he says that we are not “sufficient” to be the savour of God to this world; and yet we are made sufficient to preach by God (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5,6 RV).
Although John preached the excellence of Christ, he didn’t even consider himself to be part of the mystic bride of Christ; for he likens himself to only the groom, watching the happiness of the couple, but not having a part in it himself (Jn. 3:29). And note how John appeals for men to be baptized with the twice repeated personal comment: “...and I knew him not”, in the very context of our reading that the [Jewish] world “knew him not” (Jn. 1:10, 31,33). He realises that he had withstood the knowledge of the Son of God, just as others had. When asked who he was, John’s reply was simply: “a voice”. Amos, in the same way, was told not to keep on prophesying; but he replies: “I am no prophet…the Lord said unto me, Go, prophesy” (Am. 1:14,15 RV). It’s almost contradictory: ‘I’m not a prophet…I am a prophet’. He was truly selfless, like, John, just a voice for God. Samuel spoke of himself at a distance from himself when he told Israel: “The Lord sent Jerubbaal…and Samuel…and delivered you” (1 Sam. 12:11). Luke’s record of the preaching of the Gospel makes no reference to the deaths of Peter and Paul, even though they were central to his historical account. Clearly he reflected the fact that personalities are not to be important in preaching; there is a selflessness about true preaching and also the recording of it. Matthew’s preaching of the Gospel makes reference to himself as if he had no personal awareness of himself as he recounted his part in the Gospel events (Mt. 9:9). There is reason to believe that Matthew was himself a converted Scribe; the way he has access to various versions of Scripture and quotes them as having been fulfilled in a way reminiscent of the Jewish commentaries (compare Mt. 4:12-17 with Mk. 1:14,15) suggests this(3). The point is that in this case Matthew would be referring to himself when he writes: “Every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Mt. 13:52). Yet he does so in a beautifully oblique and selfless manner.
John’s humility is further brought out by the way John fields the question as to whether he is “the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?” (Jn. 1:25). He could have answered: ‘I am the Elijah prophet’- for the Lord Himself said of John that “this is Elijah”, with perhaps conscious reference back to this question (Mt. 11:14). But John didn’t answer that way. His reply was simply to speak of the greatness of Christ and his unworthiness to be His herald (Jn. 1:26,27). John’s humility is brought out yet further by reflection on the fact that he clearly baptized huge numbers of people, and yet also had a group of people known as ‘the disciples of John’. Clearly he didn’t intend to found a sect, and was so taken up with trying to prepare people for the Lord’s coming that he simply wished to lead them to some level of repentance and baptize them, without necessarily making them part of ‘his disciples’. John's low self-estimation is seen in how he denied that he was "Elijah" or the "prophet" whom the Jews expected to come prior to Messiah (Jn. 1:21). The Lord Himself clearly understood John as the Elijah prophet- "this is Elijah" (Mt. 11:14), He said of John. John wasn't being untruthful, nor did he misunderstand who he was. For he associates his "voice" with the voice of the Elijah prophet crying in the wilderness, and appropriates language from the Elijah prophecy of Mal. 4 to his own preaching. His denial that he was 'that prophet' therefore reflects rather a humility in him, a desire for his message to be heard for what it was, rather than any credibility to be given to it because of his office. There's a powerful challenge for today’s preacher of the Gospel.
The Old Testament Background
The message of Is. 40:3 is that before the final coming of the Lord, there will be a proclamation of this by His people: “Prepare ye [plural] the way of the Lord”. As the King’s servants went ahead of him to make the path he had to travel smooth and plain [remember there were no motorways then!], so we go ahead of the returning Lord of all the earth, to prepare the way / road for Him. And yet within Isaiah, there is ample evidence that God prepares His own way: “I will do a new thing…I will even make a way in the wilderness” (Is. 43:19). Perhaps the element of unreality here, the ‘new thing’, is that the King Himself prepares His own way or road. Or again: “I will make all my mountains a way” (Is. 49:11). The connection with Is. 40:3 is that in the work of preparing the Lord’s way, in the last great preaching appeal of all time in the lead up to the second coming, the Lord Himself will work with us to make that way plain and clear. In all the challenges of the latter day fulfilment of the great commission, the Lord Himself will work with us.
The Isaiah 40 passage is therefore a command for our latter day witness to all the world, Israel especially, to prepare their way for the Lord’s coming. We are to “cry” unto Zion that “her iniquity is pardoned”, but we are also to ‘cry’ for her to repent, to be “made straight”, for the rough places to be ‘made plain’; to “cry aloud…lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression (Is. 40:2-4; 58:1). It’s exactly because we have in prospect been forgiven that we are called to repent. The forgiveness has already been granted; iniquity has been pardoned. We are to ‘cry’ out this fact; and also to ‘cry out’ for repentance. But we have to respond to that. It’s similar to how Saul/Paul was called ‘brother’ even before his conversion and baptism. The world’s redemption was achieved through the cross; but we have to appeal to the world to accept it. And in our own lives we must live out what we are preaching to others; exactly because we have already been forgiven, we need to repent of what we’ve been forgiven of, to as it were claim that forgiveness as our very own. And the same Hebrew word translated ‘cry’ occurs in the same context in Is. 40:26; 43:1; 45:3,4; 48:12; 54:6, where we read that it is God Himself who calls every one of Israel back to Him, just as He calls every star by its own personal name. And so in our personal calling of men and women, in our crying out to them in these last days to be prepared for the Lord’s coming, we are workers together with God. He is crying out to them, through our feeble, shy, embarrassed, uncertain words of witness. Likewise it is God Himself who makes the crooked places straight in Is. 42:16 and 45:2- whereas Is. 40:3, it is we the preachers who are to do this.
What then of the message? It is that the valleys are to be lifted up, and the mountains made low, thus creating a plain. I read this as meaning that those with too low a view of themselves are to be lifted up, and the heights of human pride brought down. The over confident and under confident alike are to levelled so that they can be a path for the Lord’s glory. “Made low” in Is. 40:4 is surely in the spirit of Is. 2:11, which predicts that in the day of judgment, “the lofty looks of man shall be humbled [s.w. ‘made low’], and the haughtiness of man shall be bowed down”. The experience of condemnation in the coming day of the Lord will mean that “the proud and lofty” will be “brought low” (Is. 2:12,17; 5:15). In fact, Isaiah is full of references to the proud being ‘made low’ by judgment- the same Hebrew word is common: Is. 10:33; 13:11; 25:11; 26:5. Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he said that our preaching is a bringing down of every high thing that is exalted against God (2 Cor. 10:5). Our message is basically that we must be humbled one way or the other- either by our repentance and acceptance of the Gospel today, or through the experience of condemnation at the day of judgment. We’re calling people to humility. And we must ask whether the content and style of our preaching really does that. But when John the Baptist quoted and preached this passage, he interpreted it beyond a call to humility. He said that in order to prepare the way of the Lord, to make a level passage for Him, the man with two coats should give to him who had none, and likewise share his food (Lk. 3:11). So the ‘equality’ and levelling was to be one of practical care for others. We have to ask, how often we have shared our food, clothing or money with those who don’t have… for this is all part of preparing for the Lord’s coming. It could even be that when there is more of what Paul calls “an equality” amongst the community of believers, that then the way of the Lord will have been prepared. And He will then return.
The primary reference of the Isaiah 40 passage is to the Jews. But even more specifically, it is to be cried out “to Jerusalem”. I submit that the most specific fulfilment of the prophecy will be in our latter day preaching resulting in a remnant of Jews repenting in Jerusalem, so that the Lord’s return will be to a faithful Jewish remnant in literal Jerusalem. The ‘making straight’ is to be done in “the desert” (:3)- a description elsewhere of Jerusalem (Is. 51:3). “Every [Heb. ‘the whole, complete’] mountain and hill” (:4) which is to respond to the Gospel may refer to people on the temple mount, upon which the Lord shall “come down, to fight for mount Zion, and for the hill thereof” (Is. 31:4; 10:32). The Hebrew words used here for ‘mount’ and ‘hill’ are identical in the passages. The Lord will return to Zion to find a repentant remnant there, converted by our preaching. Mal. 3:1, a clearly related passage, says that when the way has been prepared, then “the Lord… shall suddenly [Heb. ‘immediately’] come to his temple”. It seems that He comes as soon as, almost to the moment, that the way is prepared. Is it going too far to imagine that when the last Jews are baptized in Jerusalem, perhaps literally on the Temple Mount, then the Lord will immediately return there, “to his temple”? Then the Lord shall “come down to fight for mount Zion and for the hill thereof”.
John’s Style Of Preaching
There was an intensity and critical urgency about John and his message. John urged people to make their path “straight”- using a Greek word elsewhere translated “immediately”, “forthwith” (Lk. 3:4 s.w. Mk. 1:12,28 and often). Getting things straight in our lives is a question of immediate response. He warns people to “flee from the wrath to come” (Lk. 3:7). This was what their changed lives and baptisms were to be about- a fleeing from the wrath to come. He speaks as if that “wrath to come” is just about to come, it’s staring them in the face like a wall of forest fire, and they are to flee away from it. And yet Paul (in one of his many allusions to John’s message, which perhaps he had heard himself ‘live’) speaks of “the wrath to come” as being the wrath of the final judgment (1 Thess. 1:10), or possibly that of AD70 (1 Thess. 2:16). But both those events would not have come upon the majority of John’s audience. And the day of ‘wrath to come’ is clearly ultimately to be at the Lord’s return (Rev. 6:17; 11:18). Yet John zooms his hearers forward in time, to perceive that they face condemnation and judgment day right now, as they hear the call of the Gospel. This was a feature of John; he had the faith which sees things which are not as though they already are. Thus he looked at Jesus walking towards him and commented that here was the “Lamb of God”, a phrase the Jews would’ve understood as referring to the lamb which was about to be sacrificed on Passover (Jn. 1:29). John presumably was referencing the description of the crucified Jesus in Is. 53:7; for John, he foresaw it all, it was as if he saw Jesus as already being led out to die, even though that event was over three years distant. And so he could appeal to his audience to face judgment day as if they were standing there already. We need to have the same perspective.
The ideas of fleeing wrath and preparing a way are surely based upon the Law’s command in Dt. 19:3 that a way or road should be prepared to the city of refuge (symbolic of Christ- Heb. 6:18), along which the person under the death sentence for manslaughter could flee for refuge. John was preparing that way or road to Christ, and urging ordinary people to flee along it. They didn’t like to think they were under a death sentence for murder. They were just ordinary folk like the soldiers who grumbled about their wages, and the publicans who were a bit less than honest at work. But they had to flee. But they wouldn’t be alone in that. If a man prepares his way after God’s principles (2 Chron. 27:6; Prov. 4:26), then God will ‘prepare’ that man’s way too (Ps. 37:23; 119:5), confirming him in the way of escape.
Likewise John says that the axe is laid to the root of the trees; his hearers were about to be cut down and thrown into the fire of condemnation. And He says that the Jesus whom he heralds is about to come and divide the wheat from the chaff in judgment, gathering in the wheat, and burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire” (Lk. 3:17). But the ‘fire’ of condemnation and the division of wheat and chaff is to be done ultimately at the Lord’s second coming (Mt. 13:30; Mk. 9:48). But for John, the moment his audience met Jesus, they were standing before the Lord of judgment, the Judge of all the earth. In their response to Him, they were living out the final judgment. And this is just as true of us, both as preachers and hearers of the Gospel.
This intense, urgent presentation of the ultimate issues of life and death, acceptance and rejection, brought forth a massive response. People lined up for baptism. And John was hardly polite. He called his baptismal candidates a “generation of vipers”, alluding obviously to the seed of the serpent in Gen. 3:15. Yet his tough line with them, his convicting them of sin, led them to ask what precisely they must do, in order to be baptized. They didn’t turn away in offence. They somehow sensed he was for real, and the message he preached couldn’t be ignored or shrugged off as the ravings of a fanatic. Time and again we see the same- the very height of the demand of Christ of itself convicts men and women of Him. And it’s for this reason that it seems almost ‘easier’ to convict people of Christ and the need for baptism into Him in societies [e.g. radical Moslem ones] where the price for conversion to Him is death or serious persecution… than in the easy going Western countries where being ‘Christian’ is the normal cultural thing to do.
The nature of how demanding John was is reflected in his response to the soldiers and publicans. He didn’t tell them to quit their jobs, but to live with integrity within those jobs. He told the soldiers to be content with their wages- implying he expected them to not throw in their job. This is juxtaposed with the command for them to do no violence. But not grumbling about wages was as fundamental an issue for John as not doing physical violence to people. To have as Paul put it “Godliness with contentment” [another of his allusions to John’s preaching?] is as important as not doing violence. And yet our tendency is to think that moaning about our wages is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to do, whereas violence is of an altogether different order. It’s like Paul hitting the Corinthians for their divisiveness, when if we’d been writing to them we would likely have focused upon their immorality and false doctrine. John would have been far less demanding had he simply told the publicans and soldiers to quit their jobs. By asking them to continue, and yet to live out their lives within those jobs with Godly principles, He was being far more demanding.
But there’s another reason why John personally was so compelling as a preacher. His comment on his preaching of Christ was that he was not worthy (RVmg. ‘sufficient’) to bear Christ's sandals (Mt. 3:11). The sandal-bearer was the herald; John knew he was heralding Christ's appearing, but he openly said he was not worthy to do this. He felt his insufficiency, as we ought to ours. Would we had that depth of awareness; for on the brink of the Lord's coming, we are in a remarkably similar position to John. To carry the master’s sandals (Mt. 3:11) was, according to Vine, the work of the lowest slave. This was how John saw himself; and this is what witnessing for Jesus is all about, being the lowest slave and servant of the Lord of glory. How terribly wrong it is, then, for missionary service to be gloried in and somehow a reason for those who do it to become puffed up in self-importance. Perhaps John’s Gospel purposefully inserts the comment that John the Baptist said this whilst he was baptizing so many people (Jn. 1:28)- as if to draw a link between his humility, and the success in preaching which he had. Paul perhaps directs us back to John when he says that we are not “sufficient” to be the savour of God to this world; and yet we are made sufficient to preach by God (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5,6 RV). Although John preached the excellence of Christ, he didn’t even consider himself to be part of the mystic bride of Christ; for he likens himself to only the groom, watching the happiness of the couple, but not having a part in it himself (Jn. 3:29). And note how John appeals for men to be baptized with the twice repeated personal comment: “...and I knew him not”, in the very context of our reading that the [Jewish] world “knew him not” (Jn. 1:10, 31,33). He realises that he too had withstood the knowledge of the Son of God, just as others had. When asked who he was, John’s reply was simply: “a voice”. He was nothing; his message about Jesus was everything. In all this there is a far cry from the self-confident, self-projecting speaking off the podium which characterizes so much of our ‘preaching’ today. So John’s appeal to repentance was shot through with a recognition of his own humanity. It wasn’t mere moralizing. We likely don’t preach as John did because we fear that confronting people with their sins is inappropriate for us to do, because we too are sinners. But with recognition of our own humanity, we build a bridge between our audience and ourselves.
There was another reason for John’s appeal for repentance. It was that he perceived how eager God is to forgive, and how our acceptance of that forgiveness is His glory and His salvation. John says, quoting Is. 40:5, that if men repent and ready themselves for the Lord’s coming, then “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”. But he is changing the quotation- Isaiah said that all flesh shall see the glory of God. But saving men and women is the thing God glories in. John’s father had prophesied that John would “give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, because of the heart of mercy of our God” (Lk. 1:77,78 RVmg.). The fact that God has a “heart of mercy”- a lovely phrase- is His glory. It leads Him to glory in overlooking sin. And on this basis John appealed to people to repent and claim that forgiveness, thus allowing God to glory. In the light of all this, one wonders in what tone of voice John spoke. The cold printed words in our Bibles can lead us to imagine him speaking in a gruff, austere manner. But perhaps even his comment “Generation of vipers” was said with a heart of love and appeal, reflecting the “heart of mercy” which he had come to know in the Father. He was “the friend of the bridegroom” (Jn. 3:29)- the one who introduced the groom to the bride and arranged the marriage and then the wedding. John’s “Generation of vipers” stuff was all part of his attempt to persuade the bride, Israel, to accept the groom, the Lord Jesus. He wasn’t angrily moralizing, lashing out at society as many a dysfunctional preacher does today, working out his own anger by criticizing and condemning society in the name of God. No, John was appealing. He had an agenda and an aim- to bring Israel and the Son of God together in marriage.
And it’s worth meditating that if Israel had responded to his preaching, then the glorious salvation of God might have even then been revealed in the form of the Kingdom coming on earth, even then. But instead of heeding John’s message, Israel in the end crucified their King, necessitating a latter day John the Baptist mission (Mt. 11:13,14; 17:11,12). And it’s not going too far to suggest that our latter day witness to Israel and indeed to the world is to conducted in the spirit of John’s preaching; hence the crucial importance of understanding the spirit and content of his witness. John clearly had a strong sense of mission. Notice how many times he uses the “emphatic I”: “I am not the Christ… I am not [Elijah]… I am the voice… I baptize with water… I am not worthy… he of whom I said… I knew him not… therefore am I come baptizing… I knew him not… I saw… I am not the Christ… I am sent before… I said…” (Jn. 1:20,23,26,27,30,31,33,34; 3:28). This stands out in the Greek text. The same sense of realizing who we are, what our aims and mission are, should characterize our witness. He testified what he ‘saw and heard’ (Jn. 3:32), and we are called to do likewise (1 Jn. 1:1,3). For John’s witness prior to the Lord’s first coming is to be repeated by us prior to His second coming. Four times in the New Testament we read of John ‘preparing the way’ for the Lord’s return; the only other time we meet that phrase is in Rev. 16:12, where in the very last days, the way of the Kings [or, the one great King- the Lord Jesus] is likewise to be prepared.
(1) W.F. Barling, Jesus: Healer And Teacher (notes of the Central London Study Class, 1952) p.1.
(2) Oscar Cullmann, The Early Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), p. 205.
(3) For more evidence on this see K. Stendahl, The School Of Matthew And Its Use Of The Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968).
(4) Paul Tournier, The Meaning Of Persons (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), pp. 36,37.
(5) George Barna, Grow Your Church From The Outside (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2002) p. 60.