I have had the pleasure of visiting the historic town of Wittenberg, Germany twice in recent years. From this little town, Martin Luther set the world on fire with his writings, his teaching, and his preaching.
At St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, Luther preached from 1514 onward, and at this church today, one can still see several paintings from the famous artist during the reformation, Lucas Cranach.1 At the center of the sanctuary, one can see the “Reformation Altarpiece” (paintings of communion, confession, and other ministries). My favorite painting is one depicting Luther preaching. It illustrates how we should view the Scriptures, and how we should view the preaching in the context of corporate worship.
The picture shows Luther with one figure on the text, and then with one finger pointing to Christ crucified. The congregation’s eyes are all fixed on Christ (not their world-famous preacher!).
The preacher’s goal is to show people the beauty of Jesus, as revealed in Holy Scripture. The rapper Tupac used to sing, “All eyes on me!” but at the heart of Christian preaching is the opposite plea, “All eyes on Jesus.” Faithful pastors long for people to be captivated by Jesus, with them walking away saying, “What a great Savior” and not “What a great sermon.” Preaching that is God-centered, Christ-exalting, and Spirit-empowered leads to worship and life transformation. It is to this end that we do the hard and holy work of preparation and delivery.2
In Nehemiah 8, Ezra, the teacher, receives a lot of attention, as the leader of dramatic worship service. But what is also striking is how the phrase “the people” appears thirteen times in the chapter. It is an inspiring picture of the people of God hearing the voice of God together in a public assembly.
The people are not worshiping Ezra, and they are not worshiping the Bible. They are worshiping the God of the Bible, who revealed himself in Holy Scripture: “And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel” (Neh. 8:1, emphasis added). As a result of hearing and understanding God’s word, we read of the worshipers responding passionately with actions that we commonly associate today with musical worship: standing up, blessing the Lord, saying “Amen,” lifting up hands, and bowing down and worshiping the Lord facedown (Neh. 8:6–8). But this is right and good, for what is more worshipful than hearing the voice of God, sensing something of the glory of God, and savoring the good news of God, together with the people of God? When we read Nehemiah 8, we say, “Lord, do it again!”
Much of the preaching we find in the New Testament was “marketplace preaching,” more along the lines of street preaching and personal evangelism. But we do find a biblical precedent and pattern for proclaiming the gospel in the context of the gathered church. The classic text “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2) seems to be speaking of a corporate gathering.3
Another important text that also comes to mind is Paul’s previous charge to Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). After giving instructions on corporate prayer (1 Tim. 2:1–8), Paul now insists on something else happening in corporate worship, that is, the reading and expounding of Scripture. R. Kent Hughes writes, “This simple sentence is a landmark text in defining the major work of the pastor and the worship of the church.”4 I concur. This verse highlights biblical authority and it displays a biblical pattern of exposition in corporate worship.
Regarding authority, I often ask some of our younger aspiring preachers, “Why should people listen to you, even though many in your audience are much older than you?” The answer is, I tell them, “You’re the one with the Bible!” When the Word is rightly handled, God’s voice is truly heard. It is not about the messenger; it is the message itself that gives the sermon both holy gravity and gospel gladness.
Regarding the pattern for worship, consider the word translated with the phrase “public reading of Scripture” (anagnōsis). It is a word that means to read aloud in public. It is the word we find in Nehemiah, as the people are gathered to hear Ezra bring the word (Neh. 8:8); the word used when Jesus reads the Scriptures from Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16). In the book of Acts, it is used in reference to the reading of the Scriptures in the synagogue (Acts 13:15; 15:21). So here’s the pattern: read the Scriptures publicly, then explain and apply them in the context of the gathered body.
By the second century, these readings and expositions were part of the accepted liturgy. The earliest non-canonical description of corporate worship among Christians appears in Justin Martyr’s The First Apology. Christians were accused of sadistic practices like sacrificing human beings and drinking their blood. Justin wrote to the emperor to explain what Christians actually did in worship. He provides a beautiful vision of God’s people being gathered together, enjoying the Word and sacrament, as well as being mindful of those in need.5
Biblical preaching can be done in the marketplace, for we need to be commending the gospel in every nook and cranny of the world, but it is also at home in the corporate assembly of the church as one of the primary ways we draw people to behold God’s glory in Christ.
Beholding the glory of the Lord transforms people (2 Cor. 3:18) because we are changed from the inside out. Our loves determine the direction of our lives. Therefore, as preachers, we should purpose to make much of Christ in our sermons in order that people may experience such transformation. There are thousands of wonderful effects of beholding Christ’s glory and experiencing his grace.
I remember hearing early in seminary the need to preach “life-changing” sermons. I say “Amen” to that desire, but the question is “How are lives changed?” I think Paul tells us concisely, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). It happens as we gaze upon Christ and the Spirit transforms us. So we should aim to proclaim Christ faithfully, and seek the Spirit’s empowerment desperately in order to awaken worship and see lives changed.
Perhaps you have heard this in a corporate worship service: “After worship, we’re going to listen to some preaching.” The problem with this statement is that preaching is an act of worship too. In fact, preaching is attempting to do what the entire liturgy should do, namely, proclaim the gospel and exult in Christ. By exulting I mean to bubble over with praise as you are expounding Christ of Scripture. Exulting in Jesus over his Word keeps one’s sermon from being a “dry lecture to real proclamation of truth that reaches the heart.”6
One of the parts of sermon preparation that cannot be overlooked is the preparation of the preacher’s heart. Often in homiletics, we talk about the science (exegesis/theology) and art (composition of the sermon, delivery and style) of preaching. But we should never think of these two aspects covering all that is essential for preaching. The heart of homiletics must also be considered, for faithful and dynamic preaching is an overflow of delighting in the Son. It is possible to be skilled in preparing Christ-centered messages but not preach from a place of worship.
“Faithful and dynamic preaching is an overflow of delighting in the Son.”—Tony Merida
We commend authentically what we love personally. You may liken it to cooking. When I am putting dinner together, I want to taste the food myself, and when I get it prepared tastefully, then I say to others, “Taste and see that this is good.” I do not serve my guacamole until I have made it with just the right amount of salt, lime, tomato, onion, cilantro, and citrus! In preaching, we need to savor what we are saying. Only when we are enjoying Christ deeply, can we say “taste and see that the Lord is good” authentically.
Therefore, to lead people in worship from the pulpit we must avoid being “the Sermonator.” That is, simply going through the motions, mechanically preparing messages without having them dwell richly within us (Col. 3:16). When the Word is dwelling richly in us, and we know our material well, then we are ready to let this Word pass from us affectionally. The danger in preaching a long time is having the ability to write sermons with relative ease without having the message have a personal impact on our own lives. So, I must sit under our own preaching and be led to worship; and then from that place exult in Christ over his Word, leading people to say, “worthy is the Lamb” along with me.
On a practical side of things, I have found that if I can prepare my sermon early in the week (I like to start on Monday), then I can edit it (Tuesday and Wednesday), and spend the rest of the week internalizing it. This process prevents me from taking a first draft to the pulpit; it gives me space to allow the message to impact me personally; and it frees me up during sermon delivery to preach from the heart, rather than being tied to my notes.
To draw people into the exaltation of Christ, preachers must aim to be clear in their communication. Careful explanation of the text, the surrounding context, and the overarching narrative of Scripture are essential because we are not drawn into devotion unless there is clear understanding of what is being preached. So, we must aim for clarity (Col. 4:2).
But while what we say is more important than how we say it, we should nevertheless think about how we say it. This includes the structure of our message as well as our use of memorable, striking, and appealing language. While preachers can go overboard into showmanship on the use of rhetoric, we should not dismiss the importance of saying things in way that arouses interest and stirs affections—much the way songs do. Well-chosen and beautiful language is fitting when communicating the beauty of Christ.
Paul’s words at the end of Romans 8 also illustrates this concept. He asks four “who questions” in Romans 8:31–39. But the fourth one he spends double the time on, as he answers, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” in verses 35–39. He could simply say, “No one. Now on to chapter nine.” But he instead “puts the homiletical meddle to the rhetorical meddle” in order to awaken affections.7 It is one thing to know that nothing can separate you from Christ’s love, and it is another thing to allow that truth to inspire praise and devotion to Christ.
So then, let us keep preaching Christ in the corporate gatherings; let us keep preaching Christ as a worshiper; let us seek to awaken worship by exalting Christ, by highlighting the biblical narrative, and by expressing our thoughts as clearly and beautifully as we can—with a finger on the text as we point people to the hero of Scripture, Christ our King.
- See Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther (New York: Penguin, 2016), 143-63. ↩
- A version of this article will appear in the forthcoming revised edition of The Contemporary Handbook on Preaching edited by Michael Duduit. ↩
- See Piper, Expository Exultation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 62. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes and Bryan Chapell, 1&2 Timothy and Titus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 115. ↩
- Taken from Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 92-93. ↩
- Tim Keller, Preaching (New York: Viking, 2015), 179. ↩
- Mike Bird, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 290. ↩