On Preachers and Preaching: Why Don’t We Preach Like Jesus?

We are not the first to preach. In view of this, it seems reasonable that we should take our cues from those who have preceded us. Yet it only takes a cursory reading of the gospels to sense that the preaching we engage in week by week sounds very different from the preaching of Christ. How do we explain this?

This is the focus of William Brosend’s interesting book The Preaching of Jesus: Gospel Proclamation Then and Now (Westminster John Knox). According to Brosend, “this study is not as interested in what Jesus said as it is interested in how Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as having said it.”  

 The rhetoric of Jesus is marked by four characteristics. The first feature Brosend observes is that it is conversational. This is not a feature of its volume or pitch but its responsive nature. According to Brosend:  “almost everything Jesus says comes either in response to and/or in conversation with someone else.” Jesus’ conversation is not only with inquirers and disciples, “it is also explicitly with the tradition, and implicitly with the culture.”

 At the same time, Jesus’ preaching is proclamatory. The intent is declarative and the tone is authoritative. Brosend explains, “Jesus is not asking, even in the middle of dialogue; Jesus makes claims, theological and soteriological.” In view of this, one wonders how Brosend can separate Jesus’ rhetorical technique from the content of his message. In this case the content of the message shapes the delivery.

 It is the third mark which most clearly differentiates Jesus’ preaching and our own. This is Jesus’ apparent reticence to speak about himself. As Brosend puts it, the preaching of Jesus was occasionally self-referential: “The frequent use of self-reference in the Fourth Gospel is one of the main differences between the rhetoric of Jesus in John and in the Synoptic Gospels. But regardless of that comparison, it is striking how infrequently Jesus is depicted as speaking about himself directly in Matthew, Mark and Luke.”

 This leads Brosend to characterize Jesus as “a Galilean Jew who proclaimed a kingdom and resisted a crown.”  According to Brosend, “Jesus is consistently and persistently depicted as focusing the attention on God and God’s kingdom, not on himself.” The fourth mark of Jesus’ preaching is linked to this: “Jesus never misses an opportunity to elaborate, illustrate, or sharpen his message through metaphor (Matt. 15:24-26), hyperbole (Mark 9:42-50), allegory (Luke 20:9-19), and other rhetorical figures.” Jesus’ preaching is persistently figurative.

 Jesus’ reserve in speaking directly about himself in the Gospels was noted by Thomas Dehany Bernard in his 1864 series of Bampton Lectures on the Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament. According to Bernard this reserve was shared by the apostles during the early stages of their ministry, when they were sent out to announce the kingdom but forbidden to tell anyone that Jesus was the Christ.  A marked change takes place in apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. The essential difference is captured in the summary statement of Acts 5:42: “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”

Brosend argues that we can learn much from the rhetorical strategy of Jesus. Our preaching can be like the preaching of Jesus in some measure. But Bernard helps us to see why our preaching must also differ from that of Jesus. Jesus came not only to preach the gospel but to accomplish it. He did not preach a different gospel than ours but his place in those redemptive events put constraints on him that we do not share. There was an element of secrecy in Jesus’ preaching, an intentional obscurity which simultaneously revealed and concealed both his identity and his mission.

This is not true of us. Our task in preaching is to make Christ known.

Here is a link to the full text version of Bernard’s lectures on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=X-JkEaFMprMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22progress+of+doctrine+in+the+new+testament%22&lr=&as_drrb_is=q&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=&as_brr=0&cd=1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to include the Bampton Lecutures as part of his recreational reading when he went on vacation.

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Published by

John Koessler

John Koessler serves as professor and chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. His most recent book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest published by InterVarsity Press.

4 thoughts on “On Preachers and Preaching: Why Don’t We Preach Like Jesus?”

  1. Thank you for this post John. It is simple, to the point, and profoundly relevant. The rising tide of allusive talk by many about Jesus and the His Gospel is troubling. Your comments are timely.

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