Jesus is the greatest preacher the world has ever known. Yet we have only two of His sermons recorded in full: the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), and the Sermon on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24,25). It could be argued that the Olives sermon really doesn't count as one because Jesus' congregation was limited to His disciples. There are, of course, other speeches or talks that Jesus gave: long ones like John 14-17, but these were given on a more personal level; and short ones that probably came from sermons, but we don't have the full text.
However, we have enough of the con tent and style of Jesus' preaching so that we can learn much from Him. Here are eight great principles that define Jesus as the great preacher that He was.
He preached the gospel
Gospel was the first priority in the preaching of Jesus. "'I must preach,"' He said, "'the good news [gospel] of the kingdom of God ... because that is why I was sent'" (Luke 4:43).*
So Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching and "preaching the good news [gospel] of the kingdom" (Matt. 9:35). He called for repentance (Matt. 4:17). He healed. He told those whom He healed to go and sin no more. He fed the hungry. He performed many wonders.
But the bottom line of all that He did was preaching the gospel, the good news of the saving plan of God the "eternal gospel" (Rev. 14:6).
He ministered with passion
Undoubtedly, passion marked the life and ministry of Jesus. When He saw Mary and Martha grieve over the loss of their brother, He wept. When He looked over Jerusalem indifferent to His messiahship, He wept. When He saw the holiness of the temple turned into the commonness of a marketplace, He was angry and whipped the money changers out of His Father's house.
Check the passion in Matthew 23. Feel the anger. Notice how focused He was as He used repetition in His stinging condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees. (Warning: Do this very carefully at home or in your pulpit. Jesus could do it well be cause He understood the heart and could throw a first stone well, with love and skill.)
On a life-and-death mission, Jesus knew that it was going to cost Him His life, but He'd committed Himself to the cause. This realization is important when we think of His preaching, for He was not preaching to give information, to entertain, or to prove a point---He preached to change people's lives.
No one can call Jesus a milk-sop preacher presenting a colorless, monotone message. He had enthusiasm. He had depth. He had commitment. He embodied His message.
He illustrated His Preaching
How much would it dent your pride to be remembered not for the depth of your theology, your stunning logic and dramatic presentation, but for your storytelling? Jesus always had a story to tell; parables were an important means of His preaching (Matt. 13:34,35). And if He didn't have a parable, He had an illustration.
Matthew 24 is a good example of this. First, there's an illustration from the Old Testament: "'As it was in the days of Noah" (verse 37). Then there's an illustration from everyday life: "If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming" (verse 43). Then follows an illustration from employee-employer relationships: the faithful and wise servant who will continue to be faithful and wise even when the master is away (verses 45-51).
In this apocalyptic sermon, Jesus talked about the end time but did it through stories and illustrations. In Matthew 25 where the sermon continues, Jesus told three parables, each stressing the importance of living, even as we await the Second Coming.
Jesus was creative in His use of illustrations. See the Sermon on the Mount and His references to His followers being salt and light. Note His comment about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field---if God cares for them, doesn't He care for you? In another place He used a child as a visual aid when He said we must become like children if we were to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
And, yes, He used humor. His humor is sometimes difficult to appreciate in English translations and culture. The humor of His time tended toward wordplay and is often more subtle than the humor of today. However, there's no denying the humor of trying to take a speck out of someone else's eye when you have a plank in your own or straining out gnats yet eating camels.
He was relevant Jesus was more than a great storyteller. He preached that which was relevant and touched the heart. Why else did people keep coming out to hear Him? He was more than a speaker with a clever sound byte that could be shared with friends, more than an oddity who challenged the religious thinking of the day. He spoke about issues that were of real concern. He answered people's needs.
The encounters with Nicodemus (John 3) and with the woman at the well of Sychar (John 4) demonstrate that He had an awareness of the real needs of people. He addressed those needs in His teaching and preaching. That's why His sermon in Matthew 24, 25 did more than simply answer the question the disciples asked.
He focused on the big issues
Jesus spoke about big issues. Once again, read again the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes turn the popular thinking of His day, of any day, upside down. And there's more: Love your enemies; don't judge; be more righteous than those who claim to be righteous. Social issues? Give to the needy (without fanfare); don't make divorce easy; love the tax collector. What's important? Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.
Again consider Matthew 24, 25. The big issue is the resolution of earth's experiment with sin at the Second Coming. That's what the gospel is all about ("'this gospel of the kingdom will be preached'"); it's universal ('"in the whole world as a testimony to all nations'"); and it's apocalyptic ("'and then the end will come'" 24:14). So, be alert, "'keep watch, because you do not know on what day the Lord will come'" (verse 42). These are big issues.
Jesus spoke on issues impacting Christian living that gave hope for the here and now and for the future. We preachers may be tempted to defend our sermon entitled "Headwear of the Bible" as being biblically based (even if it does have a three-yawn rating), but it just isn't in the same league with the kind of preaching Jesus did.
He was the complete preacher
The preaching of Jesus had a balance that is not only worth noting but worth imitating. He preached to help people become complete. His messages were designed to help more than the spiritual part of the person. He was concerned with the social aspects of life as well: to give to the needy, to be reconciled with your brother, to go the second mile.
He brought a new morality into the pulpit. He defined adultery as even the thought before it became an act. He saw the merciful not as the weak but as the blessed. He said only the pure in heart will see God.
His preaching contained an obvious concern for health, and He practiced what He preached. He went about healing. Even as He descended from His pulpit after the Sermon on the Mount, He healed a leper (Matt. 8:1-4).
And there was balance in His apocalyptic preaching. He didn't leave us with only grim warnings but with illustrations on the application, readiness, and rewards connected with His second coming.
He was a Bible-based preacher
Jesus was authoritative. That was one thing that set Him apart from the rabbis, and people did not fail to notice it (Matt. 7:29). However, Jesus never failed to turn to the Scriptures as a source of authority for His preaching and teaching.
"You have heard it said..." was a formula He used often. He expanded and expounded on an Old Testament passage, gave it greater depth, and used it as His base for proclamation. In Matthew 24, 25 He referred to Daniel and Noah Jesus knew His Bible.
He was a model preacher
Jesus left us a model in preaching. As preachers of the gospel of Jesus, we are to preach as He did. His message must be our message. His authority must be our authority. His objective must be our objective. No matter how we dress it, no matter how we illustrate it, no matter how we present it, our preaching must be Christ-centered. That should drive us to our Bibles — the Word that reveals the Word. Then we will have the consistency of His life, the power of His influence, and the results of His touch. Then we will be like Him — a teacher, a pray-er, a friend. Then we will have His compassion and love as we preach.
*All Scripture passages in this article are from the New International Version.