Growing up during the Great Depression, I worked for most of my teen years as a messenger for a telegraph company. My job was to deliver telegrams. Good news, bad news, deaths, births, a planned arrival, sickness—it didn't matter. If I knew the content of the message, I had no authority to change it. My duty was to deliver it as it had been given to me. Looking back, I realize that the work I did then and what I've done as a minister since is not all that different.
One of my sons-in-law, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, was invited to preach at the community Christmas celebration in town. Afterwards, a woman approached him and said a significant thing: "You preached as though you really believe the Bible. We don't hear that kind of preaching much anymore."
Scripture's primacy and power
Recently I read an old article written by Billy Graham in which he discussed his struggle some years before surrounding the place of the Bible in his preaching. He had struggled with many doubts and questions about the Bible. He told of walking alone down a trail as he wrestled with his doubts. "Finally," he wrote, "in desperation, I surrendered my will to the living God revealed in Scripture. I knelt before the open Bible and said: 'Lord, many things in the Book I do not understand. But Thou hast said, "The just shall live by faith." All I have received from Thee I have taken by faith. Here and now, by faith, I accept the Bible as Thy Word. I take it all. I take it without reservations. Where there are things I cannot understand, I will reserve judgment until I receive more light. If this pleases Thee, give me authority as I proclaim Thy Word, and through that authority convict me of sin and turn sinners to the Savior."
This was early in his ministry. He wrote that, afterward, over and over again while preaching he heard himself say, "The Bible says." He felt that he had a rapier in his hands which, through its power, slashed deeply into men's consciences, leading them to surrender to God. For him, the Bible became a flame in his hands, melting away unbelief.
He saw the Bible as a hammer which we must keep on using, even though it may be disagreeable to those listening; it is bread for the hungry that we must keep on offering, even though some refuse it. "We Christian ministers have the Word of God," he wrote. "Our Commander said, 'Go, take this mes sage to a dying world!' Some messengers today neglect it, some tear up the message and substitute one of their own. Some delete part of it. Some tell the people that the Lord does not mean what He says. Others say that He really did not give the message, but that it was written by ordinary men who were all too prone to make mistakes."
Unfortunately, some of us do fall into one or another of these categories. Recently I heard of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation that wanted to get rid of its pastor because he seldom if ever preached from the Bible. This from a congregation in a denomination that used to call itself "the people of the Book"? Seventh-day Adventists have a simple commission: to deliver the mes sage of the Book, in the power of the Spirit. "The firmness with which Luther relied on the Holy Scriptures imparted great authority to his teaching," wrote the Reformation historian, Merle D'Aubigne. That firmness of conviction, that assurance, especially at a time when the whole idea of having solid convictions is suspect, must be ours today.
The whole message
Being "wise as serpents and harmless as doves," we, as messengers, must deliver the message entrusted to us fully, faithfully, impartially, even if in fear and trembling. We must deliver it promptly, like a telegram, regardless of its content. And we must deliver the whole mes sage—leaving nothing out—even for the sake of proclaiming some favorite doctrine or topic.
I once heard a conference president say of a preacher, "He has only one sermon." He did not mean that literally, but we knew what he meant. Like Paul, the preacher must be able to affirm, "'I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God'" (Acts 20:27, NKJV, emphasis supplied).
Declaring the whole counsel is hard. It means we sometimes have to reprove, rebuke, and have patience at all times. "Proclaim the message and, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it. Refute false hood, correct error, call to obedience— but do all with patience and with the intention of teaching" (2 Tim. 4:2, Jerusalem Bible).
The seventeenth-century Puritan, Richard Baxter, put preaching in a con text every preacher should remember: "I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men."
Deliver the message. The content will take enough of itself.