Foundations of preaching
Foundations just do not get the attention they deserve. Really, upon them rests the weight and stability of every piece of the building above them. But those who dwell in or visit structures will rarely be overheard complimenting the foundation while they relax in the living room or discussing it while they share a meal at the dining table. You hear about the creative designs or corners of a building’s architecture, paint colors, pictures, and texture—but not the foundation. Yet the entire structure must credit its standing (effectiveness) to the foundation. You really only pay attention to the foundation when something is wrong. Even then many, while realizing something is wrong (cracks in the walls, slanted floor, etc.), would not know to identify the foundation as being the problem.
Preachers are builders, and congregations experience, and are ultimately impacted by, the constructs of what has been built. As in the construction trade, the congregation will never see or examine the foundation.
The two unseen but necessary components of the foundation of preaching are an understanding of the theology and its impact on the personal life of the preacher.
Theology of preaching
The theology of preaching has two distinct but interrelated aspects. First, God has chosen to speak—and His Word is powerful, creative, and effective. Second, God calls humans to be surrogate voices in speaking His Word to others. Because of the Holy Spirit, the latter can have the same result as the former.
God has chosen to speak. In the opening chapter of the Bible (Gen. 1), the declaration “God said” is used ten times, and “God called” is used five more times. The very first introduction humankind has to their Creator God is that He speaks. Words are clearly very important to God. This first chapter of Genesis also gives us a meter of the power in God’s Word. The New Testament agrees that “by faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (Heb. 11:3).1 God’s word can create ex nihilo—out of nothing.
With the creation of Adam, the importance and power of God’s Word become very personal. God forms man from the dirt. However, in order to complete His image in man, He then breathes His breath into the lifeless form. This same life-giving breath becomes what sustains life. Psalm 33:6 makes the connection: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” This parallelism, where the Hebrew poet repeats the same idea two different ways, marks the terms God’s Word and His breath as being interchangeable.
God’s Word brought everything in this universe into existence from nothing, but it is not just a historical event of the past, it is the breath that sustains, keeps creating life today. It is the Word of God that initiated life and still sustains it.
It is God’s Word, His communication, that sets Him apart from all other gods. This is the message communicated over and over in the line “I the Lord have spoken” (Num. 14:35; Ezek. 5:15; 24:14). In Isaiah chapters 41 through 44, God challenges the believers regarding false gods while mocking the gods’ origins. “Who would form a god or mold an image that profits him nothing?” (Isa. 44:10). They cut the tree in half, using one half to build a fire and the other is given to the craftsman. The craftsman takes it and, after measuring and planning it, makes it into a figure of a man (vv. 13–17).
It is not just their origin that God points out as weak. In Isaiah 41:21–24, God calls on them to haggidu(declare) what has happened or what is to come as proof that they are gods. Even though the gods were made with mouths, they could not speak (Ps. 115:5). Their inability to ever speak is indicative of their worthlessness. God’s people would know the true and only God, not by a picture or an act but by His Word. The visual revelation of God, even to a faithful follower like Moses (Exod. 33:14–23), is the exception to how God has presented Himself to be known. The tendency is to major in the visual, and when one is asking for a sign, it is the visual that first comes to mind. Ezekiel describes his encounter with the supernatural and all the glorious symbolism that he saw, but the visual still climaxes with hearing a voice (Ezek. 1). It is “My words” (Ezek. 2:7), not the vision, that God commissions Ezekiel to take to the people.
It is evident in the temptation of Eve that Satan is aware of the importance of God’s Word. “ ‘Has God indeed said’ ” was the first line from the serpent, attacking what he knew would be their basis for a relationship. Adam and Eve’s rejection of the Word of God was their rejection of Him; obeying and responding to what He had breathed (Word, or breath) had been what had created and sustained their connection.
As has been noted above, God’s Word of authority and relationship at Creation was not in isolation. Through the Old Testament (OT) (Gen. 12:1–4; 1 Sam. 3:7; Deut. 32:46, 47), the Word comes not just as information but as that which “calls for and creates the possibility of fellowship; a relationship of trust, loyalty, and obedience.”2
God’s Word reaches its zenith in the New Testament (NT) when Jesus arrives. Hebrews (1:1) recognizes that God had spoken through the prophets in the OT and validates their message as the Word of God. It then addresses (v. 2) Jesus as both the fulfillment and the climax of God’s Word. God speaking “in these last days” through His Son is eschatological language and represents a turning point. God presents Jesus as His final decisive Word of which everything else was preparatory, and anything that follows will be a reflection of it. Jesus is the Word that created the worlds (v. 2) and the powerful Word (v. 3) that upholds them.
John introduces Jesus as the Word (John 1:1–4). That same Word was with God in the beginning and “without Him nothing was made that was made” (v. 3). The Gospel writer describes this on the cosmic level—“all things were made through Him”—making the universe dependent on this Word. Jesus is the personification of the Word, and the theology is clear: “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Later in the Gospels, Jesus speaks the Word—the Word that speaks the Word—setting an example to preachers who follow.
Through the ministry of Jesus, it can be seen that the Word remains the only creative and sustaining power in the universe. Jesus’ Word healed (Mark 2:1–12), controlled nature (Matt. 8:23–27), removed demons (vv. 28–34), and even gave life (Mark 5:40–42; John 11:40–44).
The Word of God has a very significant place in the great controversy between Christ and Satan. God humbled Israel in the OT by permitting them to suffer hunger before providing food for them. The purpose was that they would know that “ ‘man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord’ ” (Deut. 8:3). Jesus quotes these lines in His wilderness battle with the devil (Matt. 4:4), making them the survival code for every Christian.
John, in vision, sees the culmination of the great controversy (Rev. 19). In symbolic and eschatological language, he describes a white horse and victorious rider who is “called The Word of God” (v. 13). It is from the mouth of this Rider that the Word (vv. 15, 21; Isa. 11:4) comes to unmask Satan “in front of the universe”3 and deliver the final blow.
The core passage for the theology of preaching is in Isaiah 55. The cycle of rain and snow (v. 10) resulting in food for mankind is used to teach the effectiveness of God’s Word. Key to the understanding of this is God as the Originator of the Word. When He sends it out (v. 11), it will not return to him void. He is the beginning and the end, and this truth makes the completion of this cycle less about the ability of the preacher.
God does speak. His Word has universal authority. It is creative. It is eternal and powerful. All created beings depend on that Word and, in order to sustain life, respond to it.
God has called for a surrogate voice
Often preaching is thought of as only about the Word of God, not the very word of God itself. This nuanced difference may have been or is being cultivated by poor preaching, but it does not change what preaching is supposed to be.
Preaching through the span from Noah in Genesis 6 to the third angel in Revelation 14 includes a side of judgment and destruction. Preaching provides an opportunity for the individual or community to be saved from eternal destruction and, sometimes, even from physical harm. God is love, and He is giving His all for the salvation of mankind (John 3:16). It is fair to conclude that God would make only His best effort to save all (1 Tim. 2:4). According to the biblical account and command, preaching is one of God’s primary methods to save us, to such an extent that in Matthew 10 Jesus told the preachers that He was sending them out so that communities would be held accountable in the judgment based on what they had heard preached (v. 15).
Could it be that the word is what we today call preaching? The answer comes in Romans 10. The sequence described in verses 13–16 is that those who are lost need to hear in order to believe and be saved. However, verse 17 summarizes with a parallel sequence: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” The position the preacher occupies in the order presented in verses 13–16 and verse 17 clarifies as being the same as the position of the Word of God. In preaching then, the preacher and the Word of God become the same.
If preaching is then the very Word of God, then how one relates to it as a preacher must reflect that. Everything changes if preaching is the proclamation of the Word of God. As a preacher, one must come with a holy, prayerful reverence, diligently studying, preparing, and practicing the sermon in advance so that when the preacher steps into the pulpit, the words spoken are the Word.4 The preacher’s preaction5 comes directly from the realization of what God is about to do.
It is in an understanding of the theology of preaching that a preacher is convicted and empowered to preach, no matter the opposition. In the end, the way preachers think, and what they think, does affect how they do it. “Theology affects practice.”6 The theology of preaching is the greatest key to the return of great preaching in the Christian church. This takes us to the second footing of our foundation.
Personal preparedness. When the guards were sent to arrest Jesus in John 7, they returned empty-handed. When the now-angry commanders asked them where the captive was, they responded (v. 46) that they had never heard a man speak as that Man. Is that not the style of preacher we want at our church? Yet, “never man lived as He lived. Had His life been other than it was, He could not have spoken as He did.”7
This has often escaped our thinking: that the power of words comes from one’s personal, private life. Timothy Keller gives his voice to this, calling a life filled with deep and rich prayer a “requirement for great and even good preaching.”8 Here are a few lines from my favorite author on prayer and holy living, E. M. Bounds: “The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men [and women]. . . .
“What the Church needs today is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. . . .
. . . “Preaching is not the performance of an hour. It is the outflow of a life. . . .
“The real sermon is made in the closet. The man—God’s man—is made in the closet. . . . Prayer makes the man; prayer makes the preacher; prayer makes the pastor.”9
Preachers, our lives must be in pursuit of the holiness of which we preach. Preaching is not a personal performance; it is the overflow of the eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent God in you. Our prayer time, lingering in God’s presence, must be long and passionate. We have all heard that Martin Luther is known to have said, “If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business, I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.”10
Most would admit that if they were called by a head of state—a president, governor, or prime minister—to travel as the voice for that government, they would prepare with intentionality and purpose, realizing both the weight and the honor of speaking for a government. Then comes the reminder: “The heaven-appointed purpose of giving the gospel to the world in this generation is the noblest that can appeal to any human being.”11
That God’s Word has always been powerful and creative and that He has chosen to have human voices give that Word must change the personal practice of every one of those under the privilege and responsibility of that calling.
To live in a building without a solid foundation is unwise and unsafe, it is exactly that way in preaching. Preachers, we must know what it is that God has asked of us and discipline our life for this high calling. A sermon without a strong foundation is unsafe to be heard. A preacher without a committed life is unfit to be seen.
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1 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version.
2 Louis Venden, “A Critical Analysis of Contemporary Seventh-day Adventist Preaching and a Constructive Proposal of Guiding Principles for Homiletical Pedagogy” (PhD diss., Andrews University, 1978), 232.
3 Ranko Stefanovic, Plain Revelation (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2013), 227.
4 This preparation would apply as well to the listener, who, knowing it is the Word of God, will come early (or on time), having lingered in prayer, listening to His voice through Bible study, surrendered in both heart and mind to Him, and petitioned Him for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the preacher and on themselves.
5 The author takes responsibility for using this word that some doubt is a word but that so well fits what personal preparedness is to preaching. Pre-action is what happens before the action—and the opposite of a reaction.
6 Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert, Preach: Theology Meets Practice (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2012), 35.
7 Ellen White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1909), 469.
8 Timothy Keller, Preaching (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 12.
9 E. M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1982), 17–21.
10 Bounds, Power Through Prayer, 58.
11 Ellen White, Education (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), 262.