Bertram L. Melbourne, PhD, is a professor of biblical language and literature at the Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, DC, United States.

People call Jesus the Master Communicator. He taught crowds exceeding 10,0001 in the open air without any means of amplifying His voice. People flocked to Him to hear His memorable discourses that have endured and transformed the world.

Some have called Him a bad Communicator because His disciples were slow to understand Him.2 But His contemporaries would disagree. Though not a graduate of their rabbinical schools, even the rabbinically trained called Him Rabbi, a title reserved for the rabbinically trained.3 “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28).4 Such an assessment has profound implications.

Although scribes taught the Torah, they derived their authority from former rabbis.5 “Scribal authority arose from the learned interpretation of Torah and the citation of earlier rabbis.”6 “The teaching of the scribes and elders was cold and formal, like a lesson learned by rote.” “The rabbis spoke with doubt and hesitancy, as if the Scriptures might be interpreted to mean one thing or exactly the opposite.”7 But effective preaching shouldn’t be hesitant or doubtful. Truth must be believed and presented with earnestness, sincerity, enthusiasm, passion, and conviction.8

When compared with even the greatest rabbis, Jesus taught with a difference. His authority did not depend on others.9 He spoke in His own name with four distinctive kinds of authority.

1. Sapiential authority. Sapiential authority is derived from knowledge. Jesus knew the Hebrew Bible. When He was 12, His scriptural knowledge amazed the elders.10 Preachers should not only acquire the best knowledge but also commit to lifelong learning. Some preachers spend insufficient time with Scripture, being too busy with the Lord’s work to have time for the Lord of the work. Consequently, their sermons lack substance or plagiarize others.

Many preachers read the Bible sermonically, not devotionally. They aim at getting content for their congregants, not blessings for themselves. Yet, sermons emerging from those devotional encounters that first bless self are more potent and provide enormous blessings to others.

2. Moral authority. The beauty of Jesus’ personal life enhanced His preaching. Precept and example coincided, creating constancy between teaching and behavior. His life exemplified His teaching. Preachers need high moral standards for themselves. My life must reflect what I teach so that others cannot say, “What you do shouts so loudly, I can’t hear what you say.”

By their actions, some preachers say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Jesus was not like that. Others justify questionable behaviors, arguing that preachers are humans like parishioners and thus equally sinners. While true, such an excuse rests on faulty reasoning. Since preachers represent God, we expect more of them. Scripture says to whom much is given, much is expected.11 Holding preachers to high standards is valid. Some take their obligations too casually. Not merely a profession, preaching is a calling that summons to holiness, “For I am the lORD your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. . . . You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44, 45).12 Remember, people learn more from what they see than what they hear.13

3. Personal authority. When people said Jesus spoke with authority, not as the scribes, they also meant He had personal authority. Those who possess sapiential and moral authority will earn respect, which yields personal authority—something that cannot be purchased or commanded. It is only earned.

4. Charismatic authority. Crowds flocked to Jesus (Mark 3:31, 32; 1:35–36; John 6:22–24). At times, the crowds did not leave Him time to eat (Mark 3:19, 20). Jesus had the ability to build rapport and attract people. Rapport is another trait that one cannot command or demand. It is God’s gift. Pastors can develop and exercise good people skills that grant authority. People especially appreciate those who know and call them by name and do not pretend, but genuinely love and care. Jesus did this. These are qualities every pastor, charismatic or not, can develop for more effective preaching.

People respond to those who care about them as individuals. They love caregivers who are authentic and sincere.

Jesus the Great Communicator

Evans Crawford calls preaching “an oral event,”14 emphasizing its communal nature because preaching involves interaction between the speaker and the listener.15 Communication is the transmittal of information from sender to receiver. It requires that transmitters and receivers be on the same frequency, speaking the same language. Thus, good communication is a two-way process requiring a complete feedback loop.

With that in mind, what made Jesus a great communicator? We have said His knowledge, life, authoritative teaching, and effective preaching powered His success. What of His delivery skills?

Jesus mastered reading an audience and adjusting to its needs. He knew people learned in different ways. Some are visual, others tactile, auditory, conceptual, or cognitive learners. Jesus adapted His delivery to meet various needs. His parables dealt with the visual. To the blind who depended on hearing, He spoke words of comfort. And for Nicodemus, He utilized the theoretical and conceptual. His feeding and healing miracles were tactile. We should emulate Him and use appropriate tools to meet the various learning styles.

He used parables

Jesus made extensive use of parables. In the Synoptics Gospels, parables comprise one-third of His teaching.16 Using parables was a well-known and popular discourse method. Rabbis used parables to confirm traditional values. But Jesus transformed them by applying them in other ways:17

Turning conventional values upside-down.18 The rabbis employed parables to confirm the status quo. Jesus used them to shatter traditional ideals. Rabbis saw the Jews as God’s special representatives in the world from the beginning, thus deserving the highest reward. They illustrated this in a parable about a farmer who gave those beginning their work in the early morning more pay than those starting later.

But Jesus told the same parable with a twist (Matt. 20:1–16). The farmer agreed to pay a denarius to those he hired early in the morning. Then, as the day went on, he hired more workers and promised to pay them what was right. At day’s end, each got a denarius. Those who had worked all day became angry, claiming that they deserved more than the others. The farmer said it was his money to use as he pleased.

Jesus’ punchline said, “So the last will be first and the first will be last" (v. 16). The rabbis’ parable confirmed conventional thinking that as God’s special people, Jews were called first and consequently deserved more. On the other hand, Jesus’ parable said there was equal opportunity and pay for all—without rank nor priority.

I learned Spirit-prompted independent thinking and sensitivity to new ideas from Jesus. That means while some preaching has no relevance to the issues that listeners actually confront, my preaching must present right, justice, and equality for the oppressed, dispossessed, and marginalized—those whom Jesus constantly defended.

Communicating the unknown through the known, the heavenly through the earthly. Since sin entered the world, humans have had limited thoughts and imaginations. Accordingly, Jesus employed what humans already knew to illustrate what they still needed to know. He had to use earthly concepts to communicate heavenly realities.

When Jesus compared the kingdom to the yeast that a woman placed in dough and mixed until the leaven permeated the whole thing, He used something people were familiar with to teach essential truth. To make new dough rise, a piece of old dough was used to leaven it. It showed His listeners that though His kingdom might seem insignificant, it would eventually transform society. It motivated them to keep faith and anticipate the fulfillment of Jesus’ words. Fulfillment came when Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire.

Jesus demonstrated that preaching should be contextual, utilizing familiar illustrations to teach spiritual truths. I have adapted sermons to meet the needs and experiences of people in various parts of the world. In Korea, I preached at a 1,000-member Presbyterian church. Although I met the pastor only minutes beforehand, he thanked me for addressing his congregation’s needs in the sermon.

Capturing attention through current events and everyday experiences. Jesus mastered the art of using current events and common experiences. The parable of the good Samaritan related a recent occurrence known to His listeners. He used it to grab attention and teach truth. Rabbinic pedagogy utilized a triadic style. When Jesus presented the first two passersby as religious leaders, listeners expected the third to be a cleric. Instead, Jesus made him the least likely candidate—a Samaritan—and the hero to grab attention and teach lessons on neighborliness, pride, bigotry, and prejudice. It indicates that we can employ current events, to capture an audience’s interest.

Awakening inquiry. Jesus enjoyed asking leading questions to grab attention and prepare hearts for deeper truths. The stories of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman offer examples. The questions that Jesus raised pointed to gaps in their knowledge and led them to seek further truth. Jesus then used the teachable moment to inform their minds and move their emotions. Ask leading questions in sermons to encourage listeners to think deeper, weigh issues, and make decisions.

Making His preaching memorable. Jesus used things from everyday life to teach. When His hearers later encountered them, they recalled His words and learned vital lessons even in His absence.19 He employed items such as leaven, seeds, oil, lamps, salt, meal, and bread; people such as farmers, fishermen, priests, Levites, Samaritans; and ceremonies such as weddings. Perhaps when Jesus told the parable of the ten virgins, they were just then viewing a wedding procession. When they later encountered more wedding processions, the experience became a reinforced teachable moment.

This technique motivates me to use memorable images that will teach even in my absence. Years ago, a usually reserved student excitedly approached me. That weekend while driving, she saw an illustration I had used and wanted to tell me. I shared her delight for it indicated that I had succeeded in awakening interest and teaching while absent.

He used figures of speech

Jesus’ mastery of figures of speech to illuminate sermons made Him a superb preacher. He used hyperbole, puns, similes, metaphors, paradoxes, and epigrams. We see hyperbole, a slightly exaggerated statement to prove a point, memorably illustrated in His sermon on the mount: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). The pun, a play on words similar in sound but different in meaning, is exemplified in Jesus’ words to the scribes and Pharisees: “ ‘You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!’ ” (Matt. 23:24). It involves an Aramaic play on words in which “camel” is gamla,20 and “gnat” is galma.21

A simile compares like things. Jesus’ parables are extended similes using what the people already knew to illustrate what they must yet learn. Thus, He likened the kingdom of heaven to the things with which people were accustomed to teach them lessons about heavenly things. The parables of Matthew 13 and Mark 4 illustrate His practice.

Related to similes are metaphors. For example, Jesus said, “I am the door;” “I am the Bread of life;” “I am the light of the world.”22 The paradox, a statement presenting a dilemma or seeming contradiction, appears in such passages as “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all” (Mark 9:35). He used epigrams, terse, witty, pointed, and often antithetical statements not meant to be taken literally, as seen in “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).

He used imagination

If Jesus’ contemporaries did not have recording devices to capture His sermons, how did they so clearly remember them? It was precisely because of His use of images, rhetorical devices, and delivery techniques.

Jesus did not always give the full details of what people might have wanted to know. Instead, He encouraged them to use their imagination. He features a blind man leading another blind person (Luke 6:39) but leaves any details of the ensuing catastrophe to their imagination.

He used sensory images

People learn more from what they perceive through their other senses than what they merely hear. Because the Jews were primarily auditory, Jesus included as many senses as possible.

Taste: Matthew 5:13; 14:13–21; Mark 14:12–24

Hearing: Matthew 5:21, 27, 38, 43

Sight: Matthew 5:28, 29; 6:22; Mark 8:14–21; 9:1–8; Luke 6:39–42; 10:23; John 12:44–46

Touch: Matthew 8:3; Mark 5:26–34; Luke 6:1–5

Transformation

As I have studied Jesus as a Preacher, I have garnered several admirable traits that have enlivened and improved my preaching.

  1. Preach to meet the varying learning styles of your audiences
  2. Keep temporal and eternal goals in view by using the known to illustrate the unknown.
  3. Be creative and use the imagination in your delivery to enliven, illustrate, and grab attention.
  4. Use the senses in sermon content and presentation to connect to learning styles.
  5. Use familiar objects and current events to capture interest and illustrate truth.
  6. Use figures of speech and other rhetorical devices.
  7. Create mental images that will preach in absentia.
  8. Maintain consistency between profession and practice, because authoritative preaching derives from cognitive, moral, and personal authority.

Let’s model Jesus’ communication and preaching techniques. They will transform our sermons, make them memorable, produce satisfied members, and expand God’s kingdom.

  1. The gospels say that 5,000 men besides women and children participated in the feeding of the 5,000. Thus, women and children were not counted. Since most audiences have more women and children than men, one can safely assume that 10,000 to 20,000 people were present that day.
  2. See Bertram Melbourne, Slow to Understand: The Disciples in Synoptic Perspective (Lanham, MD: The University Press of America, 1988), 29, 160, 178.
  3. See Matthew 26:25, 49; Mark 9:5; 10:51; John 1:38, 49; and 6:25. Rainer Riesner thinks the technical use of the term rabbi was a later development. R. Riesner, s.v. “Teacher,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, Scott McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall Reiner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).
  4. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture is from the New Revised Standard Version.
  5. Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 137. Compare The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, which says that Christ did not teach “dogmatically, but on His own authority rather than by quoting earlier expositors of the law, as the rabbis did” Francis D. Nichol, ed., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 5 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1956), 360.
  6. G. S. Shogren, s.v. “Authority and Power,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.
  7. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 253.
  8. Compare Ellen White, who says, “Never should they [preachers] sound one wavering, uncertain note. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 15.
  9. Compare Shogren, "Authority and Power," 52.
  10. This is the implication of Luke 2:46, 47. See White, Desire of Ages, 78–80.
  11. See Luke 12:48.
  12. Ellen White cautions that “the true minister will do nothing that would belittle his sacred office.” White, Gospel Workers, 17.
  13. Research suggests we retain only 10 percent of what we hear but as much as 80 percent of what we see, hear, feel, and taste. Because sight is so powerful a sense, we tend to learn more from what we see. Jesus’ disciples had a problem with seeing and hearing, though. Though His miracles and what He did attracted them, they did not really listen to what He said. They did not grasp that what He was saying did not coincide with their messianic concepts. Even after the Voice from heaven, at the transfiguration, invited them to listen to Him, they had difficulty learning. For development of this concept, see Melbourne, Slow to Understand.
  14. Evans E. Crawford with Thomas H. Troeger, The Hum: Call and Response in African American Preaching (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 17.
  15. M. Chartier, Preaching as Communication: An Interpersonal Perspective (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1981).
  16. Joel B. Green, Scott McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 594.
  17. See Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 17–27 for a listing of reasons why Jesus taught in parables.
  18. See Robert Johnston, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI. Material from an unpublished paper.
  19. Bertram Melbourne, “Still Teaching After Two Millennia: What Can We Learn From the Master Teacher?” Journal of Adventist Education 65, no. 5, (Summer 2003), 5–9.
  20. David Noel Freedman, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins, and Astrid Billes Beck, eds., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 1153.
  21. Daniel Augsburger of Andrews University says this in his Life and Teachings class syllabus (Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1977). See also Michael E. Lawrence, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 436. This is a double figure of speech because there is an implied contrast between the camel, one of the largest animals, and the gnat, one of the smallest creatures.
  22. See John 10:7–10; 6:35; 8:12.

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Bertram L. Melbourne, PhD, is a professor of biblical language and literature at the Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, DC, United States.

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