4. Humility And Preaching
Two perfectly correct observations have often been made:
1. Despite understanding the true Gospel of salvation, we are not generally
very dynamic in preaching it, especially on a personal level. The Presbyterians
were pioneering Africa over a century before we cautiously inserted
out first press adverts there; the JWs and Baptists were infiltrating
Eastern Europe before most Western Christians even knew where cities
like Vilnius and Kiev were on the map.
2. Dynamic preaching is often associated with pride. Preaching and
humility don't seem to go together. Picture the typical American evangelist
in a stadium, full of " I this...I that" , falling over himself
in coming out with all his personal experiences. Or even, dare I say
it, the well versed young Christian preacher tying up the unsuspecting
Roman Catholic in knots, thrashing him with verse after verse. It is
so easy for pride to creep in- after all, we're right and they're wrong,
and we know it.
The Lord likened His preachers to men reaping a harvest. He speaks of
how they fulfilled the proverb that one sows and another reaps (Jn. 4:37,38).
Yet this ‘proverb’ has no direct Biblical source. What we do find
in the Old Testament is the repeated idea that if someone sows but another
reaps, this is a sign that they are suffering God’s judgment for their
sins (Dt. 20:6; 28:30; Job 31:8; Mic. 6:15). But the Lord turns around
the ‘proverb’ concerning Israel’s condemnation; He makes it apply to the
way that the preacher / reaper who doesn’t sow is the one who harvests
others in converting them to Him. Surely His implication was that His
preacher-reapers were those who had known condemnation for their sins,
but on that basis were His humbled harvesters in the mission field.
So to help us get a balance between pride and timid silence in preaching,
consider the following examples of what motivated dynamic
preaching by faithful men:
Isaiah realised his unworthiness: " Woe is me! For I am undone;
because I am a man of unclean lips" . He felt he was going to be
condemned. But then the Angel comforted him: " Thine iniquity is
taken away, and thy sin purged" . And then immediately he offered
to go on a preaching mission to Israel: " Here am I, send me"
(Is. 6:5-8). This incident is full of allusion to the sending of an equally
God appears in the burning bush
God appears among the seraphim, the burning
Moses is reluctant to bear God’s word
because “I am a man of uncircumcised lips”
Isaiah felt the same- “a man of unclean
Whom shall I send…who will go? (Ex. 3:8,9)
Ditto (Is. 6:8,9)
Moses willing to go (Ex. 3:4)
“Here am I, send me”
Capturing the spirit of Isaiah, Peter fell down at Christ's feet: "
Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord" . But the Lord responded:
" Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men" (Lk. 5:8-10).
So Peter's deep recognition of his sinfulness resulted in him being given
a preaching commission. And in similar vein, Peter was given another commission
to teach the word the first time he met Christ after his denials (Jn.
21:15-17). In response to this he stood up and preached that forgiveness
of sins was possible to all those that are afar off from God (Acts 2:39).
As he did so, consciously or unconsciously, part of his mind must have
been back in the way that on that shameful night he followed the Lord
“afar off”, and far off from Him, denied Him (Mk. 14:54). Peter’s vision
of the unclean animals in the net taught him that those people whom he
considered unclean, he was to “eat”, i.e. preach to and fellowship with.
When he recounts the vision, he comments [in an account that is strictly
factual in all other regards and without any embellishment]: “It [the
sheet with the animals] came even to me” (Acts 11:5). He is expressing
his unworthiness at being called to the task of preaching, just as Paul
likewise expressed his inadequacy.
The even greater commission to go into all the world with the Gospel
followed straight on from Christ upbraiding the eleven " with their
unbelief and hardness of heart" (Mk. 16:14,15). That 'upbraiding'
must have left them wallowing in their weakness. It would have been quite
something. The Son of God upbraiding His friends. But straight on from
that: " Go ye...go ye into all the world" (Mt. cp. Mk. shows
“go ye” was said twice). And He told them to preach that those who believed
not would be damned- after having just told them that they were men who
believed not. Mark’s record stresses three times in the lead up to this
that they “believed not”; and then, he records how they were told to go
and preach condemnation on those who believed not (Mk. 16:11,13,14,16).
They were humbled men who did that. The idea of taking the Gospel world-wide
was in fact alluding to Is. 66:17-20. Here those who are spared the ‘Gehenna’
of the last day judgment will have a sign placed on them, as upon Cain,
and they will then be sent “unto the nations…and they shall declare my
glory among the gentiles”. The rejection process glorifies God’s righteous
Name, and this world-wide exhibition of the rejected will actually bring
men “out of all nations” (:20) to God, just as Israel’s condemnation was
an “instruction” unto the surrounding nations. The connection shows that
in our obedience to the great commission, we go forth as condemned men
who in our case, like the disciples, have known the wonder of grace.
The Gospel Writers
The Gospel records were transcripts by the evangelists of their personal
preaching of the Gospel. Matthew adds in the list of the disciples that
he was “the publican” (Mt. 10:3). And throughout, there are little hints
at his own unworthiness- in his own presentation of the Gospel to others.
Peter was the public leader of the early ecclesia, and yet the Gospels
all emphasise his weaknesses. The Gospels all stress the disciples’ lack
of spirituality, their primitive earthiness in comparison to the matchless
moral glory of God’s Son, their slowness to understand the cross. But
there are also more studied references to their failures. Mark’s account
of their words at the feeding of the crowd is shot through with reference
to the attitude of faithless Israel in the wilderness: “Where shall we
[‘And this includes me, Mark...this is what we said to Him...’] get bread
to satisfy this people in the wilderness?”. John, the disciple beloved
by his Lord, brings out the apparent paradox- that he was ‘on friendly
terms with the High Priest’, the great ‘satan’ of the early Christians,
and yet also ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. When John knew full well
that the Lord Jesus had taught that a man cannot be friends of both Him
and of the persecuting world.
The records seem to stress how slow the disciples were to understand
the Lord’s essential message; as if to say ‘we are preaching this
to you, but we know how slow we were to grasp the wonder
of it all’. Especially do they stress their inability to accept
the message of the cross, which was exactly the problem
which their hearers had. To the Jews, the cross was a stumblingblock;
to the Gentiles, a folly. Luke brings out how “they understood none
of these things” and then, as a result of that failure
to comprehend, Zebedee’s wife came asking for special blessing for
James and John. Luke is showing how the essential message of cross
carrying, to the exclusion of all self-seeking, had been so lost
on them all. Having explained His coming and terrible death for
them, they come to Him asking for something else; and He gently
asked: ‘What [more] do you want me to do for you?’. This was the
extent of the writers’ self-deprecation as they preached. And it
must be noted that the pillars of the early ecclesia, Peter, James
and John, are all portrayed as having serious weaknesses in the
preaching of the Gospel which we have transcripted in the records.
They were not preaching themselves as an infallible organization
with charismatic leaders. It’s been observed that to title
a book e.g. ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’ was very
unusual in the first century. “As a rule, the author would
come first, in the genitive, followed by the title indicating the
content” (1). But the Gospels are different- the authors purposefully
put their names last, recognizing that they were mere channels for
the Gospel to pass through. The Gospels likewise emphasize the disbelief of the immediate relatives of Jesus, His “brethren”. But they joined the church soon after Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:14) and became active missionaries (1 Cor. 9:5). Yet the very Gospels they preached emphasized their initial disbelief and even hostility to Jesus (Mk. 3:21,31; 6:4; Jn. 7:5 etc.).
(1) Martin Hengel, Studies In The Gospel Of Mark (London:
SCM, 1985) p. 65.
The Gospel records, as transcripts of the disciples' early preaching, show the disciples appealing to others to have faith, to believe and be baptized. And yet the same accounts record so often how weak and small was the disciples' faith. Matthew is a classic example: Mt. 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20. It was on the basis of this acknowledged weakness of their own, that the disciples could appeal so powerfully to others. The more real they showed themselves to be, the more credible was their appeal.
There are good reasons for thinking that Mark’s Gospel record is actually
Peter’s; and in his preaching of the Gospel he makes ample reference
to his own failures [he contains the most detailed account of the
denials of all the Gospels] and to the misunderstanding of his fellows.
Both Matthew and Luke record that the Lord asked the three disciples
‘Why are you [plural] sleeping?’ (Mt. 26:40). It is
only Mark who says that the Lord asked this of Peter personally,
in the singular (Mk. 14:37). And compare Matthew’s “Could
ye [plural] not watch with me?” with Mk. 14:37 to Peter: “Couldest
not thou [singular] watch?”.
Luke as a doctor would not have been used to publicly confessing his
lack of understanding about matters. But in his preaching of the
Gospel, he seems to emphasise how he had been blind to the obvious.
He records the Lord as pleading with them: “Let these sayings
sink down into your ears”, i.e., ‘Please, understand me’.
But Luke goes straight on to say: “But they [he includes himself]
understood not this saying...they perceived it not: and
they feared to ask him of that saying”. Three times he
states their blindness, twice repeating how “that saying” which
Jesus so wanted them to understand, they didn’t. Luke was a Gentile
(so Col. 4:11 implies). Note how the other Gospel writers speak
of the sea of Galilee, whereas the more widely travelled
Luke refers to it only as a lake. While Paul was in prison in Caesarea
for two years, Luke was a free man (Acts 21:17; 24:27). It seems
that during that period, Luke may have spent the time travelling
around the areas associated with Jesus, interviewing eye witnesses-
especially Mary, the aged mother of Jesus, from whom he must have
obtained much of the information about His birth and Mary’s song.
His preaching of the Gospel in Luke and Acts is made from his perspective-
the fact that salvation is for all, not just Jews, is a major theme
(Lk. 2:30-32; 3:6; 9:54,55; 10:25-34; Acts 1:8; 2:17). Luke is the
only evangelist to continue the quotation of Is. 40 to include the
words “all mankind will see God’s salvation”. And he focuses especially
upon the wonder of forgiveness (Lk. 1:77; 7:48; Acts 13:38). Only
he records the parable of the prodigal (Lk. 15:11-32), and only
he describes the great preaching commission as relating to “repentance
and remission of sins” (Lk. 24:47). He begins his account with the
announcement that Jesus is good news of great joy; and ends with
the apostles returning to Jerusalem with great joy (Lk. 2:10; 24:52).
Joy accompanies salvation (Lk. 15:7,10; Acts 8:8,39). So Luke witnessed
to the Gospel in terms of who he was- a sinful Gentile- and in terms
of what most impressed him: the wonder and joy of forgiveness. He
was a doctor. Back in 1882, W. K. Hobart wrote a book entitled The
Medical Language Of St. Luke, in which he listed more than
400 words shared by Luke and the Greek medical writers of the time.
Yes, Luke was inspired to write his record; but all the same, his
personality came out in the witness he made and which was transcribed
in his Gospel. My point from all this is simply that if we are to
be real, credible witnesses, the personal relevance of the Gospel
for us will be expressed in how we express it.
“The Gospels are another example of a new creation…they represent a unique
departure without parallel in secular literature. Unintentionally, the
early Christians, who had no literary pretensions of any kind, created
a new genre, a specifically Christian form of art, which had nothing in
common with the art of the ancient world” (1).
The Gospels were transcripts of the early preaching of the Gospel.
Just as they were so different from anything the world had then seen,
so the preaching of the Gospel which they record must have been a startlingly
different and arresting experience. Here were men who claimed to preach
ultimate truth doing so with frequent reference to their own fallibility,
getting carried away with their message, bringing out themes in the teaching
of Jesus according as the Holy Spirit brought things to their remembrance…in
a way quite unlike anything anyone had ever heard. And although we are
not inspired as they were, our preaching of the same message should have
in essence the same effect.
John’s Gospel is the personal testimony of the beloved disciple (Jn.
19:35; 21:24). Not that John was loved any more than the others- his point
is surely that ‘I am one whom Jesus so loved to the end’. He describes
himself as resting on Jesus’ bosom (Jn. 13:23); yet he writes that Jesus
is now in the Father’s bosom (Jn. 1:18). He is saying that he has the
same kind of intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus as Jesus has with
the Father. Yet John also records how the Lord Jesus repeatedly stressed
that the intimacy between Him and the Father was to be shared with all
His followers. So John is consciously holding up his own relationship
with the Lord Jesus as an example for all others to experience and follow.
Yet John also underlines his own slowness to understand the Lord. Without
any pride or self-presentation, he is inviting others to share the wonderful
relationship with the Father and Son which he himself had been blessed
John’s account of Peter’s denial of the Lord is to me very beautifully
crafted by him to reflect his own weakness. He [alone of the evangelists]
records how he knew a girl who kept the door to the High Priest’s palace,
and how he was even known to the High Priest. He speaks to the girl, and
she lets Peter in. Then, she recognizes Peter as one of the disciples,
that he had been with Jesus, and he makes his shameful denial. But John’s
point is clearly this: he, John, was known to the same girl, and to Caiaphas-
but they never accused him of having been with Jesus. Because
they sadly didn’t make the connection between John and Jesus. Yet when
they saw Peter- they knew him as an up front disciple of Jesus. And when
Peter ran out in fear and shame, John remained in the High Priest’s palace-
unrecognized and unknown as a disciple of Jesus. The door girl must have
realized that John and Peter were connected- because John had asked her
to let Peter in. But she never made the accusation that John also had
been one of Jesus’ followers. In all this, John reveals his own shame
at his lack of open association with the Lord. Significantly, Acts 4:13
records how the Jews later looked at Peter and John “and they took knowledge
of them [i.e. recognized them, as the girl had recognized Peter], that
they [both!] had been with Jesus”. This is the very language of those
who accused Peter of having ‘been with Jesus’. John learnt his lesson,
and came out more publically, at Peter’s side, inspired by his equally
repentant friend. It’s an altogether lovely picture, of two men who both
failed, one publically and the other privately, together side by side
in their witness, coming out for the Lord.
The style of the inspired Gospel writers [and indeed the writers of the
epistles] differs markedly from that of the uninspired Gospels and epistles.
The uninspired writers make far more personal attacks upon their critics;
the pseudoepigraphical Pastoral epistles are full of reference to the
actual names of former or fictitious opponents; Paul, Peter and John are
far more sparing. There is far less emphasis upon themselves as the authors,
far less [if any] use of the personal pronoun, and a far surpassing humility
when compared to the other writers. Thus the Protevangelium of James concludes:
“I, James, who have written down this story…” (25:1); and the Childhood
Gospel of Thomas begins: “I, Thomas, the Israelite, announce and make
known…” (1:1). The Gospel of Peter 60 speaks of: “I, Simon Peter,
and Andrew my brother, we took our fishing nets…”- whereas Mark, as Peter’s
Gospel, doesn’t refer to this; and Jn. 21:3 records that Peter said “I
am going fishing”. John especially often refers to unnamed disciples-
e.g. “two other disciples” (Jn. 21:3), “a disciple” (Jn. 1:35; 18:15),
and references to “the sons of Zebedee” [rather than naming them]. And
of course, John refers to himself as “the beloved disciple” rather than
naming himself. Significantly, not one of the Gospel writers included
their own name as author in the Gospel text. They didn’t wish to divert
any attention away from the majestic figure who was the centre of their
testimony. “Even where Luke (1:1-4) and John (21:24) did in fact make
direct allusion to themselves it was with a transparently honest intent
which excused them completely from the charge of vanity” (2).
And we likewise must not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ. John speaks
of himself merely as the disciple whom Jesus loved; and in describing
his mother’s presence at the cross, he calls her the sister of Jesus’
mother, rather than define her by reference to himself. Personal testimony
must be the motive, but not the content, of our preaching. Even the Lord
Himself seems to have preached with an awareness of His own possibility
of failure, for when He spoke of the man who could gain the whole world
but forfeit his own soul, He surely had in mind His own wilderness temptation-
which undoubtedly recurred. Yet He extends the warning to all His hearers.
Likewise we do well to ask ourselves who wrote the book of Jonah. It sounds
like Jonah himself. In which case, as with the Gospel writers, we have
a man’s own testimony to his weakness being his preaching and powerful
witness to a sinful world.
Paul likewise was made deeply conscious of his sin before being given
his commission. He was called to preach by grace (Gal. 1:15), and for
ever felt unworthy of being either a Christian or an apostle (1 Cor. 15:9).
But " straightway" after his baptism, Paul begin a zealous campaign
of personal witness in Damascus, even before he was told by Christ
to preach (Acts 9:20 cp. 22:17-21). Years later he commented: " Unto
me , who am less than the least of all saints, is this
grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles" (Eph. 3:8).
Therefore he did so " with all humility of mind" (Acts 20:19).
He recounts in Acts 22:19-21 how first of all he felt so ashamed of his
past that he gently resisted this command to preach: " I said, Lord...I
imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed...and he said
unto me, Depart...unto the Gentiles" . The stress on “every synagogue”
(Acts 22:19; 26:11) must be connected with the fact that he chose to preach
in the synagogues. He was sent to persecute every synagogue in
Damascus, and yet he purposefully preached in every synagogue there (Acts
9:2,20). His motivation was rooted in his deep recognition of sinfulness.
Likewise Peter preached a hundred metres or so from the very place where
he denied the Lord.
It seems that the change of name from Saul to Paul ('the little one')
was at the time of his first missionary journey (Acts 13:9), as if in
recognition of his own humiliation. Paul describes himself as having been
called by God, by grace; and in this context he comments how he
called the Galatians to the grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6 cp. 15). His response
to his calling of grace was to go out and preach, thereby calling men
to that same grace, replicating in his preaching what God had done for
him. Paul directly connects his experience of grace with his witnessing:
“I am...not meet to be called an apostle...by the grace of God I am what
I am [an apostle / preacher] and his grace which was bestowed upon me
was not in vain; but I laboured [as an apostle, in preaching] more abundantly
than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor.
15:9,10). He surely isn’t boasting that he was worked and preached harder
than others. Rather Paul sees a direct connection between the grace of
forgiveness that so abounded to him to a greater level than to others,
and his likewise abounding preaching work. He speaks as if a man called
‘The grace of God’ did the work, not him. So close was and is the
connection between receipt of grace and labour in the Gospel (he makes
the same connection in Eph. 3:8). Note that in the context of 1 Cor. 15,
Paul is demonstrating the reality of the Lord’s resurrection. Because
of it, he received grace and therefore he preached it.
The great commission likewise made the resurrection the imperative behind
all preaching. Paul seems to ascribe his own unflagging zeal for preaching
to his experience of God's gracious forgiveness of him. And further, he
speaks in the third person, suggesting that his fellow preachers had a
like motivation: " Therefore, seeing we have this ministry (of preaching),
as we have received mercy, we faint not" (2 Cor. 4:1). We
have suggested elsewhere that Paul was first called to the Gospel by the
preaching of John the Baptist. He initially refused to heed the call to
“do works meet for repentance”. But, fully aware of this, he preached
this very same message to others (Mt. 3:8 cp. Acts 26:20). His preaching
ministry was proportional to the grace he had received, and in this he
saw himself as a pattern to us all (1 Tim. 1:12-16). He makes the connection
even more explicit in his argument in 1 Cor. 15:10 and 58: “His grace
which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured
more abundantly than they all” is then applied to each of us,
in the final, gripping climax of his argument: “Therefore, my beloved
brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding
[as Paul did] in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your
labour is not in vain”. And Paul develops the theme
in his letters. He speaks of how we received the riches of God’s grace
(Eph. 1:18; 2:7; 3:8,16); and yet in writing to the Corinthians he uses
only to them a specific Greek word meaning ‘to enrich’. He reminds them
of how we are enriched by Him in the knowledge of forgiveness
which we have (1 Cor. 1:5; 2 Cor. 9:11), and therefore we are
to ‘enrich’ others in our preaching to them of the same grace (2 Cor.
When Paul speaks of his sinfulness and weakness, it is nearly always
in the context of writing about the privilege and wonder of our commission
to preach Christ. He humbly wonders at the trust God places in him, to
entrust him with the Gospel. He senses a privilege and responsibility
in having been entrusted with the Gospel, to the extent that he can say
that his preaching is done more by the grace of God he has received than
by the natural Paul (1 Cor. 15:8-10). In Ephesians he coins a word to
emphasise his humble status in contrast to the honour of being a preacher:
“To me, who am the very least (elachistotero) of all the saints,
is this grace given, to preach to the Gentiles” (Eph. 3:7). He was a preacher
despite the fact he was chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15); only through mercy
/ forgiveness had he received the commission he had (2 Cor. 4:1). Paul
and Barnabas ran amongst the crowd in Lystra shouting “We also are men
of like nature with you, and preach unto you, that ye should turn…unto
the living God” (Acts 14:15 RVmg.). Exactly because they were ‘one of
us’, they could make the appeal of the Gospel. As the Lord Jesus was and
is our representative, so we are His representative to men, whilst being
‘one of them’, ‘one of us’. This is why we shouldn’t be afraid to show
chinks in our armour, to admit our humanity, and on that basis make appeal
to men: that I, as one of us, with all your humanity, your doubts and
fears, am appealing to you to grasp that better way. When Paul wrote
that if anyone was weak, he was weak, he seems to be saying that the could
match their spiritual weakness by his own. This is why personal contact
must be the intended way to witness. Paul could
have written to the Jews in Rome from prison, but he realized that true
witness involves personal contact wherever possible: “For this cause therefore
did I intreat you to see and to speak with me…” (Acts 28:20 RV).
Joshua’s victory over Ai was based on the same secret. He had lamented
how Israel had fled before their enemies the first time they attacked
Ai, alluding back to the curses for disobedience which Moses had recently
pronounced to them. Therefore the second time they attacked Ai, Joshua
and his people purposefully fled before their enemies; as if recognizing
that the curses for disobedience were justified for them. But by doing
this, they ended up chasing their enemies, just as Moses had said they
would if they were faithful. No wonder that after the victory, the whole
of Israel recited the blessings and cursings (Josh. 8:5,20,33-35 cp. 7:8)!
When Paul speaks of how he laboured more abundantly than all, he seems
to be making one of is many allusions back to incidents in the Gospels,
this time to Lk. 7:47, where the Lord comments that Mary loved much, because
she was forgiven much. It was as if the Lord didn’t need to have knowledge
of her sins beamed into Him by a bolt of Holy Spirit; He perceived from
her great love how much she had sinned and been forgiven. Paul really
felt that Mary was his example, his pattern. And so should we feel. The
much love which she had for her Lord was, in Paul’s case, articulated
through preaching Him.
One final lesson from Paul in this regard is that he says himself that
he was not an eloquent speaker; and the Corinthians were acutely aware
of this. And yet it was through his public speaking that many were converted
in places like Athens (Acts 17:17). The lesson is clear- God uses us in
our weaker points in order to witness powerfully for Him. Uneducated Peter
was used as the vehicle with which to reach the intelligentsia of Jerusalem-
and you and I likewise in and through our very points of weakness are
likewise used to reach people.
Hezekiah’s response to being granted another 15 years of life was to
edit and produce the Songs of Degrees, so named after the degrees of the
sundial. Four of the 15 Psalms were by David, one by Solomon; and the
other 10 it seems Hezekiah wrote himself but left anonymous. These ten
Psalms would reflect the ten degrees by which the sun-dial went backwards
[I am indebted to brother Mark Vincent for this suggestion]. The point
to note is that Hezekiah taught others in an anonymous way in response
to the grace he had received. True preaching reflects a certain artless
selflessness. Likewise Paul writes of his preaching to the Galatians in
the third person: “him [Paul] that called you into the grace of Christ”
(Gal. 1:6). And likewise he talks about himself while at the Jerusalem
conference, where he was given so clearly the ministry of converting the
Gentiles, as if he hardly identifies himself with himself: “I knew a man
in Christ above fourteen years ago...I knew such a man...of such an one
will I glory, yet of myself I will not glory” (2 Cor. 12:1-4- the context
makes it clear that Paul refers to himself, seeing that he was the one
given the thorn in the flesh as a result of the revelations given to this
“man”). In 1 Thess. 1:5 Paul could have written: ‘We came with the Gospel’,
but instead he uses the more awkward construction: ‘Our Gospel came…’.
He, Paul, was subsumed beneath the essence of his life work- the preaching
of the Gospel.
One minute, poor Legion was screaming at the Son of God: " What
have I to do with thee, Jesus?" . Moments later he was converted-
and being given a command to personally witness to his own family (the
hardest of all preaching commissions; Lk. 8:28,39).
The whole point of Judah's exile in Babylon was to make them "ruined, unfit for use" like the cloth which Jeremiah buried by Euphrates (Jer. 13:7). And yet the second half of Isaiah is full of expressions of God's desire to use Israel after their experience in Babylon as His witness to the nations. Israel's preparation for their mission was through being made "unfit for use". And so God prepares His missionaries and ambassadors today likewise.
In the Millennium, God will use a repentant Israel to achieve great things
in terms of converting this world unto Himself. They will walk up and
down in His Name, witnessing to Him as He had originally intended them
to (Zech. 10:12); men will cling to their skirts in order to find the
knowledge of their God (Zech. 8:23). “In that day will I cause the horn
of the house of Israel to bud forth, and I will give thee (Israel) the
opening of the mouth in the midst of them (the surrounding nations, see
context); and they shall know that I am the LORD”, in that Israel
will preach to them from their own experience of having recently come
to know Yahweh (Ez. 29:21). But at the time of the Lord’s return, when
Israel repent and enter the new covenant with Him, they will remember
all their past sins “and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more
because of thy shame...for all that thou hast done” (Ez. 16:63). They
will be so ashamed that they will feel as if they can never open
their mouth. But Yahweh will open their mouth, and they will witness.
In some anticipation of this, Ezekiel as the “son of man” prophet, a representative
of his people just as the Lord was to be, had his mouth shut in dumbness,
and he only had his mouth opened when Israel came to know [to some degree]
that “I am the LORD” (Ez. 24:27). In all these evident connections something
marvellous presents itself. Those who feel as if they just cannot open
their mouths in witness are the very ones whom the Father will use; He
will open their mouths and use them exactly because they are ashamed of
their sins! And so it should be with us.
Likewise Isaiah foretold that when Israel know their forgiveness and
salvation, they will therefore quite naturally “declare his doings among
the people” (Is. 12:1-5). This will be the motivation for Israel’s witness
to the world during the Millennium. They will fill the face of the world
with spiritual fruit – and this will be the fruit of the taking away of
their sin, and their experience of repentance (Is. 27:6,9 RV).
Moses And Jeremiah
Both Moses and Jeremiah reacted to their preaching commissions by saying
that they weren’t the right person to do it. Moses wasn’t an eloquent
speaker, nor [so he said] did he know Egyptian very well any more. His
comment was: “Who am I...?” (Ex. 3:11; 4:10). Jeremiah protested that
he was simply far too young (Jer. 1:6). But as Peter spoke a-grammatos,
without grammar to an educated, erudite audience (Acts 4:13 Gk.), so did
these men. And this was just the attitude of mind which God wanted to
use as His mouthpiece. If you feel your inadequacy, then this is just
when you are ready for God’s use. It’s the young sister who still fumbles
for where books are in her Bible who is more likely to be the Lord’s agent
for conversion, than the well versed and over-confident brother giving
a Christian talk.
The Samaritan Woman
The Samaritan woman at the well had a sense of shame and deep self-knowledge
over her, as she realised that Christ knew her every sin. It was with
a humble sheepishness that she confessed: " I have no husband"
, because she was living in sin. She was converted by that well. Immediately
she " left her waterpot, and went her way into the city (the record
inviting us to watch her from a distance), and saith to the men
(significantly), Come, see a man...is not this the Christ?" (Jn.
4:17,28,29). There was a wondrous mixture of enthusiasm and shyness in
those words: " Come, see a man..." . It is a feature of many
new converts that their early preaching has a similar blend. It
is stressed that men believed because of the way the woman told them “He
told me all that ever I did” (Jn. 4:39). He had recounted her past sins
to her (4:18,19). And she now, in matchless humility, goes and tells her
former life to her associates, using the very words of description which
the Lord had used. He convicted her of her sins, and this conviction resulted
in her unashamed witness.
There are a number of Old Testament examples of preaching the word after
becoming aware of the depth of one's own sins. Consider Jonah preaching
the second time, with the marks in his body after three days in the whale,
admitting his rebellion against Yahweh, pleading with them to respond
to His word. Reflect how when his head was wrapped around with seaweed,
at the bottom of the sea at the absolute end of mortal life, he made a
vow to God, which he then fulfilled, presumably in going back to preach
to Nineveh (Jonah 2:9). His response to having confessed his sins and
daring to believe in God’s forgiveness, turning again towards His temple
even from underwater, was to resolve to preach to others if he was spared
his life. And this he did, although as with so many of us, the pureness
of his initial evangelical zeal soon flaked. Or consider Manasseh, 2 Chron.
33:16; Jehoshaphat, 2 Chron. 19:3 cp. 18:31; 19:2; Josiah, 2 Chron. 34:29,32;
Nebuchadnezzar, Dan. 3:29; 4:2...
The conversion of Job is especially poignant; he prays for his friends,
he mediates for them, after gratefully realising that his own search for
mediation with God in order to obtain forgiveness had somehow been answered,
by grace (Job 42:6,8). After the same pattern, Aaron ought to have died
for his flouting of the first commandment in making the golden calf; but
Moses’ intercession alone saved him. And afterwards, deeply conscious
of his experience, Aaron made successful intercession for the salvation
of others (Num. 14:5; 16:22). The way he holds the censer with fire from
the altar of incense, representing his prayers, and “stood between the
dead and the living [as a mediator]” (Num. 16:48) is a fine picture of
the height to which he rose.
Nebuchadnezzar’s multi-lingual preaching of the greatness of God’s Kingdom
“to all nations” can easily be read unappreciated (Dan. 4:17,34). But
it must have been quite something, involving translating the Gospel of
the Kingdom of God into many languages; and it incorporated a very humble
expression of his own failures, a recognition of his foolish pride and
lack of repentance. And maybe this is exactly why he was the one used
by God to make the widest and greatest Old Testament witness to the Gospel
of the Kingdom.
Adam sinned, and God responded to that ineffable tragedy by giving him
a “coat” of skin. The same Hebrew word is used concerning the priestly
robe. Here we see again the positive nature of our God. There was Adam,
pining away in the shame of his sin; and God dresses him up like a priest,
to go forward to gain forgiveness for him and his wife; and perhaps later
on he used that same coat in coming to God to obtain further forgiveness
for others through sacrifice.
But the greatest Old Testament example is David after his sin with Bathsheba.
Morally disgraced in the eyes of all Israel and even the surrounding nations,
not to mention his own family, David didn't have a leg to stand on when
it came to telling other people how to live their lives. A lesser man
than David would have resigned all connection with any kind of preaching.
But throughout the Bathsheba psalms there is constant reference to David's
desire to go and share the grace of God which he had experienced with
others (Ps. 32 title; 51:13). He titles them ‘maschil’- for instruction
/ teaching. “Have mercy upon me, O Lord...that I may shew forth
all thy praise in the gates” (Ps. 9:13,14). He often uses the idea of
‘confession’, in the double Hebrew sense of both confessing sin and yet
also confessing the knowledge of God to others (e.g. Ps. 30:12 AV cp.
NEB). Imagine his attitude in preaching! There must have been
a true humility in his style of speaking, his body language and in his
message- coupled with an earnestness and intensity few have since matched.
Ps. 39:9,11 seems to describe an illness with which David was afflicted
after his sin with Bathsheba. Psalm 40 then seems to be giving thanks
for David’s cure and receipt of forgiveness; and it is replete with reference
to David’s desire to spread the word: “He brought me up also out of an
horrible pit…he hath put a new song in my mouth…many shall see it, and
fear, and turn to the Lord [alluded to in the way the Acts record accounts
for the many conversions after the death of Ananias and Sapphira]…blessed
is that man [cp. 32:1)…I have preached righteousness [a ‘prophetic perfect’,
meaning ‘I will do this…’] in the great congregation: lo, I have
not refrained my lips…I have declared (LXX euangelizesthai- evangelized)
thy faithfulness and thy salvation [unto]…the great congregation” (Ps.
Many of the Psalms reflect David’s realization that confession of sin
is the basis for powerful preaching. The LXX often uses the verb euangelizesthai
to describe his preaching after the Bathsheba incident (Ps. 96:2).
Because God has mercifully forgive His people and His face shines upon
them in renewed fellowship, His way is thereby made known upon earth to
all nations (Ps. 67:1,2). He utters forth the mighty acts of God with
the preface: “Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord, who can shew
forth all his praise?” (Ps. 106:2)- and then proceeds to do just that.
He did so with a clear recognition of his own inadequacy. The Psalms of
praise are full of this theme. David exhorts all those who have been redeemed
to show forth God’s praise (Ps. 107:2,22,32). He wanted all Israel to
be a joyful, witnessing people. And even though it seems God’s people
didn’t respond, David went on undeterred. Time and again he fearlessly
sets himself up as Israel’s example. He speaks of how he trusts
in the Lord’s grace, and then appeals to Israel to do just the same (Ps.
62:7,8). The strength of his appeal was in the fact that his sin and experience
of grace was the bridge between him and his audience.
If we know God in an experiential sense (and not just knowing theological
theory about Him), we know that our sins are forgiven. We preach
to others "Know the Lord!", exactly because "I will
be merciful to their iniquities" (Heb. 8:11,12). It is our
knowledge of God's mercy to us which empowers us to confidently
seek to share with others our knowledge, our relationship, our experience
with God. Forgiveness inspires the preacher; and yet the offer of
forgiveness is what inspires the listener to respond. God appeals
for Israel to respond by pointing out that in prospect, He has already
forgiven them: “I have [already] blotted out, as a thick cloud,
thy transgressions...[therefore] return unto me; for I have redeemed
thee” (Is. 44:22). Likewise Elijah wanted Israel to know that God
had already in prospect turned their hearts back to Him (1 Kings
18:37). We preach the cross of Christ, and that through that forgiveness
has been enabled for all men; but they need to respond by repentance
in order to access it. Hence the tragedy of human lack of response;
so much has been enabled, the world has been reconciled, but all
this is in vain if they will not respond.
Preaching is all about relationships. The Lord commanded to not
go from house to house but rather build up a base in one home (Lk.
10:7). I take this to mean that He saw the importance of relationship
building in preaching, rather than a surface level contact with
many people of the type achieved in more public addresses. The essence
of witness is relationship building. The preacher is seeking to
build a bridge across the terrible chasm which lies between him
and his audience; between the word of God and the world, between
Divine revelation and human experience, relating the two to each
other in a credible, relevant way. The way to go across that chasm
is surely to bond with the other person’s humanity- for we are all
human. This is what we have in common. It’s actually how God reached
us- His word became flesh in the person of Jesus, in all the particularity
of a first century Palestinian Jew. Jesus was totally human; He
spoke human language. Yet He was the supreme manifestation of God
to us. In essence, God did the same thing in the way He chose to
write the Bible. He breathed His word into ordinary men, and they
wrote it down with all the trappings of human words. It is the word
of God, spoken through men. So Luke writes his Gospel packed with
the medical terminology we would expect of a doctor; Paul writes
to his converts with all the native passion and feeling of a spiritual
father, a preacher, a traveller, a Roman citizen, with his own pet
phrases and ideas…and yet it is all, undeniably, the very word of
God. The word was made flesh. The Bible wasn’t written on tables
and hidden on the top of a mountain for us to go and find. It was
communicated to us through very human people, whose personal humanity
is somehow reflected in the form in which it came through to us.
In our style of preaching we need to reflect that we know and feel
the doubts and fears which there are in our listeners; that we perceive
and appreciate their humanity, because we too are human. Bridge building involves us becoming 'as' our target audience- as Paul was a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles. Thus the Lord tells the disciples to go forth and preach as sheep / lambs (Mt. 10:16); in order to appeal to the lost sheep of Israel (Mt. 10:6). They were to be as sheep to win the sheep.
Paul As A Bridge Builder
Have a read some time through Romans 3:1-6 and notice Paul’s style.
He perceives in advance the objections which his readers will raise.
And we in our preaching ought to be more honest about our own difficulties
of understanding. The Gospel records are transcripts of the early
preaching of the Gospel by, e.g., Matthew. Yet the records show
the disciples’ own struggle to really grasp and believe the very
basic things of the death and resurrection of Jesus which they were
now preaching. Further, it is clear that we are to seek to relate
to our audience in a way they can relate to. Using their terms,
shewing our common binds with them. Paul did this when he was faced
with the rather mocking comment that he was a “setter forth” of
a strange God. He replied that he ‘set forth’ to them the One whom
they ignorantly worshipped (Acts 17:18,23 RV). He seized upon something
they all knew- the altar to the unknown God- and made his point
to them from that. And he picked up the noun they used for him and
turned it back to them as a verb. It might seem that it was impossible
that Paul, having been beaten and in chains, guarded by soldiers,
could make a hand gesture, say a few words in Hebrew, and quell
a raging crowd (Acts 21:31-34; 22:22). Yet it was because he spoke
to them in Hebrew, in their own language and in their own terms,
that somehow the very power and realness of his personality had
such an effect. It reminds us of how the Lord could send crowds
away, make them sit down…because of His identity with them, His
supreme bridge building.
Paul would pay any price in order to identify with his audience,
in order to win them to Christ. He was living out the spirit of
Jesus, who likewise identified Himself with us to the maximum extent
in order to save us. It was a profitable exercise for me to research
the background of Paul’s statement that five times he received
“forty lashes minus one” at the hands of the Jews (2
Cor. 11:24). This was a synagogue punishment, based on Dt. 25:2,3,
which could only be administered to members of the synagogue community-
and apparently, the members had the right under local Roman law
to resign from the synagogue and escape the punishment (1). It would’ve
been far easier for Paul to disown Judaism and insist he was not
a member of any synagogue. But he didn’t. Why? Surely because
this was the extent to which he was willing to be all things to
all men, to truly be a Jew in order to save the Jews. And we too
can chose daily the extent to which we identify ourselves with those
whom we seek to save. It’s not simply the case of a Western
missionary suffering privations along with the impoverished local
population to whom he or she seeks to preach. It’s about us
each getting involved in the mess of others’ lives, at great
personal cost, in order to show true solidarity with them, on which
basis we can more effectively witness to them. This is surely the
way in which we are to ‘love the world’; this inhuman
world, this enormous collection of desperate, lonely people, into
whose mundane experiences we can enter simply through genuine, caring,
person-to-person encounter. And by doing this we will find ourselves.
For it seems to me that the truly creative and original personalities,
the Lord Jesus being the supremest, are those who give of themselves
in order to enter into the lives and sufferings of others. And that,
by the way, may explain why there are so few truly freethinking
minds. Paul didn’t just love the Jewish people in theory,
he didn’t draw a distinction between the Jews as persons,
and their role or status before God. He loved them as persons, and
so he suffered for them in order to save them.
(1) See Raymond Westbrook, ‘Punishments and crimes’
in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman (New
York: Doubleday, 1992) Vol. 5 pp. 546-556.
Jeremiah witnessed to Zedekiah on the basis of bridge building.
Jeremiah warned him that politically and spiritually, " thy
feet are sunk in the mire" - just after he himself had "
sunk in the mire" and been miraculously delivered from it (Jer.
38:6,22). It is apparent that our bridge building must relate our
doctrines to the real issues which face those with whom we seek
to communicate. We must build bridges into the real world in which
these people who are our audience live and love, work and play,
laugh and weep, struggle and suffer, grow old and die. We need to
provoke them to see their life in all its moods from a Godly, Biblical
perspective, to challenge them to make the Son of God the Lord of
every area of their lives, and thus to demonstrate His immense and
crucial relevance. The aim of our preaching must surely be to expound
the Bible so faithfully and relevantly that Jesus is perceived in
all His adequacy to meet every human need. And as we should repeatedly
emphasize, we are merely inspiring people to find God for themselves.
Even in pastoral work with those we convert, we are to be gentle
shepherds. But shepherds don’t actually feed the sheep by pushing
food down their mouths. They lead them to where they can feed for
themselves. This is the end result of our bridge building. If we
are to build bridges into the real world, we must beware of two
extremes: to withdraw from the world into dry, abstract, academic
exposition; and to on the other hand withdraw from the Bible text
and implications in compromising with the world and what it wants
Ezekiel’s feelings of grief for the loss of his wife were to be
understood as representative of two things- Israel’s grief for
losing the temple, and God’s grief over losing His people. In
this way, Ezekiel was set up as a bridge builder, in that his
feelings reflected both those of God and those of his audience-
in order that his preaching could come over as God appealing to
them. And consciously and unconsciously, this is how God uses
us too, today. By opening our hearts to others, they open theirs
to us and to the Lord. This was precisely how Paul dealt with
Corinth. He opened his mouth and his heart to them, and in return
he asks them: “Open you hearts to us” (2 Cor. 6:11; 7:2 RV). Paul
received them into his heart (2 Cor. 7:3), and wished to be received
We have spoken of how Peter was so powerful as a preacher, standing
only a stone’s throw from where he denied his Lord, to make a speech
which is studded with conscious and unconscious reference to his
own denials and need for the Lord’s salvation. Yet consider in more
detail his preaching to Cornelius: “I perceive that God is no respecter
of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh
righteousness, is accepted with him [Peter alludes here to Old Testament
passages such as Dt. 1:17; 10:17; Prov. 24:23; Is. 64:5]. The word
which God sent unto the children of Israel…that word, ye know” (Acts
10:34-37). Peter is saying that he only now perceives the
truth of those well known Old Testament passages. He is admitting
that the truth of his Lord’s criticism of him, that he had been
so slow of heart to believe what the prophets had spoken. And yet
Peter masterfully goes on to show solidarity with his readers- he
tells them that they too had already heard “the word” and yet now
they like him needed to believe the word which they already knew.
In doing this, Peter is bridge building, between his own humanity
and that of his hearers. And the wonder of it all is that it seems
this happened quite naturally. He didn’t psychologically plan it
all out. His own recognition of sinfulness quite naturally lead
him into it.
Jesus And The Essenes
The Lord's attitude to the Essenes is a case study in bridge building-
developing what we have in common with our target audience, and
yet through that commonality addressing the issues over which we
differ. The Dead Sea scrolls reveal that the terms ""poor
in spirit" and "poor" are technical terms used only
by the Essenes to describe themselves" (1). So when the Lord
encouraged us to be "poor in spirit" (Mt. 5:3), He was
commending the Essene position. Likewise when He praised those who
were eunuchs for God's Kingdom (Mt. 19:10-12), He was alluding to
the Essenes, who were the only celibate group in 1st century Israel.
And yet lepers were anathema to the Essenes, and the Lord's staying
in the home of Simon the leper (Mk. 14:3) was a purposeful affront
to Essene thinking. The parable of the Good Samaritan has been seen
as another purposeful attack upon them; likewise the Lord's teaching:
"You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbour
and hate your enemy" (Mt. 5:43). It was the Essenes in their
Rule Of The Community who taught that Essenes must yearly
chant curses upon their enemies (2). So the Lord even within Matthew
5, and certainly within His teaching as a whole, both commended
and challenged the Essenes; His bridge building didn't involve just
accepting their position.
(1) J.H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism (New York:
Doubleday, 1986) p. 68.
(2) Y. Yadin, The Temple Scroll (London: Weidenfeld and
Nicholson, 1985) p. 177.
Occasionally there is a ‘flash’ between two people.
It may last only a moment, perhaps a few minutes… when somehow
barriers come down, and they relate as persons. Those encounters
are powerful, and can cause major redirections in life. Perhaps
in those precious moments we have some kind of presentiment of what
the Kingdom life will be like, or at least, what human communication
really should be. Those moments, that ‘flash’, is worth
almost anything to create. Indeed, so unusual is it, that afterwards
one sometimes senses barriers going up, a fear that somehow we’ve
become too personal. Merely quoting Bible verses at a person won’t
create this ‘flash’; strings of quotations themselves
don’t break the unspoken conspiracy of silence which there
so often is between two persons in supposed dialogue. By ‘silence’
I mean silence of real dialogue and mutual interaction. Yet frustratingly
enough, those moments of ‘flash’ are not far beneath
the surface in so many of those ‘silent conversations’,
those ‘discussions’ which actually go nowhere. Only
by risking yourself, showing your humanity, can you break through
their barriers. Underneath, people want to relate to other people.
Underneath, real discussion of religion, of death, of life, of hope,
of Christ… is all a taboo subject which people want to talk
about but feel inhibited and embarrassed about. It’s like
how before the 1970s, sex was once the taboo subject which everyone
wanted to talk about. But the barriers and taboos about it are now
largely broken through. And it’s the same in our age with
these religious / spiritual matters. People want to talk about them
subconsciously; and we are on the cusp of a new period in which
they can and are spoken about more openly.
Why Aren't We Dynamic Preachers?
So we return to our initial questions. Why aren't we dynamic preachers?
In the light of all the above examples, it must be related to the fact
that we don't appreciate the seriousness of our sin as we should. We see
ourselves as little sinners, just a fraction over the line, we come to
the end of the day with no real sense of having offended God, no sense
of how deeply sin and indifference hurts Him. Perhaps we see
God as altogether too human, like us not very shocked at habitual sin,
comfortably numb to the fact that sinful thoughts really are as bad as
the action. God's words to Israel are so relevant to us, living in a world
where sin means nothing, and where God never openly intervenes in judgment:
" These things hast thou done, and I kept silence; thou thoughtest
that I was altogether such an one as thyself...but I will set them in
order before thine eyes (at the judgment)" (Ps. 50:21,22). And it
can be that we also lack the faith, or perhaps the concentration and reflection,
to meditate on the actual reality of sin forgiven that we have experienced
And yet perhaps too we genuinely think that by not showing any chinks
in our armour, we will better persuade people. When, I submit, the very
opposite is true. By showing that we are real men and women, who are desperate
sinners thankful for the real and true grace we have so wonderfully come
across, we will persuade men. The more real, the more credible. Paul described
the genius of his preaching thus: “By the manifestation of truth commending
ourselves to every man’s conscience” (2 Cor. 4:2). It is our very transparency
which strikes a chord in the heart of those who hear us. James warns his
converts of the need to restrain our tongue; and yet he admits that “we”,
himself included, use the tongue to bless God and curse men; whereas in
other parts of his letter he addresses his readers as “you” when he criticizes
their behaviour. But in this matter of the tongue, he holds himself, their
teacher, to be afflicted with the same failures as them (James 3:9 cp.
4:15,16). The preaching of the Kingdom by us is likened to leaven- a symbol
for that which is unclean (Mk. 8:15; 1 Cor. 5:6-8). Perhaps the Lord used
this symbol to show that it is our witnessing as humans, as the sons of
men, which is what will influence the ‘lump’ of humanity. People are increasingly
acting like the personalities they feel they are expected to be, rather
than being who they are. Paul Tournier perceptively
notes: “I am sure my readers understand the subtle temptation which assails
me: that of trying to be the personage I am expected to be. It slips in
disguised as an honest concern for the proper fulfilment of my vocation…they
are always disconcerted at first when I speak of my own difficulties,
doubts and failings. But they soon come to see that this atmosphere of
truth brings us closer and binds us together. My experience of the power
of God means more to them than it would if they thought me a quite different
sort of person from themselves” (4). Cain
as the firstborn was the family priest. He apparently lost credibility
when the fire came down and consumed Abel’s offering, but not his. Immediately
it seemed that Abel was going to usurp Cain as the family priest. Therefore
he was told to offer the animal that was ‘couching’ at the door of the
meeting place, and then “unto thee shall be his [Abel’s] desire, and thou
shalt rule over him” (Gen. 4:7). Surely this means that
if Cain had openly recognized his mistake and then done the right thing,
he would have risen to even higher levels of spiritual credibility with
his younger brother.
The world is tired of slick, well dressed evangelists with ever smiling
wives. We tend to feel that we can never sensibly compete with the charismatic
preachers of other groups. But amongst the unchurched, “the least stock
was placed in whether the leader of the organization is “articulate and
charismatic”: only 12% said they deem that to be very important”. Likewise
the size of the church or the travel time to the meeting placed were seen
by the unchurched as insignificant (5). We
might think that the big evangelical churches are so wonderfully successful.
They aren’t. Their own journals point out the way they are no longer making
many real converts, rather, that nexus of ‘Christian’ is merely moving
around between churches. Islam is growing, but not ‘evangelical Christianity’.
People are sick and tired of it. Yet they are interested in religion-
our church's ‘Learn To Read The Bible’ seminars prove that- and they are
interested, at least theoretically, in Bible based Christianity.
But they want something and someone who is real. Not necessarily
a mass murderer who says he has come to Christ in prison; but the guy
who works at the desk next to them, who answers the dumb question ‘How
are you today?’ by admitting that he swore at his wife last night, that
he hates himself for it, that he feels even worse because he sinned against
God, and yet he takes real comfort in a representative Jesus, who had
our nature, who wasn’t the hocus-pocus Jesus of theological creed, but
a real man, a real Saviour, who, thankfully, is at the right hand of God
Himself in Heaven to make reconciliation for me, in all my desperation
with myself… The more real, the more credible.
‘How are you today?…Oh fine, I went to church last night…Yes? Oh, that’s
nice…’, these conversations have no meaning, they are merely a passage
of words, a kicking time as we both watch the wheels of life go round;
whereas in the urgency of our task to convert men and women, we must be
stopping them in their tracks, arresting their attention. To hold and
present the Truth of God, with all its exclusivity, its implicit criticism
of all that isn’t true, in a genuine humility…this has a drawing
power all of its own. The two witnesses of Rev. 11:3 make their witness
[and will make it during the latter day tribulation?] “clothed in sackcloth”-
a symbol of repentance and recognition of sin (Gen. 37:34; Jer 4:8; Jonah
3:5; Mk. 2:20). Their own personal repentance and acceptance of God’s
gracious forgiveness was the basis of their appeal to others. And is it
going too far to understand that if these “two witnesses” do indeed represent
the latter day witness of true Christianity, it will be made on the basis
of a genuine repentance by us, brought about by the experiences of the
holocaust to come?
Jonah was the great example. How was it that one unknown man could turn
up in a huge city and make all of them believe that judgment was really
coming, and they really must repent? Why ever listen to this one man?
He must surely have told them the story of his own disobedience, experience
of judgment, and gracious salvation. There was something about him that
proved to that city that this had really happened; that there was and
is a God of judgment above. Perhaps the “sign” of the prophet Jonah was
in that 3 days in the fish had bleached his hair, made him thin, making
him look arrestingly different. Whatever it was, his antitypical experience
of fellowship with the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus was enough
to arrest a whole city in its tracks. Again, the more real, the more credible.
If we want spiritual dynamism in our lives, and not least in our preaching,
there must be a true recognition of the guilt of our iniquity. Any element
of either pride or indifference in our preaching can be traced back to
our failure to do this. It is God’s mercy, and appreciating it, which
leads us to lives of active faithfulness (1 Cor. 7:25). We may look
at David, at Paul, and feel we haven't sunk to their level of sin. Of
course, that would imply we are better than them... But to hate our brother
really is to kill him, and to a man we stand guilty of flashes of hatred.
So we can know the dynamism of their repentance, of their
zeal to share the Good News of God's grace. this must be so, otherwise
Paul would not have held up his own conversion and subsequent zeal as
an example for us to copy (1 Tim. 1:15,16). We aren't little
sinners. It was our race who crucified the Lord of glory, and we have
some part in their behaviour. Note the pronouns in Is. 53. The “we” who
preach the Gospel of the cross are the “we” who rejected and condemned
the Saviour, and the “we” whose sins are forgiven and who are reconciled
to God. These are the reasons why we preach the crucified Christ
in zeal and humility (Is. 53:1,2,3,5,6). Grace is the motive power for
witness; we preach the word of His grace as it has been to us.
“The grace of God, that bringeth salvation to all men…” (Tit. 2:11) is
an allusion to the great commission to preach salvation to all men. But
here, grace is said to do this. The conclusion seems unavoidable: grace
and the preacher are inextricably linked. The experience of grace is the
essential motive behind all witness. Thus Paul was “recommended” [Gk.
To surrender, yield over to] to the grace of God for the missionary work
which he fulfilled (Acts 14:26).
So we don't need to psychologically charge ourselves up to preach. A
city set on a hill cannot be hid, it's obvious. Our preaching
should flow naturally out of our own personal experience of God's grace.
The fact that we were reconciled is tied up with the fact that we have
been given, as part of this “being reconciled”, the ministry of preaching
reconciliation (2 Cor. 5: 18-20). It is the greatness of God's grace which
will form the content of our preaching, not our own practical experience
of it. Our experience will only motivate us personally, not anyone else.
We preach not ourselves, but Christ as Lord and Saviour. Let's really
get down to serious self examination, to more finely appreciating the
holiness of God and the horror of sin. If we can do this- and only if-
our preaching, our speaking, our reasoning, even our very body language,
will be stamped with the vital hallmark: humility.
APPENDIX: The Example Of John The Baptist As A Preacher
If ever a man was hard on himself, it was John the Baptist. His comment
on his preaching of Christ was that he was not worthy (RVmg. ‘sufficient’)
to bear Christ's sandals (Mt. 3:11). The sandal-bearer was the herald;
John knew he was heralding Christ's appearing, but he openly said
he was not worthy to do this. He felt his insufficiency, as we ought
to ours. Would we had that depth of awareness; for on the brink
of the Lord's coming, we are in a remarkably similar position to
John. Paul perhaps directs us back to John when he says that we
are not “sufficient” to be the savour of God to this world; and
yet we are made sufficient to preach by God (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5,6
Although John preached the excellence of Christ, he didn’t even
consider himself to be part of the mystic bride of Christ; for he
likens himself to only the groom, watching the happiness of the
couple, but not having a part in it himself (Jn. 3:29). And note
how John appeals for men to be baptized with the twice repeated
personal comment: “...and I knew him not”, in the very context of
our reading that the [Jewish] world “knew him not” (Jn. 1:10, 31,33).
He realises that he had withstood the knowledge of the Son of God,
just as others had. When asked who he was, John’s reply was simply:
“a voice”. Amos, in the same way, was told not to keep on prophesying;
but he replies: “I am no prophet…the Lord said unto me, Go, prophesy”
(Am. 1:14,15 RV). It’s almost contradictory: ‘I’m not a prophet…I
am a prophet’. He was truly selfless, like, John, just a voice for
God. Samuel spoke of himself at a distance from himself when he
told Israel: “The Lord sent Jerubbaal…and Samuel…and delivered you”
(1 Sam. 12:11). Luke’s record of the preaching of the Gospel makes
no reference to the deaths of Peter and Paul, even though they were
central to his historical account. Clearly he reflected the fact
that personalities are not to be important in preaching; there is
a selflessness about true preaching and also the recording of it.
Matthew’s preaching of the Gospel makes reference to himself as
if he had no personal awareness of himself as he recounted his part
in the Gospel events (Mt. 9:9). There is reason to believe that
Matthew was himself a converted Scribe; the way he has access to
various versions of Scripture and quotes them as having been fulfilled
in a way reminiscent of the Jewish commentaries (compare Mt. 4:12-17
with Mk. 1:14,15) suggests this(3). The point is that in this case
Matthew would be referring to himself when he writes: “Every scribe
who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder
who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Mt. 13:52).
Yet he does so in a beautifully oblique and selfless manner.
John’s humility is further brought out by the way John fields the
question as to whether he is “the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”
(Jn. 1:25). He could have answered: ‘I am the Elijah prophet’- for
the Lord Himself said of John that “this is Elijah”, with perhaps
conscious reference back to this question (Mt. 11:14). But John
didn’t answer that way. His reply was simply to speak of the greatness
of Christ and his unworthiness to be His herald (Jn. 1:26,27). John’s
humility is brought out yet further by reflection on the fact that
he clearly baptized huge numbers of people, and yet also had a group
of people known as ‘the disciples of John’. Clearly he didn’t intend
to found a sect, and was so taken up with trying to prepare people
for the Lord’s coming that he simply wished to lead them to some
level of repentance and baptize them, without necessarily making
them part of ‘his disciples’. John's low self-estimation is seen
in how he denied that he was "Elijah" or the "prophet"
whom the Jews expected to come prior to Messiah (Jn. 1:21). The
Lord Himself clearly understood John as the Elijah prophet- "this
is Elijah" (Mt. 11:14), He said of John. John wasn't being
untruthful, nor did he misunderstand who he was. For he associates
his "voice" with the voice of the Elijah prophet crying
in the wilderness, and appropriates language from the Elijah prophecy
of Mal. 4 to his own preaching. His denial that he was 'that prophet'
therefore reflects rather a humility in him, a desire for his message
to be heard for what it was, rather than any credibility to be given
to it because of his office. There's a powerful challenge for today’s
preacher of the Gospel.
The Old Testament Background
The message of Is. 40:3 is that before the final coming of the
Lord, there will be a proclamation of this by His people: “Prepare
ye [plural] the way of the Lord”. As the King’s servants went ahead
of him to make the path he had to travel smooth and plain [remember
there were no motorways then!], so we go ahead of the returning
Lord of all the earth, to prepare the way / road for Him. And yet
within Isaiah, there is ample evidence that God prepares His own
way: “I will do a new thing…I will even make a way in the wilderness”
(Is. 43:19). Perhaps the element of unreality here, the ‘new thing’,
is that the King Himself prepares His own way or road. Or again:
“I will make all my mountains a way” (Is. 49:11). The connection
with Is. 40:3 is that in the work of preparing the Lord’s way, in
the last great preaching appeal of all time in the lead up to the
second coming, the Lord Himself will work with us to make that way
plain and clear. In all the challenges of the latter day fulfilment
of the great commission, the Lord Himself will work with us.
The Isaiah 40 passage is therefore a command for our latter day
witness to all the world, Israel especially, to prepare their way
for the Lord’s coming. We are to “cry” unto Zion that “her iniquity
is pardoned”, but we are also to ‘cry’ for her to repent, to be
“made straight”, for the rough places to be ‘made plain’; to “cry
aloud…lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their
transgression (Is. 40:2-4; 58:1). It’s exactly because we have in
prospect been forgiven that we are called to repent. The forgiveness
has already been granted; iniquity has been pardoned. We are to
‘cry’ out this fact; and also to ‘cry out’ for repentance. But we
have to respond to that. It’s similar to how Saul/Paul was called
‘brother’ even before his conversion and baptism. The world’s redemption
was achieved through the cross; but we have to appeal to the world
to accept it. And in our own lives we must live out what we are
preaching to others; exactly because we have already been forgiven,
we need to repent of what we’ve been forgiven of, to as it were
claim that forgiveness as our very own. And the same Hebrew word
translated ‘cry’ occurs in the same context in Is. 40:26; 43:1;
45:3,4; 48:12; 54:6, where we read that it is God Himself who calls
every one of Israel back to Him, just as He calls every star by
its own personal name. And so in our personal calling of men and
women, in our crying out to them in these last days to be prepared
for the Lord’s coming, we are workers together with God. He is crying
out to them, through our feeble, shy, embarrassed, uncertain words
of witness. Likewise it is God Himself who makes the crooked places
straight in Is. 42:16 and 45:2- whereas Is. 40:3, it is we the preachers
who are to do this.
What then of the message? It is that the valleys are to be lifted
up, and the mountains made low, thus creating a plain. I read this
as meaning that those with too low a view of themselves are to be
lifted up, and the heights of human pride brought down. The over
confident and under confident alike are to levelled so that they
can be a path for the Lord’s glory. “Made low” in Is. 40:4 is surely
in the spirit of Is. 2:11, which predicts that in the day of judgment,
“the lofty looks of man shall be humbled [s.w. ‘made low’], and
the haughtiness of man shall be bowed down”. The experience of condemnation
in the coming day of the Lord will mean that “the proud and lofty”
will be “brought low” (Is. 2:12,17; 5:15). In fact, Isaiah is full
of references to the proud being ‘made low’ by judgment- the same
Hebrew word is common: Is. 10:33; 13:11; 25:11; 26:5. Perhaps Paul
had this in mind when he said that our preaching is a bringing down
of every high thing that is exalted against God (2 Cor. 10:5). Our
message is basically that we must be humbled one way or the other-
either by our repentance and acceptance of the Gospel today, or
through the experience of condemnation at the day of judgment. We’re
calling people to humility. And we must ask whether the content
and style of our preaching really does that. But when John the Baptist
quoted and preached this passage, he interpreted it beyond a call
to humility. He said that in order to prepare the way of the Lord,
to make a level passage for Him, the man with two coats should give
to him who had none, and likewise share his food (Lk. 3:11). So
the ‘equality’ and levelling was to be one of practical care for
others. We have to ask, how often we have shared our food, clothing
or money with those who don’t have… for this is all part of preparing
for the Lord’s coming. It could even be that when there is more
of what Paul calls “an equality” amongst the community of believers,
that then the way of the Lord will have been prepared. And He will
The primary reference of the Isaiah 40 passage is to the Jews.
But even more specifically, it is to be cried out “to Jerusalem”.
I submit that the most specific fulfilment of the prophecy will
be in our latter day preaching resulting in a remnant of Jews repenting
in Jerusalem, so that the Lord’s return will be to a faithful Jewish
remnant in literal Jerusalem. The ‘making straight’ is to be done
in “the desert” (:3)- a description elsewhere of Jerusalem (Is.
51:3). “Every [Heb. ‘the whole, complete’] mountain and hill” (:4)
which is to respond to the Gospel may refer to people on the temple
mount, upon which the Lord shall “come down, to fight for mount
Zion, and for the hill thereof” (Is. 31:4; 10:32). The Hebrew words
used here for ‘mount’ and ‘hill’ are identical in the passages.
The Lord will return to Zion to find a repentant remnant there,
converted by our preaching. Mal. 3:1, a clearly related passage,
says that when the way has been prepared, then “the Lord… shall
suddenly [Heb. ‘immediately’] come to his temple”. It seems that
He comes as soon as, almost to the moment, that the way is prepared.
Is it going too far to imagine that when the last Jews are baptized
in Jerusalem, perhaps literally on the Temple Mount, then the Lord
will immediately return there, “to his temple”? Then the Lord shall
“come down to fight for mount Zion and for the hill thereof”.
John’s Style Of Preaching
There was an intensity and critical urgency about John and his
message. John urged people to make their path “straight”- using
a Greek word elsewhere translated “immediately”, “forthwith” (Lk.
3:4 s.w. Mk. 1:12,28 and often). Getting things straight in our
lives is a question of immediate response. He warns people to “flee
from the wrath to come” (Lk. 3:7). This was what their changed lives
and baptisms were to be about- a fleeing from the wrath to come.
He speaks as if that “wrath to come” is just about to come, it’s
staring them in the face like a wall of forest fire, and they are
to flee away from it. And yet Paul (in one of his many allusions
to John’s message, which perhaps he had heard himself ‘live’) speaks
of “the wrath to come” as being the wrath of the final judgment
(1 Thess. 1:10), or possibly that of AD70 (1 Thess. 2:16). But both
those events would not have come upon the majority of John’s audience.
And the day of ‘wrath to come’ is clearly ultimately to be at the
Lord’s return (Rev. 6:17; 11:18). Yet John zooms his hearers forward
in time, to perceive that they face condemnation and judgment day
right now, as they hear the call of the Gospel. This was a feature
of John; he had the faith which sees things which are not as though
they already are. Thus he looked at Jesus walking towards him and
commented that here was the “Lamb of God”, a phrase the Jews would’ve
understood as referring to the lamb which was about to be sacrificed
on Passover (Jn. 1:29). John presumably was referencing the description
of the crucified Jesus in Is. 53:7; for John, he foresaw it all,
it was as if he saw Jesus as already being led out to die, even
though that event was over three years distant. And so he could
appeal to his audience to face judgment day as if they were standing
there already. We need to have the same perspective.
There was an intensity and critical urgency about John and his
message. John urged people to make their path “straight”- using
a Greek word elsewhere translated “immediately”, “forthwith” (Lk.
3:4 s.w. Mk. 1:12,28 and often). Getting things straight in our
lives is to be a question of immediate response. He warns people
to “flee from the wrath to come” (Lk. 3:7). This was what their
changed lives and baptisms were to be about- a fleeing from the
wrath to come. He speaks as if that “wrath to come” is just about
to come, it’s staring them in the face like a wall of forest fire,
and they are to flee away from it. And yet Paul (in one of his many
allusions to John’s message, which perhaps he had heard himself
‘live’) speaks of “the wrath to come” as being the wrath of the
final judgment (1 Thess. 1:10), or possibly that of AD70 (1 Thess.
2:16). But both those events would not have come upon the majority
of John’s audience. And the day of ‘wrath to come’ is clearly ultimately
to be at the Lord’s return (Rev. 6:17; 11:18). Yet John zooms his
hearers forward in time, to perceive that they face condemnation
and judgment day right now, as they hear the call of the Gospel.
This was a feature of John; he had the faith which sees things which
are not as though they already are. Thus he looked at Jesus walking
towards him and commented that here was the “Lamb of God”, a phrase
the Jews would’ve understood as referring to the lamb which was
about to be sacrificed on Passover (Jn. 1:29). John presumably was
referencing the description of the crucified Jesus in Is. 53:7;
for John, he foresaw it all, it was as if he saw Jesus as already
being led out to die, even though that event was over three years
distant. And so he could appeal to his audience to face judgment
day as if they were standing there already. We need to have the
The ideas of fleeing wrath and preparing a way are surely based
upon the Law’s command in Dt. 19:3 that a way or road should be
prepared to the city of refuge (symbolic of Christ- Heb. 6:18),
along which the person under the death sentence for manslaughter
could flee for refuge. John was preparing that way or road to Christ,
and urging ordinary people to flee along it. They didn’t like to
think they were under a death sentence for murder. They were just
ordinary folk like the soldiers who grumbled about their wages,
and the publicans who were a bit less than honest at work. But they
had to flee. But they wouldn’t be alone in that. If a man prepares
his way after God’s principles (2 Chron. 27:6; Prov. 4:26), then
God will ‘prepare’ that man’s way too (Ps. 37:23; 119:5), confirming
him in the way of escape.
Likewise John says that the axe is laid to the root of the trees;
his hearers were about to be cut down and thrown into the fire of
condemnation. And He says that the Jesus whom he heralds is about
to come and divide the wheat from the chaff in judgment, gathering
in the wheat, and burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire” (Lk.
3:17). But the ‘fire’ of condemnation and the division of wheat
and chaff is to be done ultimately at the Lord’s second coming (Mt.
13:30; Mk. 9:48). But for John, the moment his audience met Jesus,
they were standing before the Lord of judgment, the Judge of all
the earth. In their response to Him, they were living out the final
judgment. And this is just as true of us, both as preachers and
hearers of the Gospel.
This intense, urgent presentation of the ultimate issues of life
and death, acceptance and rejection, brought forth a massive response.
People lined up for baptism. And John was hardly polite. He called
his baptismal candidates a “generation of vipers”, alluding obviously
to the seed of the serpent in Gen. 3:15. Yet his tough line with
them, his convicting them of sin, led them to ask what precisely
they must do, in order to be baptized. They didn’t turn away in
offence. They somehow sensed he was for real, and the message he
preached couldn’t be ignored or shrugged off as the ravings of a
fanatic. Time and again we see the same- the very height of the
demand of Christ of itself convicts men and women of Him. And it’s
for this reason that it seems almost ‘easier’ to convict people
of Christ and the need for baptism into Him in societies [e.g. radical
Moslem ones] where the price for conversion to Him is death or serious
persecution… than in the easy going Western countries where being
‘Christian’ is the normal cultural thing to do.
The nature of how demanding John was is reflected in his response
to the soldiers and publicans. He didn’t tell them to quit their
jobs, but to live with integrity within those jobs. He told the
soldiers to be content with their wages- implying he expected them
to not throw in their job. This is juxtaposed with the command for
them to do no violence. But not grumbling about wages was as fundamental
an issue for John as not doing physical violence to people. To have
as Paul put it “Godliness with contentment” [another of his allusions
to John’s preaching?] is as important as not doing violence. And
yet our tendency is to think that moaning about our wages is a perfectly
normal and acceptable thing to do, whereas violence is of an altogether
different order. It’s like Paul hitting the Corinthians for their
divisiveness, when if we’d been writing to them we would likely
have focused upon their immorality and false doctrine. John would
have been far less demanding had he simply told the publicans and
soldiers to quit their jobs. By asking them to continue, and yet
to live out their lives within those jobs with Godly principles,
He was being far more demanding.
But there’s another reason why John personally was so compelling
as a preacher. His comment on his preaching of Christ was that he
was not worthy (RVmg. ‘sufficient’) to bear Christ's sandals (Mt.
3:11). The sandal-bearer was the herald; John knew he was heralding
Christ's appearing, but he openly said he was not worthy to do this.
He felt his insufficiency, as we ought to ours. Would we had that
depth of awareness; for on the brink of the Lord's coming, we are
in a remarkably similar position to John. To carry the master’s
sandals (Mt. 3:11) was, according to Vine, the work of the lowest
slave. This was how John saw himself; and this is what witnessing
for Jesus is all about, being the lowest slave and servant of the
Lord of glory. It's interesting in this context to note how the
Lord Jesus states that in some sense, John 'was Elijah', whereas
he himself denies this (Mt. 11:14; 17:12; Mk. 9:13). Such was his
humility. Or consider how John's comment that he came "after"
Jesus, and that Jesus was the redeemer rather than he himself (Jn.
1:15) contain a strange allusion to the words of the redeemer-who-was-incapable-of-redeeming
in Ruth 4:4- Boaz told him that "I am after thee", but
in the end the incapable-redeemer plucked off his shoe as a sign
of unworthiness to redeem (Ruth 4:7). And John surely also had this
in mind when he commented that he was unworthy to unloose Messiah's
shoe (Jn. 1:27). The allusions are surely indicative of the way
John felt like the unworthy / incapable redeemer, eclipsed before
Boaz / Jesus.
How terribly wrong it is, then, for missionary service to be gloried
in and somehow a reason for those who do it to become puffed up
in self-importance. Perhaps John’s Gospel purposefully inserts the
comment that John the Baptist said this whilst he was baptizing
so many people (Jn. 1:28)- as if to draw a link between his humility,
and the success in preaching which he had. Paul perhaps directs
us back to John when he says that we are not “sufficient” to be
the savour of God to this world; and yet we are made sufficient
to preach by God (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5,6 RV). Although John preached
the excellence of Christ, he didn’t even consider himself to be
part of the mystic bride of Christ; for he likens himself to only
the groom, watching the happiness of the couple, but not having
a part in it himself (Jn. 3:29). And note how John appeals for men
to be baptized with the twice repeated personal comment: “...and
I knew him not”, in the very context of our reading that the [Jewish]
world “knew him not” (Jn. 1:10, 31,33). He realises that he too
had withstood the knowledge of the Son of God, just as others had.
When asked who he was, John’s reply was simply: “a voice”. He was
nothing; his message about Jesus was everything. In all this there
is a far cry from the self-confident, self-projecting speaking off
the podium which characterizes so much of our ‘preaching’ today.
So John’s appeal to repentance was shot through with a recognition
of his own humanity. It wasn’t mere moralizing. We likely don’t
preach as John did because we fear that confronting people with
their sins is inappropriate for us to do, because we too are sinners.
But with recognition of our own humanity, we build a bridge between
our audience and ourselves.
There was another reason behind John’s appeal for repentance. It
was that he perceived how eager God is to forgive, and how our acceptance
of that forgiveness is His glory and His salvation. John says, quoting
Is. 40:5, that if men repent and ready themselves for the Lord’s
coming, then “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”. But he
is changing the quotation- Isaiah said that all flesh shall see
the glory of God. But saving men and women is the thing God glories
in. John’s father had prophesied that John would “give knowledge
of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, because
of the heart of mercy of our God” (Lk. 1:77,78 RVmg.). The fact
that God has a “heart of mercy”- a lovely phrase- is His glory.
It leads Him to glory in overlooking sin. And on this basis John
appealed to people to repent and claim that forgiveness, thus allowing
God to glory. In the light of all this, one wonders in what tone
of voice John spoke. The cold printed words in our Bibles can lead
us to imagine him speaking in a gruff, austere manner. But perhaps
even his comment “Generation of vipers” was said with a heart of
love and appeal, reflecting the “heart of mercy” which he had come
to know in the Father. He was “the friend of the bridegroom” (Jn.
3:29)- the one who introduced the groom to the bride and arranged
the marriage and then the wedding. John’s “Generation of vipers”
stuff was all part of his attempt to persuade the bride, Israel,
to accept the groom, the Lord Jesus. He wasn’t angrily moralizing,
lashing out at society as many a dysfunctional preacher does today,
working out his own anger by criticizing and condemning society
in the name of God. No, John was appealing. He had an agenda and
an aim- to bring Israel and the Son of God together in marriage.
John's Gospel features the Lord Jesus confidently stating "I
am...". The context is set for this by the way John's Gospel
begins by describing how John the Baptist said "I am not..."
("I am not the Messiah", Jn. 1:20; 3:28; "I am not
[Elijah]", Jn. 1:21; "I am not worthy", Jn. 1:27.
By confessing his own weakness, who he was not, John the Baptist
was paving the way for the recognition and acceptance of Jesus.
And our self-abnegation will do likewise.
When asked who he was, John’s reply was simply: “a voice”. He was
nothing; his message about Jesus was everything. In all this there
is a far cry from the self-confident, self-projecting speaking off
the podium which characterizes so much of our ‘preaching’ today.
So John’s appeal to repentance was shot through with a recognition
of his own humanity. It wasn’t mere moralizing. We likely don’t
preach as John did because we fear that confronting people with
their sins is inappropriate for us to do, because we too are sinners.
But with recognition of our own humanity, we build a bridge between
our audience and ourselves. In this context it's worth reconsidering
Lk. 3:7: "Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?".
John said these words to those who were coming to him wishing to
be baptized by him- exactly because he had warned them of the wrath
to come. It's possible that John meant this as a rhetorical reflection,
thus enabling us to paraphrase him something like this: 'And what
kind of man am I, who am I, just another sinful guy like you, who
has warned you to flee? I'm nothing- don't get baptized because
of me, but because you repent and are committed to bringing forth
the fruits of repentance".
And it’s worth meditating that if Israel had responded to his preaching,
then the glorious salvation of God might have even then been revealed
in the form of the Kingdom coming on earth, even then. But instead
of heeding John’s message, Israel in the end crucified their King,
necessitating a latter day John the Baptist mission (Mt. 11:13,14;
17:11,12). And it’s not going too far to suggest that our latter
day witness to Israel and indeed to the world is to conducted in
the spirit of John’s preaching; hence the crucial importance of
understanding the spirit and content of his witness. John clearly
had a strong sense of mission. Notice how many times he uses the
“emphatic I”: “I am not the Christ… I am not [Elijah]… I am the
voice… I baptize with water… I am not worthy… he of whom I said…
I knew him not… therefore am I come baptizing… I knew him not… I
saw… I am not the Christ… I am sent before… I said…” (Jn. 1:20,23,26,27,30,31,33,34;
3:28). This stands out in the Greek text. The same sense of realizing
who we are, what our aims and mission are, should characterize our
witness. He testified what he ‘saw and heard’ (Jn. 3:32), and we
are called to do likewise (1 Jn. 1:1,3). For John’s witness prior
to the Lord’s first coming is to be repeated by us prior to His
second coming. Four times in the New Testament we read of John ‘preparing
the way’ for the Lord’s return; the only other time we meet that
phrase is in Rev. 16:12, where in the very last days, the way of
the Kings [or, the one great King- the Lord Jesus] is likewise to
Eph. 6:15 speaks of our each being 'sandalled' with the preparation
of the Gospel. Who prepared the way of the Lord by preaching, wearing
sandals? John the Baptist. It seems Paul is alluding to John here,
setting him up as the preacher's example.The reference to "loins
girt" (Eph. 6:14) would also be a John allusion- the record
twice (in Mt. 3:4; Mk. 1:6) stresses how John had his 'loins girded'.
The Lord spoke of how if we confess Him before men, He will confess
knowledge of us before the Father; and if we deny Him, He will deny
us (Mt. 10:32). This language is applied by John to John the Baptist-
for he comments that John the Baptist "confessed and denied
not, but confessed, I am not the Christ" (Jn. 1:20). In this
sense, John Baptist is being set up as our example in preaching-
and again, John comments that we too are to confess the Son and
not deny Him (1 Jn. 2:23), after the pattern of John the Baptist.
And yet note what John's 'confession' was- it was a profession of
his unworthiness, that although he was the herald of the Christ,
he was not Jesus. Again, we see here a pattern for our witness to
(1) W.F. Barling, Jesus: Healer
And Teacher (notes of the Central London Study Class, 1952)
(2) Oscar Cullmann, The Early Church
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), p. 205.
(3) For more evidence on this see K.
Stendahl, The School Of Matthew And Its Use Of The Old Testament
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968).
(4) Paul Tournier, The Meaning Of
Persons (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), pp. 36,37.
(5) George Barna, Grow Your Church
From The Outside (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2002) p. 60.