The Gospel and Great Preaching

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5, RSV

I want to think with you about great preaching – in the light of the gospel. There are other ways to look at it, of course, other perspectives from which to evaluate preaching. For some, great preaching is outstanding oratory. A great preacher on this view is an effective public speaker. His messages, or hers, have a basic unity to them in which everything hangs together. They develop one theme and pursue one aim. The great preacher knows how to organize thoughts and marshall arguments. This person has a way with words. He can craft a telling phrase and select the precise language to convey a thought. Someone has said that the difference between the “right” word and a word that’s “almost right” is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug! But the great orator has more than intellectual power and verbal skill. We hear also an unmistakable note of passion. The preacher’s whole being is alive with his message. Great oratory is impressive. It touches us, stirs us to the depths.

A great preacher knows how to tell a story, how to make an ancient, far-away scene come alive for us. By the magic of his words, he has people now laughing, now weeping, now inspired to some kind of action. This, apparently, was the kind of speaking people were used to in first century Corinth. Paul’s hearers there apparently had a lively taste for this. They loved excellency of speech. Genuine eloquence enthralled them, and they were charmed by cleverness as well. They liked an orator with creative insight who could give them light on profound mysteries. Like many of us, they enjoyed hearing a “spell-binder.”

This, the apostle Paul was not. He was definitely not impressive as a public speaker. Some actually called his manner of presentation “contemptible.” And Paul was quite ready to agree that he was no Demosthenes. Listen to this frank acknowledgement in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 2: “I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling.” How’s that for style in public speaking? He admits that he didn’t come across as strong, commanding and forceful in public nor did he exude confidence. At Corinth, he was battling with many fears and so visibly nervous that those near to him could see him shaking.

Paul was also aware that no one after hearing him thought him intellectually brilliant. To many of the arts of the orator, he confessed himself a stranger. No flights of rhetoric, no elaborate argumentation, no heart-stopping illustrations. He must have been as plain as an old shoe. Probably no one who heard him preach in Corinth went away shaking his head and saying, “Have you heard this dynamite Jewish preacher Paul? He’s the best speaker I’ve ever heard.” Compared to the famous orators of the Greek world, Paul was miles behind. He wasn’t even in their class.

Now this way of looking at great preaching, seeing it as skilled oratory, has nothing to do really with the gospel and its content. There have been many outstanding public speakers who neither believed nor preached the Christian gospel. The Greeks were studying rhetoric and polishing their speaking style for centuries before Jesus was born. Persuasive public speaking can be enlisted in the service of almost any cause. In ancient Greece, orators sometimes stirred people to go to war. Listen: “When the Athenians heard Demosthenes, he so filled them with the subject matter of his oration, they quite forgot the orator, and left him at the finish of his harangue, breathing revenge and exclaiming, `Let us go and fight against Philip!’” And listen to this praise of public speaking by a twentieth century writer, “All epoch-making, revolutionary events have been produced not by the written but by the spoken word.” The man who wrote that, surprisingly, was Adolph Hitler, whose oratory inflamed passions and shook the world. All the arts of public speaking can be employed as effectively in an evil cause as in a good one.

But there’s another way to look at great preaching. Think of it now as faithful witness. That’s how the apostle Paul sees it. He calls the Christian gospel in this passage, “the testimony of God.” The preacher is an ambassador. He represents another and passes along a message which has been delivered to him. His greatness on this view lies in dependably communicating that message. If he sees to it that the message is clearly presented to those for whom it is intended, he has done his job, he has fulfilled his ministry. He can be called a good and faithful servant. In God’s eyes, he is a great preacher.

That, for the apostle, meant concentrating on one theme. Listen: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul had thought carefully about what he wanted to do in Corinth. His plan was clear, his purpose firm. He would major in Christ. That was his commission. He was sent to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, to herald Christ, to placard Christ, he says. This was his role as a witness. God had done great things for the world in the person of His Son. In Christ all the wisdom of God had been pleased to dwell. In Him God’s saving purpose came to fulfillment. In all his public speaking, Jesus Christ would be Paul’s theme.

The focus was even more specific than that. It was on Christ crucified. As we’ve been noticing, two great events formed the center of the Christian message for Paul: the death of Jesus, followed by His resurrection. Everything else centered around those great happenings.

Paul was conscious that this made his message controversial. Many things he could have said about Jesus to which no one would object: His sublime teaching, His matchless example, His works of compassion. But the message of Jesus crucified and risen upset almost everyone. It was scandalous to the Jews. They believed that anyone who had been crucified was under God’s curse. It was foolishness to the Gentiles because crucifixion itself was so loathsome to them. They could not imagine believing in anyone who had been so executed. Yet that was Paul’s idea of great preaching, of faithful witness, to center every message on what God had done in the crucifixion and resurrection of His Son. As we see in this first letter to the Corinthians, Paul dealt with many issues and addressed many problems, but he saw every imaginable subject in the light of the cross and the empty tomb. No one who ever heard him speak ever had the slightest doubt about the heart of his message. It was by design, by deliberate intention, Christ and Him crucified.

Paul’s hope for the effectiveness of his preaching lay not in any abilities or resources of his own. He reminds the Corinthians: “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom.” He didn’t depend, in other words, upon the beauty of his diction or the persuasiveness of his arguments. He had not the slightest interest in impressing anyone with his gifts as a speaker. Instead, in everything, he said, his manner of speaking and his message were in dependance upon the Holy Spirit of God. His prayer and expectation was always that God would attend his witness with miraculous effect. He expected to see the lives of people dramatically changed. The spiritually dead would be awakened to new life. Guilty ones would find forgiveness. Those hopelessly enslaved to evil would be set free. God would call a people to Himself and make them a part of His new creation. In the midst of the most notoriously wicked city on earth, Corinth, Paul expected to see God creating pure hearts and devoted lives.

But even that wasn’t the final goal. Paul goes on to say what that is: “That your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” Paul has already told the Corinthians that the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen seems to the rest of the world weak and foolish. He has reminded them that they who have received it are for the most part a group of weak and foolish nobodies. Now he has described himself as a weak and foolish preacher. And his point is that God has chosen to work through such a message among such a people through such a human messenger, so that people will be driven to one conclusion – this is God’s doing.

What if Paul had won people to the Christian faith in Corinth by the force of his personality, by the persuasiveness of his apologetic, by the music of his eloquence? That commitment might have lasted until someone else came along even more forceful, more clever, more silver-tongued. Then it would be all over for the Christian faith. Paul knew that any trust which rests on a merely human foundation will finally collapse. If your faith depends today on the research of a famous scholar, or the charisma of a TV evangelist, you’re on shaky ground. What Paul wanted to see was people looking away from the preacher, away from the scholar, away from the pulpit personality, to Jesus Christ crucified and risen. For Him, great preaching meant leading people to trust in God alone for their salvation. For this he toiled and prayed that his hearers might be believers, disciples, worshippers, God-centered people.

Now on this view of great preaching, the gospel is essential. The gospel shapes everything: the message, the manner, and the motive. Anyone can be a great orator who has the gifts, but only a person mastered by Christ and His gospel can be a great preacher. Can the two be combined, we wonder? Can one and the same person be an outstanding orator and a great preacher? To some degree, yes. But one of the two will always predominate. When people hear great oratory that is only incidentally Christian, they usually go away thinking how great the preacher is. When they hear preaching that is truly great, they usually think little about the human messenger, but much about how glorious and gracious God is.

We can say this, at least: it is not possible to aim at both being an outstanding orator and a faithful witness. The moment we try to impress others with something about ourselves we cease to bear testimony to Another. When absorbed with how we’re coming across, we cannot focus on the crucified and risen Lord. As James Denney once put it crisply and powerfully, “No man can at the same time give the impression that he is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.”

For me this truth has been the open secret of the most remarkable Christian ministry of this century, that of Dr. Billy Graham. Dr. Graham is a gifted man, ruggedly handsome, personally appealing, blessed with a strong but mellow speaking voice. He speaks simply, directly, powerfully. But does anyone ever feel under his preaching that Dr. Graham wants to dazzle them with his eloquence or impress them with his intellectual depth? No, with him the content of the gospel and the aim of winning others to Christ seem always to be foremost. Incidentally, Billy Graham is an effective public speaker. Profoundly and centrally, he is a faithful witness.

This is a word, it seems to me, of vast encouragement for all of us who seek to preach. It is not given to many of us to be outstanding orators. We surely ought to develop the gifts we have, to hone our communication skills, to give our best to the greatest of all tasks. Yet most of us will never win renown as great speakers.

But a far greater honor is held out before us all. We can be faithful witnesses. We can decide in all our preaching to center on Christ and Him crucified, in what God has done for the world through His crucified and risen Son. We can renounce all reliance upon our own powers and trust completely in the working of God’s Spirit. We can make it our aim that our hearers will come to trust in the living God and give Him glory through His Son. And that kind of preaching, even if it never attracts anyone’s attention to us, will yet be great in God’s eyes.

Now a word to all of us who listen to preaching. Let’s not be awed by oratory for its own sake. Let’s listen always for the authentic word of the gospel. Let’s applaud the wisdom that sounds like folly to the unbelieving and glory only in the Lamb that was slain for us, the crucified and risen Jesus. And let’s appreciate all those frail and fumbling servants of God who want more than anything else to point people to Him.

PRAYER: O God, raise up such preachers, we pray, who will proclaim only Christ and depend only upon Your power and through whom You will do wonderful things. In the name of Jesus. Amen.