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“Preaching” 1 Thess. 2:13-16 June 11, 1995
Text Comments

v. 14 “churches in Judea” perhaps mentioned because Silas had been a prominent member of that Judean church (Acts 15:22)

v. 16 The last two verses are often referred to as Paul’s “anti-Jewish polemic” and as contributing to the sorry record of Christian anti-Semitism over the centuries. But, remember, Paul’s statements here are not against the Jews as a race — he was a Jew himself remember — but against the Jews who had rejected the Messiah and were seeking to oppose his ministry at every turn. None of his statements here is untrue and only the one who didn’t believe the Bible or the gospel of Jesus Christ could find anti-Semitism here. Paul, remember, said he could wish himself accursed for the sake of his fellow countrymen and, in Rom. 11, promises a great day of salvation for them at the end of the age. He is against the enemies of the Gospel, not Jews as a race, who made up a portion of all of his churches.

In v. 13 Paul makes an extraordinarily important statement about “preaching.” He commends the Thessalonians because they accepted the word that they had heard from Paul, Silas, and Timothy not as the word of men, but as the word of God. He is speaking, especially, of the word as they preached it in Thessalonica, as he has already said in v. 9: “while we preached the gospel of God to you.” What Paul has given us is a theology of preaching and especially he has taught us that we are to accept faithful preaching of the Word of God as the voice of God himself in the world and the church. When a faithful preacher proclaims the Word of God, it is God himself speaking. That is the nature of preaching as God has appointed it in the world.

Now, someone might well object that I am making too much of this statement. After all, it is Paul who is speaking, Paul the Apostle, and he is speaking of his ministry as an Apostle. To say that Paul’s preaching is the Word of God is a far cry from saying that any faithful preacher’s preaching is the Word of God. But, as a matter of fact, that is, I am sure, exactly what Paul means to say. Let me give you just a small portion of the argument that I might advance to prove it.

1. First, Paul doesn’t say “the word of God which you heard from me you accepted as the Word of God.” He says “the word of God which you heard from us,” that is Silas and Timothy as well. It was not only Paul’s preaching that was the Word and voice of God to these Thessalonians, but the faithful preaching of others.

2. Further, the preaching of the Word of God by faithful men was from the beginning God’s chosen way of speaking to his people. The prophets of the OT, like the apostles of the NT, were preeminent among the preachers, but they were hardly the only preachers. It was the regular duty of the priests to preach the Word and Paul himself in Romans 15:16 acknowledges that in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ he is only fulfilling the duty of a priest. The Lord Jesus himself said to all the preachers he sent out, not just to his twelve disciples, “He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me…(Luke 10:16).”

3. What is more, Paul uses the same words for the proclaiming of the Word of God that he did for that proclaiming done by the more ordinary ministers of the church. Paul preached the Word of God and commanded Timothy to do the same. What is more, Paul never teaches that the reason his preaching was effective and was taken to be the Word and the voice of God was because he was an apostle. No, he says the contrary. It is God’s will to save sinners by the foolishness of preaching, and it is the grace and power of God accompanying the word that is preached that makes it effective in the hearts of men and women.

4. Still more striking is the argument that may be drawn from Paul’s statements in Romans 10:14 and Ephesians 4:21. There Paul is speaking of preaching in general, whenever it is done by faithful men called of God and sent by the church. The NIV and some other translations unfortunately confuse Paul’s point in both texts by adding a word that is not present in the original Greek. In Romans 10:14 the NIV has Paul saying: “How then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” But what Paul wrote is not “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” But “And how can they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” In other words, the NIV translation seems to suggest that preaching brings to men a word about Jesus, while what Paul wrote is that preaching brings Jesus and his voice to men.

C.E.B. Cranfield, the finest of modern commentators on Paul’s letter to the Romans, writes: “[Paul’s way of speaking] indicates that …the thought is of their hearing Christ speaking in the message of the preachers.” To take it as the NIV does, Cranfield says, “is not really feasible” from the point of view of Greek grammar. [II, 534]

John Murray speaks similarly in his excellent commentary. Commenting on Paul’s way of speaking in Rom. 10:14 he writes: “A striking feature of this clause is that Christ is represented as being heard in the gospel when proclaimed by the sent messengers.” Now remember, Paul was not speaking here about the preaching of apostles especially; he is talking about all faithful Christian preaching.

The same point may be made with regard to Eph. 4:21 where the NIV again adds an “of” that is not in Paul’s original. They didn’t hear of Jesus, they heard Jesus! in the preaching that brought them the gospel.

Now no one means, Paul certainly didn’t mean, that preaching is the only means by which the Lord Christ communicated himself and his love to the world. From the beginning men and women have been won to faith in Christ through the private witness of individual Christians. Justin Martyr, the 2nd century defender of the faith, became a Christian through a conversation he had with an old man on a beach, whose name he never learned and whom he never saw again. Likewise others have come to faith, and have heard Christ’s voice, through the reading of the Bible. Augustine’s conversion occurred when his eyes fell upon the last verse of Romans 13, William Cowper’s as he read Romans 3:25.

But for all that, in the Scripture and in Christian history since, preaching has been the first, the foremost, the primary, and the most fundamental of all those means by which the Lord Christ communicates himself, his truth, and his will, with his own authority, to the world and to the church. As Thomas Cartwright, the English Puritan put it: “As the fire stirred giveth more heat, so the Word, as it were, blown by preaching, flameth more in the hearers than when it is read.” Which is why Paul did not tell Timothy to read the Word but to preach the Word.

And this is Paul’s point in v. 13. The preaching of the Word of God by faithful men, is the means by which God himself speaks to the world and the church. Let me give you some testimonies to that fact.

Here is Martin Luther: “Yes I hear the sermon; but who is speaking? The minister? No, indeed! You do not hear the minister. True, the voice is his, but my God is speaking the Word that he preaches or speaks.”

Here is John Donne. “It is not God’s ordinary way to be whispering of secrets. For publication of Himself he hath constituted a Church. And in this church, his ordinance is ordinance indeed; his ordinance of preaching batters the soule, and by that breach, the Spirit enters; his Ministers are an earthquake, and shake an earthly soule; they are the sonnes of thunder, and scatter a cloudy conscience.”

John Calvin held that preaching is itself the very Word of God because 1) it is an exposition and interpretation of the Bible which is the very Word of God; 2) because the preacher has been sent and commissioned by God as his ambassador, and thus has authority to speak in his name; and 3) because preaching is revelation when God uses the human words to make himself known and bestow his grace. In his own words, Calvin said that God “deigns to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to His service, making his own voice to be heard in them.” [Still Festschrift, 13]

One of the earliest Reformed confessions, The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 says bluntly: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” And our Shorter Catechism, in answer to the question, “How is the Word made effectual to salvation?” reads: “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

And in all of this our confessions and catechisms are only summarizing the emphasis of Holy Scripture itself that preaching is the appointed means by which God himself speaks to men.

Now this fact has immense implications for preachers of course. And the literature of the Christian church on preaching itself, I tell you from my own experience, is some of the most elevating and conscience stirring literature in all the world. The privilege and the responsibility of speaking for God and of having one’s words be taken over by the Spirit of God is more than most Christians have any inkling of. And the study of preaching and preachers through the centuries is one of the most rewarding studies anyone could pursue. What God has made of so many of the men he called to be his heralds and what the Christian pulpit has achieved in the world is a greater story and a more important history than that of all the wars and battles that have ever been fought. I wish I had time just now to tell you a few of the stories of the Christian pulpit so that you might be reminded of the glory and the power and the goodness of the truth that Paul has here expressed. From William Haslam, the Anglican priest, who was converted by his own sermon, to Richard Baxter

who preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men;

to the account of a single English merchant who heard three Scottish preachers in a row in the mid 17th century:

In St. Andrews I heard a tall, stately man preach (Robert Blair), and he showed me the majesty of God. I afterwards heard a little fair man preach (Samuel Rutherford), and he showed me the loveliness of Christ. I then went to Irvine, where I heard preached a well-favoured, proper old man, with a long beard, and that man showed me all my heart (David Dickson).”

But it is not of preachers that Paul here speaks but of those who hear preaching and of the state of mind and heart that they are to bring to the hearing of the preaching of God’s Word. “when you received the word of God from us — that is, when they heard Paul, Silas, and Timothy preach — you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God.”

What is it that is required of you, if indeed preaching is the very Word of God? The Puritans were very thoughtful on this subject. They believed, following Paul, that the hearing of sermons was, week by week, the most important event of their lives, each sermon either piling up judgment against them for making them to know the good that then they did not do or helping them on to grace and glory. And they, therefore, expected that faithful Christians would listen to sermons with awe, attention, and expectancy, as they would listen to an angel sent down from heaven. Here is Richard Baxter giving his “Directions for Profitably Hearing the Word Preached” [In Packer, Quest…, 254]

Come not to hear with a careless heart, as if you were to hear a matter that little concerned you, but come with a sense of the unspeakable weight, necessity, and consequence of the holy word which you are to hear; and when you understand how much you are concerned in it, it will greatly help your understanding of every particular truth…
Make it your work with diligence to apply the word as you are hearing it…. Cast not all upon the minister, as those that will go no further than they are carried as by force…. You have work to do as well as the preacher, and should all the time be as busy as he…you must open your mouths, and digest it, for another cannot digest it for you…therefore be all the while at work, and abhor an idle heart in hearing, as well as an idle minister. Chew the cud, and call up all when you come home in secret, and by meditation preach it over to yourselves. If it were coldly delivered by the preacher, do you…preach it more earnestly over to your own hearts….

In other words come to the house of God eager and anxious and expecting to hear the voice of God in your soul and pray that you shall, that the sermon shall be not the word of man but the very word of God. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished, for, as A.A. Bonar put it, “if God speaks from heaven once, and for only a minute, yet that voice should be felt in the parish all the week, yea, for months after.”

And for us that eager expectancy, that longing to hear the Lord in the preaching will require at least two conditions, two states of mind on the part of those hearing the sermon.

I. First, it will require us to want nothing
else but what God wants us to hear.

That is, we must come to the Word of God as it is preached to us, as the Lord’s subjects and as those who stand ready to hear and receive whatever message he chooses to give us. It is easy, very easy, far too easy, for the soul to suppose that it is God speaking when we like the message, but the preacher speaking when we do not, when, in fact, it is simply that we are willing to hear only certain things and shut our ears to the rest. We are confusing God’s voice with our own. We can only know it is God’s own voice we are hearing when we stand ready to hear whatever He has to say to us.

As John Henry Newman put it, the motive of the preacher should be the salvation of the hearer and the motive of the hearer should be his own salvation, and not salvation in the narrow sense only, but in the large, full, comprehensive sense in which the term is used in Holy Scripture. The transformation of our lives according to the grace and will of God. If the preacher is giving us what is there in the Bible, then let us receive it with wide-open hearts as from the Lord, however difficult, even however uninteresting, at first glance, the message may be. Let that word of God also have its perfect way in us.

And if you have that attitude before the Word — let God say to me what he will if only he say it — then you will find, as multitudes have before you that the same Word of God can do many works in the soul. A word you thought must disturb or break your heart can, in fact, once having broken it, mend it and heal it and lift it up, and fill it with joy. But the very truth of God will not work in our hearts unless first we are willing to hear, receive, and embrace that truth no matter what it may be. Speak Lord, for your servants are listening.

II. And then, in the second place, we must stand ready and willing and, indeed, eager to have that word of God brought directly, personally, and specifically home to our hearts and lives.

When John the Baptist preached generally, Herod heard him gladly. When he came to the particulars of application — “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” — the preacher lost his head.

No, we fool ourselves in thinking we are listening for the voice of God in the preaching unless we stand ready to face the full force and implication of that word for ourselves and our own lives. Oh, no! God never speaks but that our lives must change and sometimes change in the ways requiring the most painful sacrifice, the hardest labor, and cruelest repentance. But if we believe that it is the living God himself who is speaking his Word to us — and not merely a preacher — then what else can we possibly do but take that word to heart and practice it with a vengeance in our lives.

So let the ministers and congregation of this church enter into this agreement. We will seek, God helping us, to proclaim the Word of God to you with the strictest faithfulness, with prayer beforehand and after. We will seek to make our sermons according to the three-fold rule of St. Augustine: 1) docere “to teach” to communicate the truth of the Bible clearly; 2) delectare “to please” — to make the presentation of the truth interesting and attractive and easy, not difficult to listen to; and 3) flectere “to move, to influence” to bring the Word to bear upon the practical issues of faith and life persuasively and powerfully. And you then open your hearts to that word, eager and ready to receive it, to take it into your minds and hearts, and to work it into the fabric of your thinking, your feeling, and your behavior.

We will do our best as your preachers, God helping us. But that is not the greatest issue. Have you noticed that both in Holy Scripture and in the history of the church, the sermons that proved to be thunder and lightning and mighty power do not strike us today as terribly interesting or as particularly great examples of the art of rhetoric. Take Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. I can sometimes think to myself: What sort of sermon must that have been that 3000 souls were converted at once? What sort of sermon? Just like other sermons, indeed, perhaps, from a human point of view, less polished and engaging than many other sermons that have been preached. No illustrations full of pathos, no humor, not even a clear outline for the taking of notes. The effect was not produced by the eloquence of the preacher, but by the readiness of the hearers, moved as they were by the Spirit of God, who took Peter’s words and drove them home to hearts he had made ready to hear.

Well, then, what is there for you who hear the word of God preached each week but, as much as it depends upon you, by prayer, by speaking to yourself, by faithful attendance upon the preaching every week, to make your heart ready, or, better, to put hands and feet to your prayer that the Holy Spirit would make your heart ready to hear God’s voice.

And I tell you, by the authority of the Word of God and of God himself speaking in that holy book, that this world and you and I have as yet no idea of what can become of us and what can be made of us and what can be done through us if only, every time we come into this house to hear this word, we hunger for it, and hang on it, and reverence it, and believe and obey it as the very voice of God.