The Pulpit: Its Powers and Pitfalls
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

The Pulpit: Its Powers and Pitfalls

From Series: The Pastor’s Study, Volume 1

1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5  (ID: 2051)

The pulpit is intended not as a showcase for a preacher’s performance but as the place from which a pastor gives Christ-exalting, biblical instruction. Using Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians as a standard, Alistair Begg identifies nine pitfalls that threaten to undermine effective pastoral ministry. When a preacher is Spirit-filled, anointed, and empowered by God, a divine encounter can occur within the listeners, awakening faith in Jesus and glorifying God through the preaching.


Sermon Transcript: Print

Can I invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to 1 Corinthians and chapter 1, and to follow along as I read from the eighteenth verse?

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’

“When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Father, with our Bibles on our laps and with our minds tuned to hear your voice, we pray that the Spirit of God will be our teacher. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now, my subject this morning is the pulpit—its pitfalls and its power. We’re using the pulpit as a metaphor, of course; we’re not suggesting that a block of wood has in itself power or faces pitfalls, but we’re saying the pulpit as the place at which the opening up of the Scriptures takes place. And our conviction is that from the pulpits of our country, we are supposed to hear not the bright ideas of men, not their rambling thoughts, not their theorizing or their speculation. We assume that the pulpit is not a place for sloganeering or for manipulation, that it’s not the place for tall stories and emotionalism, but it is the place for Spirit-filled, Christ-exalting, Bible-based, “life-impacting … instruction and direction [from God] through the words of a spokes[man],”[1] which impresses upon the listeners the power of text and not the performance of the preacher. That is the foundational assumption with which we come to this morning’s study.

Now, I’ve had the privilege of preaching the Bible for the last twenty-three years, at least since beginning to do so in a formal context within the framework of a local church. And to address this subject this morning reminds me of the young man who graduated with a PhD in child psychology. And very sure of his position, his PhD thesis had been published under the heading “Five Definitive Principles for Rearing Children.” He was a single man and after a year or two got married. And when he had his first child, they had come to him and asked if he would redo the thesis, and he took the opportunity to change the title to “Five Principles for Child-Rearing”—dropped the definitive. After his second child came along, he changed it to “Five Thoughts on Child-Rearing.” And by the time they’d closed off their family with the fifth child, he had changed it to “Help Me, I’m Dying.”

And lest I should be presumptuous in front of many who are my peers and some who are my mentors, I feel very much that way about addressing the whole subject of preaching at all. The longer I go, the less I seem to know, the more mysterious the whole thing appears to me—what it’s really about. And even in private conversation in the last forty-eight hours, I found myself often at great pains to try and articulate thoughts that are deep within me.

And much of what I’m going to share this morning, especially initially, is largely without biblical warrant, in the sense that I’m going to share with you first some pitfalls that may actually be my own peculiar propensities, and therefore it gives you an insight into where I’m coming from; it may be that you can find a point of identification with them also. And then we’ll turn to finish with the Scriptures by looking at the nature of the power of the pulpit.

Bruce Thielemann expresses what many preachers have felt when he says,

There is no special honor in being called to the preaching ministry. There is only special pain. The pulpit calls those anointed to it as the sea calls its sailors; and like the sea, it batters and bruises and does not rest. … To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time, and to know each time you do it that you must do it again.[2]

John Bright, the English statesman and brilliant orator, who was well used to standing before crowds, said on one occasion, “Nothing that I can think of would induce me to undertake to speak to the same audience once a week for a year. Yet God enlists less able souls as pastors to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed two or three times a week.”

Lloyd-Jones was mentioned with frequency yesterday in the Q and A session, and I quote him in the opening address that he gave to the students at theological seminary, Westminster, in 1969 in the city of Philadelphia. Explaining why it was that he’d been prepared to come and give these lectures on preaching, he said,

Ultimately, my reason[s] for being very ready to give these lectures is that to me the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called. If you want something in addition to that I would say without … hesitation that the most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and … most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need [in] the world also.[3]

Now, that is a quite staggering statement from a man who had been trained as a medical doctor, who was assistant to Lord Horder, who was actually the physician to the Queen. And he had a life before him of great prominence and opportunity, not only in the practice of medicine but also in the high echelons of English society. And he turned from that to a small Welsh Calvinistic Methodist chapel, and burying himself in the obscurity of the hills of Wales, he began to fulfill what he says here was for him the highest and the greatest calling that anyone can ever face.

Certainly, when we read of those who have been used of God in the preaching of the Word and when we listen to what they have said, the immensity of the challenge that is before us is heightened. John Owen noted in his writings a number of qualifications which he referred to as being necessary for the effective performance of the primary pastoral duty. And I’m just going to tell you what they are, for the record.

His number one was “spiritual wisdom [and] understanding [of] the mysteries of the gospel.” Secondly, an “experience of the power” of the truth in our own souls.” Owen said of the Scriptures, or of the message, if it does not dwell in power in us, it cannot pass with power from us. And no amount of effervescence or personality or ingenuity will be able to compensate for that divine transaction which is, in the words of Brooks, truth through human personality.[4] Thirdly and obviously, he said that the pastor would need skill in dividing the Word of God correctly; fourthly, that he would require spiritual discernment of the condition of his congregation; and fifthly, that he would need to be marked by a “zeal for the glory of God” and a “compassion [for] the souls of men.”[5] Now, to the degree that Owen articulates for us there the high standard of gospel preaching, small wonder that many of us would find ourselves shrinking from it rather than seeking to press ourselves forward.

Pitfalls of Pulpit Ministry

Let me give to you, then, just some random observations out of my own experience that relate to peculiar pitfalls that attach to pulpit ministry. And I plan not to spend a long time on these.

First of all is prayerlessness. Prayerlessness. Surely the devil laughs at prayerless preaching. He surely doesn’t care about preaching that is not backed by and sourced in prayer. I have a little booklet in my files published by the Overseas Missionary Fellowship about prayer, and the front cover bears this quotation: “If our prayer is meager, it is because we regard it as supplemental and not fundamental.”

As I walked from the session yesterday, someone asked me, number one, “How long do you think it is necessary to spend in preparation for preaching, in terms of the study of the Word?” And then the second and harder question was, “And how long do you spend in prayer in the prospect of preaching?” I don’t think there’s any doubt at all that since the devil knows that the greatest effectiveness is in the soul of the man who is bathed in prayer, who is dependent upon God for everything, then he will seek to do everything in his power, limited as it is, to prevent us from that one thing, so that we will find turning to our commentaries, even turning to our Bibles, doing all kinds of things, able to squeeze them into our days, and then somehow or another scrambling at the last minute to try and put in a little bit of prayer.

In Acts chapter 6, in the spiritual reorganization that takes place in the early days of the church, you will remember that the apostles, in determining that the waiting upon the tables needs to be given over to others who have peculiar gifts in practical ministry, they said, “We will not leave aside the preaching of the Word to wait on tables; we will pass this on to someone else, and we will give ourselves to prayer and the preaching of the Word.”[6] I don’t think there is any question, dear friends, that our preaching would be one hundred percent more effective if we were to pray far more and if our congregations were to undergird our proclamations with their prayers. It is a great pitfall to become increasingly prayerless.

I don’t think there is any question that our preaching would be one hundred percent more effective if we were to pray far more and if our congregations were to undergird our proclamations with their prayers.

Secondly, the pitfall of allowing an ever-widening gap between my life and the things I say. Allowing an ever-widening gap between my life and the things I say. Now, that’s essentially 1 Timothy 4:16: “Watch your life and [your] doctrine closely.” There’s a peculiar pitfall in preaching, and it is this: that we think that because we have preached it, we have lived it. But after we have preached it, we have only preached it—unless, of course, we have lived it before we preached it. But it has to be both lived and proclaimed.

And that’s where, incidentally, our wives come in, and our children too. One of my friends, an elderly gentleman who was not actually married, said, “Every pastor needs a wife, if for no other reason than to keep him humble.” And to be there to say, “You know, honey, there’s a brittleness about your tone; there’s something here that just doesn’t meld in the way that it once did.” Not easy to take, but vital to hear.

That’s where accountability comes in, amongst our colleagues. Because we can deceive ourselves and become those whom James warns against, who are merely the hearers of the word—albeit the hearers of our own words proclaiming the Word—and we are not doers, and we deceive ourselves. That’s what he says: “Do not [be] merely [hearers of] the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”[7] And there is a great challenge in this, I’m sure.

C. S. Lewis ends his book The Four Loves—and it is actually on the final page, at least of my copy—with this striking statement. He says,

“Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than … we have [actually] reached. If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe that we have really been there”—and so fool both them and ourselves.[8]

It’s a peculiar challenge to anyone involved in teaching. “Surely,” James says, “let not many of you become teachers, for he who teaches will be judged with greater strictness.”[9]

Third pitfall I refer to as the danger of excessive popularity. Excessive popularity. Now, I put this down here; frankly, many of us as pastors would like a little dose of this for once in a while, and it may not be a major problem for you at this point in your ministry, but it may come. And every so often, it will come, and with it comes the danger of thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought[10]—beginning actually to believe that what people say about us is true, when in point of fact, they don’t even know us, so why would they even say these things?

When I was a small boy, my father used to take me to a number of events that I didn’t want to go to—not least of all, the singing of male voice choirs. And it always seemed to happen on a Saturday afternoon. And as part of a sop to my reluctance, he would allow me to go into a confectionary store and purchase sweets—or candies, as you would say. And those were the days when they still had them in the big jars and they meted them out in two ounces, or four ounces, or whatever it was. And so, you pointed up, and the lady got it down, and she poured it in the tray, and she weighed it, and she put it in a bag, and she gave it to you. And so, there was a transaction involved.

And I remember, particularly, one place on a Saturday afternoon. I must have been all shined up and ready for action—Brylcreem on the hair, shaved up the back of my head, looked like I was ready for the army. And there were, I remember, a number of people in the store. And I don’t know what happened in the shop, but it must have been that somebody said complimentary things about this shiny-faced wee chap that was waiting for his sweets. And when the shop cleared and there was just the lady and myself, this lady, whom I don’t know—I met her once in my life—as she handed me the bag of candy, she leant over the counter and she said this: “Sonny, flattery is like perfume: sniff it, don’t swallow it.” And I have learned in the course of pastoral ministry to discount the high end and to discount the low end. There are people who just, for all the best reasons, will tell you you’re fantastic; you know it isn’t true. And therefore, you have to learn not to listen to that, to walk around, metaphorically, with your fingers in your ears.

Uzziah was gloriously helped until he became strong. And when he became strong, he grew proud to his own destruction.[11] I probably, at this point in my life, face the greatest dangers that I have ever faced in relation to this particular pitfall. Being aware of it is one thing; being helped in it is another.

Fourth pitfall is the other side, and that is the danger of crippling despondency. The pulpit can lift you up and make you think you’re terrific; it can bring you down and make you think you’re the worst person that ever lived. To live with an almost paralyzing sense of uselessness attaches itself to the work of the pulpit. I’ve not lived with this a lot, but I have lived with it routinely. I’m not talking now about clinical depression; I’m not talking about manic bouts. I’m just talking about the blues. I’m talking about being totally cheesed off. I’m talking about being absolutely fed up. I’m talking about ending a Sunday and wanting to run as far as you possibly can from every responsibility in pastoral ministry that you have ever known—for enduring the smiles and the handshakes, wishing somehow that you could actually merge with the platform or the pavement that you’re standing on and be lost into obscurity forever. Waking up at two in the morning and trying to think of one other reasonable thing that you could do with your life, if only you could get a job—and fearing that the only reason you’re still in pastoral ministry is because you couldn’t get a job.

The spirit of Elijah. It’s wrong, but it’s real: “I’m the only one that’s left around here that cares. I’m the only one that really believes this. I’m the only one that really owns this. I’m the only one that really understands this.” No you’re not. “I’m going to find a broom tree, I’m gonna sit under it.” And the Lord sent the angel, said, “Have a drink of water, have a muffin, and go to sleep!” Sent the angel a second time, said, “Have a drink of water, have a muffin, go to sleep.”[12]

Luther had a great strategy in relationship to this. Because his wife one morning came down dressed completely in the black of formalized mourning. She took her place opposite him at the breakfast table, and he was staggered by her appearance. He said, “My dear, what has happened? Has someone died that I didn’t know?” “Yes,” she said, “God has died.” “Come now,” said Luther, “that is a dreadful thing to say.” Then she said, “Well, why, my dear Martin, do you live as you live if God is still alive?”

“It Is Well with My Soul” was written out of the experience of a psychiatric hospital. No, it was not; it was written out of the experience of the loss of the four kids. “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” was written by Cowper out of the experience of a psychiatric hospital:

Judge not the Lord by feeble strength,
Nor try his works in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.[13]

I don’t know that anybody has ever truly preached unless they have felt the burden of crippling despondency. For when you read the Prophets, it says, “the oracle of Amos,” or it says, “the oracle of Elijah.” The word there is “the burden”—the burden of this man, this immense burden that you have the responsibility now to stand and deliver. It’s not just giving a talk, it’s not just unfolding your wisdom, it’s not just sharing your ideas; it is that God has put you in this place.

And I don’t know what it’s like to have a baby, but I can imagine that it’s pretty awesome. And I would imagine that to truly preach is the closest a man will ever come to the travail of childbirth—all the joy and all the sorrow, all the pain and all the expectation, and all the emotion that is wrapped up in it. And therefore, this pitfall is a real pitfall. Remember that when you’re glad-handing your pastor. Remember that when you’re making your superficial comments “in the dangling conversation and the superficial sighs on the borders of our minds,” as you “speak the things that matter with words that must be said,” you know. “Can analysis be worthwhile? Is the theatre really dead?”[14] So much twaddle!

Now, what do you do? What do I do? Well, my wife, she hugs me, and then she kicks me—kicks me back into action, hugs me back into life. And Luther’s antidote, incidentally, when someone came to him with despondency, was, he said, “Harness the horse[s] and spread manure on the fields.”[15] Can you imagine going for pastoral counseling? With a sense of crippling despondency? And you go in, and you start to unfold your long story, and Martin interrupts, he says, “My dear soul, let me tell you in a phrase what to do: just go harness your horses and spread manure on your fields. There’ll be something about that smell up your nostrils that’ll transform everything for all time.”

Now, I must move on, because there’s a second half to this message. The fifth one is laziness. The pitfall of laziness. There’s no question that if you give yourself wholeheartedly to the ministry of preaching, it will demand every ounce of your fiber. But if you want to skive—which is a Scottish word for “do as little as possible”—then pastoral ministry provides that opportunity. There’re a tremendous number of lazy people in pastoral ministry. If they were involved in any kind of private enterprise, they’d be belly-up, they’d be flat broke, they’d never make a dime. And they need a good kick in the seat of the pants and back into action.

And beware the laziness of just sitting around in your socks when the members of your congregation have had their shoes on for the last four hours. Stop this nonsense about how you need to be home with your family because if you don’t take care of your family, you can’t take care of the church. I understand that, but that’s not an excuse for sidling around and going on picnics and doing whatever it pleases you—nor me. Laziness is a dreadful thing. Look at how many ministers have got big fat tummies. Well, how do you get them?

There’s no question that if you give yourself wholeheartedly to the ministry of preaching, it will demand every ounce of your fiber.

Sixthly… I was talking about people in Britain there; I wasn’t talking about America. Sixthly, misplaced affections. The pitfall of misplaced affections. Such as? Such as loving the ministry rather than loving Jesus. Such as loving talking and hearing your voice rather than loving the privilege of opening up the Scriptures. Such as loving the Bible and not actually loving the Christ to whom we are introduced in the Bible. You see, it’s very possible to stay close to the Word of the Lord and not be close to the Lord of the Word—to become a theoretician, to become doctrinaire, to become able, to become an answerer of questions, but to become cold and refrigerated and disentangled from the loving embrace of the Christ that we serve. That’s a pitfall. To be consumed with money rather than with contentment. To drift into immorality rather than to live in personal purity. Misplaced affection. That’s Solomon, incidentally.

Seventhly, a sense of aimlessness. A sense of aimlessness. Howard Hendricks, apparently, had in his study a sign—he may still—that said on it, “What in the world are you doing with these people?” And there is a great danger that we lose our way in pastoral ministry, and so it is imperative that we constantly are harnessing ourselves to the purpose-driven statements of the Scriptures.

Paul is classic, is he not? He says, “I want to win as many as possible,”[16] in 1 Corinthians 9. He says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” in Philippians 3. He says, “I press on toward[s] the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”[17] In other words, he was absolutely clear about what he was doing and where he was going. And it is a shame when, in the responsibility of opening up the Scriptures, our friends and our colleagues, our leaders alongside us, are looking to us and they’re saying, “Do you have any idea what you’re doing? Do you have any notion of where you’re going? Will you help us? Will you take the helm of the ship?” Now, some of us need help in relationship to that, and people will always be glad to help, provided we’re prepared to say, “Help.” But some of us want to still hold the tiller; we don’t quite where to move it or how to direct the boat, and we’re aimless. And we drift, and our congregation drifts with us.

Did I quote to you yesterday—I’ve spoken so many times in the last few days—my little friend T. S. Mooney, who said that his purpose in teaching the Bible class was that every boy would have a purpose in his life, a Savior in his heart, and a Bible in his hand? Clarity.

Eighthly, the danger of capitulation. The danger of capitulation. Forgetting that the primary purpose of our pulpit is to see men and women put in a right relationship with God. For us to capitulate to the notion that it is our business to either make people happy, or to see their lives integrated, or to relieve their circumstances, or to improve their conditions. No, we stand between a holy God and sinful men and women, and ours is a ministry of reconciliation. And knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.[18] Our responsibility is to feed the sheep. It’s to teach them, not to tickle them; it’s to guide them. And there is a great danger in our day that we would capitulate and we would become just glorified cheerleaders, happy chaps that stand up and try and make everybody feel a little better about themselves.

The last pitfall I want to mention picks up on the ramblings that we started yesterday about “naked preaching,” if you were present. And you will remember that the question was, “How right is it for the pastor to use himself as an illustration?” And I knew in the back of my mind that I had something in my files concerning this, and I found it, and I just want to use this opportunity to share it with you.

Someone is writing an article about this whole notion of authenticity and being authentic. And indeed, the heading of the article is “Naked Preachers Are Distracting.” And he says this: “Have you ever decided to act authentically?” “I think I’ll act authentically now.” “That’s as dumb,” he says,

as deciding to act humbly. You either are or you aren’t. To intentionally pepper my sermon with doses of predetermined authenticity is to be … inauthentic.

An elderly woman complained to me that she could tell when her pastor had not had time to prepare a sermon, because he would begin crying at the weakest point in the sermon. “Crying?” I [said].

“Yeah, crying,” she said. “He says something like, ‘When I think of what Jesus did for us I just, well … forgive me, I’m just overcome with gratitude.’ He usually is overcome with gratitude about once [a] month, usually related to his fishing schedule.” …

In a society where the emotional striptease is the standard stuff of daytime television, in a culture where we are encouraged relentlessly to scan our egos as if there is no help for us other than that which is self-derived, do we preachers need to be “authentic”? Authenticity is more than a matter of being who I am; it is a matter of being who God calls me to be. For preachers, authenticity means being true, not just to our feelings, but true to our vocation, true to God’s call. We serve God’s people by laying aside ourselves … taking up the cross … preaching Christ and him crucified, whether we feel like it next Sunday or not.[19]

That’s authenticity.

The Power of Pulpit Ministry

Now, that brings me away from the pitfalls to the other side of the coin, and to the power. And I want to spend the balance of my time here. You say, “Well, you better hurry up, because you don’t much left on the scale.” I can’t remember even when we… We didn’t really start at half past ten, did we? We started the session at half past ten; when did I start speaking? Quarter to? All right. This is twenty, it’s thirty-five. I got about ten minutes. Okay.

Now, we read purposely from 1 Corinthians and chapter 1 and 2. Let me just say a word or two about power. Paul is talking here about power in this section, as you would know; you’ll be familiar with that. It is a very timely message, because in his generation, as in ours, there was a phenomenal preoccupation with the notion of power. And Paul, recognizing that it was customary for people in the context in which he was moving to be intrigued by, interested in, power—powerful people doing powerful things—he apparently picks that up and chooses to instruct the Corinthian church as to the nature of God’s dynamite.

Our responsibility is to feed the sheep. It’s to teach them, not to tickle them; it’s to guide them. And there is a great danger in our day that we would capitulate and we would become just glorified cheerleaders, happy chaps that stand up and try and make everybody feel a little better about themselves.

And in the midst of all that he is saying here—and he is saying a great deal—let me zero in on this one notion, which I believe to be true to the text, and you’re sensible people, and you can examine and see whether this is accurate or not. But Paul is saying here that power—the power of God—is active on the lips of those who preach; that the power of God is manifested through the foolishness of what was preached, so that in this very act of Spirit-filled, God-anointed, Bible-based instruction from God to man through the lips of a spokesman, God’s power is manifest.

And that, you see, is the explanation of apostolic preaching: that Peter and the others were not on the streets of Jerusalem giving lectures on Christian doctrine; they were not on the streets of Jerusalem sharing vague generalities about Christian principles that people might like to try and appropriate and assimilate into their lives and thereby be better people; no, they were on the streets of Jerusalem conveying facts, but conveying facts in such a way that it was owned by the Spirit of God. And so there was a power, there was a dynamite, about what was going on.

Now, in a book that was written many years ago by a little Scottish theologian by the name of James S. Stewart, he highlights this—and it’s a book that I found in the secondhand store just recently. And he talks about this in relationship to contemporary preaching. For some of you, this quote will take you into the realm of postgraduate study, and you can just kind of go, “Oh,” and get back to it. For others of you it, it will be apropos where you are. He says,

[The] kerygma is so much more than the recounting of certain facts, whether this be done in Aramaic or Hellenistic Greek or Basic English or anything else; and all theological reinterpretation and all evangelism will be “words, words, words” unless they are the Creative Word. Peter could have told on the streets of Jerusalem the facts about Christ, could have kept on recounting the events of the Gospel, without doing anything that could remotely be described by the verb the New Testament uses for “preach.” “A ‘… film’ of the life of Jesus taken by a neutral reporter,” writes Brunner, “or an account of the life of Jesus written by an unbelieving compiler—such as Josephus, for instance—would not have the power to awaken faith in Jesus.”

Now, there’s an aside here that I think I should probably leave alone. No, I’m just going to mention it, and I’ll go on. I don’t believe that drama awakens faith in Jesus. I don’t believe that art awakens faith in Jesus. I believe that preaching awakens faith in Jesus, in a way that nothing else does. “Christian preaching begins only when faith in the message has reached such a pitch that the man or the community proclaiming it becomes part of the message proclaimed.” When “the man or the community … becomes part of the message proclaimed.” So people come among your Christian community, and they say, “These people are the message, the message is these people; this preacher is this issue, this passion is this person.” You can’t disentangle the man from the communication that is taking place.

“These Christians must show me they are redeemed,” cried Nietzsche, “before I will believe in their Redeemer.” Thus when the apostolic Church declared, “The hour cometh, and now is: this is the age of the Spirit,” the Church itself in its total life was part of that dramatic truth; for men encountering that Church felt, even though they were pagans, a waft of the supernatural, a mysterious power like the stirring of a dawn wind.[20]

Isn’t that an amazing little section? They encountered, even as pagans, “a waft of the supernatural, a mysterious power.” That’s the preaching of Whitefield. That’s the eighteenth-century awakening. That is something far different from a knowledgeable fellow speaking with emphasis. It is a divine encounter by means of the living God.

Now, when Paul uses “power” in relationship to preaching, this is his emphasis. He says, “God has chosen to work in such a way that his power might be displayed. That,” he says, illustrating it, “is why he has chosen the likes of you.” It’s almost humorous, in verse 26 and following. He says, “If you want to know that this principle is true—that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, that God has chosen to bring down the strongholds of wisdom by the measure of foolishness,” he says, “just think about yourselves.” He says, “Just think about your church. What were you like when you were called? Not many of you were wise by human standards. You weren’t a bunch of influential people. You didn’t come from noble birth.” And he says, “That’s the whole point! God chose the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, the lowly things, the despised things—the things that are not—so that people would stand back and say, ‘There is only one explanation for this event, and that is that God’s power is here.’”

Now, that’s what we want to see happen! Not that we reduce our congregations to the lowest common denominator so that pagans feel that they are at some sort of erstwhile Johnny Carson show or something that makes them feel very comfortable, and a little band plays, and a little interview happens, and a little skit happens, and, you know, funny people come out and dance around, and they go away and they say, “My,” you know, “the church is a wonderful place.” That’s not it at all.

“Think about the personnel,” he says, “and think about the preaching. When I came to you, brothers, I didn’t come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God,” or “the testimony of God.” “I wasn’t there to share my ideas; I was there to speak as from God about God, to bring you to God.”

Now, when you do a wee bit of history and go back and read the Acts of the Apostles—read around chapter 14, 15, 16, 17, into 18—you will know that he wasn’t coming off a private plane here. He had been in Philippi, and he got flogged. He went from there to Thessalonica, and riots broke out, and they had to take him out of the city under cover of darkness. He buzzed down to Berea, and the people who came from Thessalonica stirred up the agitation in Berea. He then went to Athens, got to Athens, and his heart was breaking; he had paroxysms as he looked at the idolatrous situation there, and his life was stirred within him. And then on from there and into Corinth, and he begins to preach in the synagogue, and they throw him out of the synagogue.

God chose the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, so that people would stand back and say, ‘There is only one explanation for this event, and that is that God’s power is here.’

And he reminds them of these historic days. He says, “When I came, you remember, I didn’t have much by the way of baggage.” You picked him up from the airport, and he was coming to speak at your conference in Corinth, you know? And you said, “Do you have any bags, Paul?”

“Well, I had a couple that I left behind.”

“What did you leave behind?”

“Well, I left eloquence behind.”

“Oh, you did? We love eloquence here in Corinth.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t bring that.”

“Well, you know, people are expecting that.”

“Yeah, I know. I didn’t bring it.”

“Well, you know, people are really into that. They’re into miracles, and they’re into eloquence, they’re into wisdom. I mean, haven’t you done a kind of market research before you showed up here? I mean, you know you’re supposed to give the people what they want, don’t you?”

Said, “No, I didn’t bring eloquence; I’m not gonna impress people. I’m not gonna do all that kind of Shakespearean drivel just to impress them with my talk, you know:

“My liege, and madam, to expostulate
… What duty is,
Why day … day, night night, and time is time
Were nothing but to waste [both] night, day, and time.
[And] since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad.
“Mad” call I it, for, to define true madness,
What is ’t but to be nothing else but mad?”[21]

And the queen breaks in, she says, “Polonius, dry up. Let’s have more matter and less art. Get to the point.”[22] There’s a kind of preaching that just impresses people with this stuff. Let me tell you: you cannot impress people with yourself and impress them with the Lord Jesus simultaneously.

So he left behind the bag of eloquence. He left behind the bag of wisdom. I don’t have time to go into all of this—it is sophia, it’s a very important thing—and he says, “I did bring one or two things with me. I brought weakness and fear and much trembling.”

“Oh, this is terrific,” the guy must be saying when he picks him up. You know, he takes him home to his house, he puts him in the house, he goes through the kitchen, his wife’s there, she says, “Well, what do you think we’ve got?”

Say, “Well, as far as I’m concerned, we got a major problem. I was talking with him on the way home in the back of the cart, and he’s not gonna do anything about eloquence, he’s ditched on the whole idea of wisdom, he says that he frankly feels totally scared spitless, and he’s shaking a lot.”

That was the manner in which he showed up. The message with which he came was real clear: “I resolved…” Krinō is the verb. It means, “I made this singular determination.” It’s not that he was unable for these things; he was exceptionally bright. He couldn’t have written the book of Romans had he not been. But “I determined, I resolved, to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I was weak, I had fear; I shook a bit. My message and my preaching did not say to people, ‘Man, is he wise, is he persuasive!’ But there was something about the message I proclaimed, and it was a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.”

Brethren, is this not what we long for? That the Spirit of God would come down upon our preaching—surprise us. That even the pagans would catch a waft of the supernatural, would be caught up in some way?

Now, his express motivation is there in verse 5: “I determined to do this so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” See, if he came in and just impressed them with his ideas and his notions and his skill and his eloquence and so on, then the people would have been stabilized for a wee while, but they would have been at the mercy of the next person who came into town, a little brighter, a little more eloquent. So Paul says, “When I came in, I didn’t want you to respond on the basis of that. That’s why I proclaimed the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that your faith might rest not in man’s wisdom but in God’s power.”

My dear friend and mentor Eric Alexander, in giving an address in Canada some years ago, concluded his remarks like this:

There is one thing I want to say to my brethren who are called to be preachers. There is one thing above all other things in the world that we need: that is the mysterious thing we call the unction of the Holy Spirit of God upon on lives and upon our ministry. Charles Spurgeon used to say, “Unction is that somewhat that it is impossible to define, but you always know when it is present, and you can usually tell when it is absent.” We need to cry to God for the Holy Spirit’s anointing upon our preaching, so that the people may not go away with the notion, “What a great preacher!” Instead, they should say, “What an amazing God! How glorious he is! We have been in the presence of God this day. Truly, God is on this place.”

Oftentimes God takes the most feeble, weak, despised servant of his and comes down upon him for the simple reason that it would be difficult for anybody else to get the glory. God exalts his name and glorifies his Son and melts the hearts of his people because God has come upon this particular instrument of his glory. Above all other things, we are to be the instruments of his glory and honor.

And we shall find expository preaching the most amazing labor in the world. There is really nothing quite like it. It is utterly consuming. It may sometimes be utterly exhausting, sometimes utterly exhilarating, but it is the most glorious privilege in all the world. On mornings, I find myself getting up from my study desk and walking around, saying out loud in the study, “Fancy, for being paid to do this!” Isn’t that one of the great mysteries of the world? Fancy somebody actually paying you to do this kind of thing! I find that quite overwhelming. It is a privilege beyond my understanding.

And from one of my dearest of Scottish friends to one of my dearest American friends, in a note I keep in my file from the seventeenth of April 1980: “Alistair,” writes John MacArthur, “preach the word, brother. This is the heart of our service—not always easy but always blessed. In my oft struggles to fulfill that service, the following Puritan prayer has strengthened me.” And let me finish now my address with this Puritan prayer:

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
 where I live in the [heights with thee and in the depths with me];
 hemmed in by [the] mountains of sin I [yet see] thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
 that the way down is the way up,
 that to be lowly is to be high,
 that the broken heart is the healed heart,
 that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
 that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
 that to have nothing is to possess all,
 that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
 that to give is to receive,
 that the valley is the place of [clearest] vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
 and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine.[23]

Amen.


[1] J. I. Packer, “Some Perspectives on Preaching,” in Preaching the Living Word, ed. David Jackman (Fearn, Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 1999), 28.

[2] Bruce W. Thielemann, The Wittenburg Door 36 (April–May 1977).

[3] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (1971; repr., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 9.

[4] Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1877), 5.

[5] “The Duty of a Pastor,” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1850–53; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 9:454–56.

[6] Acts 6:2–4 (paraphrased).

[7] James 1:22 (NIV 1984).

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, quoted in J. I. Packer, Knowing God (1973; repr., Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018), 14. The portion of the block quotation outside of the quotation marks belongs to Packer, not Lewis.

[9] James 3:1 (paraphrased).

[10] See Romans 12:3.

[11] See 2 Chronicles 26:15–16.

[12] See 1 Kings 19:3–7, 10.

[13] William Cowper, “God Works in a Mysterious Way” (1774). Lyrics lightly altered.

[14] Paul Simon, “The Dangling Conversation” (1966). Lyrics lightly altered.

[15] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Meridian, 1995), 285.

[16] 1 Corinthians 9:19 (paraphrased).

[17] Philippians 3:10, 14 (NIV 1984).

[18] See 2 Corinthians 5:11.

[19] William D. Willimon, “Naked Preachers Are Distracting,” Leadership, April 6, 1998, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/april6/8t4062.html.

[20] James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1953), 44–45.

[21] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2.

[22] Shakespeare, 2.2. Paraphrased.

[23] “The Valley of Vision,” The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, ed. Arthur Bennett (1975; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), xv.

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.