It’s a mystery, but in God’s wise plan, He has made it so that through simple words His saving work is made known. In the famous words of the Second Helvetic Confession, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” If we recaptured this high view of preaching, we would engage in weekly worship not with yawns but with awe. We would come with eager anticipation, not dread or drudgery, because we are coming to hear our Lord and Savior speak to us.
Many churches are abandoning thoughtful, Bible-based sermons because they feel they don’t speak to the culture. So what does? TED talks. You’ve likely seen some of these presentations, or at least clips from them: a recognized authority on a subject stands on an empty stage; the auditorium is darkly lit; perhaps there is a screen behind the speaker (there is certainly the iconic red-lighted TED logo somewhere on stage). The expert walks around casually and shares fascinating insights about his or her field to an enraptured audience. People have analyzed these talks. What makes them so popular and engaging? The presentation is sleek, for one. The graphics are professionally done, and the information on the screen is almost always conveyed through images, not text. The time limit is another factor. No TED talk is permitted to be longer than eighteen minutes. This not only helps hook an audience of rising millennials and generation Z’s, with their notoriously short attention spans, but “it’s also the perfect length if you want your message to go viral.”1
It’s no wonder that solid, in-depth preaching is falling by the wayside if the goal is now sleek presentation and viral potential. Maybe we need to take a cue from the scientists and sociologists who have determined the perfect presentation model for our twenty-first-century audience. Maybe we need shorter sermons and more pictures. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s another way. My conviction is that if we knew what was actually happening in truly biblical, Spirit-wrought preaching, we would feel much differently about sermons. We would approach preaching in an entirely different manner. So, what is happening in the sermon? Let me suggest this answer: by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Himself speaks through His ordained servant, saving sinners by the spoken word to the glory of God.
This simple but important understanding of preaching is backed up by Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1, where he writes, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:17–18, 21). Let’s unpack what we find in these verses to better understand what exactly goes on in worship when preaching takes place.
A Sending Christ
The first thing Paul says is that he preaches because he has been commissioned to do so by Jesus Christ Himself. “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). Being sent by Christ is fundamental to what it means to be an Apostle. Apostle comes from the verb apostellō, which means “to send a message, ” so an Apostle is literally one who is sent to speak. In New Testament terms more specifically, an Apostle is one who is sent by Christ to speak on His behalf. Jesus says as much to His disciples in John 20:21: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” So, it should come as no surprise to us that Paul says he has been sent by Christ to preach.