Loss of Mystery

When Jesus appointed the seventytwo to preach the gospel, he indicated that they were not merely authorized to preach the gospel, to speak about Jesus, but that in the proclamation of those appointed to preach the gospel, Jesus himself speaks. Jesus’ own voice is heard in the human voice of proclamation. The proclaimed is also the proclaimer. Because of this, the one who rejects the proclaimer rejects also him who is proclaimed, and the one who rejects the proclaimed rejects also the God who sent Jesus. God has spoken his Word in Jesus Christ. In his earthly life Christ proclaimed–and today he continues to proclaim–his Word through human proclamation.

That the proclaimed is also the proclaimer reflects the peculiar function of the Old Testament prophet. Appointed and authorized, the prophet did not merely speak about God’s Word. God himself spoke through the prophet; hence, the prophet said “Thus saith the Lord,” and what the Lord said was heard in and through what the prophet said.

This view of preaching does not rest on a single proof text but is reflected in many affirmations of Scripture. When Jesus commissioned the twelve, he told them that even in adverse circumstances they should “not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say.” Why not? “It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19). Paul told the Thessalonian church, “When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (I Thessalonians 2:13). Paul describes the gospel and its proclamation as a “ministry of reconciliation,” in which God is “making his appeal through us.”

Herein lies the great mystery of preaching. The preaching of the Word is quite unlike any other form of human communication. And one would expect evangelical preachers to take seriously Jesus’ assertion that “he who hears you hears me.” But how many do? Many evangelical ministers do not even like to be called “preachers.” They consider themselves “coaches” or “enablers,” people who help Christians to become what they as preachers do not believe can be accomplished through preaching. Many of these reluctant ministers designate what they do in the pulpit as “sharing,” not as preaching. They seem unaware that they can only share what their own faith and religious experience and understanding of the Word has appropriated–which in all of us is very limited indeed. They seem unaware that through their preaching Christ himself is speaking his Word.

The notion of preaching as merely sharing is reflected in the common view that the church will be revitalized and its membership nourished in the faith far more effectively by small groups meeting together than by the preaching of the Word from the pulpit. Many evangelicals consider the sharing of personal religious failures and achievements far more effective in promoting a vibrant personal and congregational spirituality than the proclamation of God’s redemptive words and deeds in the history of revelation recorded in the Old and New Testaments. For all their high view of the Bible as inspired, many evangelicals have lost that understanding of preaching that goes with such a view of the Bible and that lay at the heart of the Reformation’s emphasis on preaching.

The loss of the mystery of preaching in the evangelical world today is, it would seem, a far more serious threat than some other winds of change that attract greater public attention.

James Daane (1914-1983) was one of the founding editors of The Reformed Journal. He also served as an editor for Christianity Today and was a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary from 1966 until his retirement in 1979. This essay is adapted from The Reformed Journal, May 1980.