We often recall that Jesus ascended with his last words being what we call the Great Commission. What were Jesus’ first words in his public preaching and teaching ministry? The answer to that question can change the way you order your ministry and your church.
This is the inerrant, infallible Word of the living God.
“Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light,and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:12-17 ESV).
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I believe that we are addressing the most important aspect in our work as preachers and as elders.
There are books on pastoral preaching, textual preaching, topical preaching, expository preaching and first person preaching. Yet these topics, as important and helpful as they may be for the work of the preacher, does not get at the heart of all preaching. We can have all sorts of programs in our churches but if we miss this one critical aspect of proclaiming Christ as Lord to the ends of the earth we have missed it. Thomas Chalmers said that if we fail to multiply, we divide. We have all seen that sad truth at work.
It was Lesslie Newbigin who wrote in his pivotal work, The Household of God,
“We must say bluntly that when the Church ceases to be a mission, she ceases to have any right to the titles by which she is adorned in the New Testament.”
Thus, there is no Bride of Christ without a self-identification with mission. There is no spiritual building. There is no “household of God.”
Because preachers are the servants of the Church, proclaiming the message of God in the Church, we can also say that when the preacher ceases to preach as an act of Gospel mission, the preacher has no right to the titles by which he is adorned in the Bible.
Yet I feel the threat of this bluntness in my own mind. For I preach different texts and different topics and must be faithful to the text. Is it an act of mission to preach on the parables of Jesus in Matthew 13? Must my messages be missional when I preach on a text from, say, Leviticus, or the Minor Prophets? The answer to the question is in the life of the Lord Himself. Jesus said in Luke 24 that all the Scriptures were about Him, so we can see that as He is the very incarnation of God’s mission to redeem a fallen world and to glorify Himself in Christ. I say, then, the message of the Scriptures are essentially about that mission. This position is undeniably established in the central activity of Jesus leading to the Cross and the Empty Tomb: preaching. For Jesus came preaching mission. He ascended leaving us with mission.
In Mark, Jesus comes preaching the kingdom of God. Matthew, so important a link between Old and New Covenant, alternatively, prefers the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” to the Kingdom of God (he does use that phrase four times). Yet it’s the same mission. Whatever your eschatological position, we can all agree with Herman Ridderbos,
“The whole of the preaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles is concerned with the Kingdom of God.”
Indeed, for Christ and the Apostles, the mission is comprehensive and clear: In Jesus Christ, the chaotic state of a fallen world would not remain forever. The renewal – radical undoing of death, “the death of death in the death of Christ” as the Puritan John Owen entitled his famous book, was underway with the coming of Jesus. That one phrase, “the Kingdom of Heaven” or the “Kingdom of God” pointed to a sweeping redemptive plan of God that always forced the Church, whether the Ancient Hebrew people of God or the New Covenant saints, to focus on the world, not themselves. The Gospel is thus centrifugal. And this was his preaching. Shall it not, therefore, be ours? Can we possibly be witnesses to the Kingdom of God that has come (and, yes, will come in a fuller, glorious “in-breaking” when He comes again) without preaching as an act of mission?
The words from Revelation come to me now as I think about the kingdoms of this world becoming the kingdoms of our God and of this Christ. This was gloriously evident in the preaching ministry of Jesus as we see Him in His public ministry appear in Matthew chapter 4 verses 12 through 17. Embedded in that simple message of Jesus, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is a at hand” is the fullness of the redemptive plan of God in Christ. This mission in preaching is the Gospel. The passage is pregnant with redeeming love of God being born into the world. And how then shall we preach?
It is clear that the Lord God calls preachers today to be ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven and to preach for mission. We bear a “Word from another World” that must be proclaimed. This is our mission. This is preaching on mission. Such preaching brings powerful dynamics to your church and your life. From this passage, Let us focus on five Biblically revealed dynamics of preaching as mission.
The first dynamic we might point to in the passage is this:
Preaching for mission crafts Identity
The preaching ministry of Jesus Christ begins after a grueling series of tests and trials in which he is baptized into his public ministry by his cousin, John the Baptist, and then, wet with his identity of mission, Jesus is driven into the wilderness (as Mark puts it) by the Holy Spirit. There he overcomes the devil in the wilderness and proves greater than Moses and the Hebrew children who wandered in sin. With John arrested, Christ begins to preach repentance and faith because the Kingdom has come. For the common people, there is an awareness of His identity: “He speaks as one having authority, not like the Pharisees.” His identify is clear in the hearts of the people because His identity is sealed in His own mind and heart. From this message at the beginning of this ministry until he says “Father into the hands I commend my spirit,” the identity of Jesus created his understanding of preaching as mission. Examine the texts of the Word of God. There will not be one instance in which the preaching ministry Jesus is separated from the missional ministry of Jesus.
The Diary and Journal of David Brainerd (1718-1747) edited and published posthumously by his friend Jonathan Edwards (in 1749) reveals that the more Brainerd’s heart pulsated for the mission to the American Indians he sought to reach for Christ the more he was crafted by Jesus Christ into the image of the Savior.
“My soul is concerned not so much for souls as such but rather for Christ’s Kingdom that it might appear in the world, that God might be known to be God in the whole earth.” (see the Gospel Fellowship Association)
“I long to be a flame of fire, continually glowing in the divine service in building Christ’s Kingdom to my last and dying moment.”
It is no wonder that his life influenced so many: William Carey, John Wesley, Francis Asbury, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, David Livingstone, and Andrew Murray, to name but a few of the greater lights we know. His vocation became his sanctification and ultimately his translation into glory. That is what preaching for missions will do for the preacher. This is what preaching for mission will do to you.
When God’s mission has reached us and we preach out of that mission at work in our own lives, a new identity is created that will bring authority. The common people will hear you gladly. And souls will be saved and lives will be transformed. Cultures will be impacted. Heaven will be filled. God will be glorified.
There is second dynamic that I would bring out in this passage.
Preaching for mission cultivates Urgency
Both the Gospel of Matthew and Mark moved the scene from the victory in the wilderness over the Devil to the fact that Jesus was confronted with the arrest and imprisonment of John the Baptist. Jesus began his ministry in conflict and crisis. Being fully God and fully man, something that we talk about in our theology classes and repeat throughout our ministries, he must have felt the emotional impact of the fast-moving spiritual attacks and strange events. But we often default to understanding his divinity without appreciating his humanity. We must recognize the humanity of Jesus as He’s dealing with the imprisonment of his cousin and the last great prophet to announce His coming. It is not just that John has been taken away but that the diabolical activity of Satan was not confined to the wilderness experience. The Devil and his demonic band was working in the hearts and minds and hands of unwitting agents of Hell. Thus, our Lord he left Nazareth, went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. And out of the crises of spiritual warfare, human pain, reverent awe, and a palpable opposition, He began preaching repentance. For the kingdom had come. Preaching as mission contains urgency.
This is seen not only in the preaching of Jesus, but in the preaching of His apostles. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans that, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12 ESV).
Read Bonhoeffer. Listen to Henry Luke Orombi from Uganda today. Listen to the Chinese House Church preachers. You will hear a message of urgency. They have not been drugged by the opium of banality and inevitability. They believe that their years are numbered and that souls are before them who need Christ. Believers must be deployed. The lines of life are never long when seen from end to end and shall we ever approach our pulpits without this urgency? It is the dynamic that gives strength to our sermons and power in our preaching.
I draw your attention to a third dynamic:
Preaching for mission creates Tension
The preaching of Jesus – preaching his mission – intentionally provoked the status quo. His message “to repent and believe because the kingdom of heaven is at hand” provoked individuals personally. His call for repentance signified the presence of sin in their lives and in their culture. Jesus was then this is now, an affront to humanity, which prides itself in its own supposed achievements and abilities. But the preaching of Jesus Christ’s assaults the pride of man and establishes Him as a fallen creature in need of divine salvation. Such preaching also provoking the powers that be. To declare that one must repent for the kingdom is at hand implies that the present kingdom is being done away with. The kings and rulers of this world, whether political or religious rulers of this world, all come under the indictment of God in Christ. There could be no other way for the kingdom to come in except by such preaching and yet such preaching led Christ to the cross. It has led more than one preacher to follow Him to places they never wanted to go. But to preach the mission of God in the world guarantees tension. Preaching is not for wimps.
I once had a professor, Dr. Robert L. Reymond, who said that if you are not taking any hits because of your preaching, you’re probably not preaching the Gospel according to Paul. I would only add to that by saying you’re probably not preaching the message of Jesus. You’re not preaching as an act of Gospel mission. Such preaching is provocative. It is neither safe nor wise according to the world’s ways. Preaching for repentance and calling men and women and boys and girls to surrender to the rule of a new kingdom is to issue a Divine fiat to abandon the systems of this world because they’re crumbling. Calling people into a new kingdom can cost a great price. And yet, where else do we go? What else should we preach? We’re not lecturers on the circuit. We are called to preach this missionary message to God’s come down to live the life we could never live and die the death that should’ve been ours. We are called to preach that the redemptive purposes of God are being fulfilled through the coming of Jesus, His life, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit in the empowering and the sending of the church into the world. When tension comes we must hear the words of Jesus to Paul at Corinth when tension was like a black pall over the ministry of the Apostle:
“Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”
Preach for mission. Tension will both precede and follow your message. But Christ is with you and that is enough.
There is a fourth dynamic of preaching for mission that gives great joy:
Preaching for mission comforts the Broken
What is so amazing about this kind of preaching by Jesus is that while it brings provocation, it also brings the light that Isaiah prophesied. From the time of the fall until this time, darkness and Satan oppression covered the earth. In Jesus and in His preaching the darkness began to recede—the darkness of ignorance, the darkness of diabolical oppression, and the darkness of disease and backwardness. As you note in Matthew 4.23, “He went throughout all Galilee, …proclaiming the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”
Preaching as mission obviously fulfills the redemptive plan of God to release human beings from the bondage of sin. Now there is a sometimes irritable but absolutely unmovable paradox in such preaching. The paradox is that if we seek to be compassionate by withholding preaching the mission—we are sinners in need of salvation and Jesus is the only Savior—we end up preaching to the prisoners without setting them free. We speak beautiful words, interesting stories, but there if there is no Gospel mission there is no light and the people are left in darkness. To preach like Jesus is to preach a missions message that brings the light of Heaven to the darkness of earth.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was critiquing the preachers of his day, in the late 19th century, when so many of them thought it rude in society to bring up the matter of hell. Some felt that Hell was not a fit subject for the pulpit. Charles Spurgeon replied that Jesus Christ knew no such supposed compassion.
“None used stronger language or more alarming language than our dear Redeemer concerning the future of ungodly men. He knew nothing of that pretend sympathy which will rather let men perish than warn them against perishing.”
He showed real compassion by talking about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. He talked about hell so much because he offered a way out and he declared that he was the way. In a similar way we must not be tricked by the peddlers of preaching methodologies today who would call us away from the plain preaching of the Word because it is too stark for postmodern man. Such peddlers are not only wrong but naïve. They forget that at the core of humanity we are all the same whatever our generation or are time or for that matter are nationality or culture. We all asked the same great existential questions – “who am I? Why am I here? Is there life after death? What is the purpose of living?” I have preached in India, northern and southern. I have preached in Albania. I have preached to different generations and groups in Great Britain, Europe, and America. I have attended Lausanne and spent deep and meaningful times of dialogue with people from around the world. Languages and customs notwithstanding, I’ve seen no difference in any of these people. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of the mission, transcends language and culture and every barrier because it is conceived by the Almighty God who created us and knows us better than we know ourselves. So let us avoid the cultural carnies that entice us to spend our pastoral currency on phony tricks that never pay off. Stick to the supernatural means that only can realize a supernatural goal. Stick to the message. Stick to preaching the mission. Jesus did and people were healed. When we do people will also be healed and set free in this life and the next.
Preaching for mission calls for Response
Finally, we need to see that the preaching of Jesus Christ was not only announcing that the kingdom had come, but was commanding the people to respond to the message. Such preaching is not just the giving of helpful information. It’s not just a transfer of data. It is not just telling stories to scratch the itching years of an audience. Such preaching has demands a response.
Think about the ministry and am preaching of Jesus. And think about even Jesus’s ministry at the a funeral, if you will, of his friend Lazarus. Jesus receives a mournful rebuke from Martha. If only Jesus to been here then the brother would not die. The contacts and Martha’s response calls for a new response. So Jesus asked her, “Martha do you believe in the resurrection?” She replied that she did. But the response Jesus required was a deep personal response based on the fact that the kingdom of God, the mission of God had come to Martha. Jesus declared, “I am the resurrection and the life whoever believes in me though he dies yet he shall live.” there is no room for subtlety or irony. It is a stark statement requiring an absolute surrender.
Recently I had a great joy to meet with Dr. Billy Graham. We all remember in the biography of Billy Graham there came a time where he had to make a response to God over the truthfulness of his Word. He could not go on preaching until he settled the matter of faith in the Word of God. As I shook hands with Dr. Graham and knelt down beside his wheelchair to talk, I remembered that his decision changed his life and the lives of millions and millions of human beings.
We must not succumb to any movement in preaching that would tell us to essentially let people off the hook. There are movements afoot in homiletics which would say that the message best comes to the postmodern man by respecting the intellect of the audience and allowing them to “get it” without having to say it. In other words preach and then he will fill in the blank when the sermon is over. That all sounds rather clever and gives quite a bit of credence to the spirit of postmodern man. There’s only one problem. Mankind is in sin and cannot save himself. He’s fallen and all of his faculties are infected by Original Sin. The Word of God must be preached clearly. The Holy Spirit will then take it from there. The Word of God will not return void, but implied therein is that the preacher must preach the Word of God and not hope that it bubbles up from within sinful man. The Bible knows no such sort of preaching. We cannot let any man get away from the truth of Jesus Christ when we have the opportunity to proclaim the truth. Call people to repentance. Call them to see that Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lord’s. Call them out in the name of the Lord and command by the authority of God that they must bow their minds and hearts to the resurrected and living Jesus Christ now before it is too late. The Kingdom has come. It is coming in a fuller, more glorious way, but it is also here now in the person of the resurrected Christ. There must be a response. “Now is the time. Today is the day.”
“There is no other way to preach but to preach for Mission”
Preaching for mission finally, after all else, lifts up Jesus Christ as the God of unstoppable love who will not be denied. The Kingdom of Heaven marched through the dusty roads of Israel from Galilee to Jerusalem, and came to human beings. Jesus Call the others to be preachers and they were sent to preach the kingdom. You and I stand in a spiritual apostolic line that reaches all the way back to Jesus Christ the greatest preacher. and you and I stand in our pulpits, whether that Pope it is a cathedral, chapel, and itinerant evangelistic ministry, a seminary, a college, or a small church, and we preach for mission — the mission of God in Christ to save humanity and to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. We are part of the sweeping epic of redemption.
Such preaching of mission (1) crafts identity. Such preaching (2) cultivates urgency. Such preaching (3) creates tension. Such preaching (4) comforts the broken. Such preaching (5) calls for a response.
There is no other way to preach but to preach for mission. But there is one thing that is necessary in preaching for mission and it is this: that the preacher has experience the mission of God in his own life.
In post-Reformation all England there were two great preachers who lived at the same time in London. There was Lancelot Andrews whom TS Elliott called the greatest preacher of his time. And yet the other preacher who lived at the same time remains a much more compelling figure even according to T.S. Eliot who preferred Andrewes. I have read both. And I have to agree with the English literature critic said the difference between the two is quite clear to him:
“John Donne used to be Jack Donne, but poor Lancelot was always Lancelot.”
And that one statement we come face-to-face with the life of John Donne. As you know this icon of English literature was quite a profligate in his younger years. And many people know John Donne for his sensuous, lustfull poetry. Yet this man would be converted by Christ and would stand in the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral and preach of the grace he had receive from Jesus Christ. Even T.S. Eliot admits that he was a personality. Something happened to Jack Donne that caused his preaching to soar and shout forth such memorable lines as “every season is the season of his grace.” He knew those seasons so well himself! It was not Donne’s style or his voice or his pitch. I am talking about the nuclear engine which was at work inside of his heart producing a message that was on fire. That fire which came from a personal encounter with the God of missions who visited him caused Donne’s preaching to stand out over his contemporary, Andrewes. This leads me to what I want to say to you today.
Preach for repentance of sinners. Preach with the authority of one who is a sinner saved by grace. Preach that the kingdom of heaven has come to you. Preach with the authority of the call of you as a sinner saved by grace now summoned by the King of Grace to proclaim His Kingdom to the world. This requires a preacher who is on fire with the Gospel from the inside out. He is on fire with the glory of God’s grace in his own life. Then will others gather to watch you burn alive, and some will catch on fire themselves. This is how churches are planted, churches are revitalized, and ministries advance with vision and courage. And this is how the Lord will bless your preaching.
Remember His mission when it came to you. Out of the fullness of that personal mission proclaim—preach—the mission of God.
Today is a good time for preachers, and for church leaders to be renewed in the Kingdom message of our Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated with His very body and blood. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brainerd, David. Diary and journal of David Brainerd. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2010.
Chapell, Bryan. Christ-Centered Worship : Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Academic, 2009.
Donne, John. John Donne’s Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels, with a Selection of Prayers and Meditations. Evelyn Simpson, editor. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
Eliot, T. S. For Lancelot Andrewes: essays on style and order. London: Faber, 1970.
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church. Friendship Press, 1954.
Ridderbos, Herman N. The Coming of the Kingdom. Raymond O Zorn. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1962.
Templeton, Charles Bradley. “Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.” (1996).